For anyone confronting a property that’s short on landscaping—and feeling that it’ll be a lifetime before anything substantial can grow—Katherine Kane has reassuring words. “If you get obsessive, you can have a mature garden in 25 years.”
She should know. In 1990, when she and her husband, Olin West, bought their Free Union farm, it was mostly open pasture. “There were none of the tall trees I was used to,” says Kane, who grew up in New York. She loved the mountain views but couldn’t wait to begin filling in the empty spaces around the house with trees and ornamental plantings of all types. “Like Scarlett O’Hara,” she jokes, “I grabbed a handful of dirt, and started planting.”
She’d done very little gardening before then, but had nurtured her creative spirit with serious study of dance and writing. Gardening fed the same urge to “make something out of nothing,” but she found it easier than writing. “Maybe I was an estate gardener in England in another life,” she says. Armed with horticultural bibles by writers like Michael Dirr and Henry Mitchell, Kane “made a life’s study of horticulture. I read and read and read.”
And, of course, she planted. The starting point was a former bullpen just south of the house, where rich, dark soil made a welcoming home for a collection of roses. This formal garden—enclosed by tall boxwoods and marked out in symmetrical beds and gravel walks—is the first in a series of traditional “rooms,” perfectly aligned on a long axis that begins at the house’s kitchen door.
From the clamor of color in the rose garden, a small arched opening leads to the next room: the yew garden, where curving hedges of the dark evergreen shrub, more usually associated with English gardens than the mid-Atlantic, form a lovely and restful space. “You don’t see it in Virginia much; it’s too hot and humid,” says Kane. “But I was determined.” A quiet, minimal fountain—water cascading over a stone sphere—provides a perfect focal point in the center of the yew hedges.
Crabapples mark the corners of this space, and on the far end the yew gives way to peonies, propped up by custom-made metal supports.
Kane often thinks through designs by laying out hose or rope on the ground to mock up the shape of a new bed or the span of a tree. For several years, a proposed reflecting pool beyond the yew garden was marked out this way, and Kane laughs when she relates that she would walk around it, as though it were already full of water. Now it really is, and it gives back images of a goldenrain tree at one end of the garden axis, and mature maples and ashes at the other. “If you fail to put water in your landscape, you’re missing half the world: all the goings-on of the sky,” says Kane.
Two of Kane’s dozens of Japanese maples flank the stone steps up to the final “room”: a butterfly garden, where sedum, butterfly bush, Joe Pye weed and other species beloved by pollinators create a carefully orchestrated profusion of color and texture.
Kane estimates that she and her staff have planted thousands of trees, many of them within the eight-acre zone around the house. Some were even moved from woods on the property, but most are species chosen for their ornamental qualities (and, in the case of cryptomeria and loblolly pine, for their quick growth). In the fall, “The Japanese maples are glorious,” she says, and a Parrotia tree, Persian in origin, brings an extraordinary yellow to the mix. Not only the eyes are stimulated: When the leaves of the katsura tree fall, a fragrance of crème brûlée drifts through the air.
From the end of the series of formal gardens, one can stroll back toward the house via a shade walk, sheltered by pines and enlivened at ground level by hostas, rhododendrons and azaleas. A poolhouse, designed by local architect Bahlmann Abbott, features walls mostly composed of screen. It overlooks a pool within a stone surround.
Kane named her property Waterperry Farm, after England’s first horticultural school for women. She hopes to open it to small weddings and events by the end of 2016.
The team’s most recent work has been on the north side of the property, where a “tiny farm pond” has been greatly expanded and is fed by a new waterfall cascading 140′ down the hillside. Around the flowing water, Kane has planted a bog garden studded with rocks and boulders, and featuring Asian-influenced plantings like dwarf Japanese juniper. A collection of conifers occupies beds that dot the slope beyond.
These trees are still relatively small, but the older plantings, in their rich and ever-changing beauty, prove that time is indeed on the gardener’s side.
“One of the most wonderful things about the life of a plant,” says Kane, “and one that differs from our own human species, is that in maturity and age, there’s more and more beauty. I find that comforting.”