Portsmouth Home Owners Create Idyllic Country Paradise
The couple's love of gardening creates beauty from spring to fall.
Down a narrow lane, bordered with green fields and dotted with horses, sits one of the most magical homes in the state. Its roots go all the way back to about 1750 when men wore tricorn hats. At the turn of the century, it became the blacksmith’s house for the Moses Taylor estate at Glen Farm. In its heyday, that vast gentleman’s farm was famed for its quality livestock and lush gardens. On a spring morning, even all these decades later, this particular wedge of Portsmouth seems steeped in history and pleasantly bewitched. The only sounds? Burbling Mintwater Brook and birds.
No wonder the current owners, Allison and Stephen Walk, were entranced. Picture it: a cocktail party on the verdant lawn, dappled light, stately trees and a house predating the Revolutionary War; the whole package was too pretty to believe. “I do love long shadows on a summer evening,” Allison confesses. Of course, the couple wasn’t really in the market for a new home. But after a visit, they asked their host and then-owner — a direct descendent of Rip Van Winkle author Washington Irving — if he ever decided to sell, to let them know. A few weeks later, they got his call.
The owners’ potting shed all but disappears amid flowers. The opulence continues along the front entrance where Shasta daisies and Echinacea vie for attention. Beehive stone pillars are a Glen Farm trademark.
And, seriously, the stars could not have chosen better caretakers. Allison is a financial consultant with an impressive resume, and Stephen recently stepped down as principal owner and CEO of Blanche P. Field, a company renowned for its custom-designed lampshades. Both are history buffs and avid gardeners, and even the worst weather doesn’t deter them from mucking about their beds and borders. Since they moved in fourteen years ago, Allison has planted 4,000 White Flower Farm daffodils along the spring-fed brook and into the woods. Some fifty varieties, many of which are scented, spring up at intervals beginning around mid-April, depending on the weather, and last until mid-May. “My mother routinely sent me 500 bulbs every season. But, she never,” Allison jokes, “sent the little man to plant them.”
To maintain the Colonial’s charming character, the Walks have upgraded with a thoughtful hand. In addition to necessities like new windows and two new baths, they integrated the lower level, which was once the keeping room. That clever move forged the way for a study (walk-in size hearth intact) and a comfortable guest room. But nothing has been more life altering than their new generous deck and terrace. Both help bring the couple right out into the garden, where they most want to be.
Allison compares the paradise they’ve composed to an orchestra. The prelude begins with the daffs followed by the lively flowering ornamental trees, the rhododendrons and azaleas. By late June to mid-July, the music “swells,” she says. Tulips are long gone and hydrangeas blow their horns. Colors are louder and bolder. Earlier bloomers like elegant peonies give way to fantastic dahlias, 150 Oriental lilies and fragrant David Austin roses. By September, the garden is in full out crescendo mode, a swirl of color and perfume.
The stone bridge marks an old carriage road.Fruit trees and Kousa dogwoods will bloom while the naturalized daffodils are still in attendance.
Creative people tend to have numerous outlets and the Walks are no exception. When they’re not madly gardening, they make their way across a fairytale-like bridge, down a bluestone path to their airy studio to paint (Allison) and write (Stephen is penning a biography about an ancestor billed by Tsar Nicholas I to build Russia’s first railroad in 1843).
Leaving nothing to chance, they’ve taken pains to assure their house-to-studio journey is eye-pleasing. Thick stands of mixed hydrangeas — amid them Endless Summer, compact Fire and Ice (the florets morph from white to pink) and Annabelles — line the way. The antique building (above) was previously the barn, hand-hewn nails and all, where the blacksmith housed his forge. The Walks recall horses’ names chalked above the wooden pegs that held the iron shoes.
Lipstick red crocosmia and black-eyed Susans are two can’t-miss classics. Cool blue balloon flowers counter the hotter hues. Tiger lilies also enliven the garden for weeks. Bright Rose of Sharon is a hummingbird fave.
It’s striking how all the plantings suit the pedigreed property. There must have always been fruit trees like the Walks have introduced, for example, and cutting gardens too. Their New England lineage goes way back. Even the numerous sitting areas seem perfectly at home. When conditions are right, the couple take their drinks and relax on chairs beside the brook. “Stephen has a favorite place where the water falls like glass over the stones,” Allison says. There are also seats for two atop the stone bridge, benches where views are best and a shady oasis for sweltering days tucked up near a wooded ravine (the same ravine where in 2003, a re-enactment of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Rhode Island was staged). With so many options for quiet reflection and protected by park-like, town-owned land, the owners’ three acres feel far grander and, most definitely, removed. “It’s as though we’ve stepped back in time,” Allison agrees.
The deck is flanked with dozens of leggy lilies.