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John Spain's Garden


At John Spain’s Middlebury, Connecticut, home, four distinct garden types flourish amid a neighborhood in the woods: a 120-foot rock garden out front, hardy cactus garden, terraced garden, and woodland garden.

The rock garden is a tapestry of colors, shapes and plant types: conifers, cacti and succulents, bulbs, perennials, grasses, and small trees and flowering shrubs.

I grew up growing things. I love plants. My main interest is: what’s blooming today?

Spain started the rock garden 15 years ago as a cactus garden. First he uncovered the site’s only original boulder from a berm of soil, then brought in tons of rock from a local quarry and planted winter hardy cacti. (Yes, there are many. He wrote the book.)

As years passed, he became interested in all kinds of plants and the garden now includes ice plants from the mountains of South Africa, dwarf bearded iris, succulents such as the North American native Lewisia, a.k.a. bitter root, striped yucca, not-your-typical prickly pear, low ericaceous shrubs, anti-typical conifers which will grow too large and join the 25 he has already removed, Japanese maples and hardy cacti such as Silver Star. Mini grape hyacinth rubs shoulders with purple opuntia, miniature pine and viola. Blue spruce spreads lazily down the embankment alongside pale pink phlox. To the right the garden becomes more coniferous.

Near the house, a parade of hollies guides the way to the back where an American holly announces the entrance to a flagstone walkway.

The patio is bedecked in a bleacher-like array of trays of moss and handmade tufa troughs of varying shapes and sizes, some made like baskets and each a miniature garden adorned with special rocks and stones carried home from near and distant places.

The orphanage on the bottom row holds trays of individually potted cuttings of cacti and succulents. “When people come we send them home with a plant. You have to take an orphan home,” declares this retired director of Uniroyal.
The backyard is like a ship. On deck, a central cactus garden swoops off to the left. Concentric swoops of hosta and trough gardens on a yard-wide gravel bed edge the bow, with Spain’s veggie garden at the heada with tomatoes, cukes and yellow pole beans. Portside, a 32-foot greenhouse full of Spain’s passion awaits inspection. Starboard, a garden full of tree peonies enchant.

Down the steps into the woodland garden, wildflowers and shrubs and perennials flourish along a black stone embankment. Terraced beds sport spotted plumeria and yellow corydalis. Spots of tufa pots with hardy cacti are everywhere.

Fifty kinds of ferns, galanthus, bluebells, hellebore, hosta, double bloodroot and epimedium thrive under delicate looking shrubbery. Open gaps allow Solomon seal and bleeding heart. Fothergilla and late blooming magnolia steal the scene. Multi-colored primula and young maidenhair seem to dance among the rock on this Connecticut hillside. Once a horse pasture, the garden is under the high shade of trees that shelter the wildflowers flouncing over switchbacks.

“You want paths so that no part of the garden is more than 10 feet from a path so you can see things,” says Spain who plants just whatever will grow. “If they like it there I’ll plant more of it,” says this Memphis boy got his love of plants from his father who, one time, brought home a railroad car full of azaleas from the Gulf Coast and had thousands of azaleas and a greenhouse full of camellias.

But could that be forget-me-nots with variegated leaves? Tall ferns strike upward against lichened quartz-pebbled rock, and sweet woodruff and twinleaf are about to blossom. Two chairs wait in the spotlight for humans to contemplate bird song and nature.

Follow the path up to the two terraced gardens with Becky’s (Mrs. Spain) veggie garden and miniature roses and raspberries with wildflowers. Follow it up to the cactus garden by the blueberries.

Outside the greenhouse, a delicate bloodgood maple hovers softly over another rock garden with natives and pots of orchids.

To see John Spain's garden, check The Garden Conservancy's Open Days program: www.opendaysprogram.org

To order Growing Winter Hardy Cacti in Cold/Wet Climate Conditions, send $15 (it covers postage and handling) to:
John N. Spain
69 Bayberry Road
Middlebury, CT 06762

*Photos by Mary Jasch unless otherwise credited.
*Home page photo and main story photo by John Spain

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