At Home: Show Time
Thanks to the foresight of an astute owner and a talented garden designer, the landscape at Hillside — another of Newport’s historic gems — grows better with each passing year.
Photography by Nat Rea
Making a Statement
How envious are we? This month some 150,000 bulbs will burst into bloom at Hillside. The historic 1882 Peabody and Stearns shingle-style home is set on two-and-a-half acres and almost every inch gains a sweep of color. Under the property’s notable specimen trees (among them venerable London planes, weeping beeches and cedars) will appear the spring flowers we love best, including more than twenty-six varieties of daffodils. Owner Susan Ruf and garden designer Laura Willson from Garden Endeavors in Swansea annually do what most of us forget. Come May, they’re already planning next season’s display. “It’s a leap of faith,” explains Willson. “There’s no instant reward; you just have to think ahead.
When Ruf and husband, Michael Walsh, purchased Hillside, only a few meager bulbs lingered. Today, spring through summer, lush plantings are evident from the cobblestone entry where daffodil Thalia and Emperor tulips merge to the flower-rimmed bluestone terraces in back. For ten years, Ruf and Willson have been adding to the mix: scores and scores of different kinds of daffodils. A naturalistic gardener, Ruf favors the white, ivory and creamy-colored beauties like Polar Ice and Misty Glen. The first is “exquisite but expensive,” she says, so where they might order only a few hundred of that variety, they’re apt to find homes for more than a thousand of the latter, which is “fragrant, prolific and reasonable.” Still, the cheery and early-blooming yellow sort is welcome, too. Unlike tulips that peter out in time, daffodils multiply and live on and on. Best planted in mass — “Never plant fewer than twenty-five of any one kind if you want to make a statement,” Willson advises — they partner happily with other faithful spring charmers like (above, clockwise from top left) blue camassia, leucojum, scilla and puschkinia.
There are a dizzying number of hybrids but, basically, daffs are divided into divisions according to cup size, say, or number of flowers per stem rather than bloom time. Pay attention to the catalog details (reliable mail order sources: White Flower Farm, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and Van Engelen) and it’s possible to choreograph weeks of flowers. Plant scented varieties like Edna Earl, Sailboat or Pipit along paths to catch their delicate spring-at-last perfume. Set drifts of color in woodland spots with brilliant Avalon or Ice Follies. Long taken for granted, daffodils are at last gaining the recognition they deserve. “They look fragile,” says Willson. “But they’re tough as nails and almost foolproof.” For inspiration on how to best incorporate daffs into your garden and Willson’s bulb planting tips (as well as reviews on new varieties) check out garden-endeavors.com.
The Washington, D.C., landscape architecture firm Oehme van Sweden helped devise Hillside’s master plan. Kevin Baker of Barrington’s Stonework is responsible for the hardscape. The house is not open for public viewing but all of Newport — celebrating its 375th anniversary — dazzles. Volunteers planted nearly 100,000 daffodil bulbs as part of “Daffodillion,” a city-beautifying project, adding to 160,000 already in place.