Open Days tour at local gardens uncovers botanical beauty to all


On Saturday, garden lovers are invited to wander through the picturesque kitchen garden that forms a French country backdrop for Cafe Bretton on Old B&A; Boulevard in Severna Park.

Designed and maintained by chief gardener Bob Ray, the Bretton garden is one of four in Anne Arundel County that will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. as part of the Garden Conservancy's annual nationwide Open Days tour of gardens.

The Open Days program is the primary fund-raiser for the 10-year-old garden preservationist organization headquartered in Cold Spring, N.Y., giving enthusiasts access to hundreds of private gardens across the United States.

The conservancy, which annually selects as many as 20 gardens to support or reestablish, works in conjunction with garden owners, and public and private organizations to preserve great American gardens and to open them to the public.

The Bretton garden, which Ray describes as being "about the size of a football field," is planted with an artistic eye that brings to mind the feel of Monet's gardens in Giverny, France. A working garden, it provides fresh vegetables and herbs for the restaurant's American and continental menu and flowers for the tables.

It attracts as visitors not only "two-leggeds" (Ray's term for human garden guests), but permanent guests like its butterflies and ladybugs.

The beauty and serenity of the property is readily noticed from the road, prompting people to stop for a look. Once out of their cars, they wander the paths between raised beds geometrically planted with robust tomatoes, giant broccoli and aromatic herbs, dark greens against the rich brown mulch. Entire beds of scarlet poppies and stands of towering hollyhocks remind visitors of childhood gardens where bumblebees also buzzed among the blossoms.

Seated on a bench in the garden's inner sanctum, the road a distant memory, two-leggeds feels set adrift. The air is filled with white butterflies. The sun is warm, and it's easy to be lost in the beauty of the moment, to meditate, to absorb the spiritual balance.

The feeling of spirituality is no accident, according to Ray, who spent 25 years harvesting fish from the sea and captaining sport fishing boats before he began to commune with the earth.

It was time spent as a boy observing his grandfather in his garden in Kentucky that left a lasting impression on Ray, who claims to cultivate his own garden on pure instinct.

"I can't take any credit for this garden," Ray says. "I follow a spiritual path greater than myself." Part Cherokee, Ray says he relies on Native American wisdom to guide his choices. "There's a life force going on here. I know that I belong here, because I get feelings about the plants. They know where they want to be."

And that's where Ray puts them, even if it takes several attempts to find the right location.

Plants arrive via catalog selections, gifts from friends and seeds left by birds. Ray says that all plants don't like each other. "Fennel doesn't like anybody," so he plants it in the far corners of the garden, "but yarrow gets along with everything."

In addition to intuition, Ray employs a gardening philosophy used by the Greeks, the Romans and the American Indians called companion planting.

Among the rows of perfect vegetable plants, he places compatible herbs that, though tiny in stature, are capable of protecting their giant neighbors from damaging insects. The odiferous herbs trick the bugs because of their overpowering smell.

The bugs fly right over the preferred plants straight to the "trap garden," an entire bed of suicide plants ready to donate their leaves for the benefit of the more desirable vegetation.

Even in the trap garden there's little evidence of insect damage. Maybe it's the work of the Divas, good garden spirits that are said to haunt a spiritual landscape.

Also featured in Saturday's Open Days are two Holly Beach gardens, both overlooking the Chesapeake Bay on Holly Beach Farm Road, Annapolis.

At one site, at 1800 Holly Beach Farm, little remained five years ago but the garden's "bones." Working under the guidance of landscape architect Gay Crowther, and using old photographs and local knowledge, the privately-owned garden has been reestablished by the conservancy.

The present English garden at Holly Beach consists of six "rooms" which include perennial, pond, rose, hydrangea and hillside plantings. Mature trees and ivy-covered walls encircle the gardens.

Further along Holly Beach Farm Road, at number 1917, is the Gately Garden. This property includes a large farmhouse framed by old shade and fruit trees. The fenced gardens are mostly perennial, colorful and inviting.

The final stop on the tour is Richardson Garden at 43 Franklin St. in Annapolis. This city garden is divided into two spaces: a formal garden with large boxwoods, enclosed by a brick wall with crape myrtles and hornbeams, and the casual garden with a pool. Parking on Franklin Street is unrestricted.

There is a $4 entrance fee at each garden.

For information on the Garden Conservancy, call 914-265-5384or visit its Web site at

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