This Baltimore County couple designed their garden to tell the story of their lives

For The Baltimore Sun

Charles and Amy Newhall’s gardens are a place to lose oneself.

The pristine landscape that surrounds their Baltimore County home is lush and leafy, with hues of green stretching from large lawns and ground-hugging plants to trees that seem to kiss the clouds.

Dubbed Brightside Gardens, the four-and-a-half acres include 54 neoclassical-themed and deeply personal garden rooms infused with symbolism and mythology, thoughts and emotion, life and death. They speak to the couple’s life journey, challenges and joys.

“It is an emblem book garden, a garden of our lives,” says Charles “Chuck” Newhall III, a classicist and venture capitalist who walks the garden twice daily. “We’ve turned tragedy into beauty. It has deep meaning for me.”

Over more than three decades, Chuck, 73, and Amy, 68, renovated and expanded their painted white brick house to 10,000 square feet and transformed its setting. Brightside is filled with unusual specimens like the Flying Dragon orange tree, familiar bushes like traditional boxwoods and native plants like wild ginger. Hundreds of evergreen varieties provide form and year-round color. A fulltime groundskeeper, Oscar Noguera, maintains the gardens.

They’re “Chuck’s baby,” Amy says. While she focused on plant color, texture and bloom time, Chuck took the lead on everything from layout and design to statuaries and plaques. It was over a whiskey that he conceived of the idea to “to build Lothlorien forest” from “The Lord of the Rings.” (A bronze mask of Treebeard makes an appearance at Brightside.)

But his wife is his main inspiration.

“Amy is my muse. Amy is the heart of our garden,” he says.

Chuck was a widower, and she brought him and his young family a new life. In the gardens, that’s symbolized by the sunny Pools of Eros “room,” where water from an antique fountain of the Greek god of love spills into pools graced with water lilies.

It’s hard to imagine now that this property, where the Newhalls have hosted events for organizations like the Baltimore Museum of Art (Chuck is a former chairman), and where garden club leaders from around the country have visited, once housed small lawns and encroaching trees.

The Newhalls brought in truckloads of soil, making the hard and rocky ground more hospitable for growing. They turned the understory of the woods into garden vignettes connected by a meandering sylvan path.

“I think what gets lost in that garden is how much they really did,” says Stiles Colwill, a Lutherville-based interior designer who worked on the house and advised on the garden. “It is very much a joint project of theirs.”

Three “platforms” -- viewpoints at the rear of the house -- created by Baltimore-based architect James Snead allow the couple to enjoy the scenery.

Many of the plants are repeated throughout the garden. There’s more to that than visual continuity.

“We didn’t know what we could put in our garden that would grow,” Amy Newhall says.When plants thrived, the Newhalls planted more of them. It explains why hundreds of ivory and soft lavender blooms of hellebores that blanket swaths of the woodland floor in early spring give way to ferns and more than three dozen cultivars of hosta as the weather warms.

Chuck calls creating the gardens a “coping mechanism” for the PTSD he suffered after his Army service in Vietnam.

A Shau Garden, strewn with spent ammunition, recalls the battle at A Shau Valley where he was wounded. Mythical lions and a Samurai warrior monk statue stand guard, while a plaque with the words of British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay remembers fallen comrades: “How can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father and the temple of his gods.” The garden’s flowers include winter aconite, symbolic of death.

The translation of a plaque in Latin at The River Styx advises visitors to enjoy life: “Eat, drink and make love. After death, nothing matters.” The recirculating stream, built by Phoenix-based stonemason Primo Doria, takes its name from the mythical division between the worlds of the living and the dead.

Steps away is “Elysium,” the family pet cemetery, a reminder, among azaleas and grasses, of the animals’ unconditional love.

Other rooms are places for family time – toasting marshmallows in the Council Fire garden and storytelling in the nearby Midsummer Night’s Garden, where a machine generates smoke for a magical ambiance amid the shrubbery.

Their grandchildren love the gardens, Chuck says: “They chase the pugs. They dance, they sing, they do cartwheels, and they crush my flower beds.”

The Roman Loggia Garden off Chuck’s office is a warm-weather favorite for relaxing and entertaining. The furnishings reinforce the style of the covered porch with Roman lion statuary and a reproduction of the dancing faun statue from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. On one side of the loggia, ancient Greek-style klismos chairs with concave backrests and curved legs surround a dining table.

“In the summer we live out here,” Amy says.

The loggia opens onto a lawn with a colorful English border garden, named Jessica’s Garden for its designer. Two Lutyens benches in that garden, from Gaithersburg-based Country Casual Teak, closely follow the English architect Edwin Lutyens’ original design.

“If you like European and classical gardens, in Europe that’s what they put in their gardens,” says Madeline Fairbanks, product development manager at Country Casual Teak, with whom the Newhalls have worked.

Insights into all the garden rooms, along with more than 200 photos, fills “Brightside Gardens: A Dialogue Between The Head and The Heart.” Chuck self-published the book last year.

Though he’s not planning more garden rooms, Brightside will continue to grow and change, Chuck says. “I don’t think a garden is ever finished.”

“Brightside Gardens: A Dialogue Between The Head and The Heart” by Charles W. Newhall III is available at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road, and on amazon.com for $69.95. For more information, find Bibliotheca Brightside Publishing on Facebook.

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