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Gardening ideas can blossom on a tour

Private gardens open their gates and paths to the ever-curious when tour season comes around.

Visitors to Robert Goodwin's home in Upper Makefield this weekend will get to see this garden. (Ron Tarver / Inquirer)
Visitors to Robert Goodwin's home in Upper Makefield this weekend will get to see this garden. (Ron Tarver / Inquirer)Read more

Voyeurs to the core, gardeners shamelessly peek through fences into private backyards and tiptoe through flower beds belonging to others.

We readily touch the blooms and feel the fuzz - some of us even pinch and run. And we have no qualms about knocking on doors to ask: "What's that plant over there?"

So a bona-fide tour of private gardens is a bonus. This time, we're invited in, free to poke around the pinkroot to our heart's content.

Here are two fun tours: New Hope tomorrow and Lambertville on June 14. In addition to interesting gardens, both offer the chance to make a day of it - on a single tank of gas - in a picturesque area with 60 restaurants, historic sites, cool shopping, and a restored canal path along the Delaware River.

New Hope Historical Society's 15th Town & Country Garden Tour features six private gardens, all within a five-mile loop of the borough.

"And every one is a knockout," event cochair Robert Goodwin promises.

He isn't kidding.

We visited Goodwin's own knockout garden, called Walnut Grove, on a perfect spring day last week. The trees were bright green, without the dusty look they acquire later in the season, and every plant looked scrumptious, from the fat peonies and roses to the unfurling hydrangeas and ferns.

Goodwin, an interior designer, and his partner, Joseph Demchur, a nurse, bought the four-acre property along Brownsburg Road in Upper Makefield three years ago. They're still enthralled with the 18th-century fieldstone farmhouse that, local historians say, once hosted Benjamin Franklin overnight.

All the gardens are new and neat and clean - and, because Goodwin has an artist's eye, resplendent with beautiful colors and textures.

You'll enjoy 'Canary Bird,' a clove-scented, yellow rose Goodwin fell in love with at Hidcote Manor Garden in the Cotswolds, England. You'll swoon before 'Patty's Plum,' a dark-eyed Oriental poppy also discovered in England, at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent.

And you'll do a double-take when Goodwin announces he's a fan of "big boxes." Relax, he means big boxwoods.

But, of course. Plenty of those here, too.

Another highlight of the New Hope tour is Benita Ryan's farm, known as Jericho Mountain Orchards, which is even older than Goodwin's. Beyond the curving driveway off Buckmanville Road in Solebury Township, her gardens seem to spin every which way in gracious rings - the beds of pink peonies and purple phlox, the red roses atop the archway, the yellow water iris framing the pond, the walled mounds of pearly deutzia and lime-green hosta.

Frogs, ducks, birds. Heaven.

Lambertville is a different experience from the New Hope tour, more like Center City than farm country. Gardens here are tucked away behind gracious brick and clapboard homes with cupolas and wraparound porches, Victorian colors and welcoming wicker.

Jane and Ed Wesby live in an 1885 "triplet," one of three connected houses, on Clinton Street. Their garden is among 12 on the Lambertville tour, which is sponsored by the Kalmia Club, said to be the oldest women's club in New Jersey. It dates to 1892, has 100 members, and has been doing these tours for almost 30 years.

When the Wesbys moved in nine years ago, there was no garden to speak of, let alone a tour through it. The small dark space was dominated by the previous owner's children's sandbox and toys.

Today, it's a shady retreat with dappled sun, raised beds, birdbaths and feeders, and meditative wind chimes and statuary. Among the many trees and accents, Jane Wesby has planted shade-adapted ferns, hostas and Jacob's ladder; climbing hydrangea and clematis; peach, pink and purple annuals for color; and containers loaded with herbs, even curry.

"It feels very secluded," Jane says.

But she and Ed, a retired massage therapist, are grateful for their close quarters. The neighbors are wonderful, and these gardens, one atop another, promote a fellowship they all cherish.

The neighbors often gather in one another's gardens on the spur of the moment, if the evening is warm or the moon full. They play the guitar. They sing. They eat and drink wine. They even party in the cul-de-sac!

It's a veritable village back here.

Jane Wesby was recently laid off from Merrill Lynch after 20 years, but like all gardeners she views time off, whether voluntary or involuntary, as yet another gardening opportunity.

"The timing could not be better," she says with a wink, confessing to frequent expeditions to local garden centers for her longtime favorite: perennials.

Most mornings, she surveys her plantings out back, surely one of gardening's most enjoyable rituals. Most evenings, she's creating gorgeous dinners - cooking being her other passion - to be shared with Ed amid the greenery.

It's all overseen by the figure of Kuan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Here in the Wesby garden, she moonlights as a healing spirit.

A few blocks away on Delevan Street, Judy and John Gawlowski have a shade garden, too, one they've gradually opened up by removing trees and plantings that previous owners had installed to overflowing.

"We had to clear things out even to have a shade garden," John Gawlowski says. "Now, the sun comes through, but it still has a woodsy feel."

And it still has plenty of plantings: blue spruce, white pine, dogwood, flowering plum, cherry and holly trees; shade-loving hosta, tiarella, ferns and astilbe; and sun-loving annuals.

When asked to describe his garden, Gawlowski recalls the time a priest friend came to visit. After they chatted in the garden for awhile, John went inside to get something.

"I came back out and he was sleeping," Gawlowski says. "It was so peaceful."

Works for me.