Strolling through a storybook


Half-hidden by enormous maples on the main street of Keedysville in Washington County, the 19th-century brick house and gardens of Seven Gates Farm look like something out of a storybook. An Arabian Nights-style urn is stuffed with long, green Egyptian onions in the living room, and white clematis froths over a wooden bench outside.

The house is lovely, but the gardens -- a marriage of formal design and idiosyncratic touches -- are truly spectacular. They are the work of James Cramer and Dean Johnson, editors at Country Home and Country Garden magazines. The gardens unfold section by carefully wrought section, leading a visitor over the property's single acre in joyful discovery. Though the grounds are now packed with plantings, walks and an array of rustic outbuildings, everything was nearly empty when the two first saw the property 16 years ago.

"We were looking at houses in the area," says Cramer, 46, a native of Western Maryland. "We drove by, and there was a for-sale sign out front, so we stopped. There was nothing here but the smokehouse, washhouse and a rose bush," he laughs. "We fell in love with that pyramid-shaped smokehouse."

While the gardens now appear to be a harmonious whole, there was no particular plan when they began.

"We just started with the herb garden, and it developed from there," says Johnson, 47, a former Tennessean who says the local terrain reminds him of back home.

The herb garden stretches out in a wide arc from the wooden well and is contained by an antique wrought-iron border of stylized bent branches that they bought on a trip to North Carolina.

"It's Victorian," says Johnson, who loves history and the artifacts of daily life and work. "The Victorians were big on rustic."

From that deceptively simple beginning, they worked their way around the yard. Irregularly shaped beds filled with yellow-and-crimson-foliaged geranium, euphorbias, and a single, stalwart baptisia (false indigo) lead from the well to the old washhouse.

On the shady north side lies the white garden. Actually, it's a pair of 18th-century-style formal gardens divided by a stone-floored foyer and filled with white-booming plants -- Mount Everest allium, phlox, campanula, snowberry, lilies, dahlia, coneflower, Shasta daisy, aquilegia and penstemon, whose white flowers are tucked along the stem behind satiny burgundy leaves. Double impatiens ruffle along one border, and bacopa spills out of a planter. At the center on its northern side is an aviary filled with cooing white (and one beige) doves.

A hedge on the east side divides the white garden from the vegetable and farmyard section. In this area -- a mini-Martha Stewart dream -- are the chicken pen, toolshed, vegetable patch and large greenhouse.

"We grow the basic vegetables -- beans, onions, shallots, radish, tomatoes and spinach," says Johnson. Yet, even the "basic" mix shares space with bits of whimsy. The scarecrow wears a Jeffersonian garden shirt and straw hat. Little clay pot shards identifying each type of tomato teeter on tall plant stakes. Two iron chickens stand outside the chicken pen, enduring replicas of their clucking counterparts.

There's hardly an inch of unused space. Bartlett pear trees are espaliered against the fence on the south side of the vegetable garden and against the "lath" house, which they built to harden off shade plants, on the north. Niagara grapes grow along a low trellis behind the strawberries.

Everything on the property, even the greenhouse, is individualized.

"It was a kit, but we got rid of the metal screen that came with it and used a wooden door instead," says Cramer, whose eye for detail during a photo shoot prompted a job offer years ago from the editor-in-chief of Illinois-based Country Living magazine.

Their collection of old garden tools is incorporated into the garden, too. An antique shovel, its wooden handle skewered, is a wind vane. A furrower and a path roller flank two huge propane tanks. Every corner has some subtle or eye-catching detail.

"We spend the whole summer outside," says Cramer. "When you're right there, you come up with ideas."

A place for puttering

The two putter, wander, dig, weed and ponder like artists forever daubing at a giant canvas. Although Cramer calls the garden a work in progress, it's also a laboratory where the pair try out ideas.

They've turned their ideas into two books -- "Seasons at Seven Gates Farm" (Hearst 1996) and "Window Boxes Indoors and Out" (Artisan, 1998). And other ideas mean articles for the magazine, although some experiments are more permanent than others.

For a coming article about gardening on decks and balconies, Cramer has created a movable garden out of shining aluminum garbage cans and wash pans. Johnson's woodworking projects often grace the pages of Country Home and Country Garden magazines, then remain to grace their home. Currently, a garden bench sporting only four of its six legs sits in the center of his packed but tidy shop awaiting another photographer who will record the progress.

Although there are several inviting places to sit -- rockers under the willow trees, a bench beneath a vine-covered arch, a table with four chairs in the white garden -- they rarely sit down.

"As soon as you sit down," Cramer says, laughing, "you see something else that needs to be done."

Nine tips from Seven Gates Farm

Here are some gardening suggestions from James Cramer and Dean Johnson.

Maintain your current plantings. For example, Cramer and Johnson spray the boxwoods with horticultural oil spray each year to keep away white flies.

Replenish mulch each year for moisture retention and weed control.

Instead of a wooden fence, consider a living fence -- something that grows -- instead of a rigid structure.

To add interesting touches, look around the garden. An area might call for a round edge rather than a straight edge; it's often more eye-pleasing to follow the contour of whatever ground you're working with.

Repeat certain shapes to unify the look.

Then add a contrast to draw the eye to a certain place -- a talk element such as a sculpture or an old tool.

Look at corners and hollows that might call for a focal point.

Add height with trellises, or plantings such as arbors, upright juniper and tall ferns.

Plant shelter for birds so you can hear them sing.

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