Friends Kathy Hudson, of Roland Park, and Penney Hubbard, of Ruxton, spent the morning of Oct. 20 chatting and tapping on their laptop computers at opposite ends of a small table overlooking Hubbard's glorious garden on Walnut Hill Lane.
Two days later, they sat shoulder to shoulder with the noted landscape photographer Roger Foley at a book launch party in Cylburn Arboretum and signed 165 copies of "On Walnut Hill: The Evolution of a Garden."
The 272-page coffee-table book is written by Hudson, photographed by Foley, and published by Hillside Press, a company started by Penney Hubbard, a former public school teacher and admissions director at the Bryn Mawr School during the 1980s, and her husband, A.C., a retired investment banker for T. Rowe Price and former longtime president of the T. Rowe Price Associates Foundation.
"This is the story of a garden. It is also the story of a family in their garden," begins the book, in which Hudson, a longtime columnist for the Baltimore Messenger and writer for Style magazine, chronicles the two-acre garden that took root in 1969, soon after the Hubbards moved to Walnut Hill Lane from Roland Park.
"The young couple had no inkling then that the garden they would create would become recognized as one of the finest in Maryland," or that they would enjoy a long working relationship with the late horticulturalist and nurseryman Kurt Bluemel, who was known internationally as "the king of grasses."
Bluemel, who died last year of cancer at 81, found many of the grasses planted at Walnut Hill, and helped turn the Hubbard garden into "a world-class Eden," writes Hudson, 66, herself an avid gardener on Ridgewood Road in Roland Park.
"Listed in the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens, the Hubbard garden has been featured in national and regional magazines and as a destination for prestigious national and regional garden tours," Hudson writes.
The book makes clear that the Walnut Hill garden, now in its 46th year and still growing, is dear to the Hubbards' hearts and mirrors their growth as a family, from a play area for their three children to an intimate venue for a wedding reception for daughter Kimberly Cashman on Oct. 1, 1994.
"This is a world-class garden," Hudson said last week as she meandered along various pathways of the sloping hillside garden with three terraces and interlocking garden "rooms" off Bellona Avenue ringed with trees such as oak, maple, poplar, cypress, Japanese umbrella pines, Asian blue cedars and rare dove trees.
Fenced with netting to keep out deer, the garden features an estimated 10,000 plants and grasses from around the world.
"They've enriched the soil so much that a lot of things self-seed," Hudson said.
For Penney Hubbard, 77, it's more than a garden.
"It's a lifetime," she said.
"It's been a long, fun journey," said A.C. Hubbard, 78.
For Kimberly Cashman, 48, a stay-at-home mom who lives next door with her husband, Robert "Bo" Cashman, and their own three children, the garden is filled not just with plants, but with memories of their wedding reception for about 300 guests.
Luckily — because it rained — there was a tent.
It was also a logistical challenge because Walnut Hill Lane is a narrow road and the neighbors were having a bar mitzvah reception the same night, Cashman said. Guests for the wedding reception parked at Graul's grocery store in Ruxton and took a shuttle to the Hubbard house.
Cashman said the couple had thought about more traditional venues for the reception, such as clubs or restaurants, but when someone suggested the garden, the idea stuck.
"We realized what we had right there," she said. "Then we got really excited about it."
The irony for her parents is that when they started their garden, "We were really neophytes" at gardening on such a large scale, Penney Hubbard said. "We didn't know nuthin.'"
"Ivy from poison ivy," her husband said, finishing the thought.
They met when Penney was dating a friend of A.C.'s in high school and were married in 1959 when A.C. was in law school at Washington and Lee University. Even when they lived in student housing, gardening was instinctual for Penny Hubbard, whose father once had a victory garden and whose mother had a rose garden.
"Right then and there, we planted tulips in straight rows," Penney Hubbard said.
'Devotion is hard work'
The garden in Ruxton was five years old, with a few square vegetable beds, when the couple began collaborating with Bluemel, a garden designer and plants man from Baldwin who had emigrated from Switzerland and was just beginning his career in the U.S. Bluemel, an early proponent of the New American style of gardening and landscape architecture, helped the Hubbards create a terraced, meadow-like garden with a built-in heated swimming pool and paths wide enough for two people.
"For months the garden looked like a war zone," A.C. Hubbard told fellow nurseryman Allen Bush, of Louisville, Ky., who wrote the book's foreword and was a close friend of Bluemel.
A.C. Hubbard has done a lot of the heavy lifting in the garden through the years, especially in the mid-1970s, when he built a rock garden with his son, Crawford, and dug up and replanted native azaleas and rhododendrons from Towson Nurseries after it went out of business in 1975.
"Devotion is hard work," Bush writes. But the payoff, he adds, is that Walnut Hill is "so much more than a two-acre hillside garden in suburban Baltimore. Wander the footpaths, and time slows down."
Hudson said she and Penney Hubbard met as volunteers in Baltimore City public schools in the 1970s, but that it wasn't until Hudson started writing about gardening for Style in 1999 that Darielle Linehan, then owner of the Ivy Bookshop in Mount Washington, said rhetorically, "You have seen Penney Hubbard's garden."
"I'm like,'no, I haven't,'" Hudson said. "I very quickly called Penney."
Now, the garden is so well known that the Hubbards sometimes give benefit tours and hold wine tastings for groups that ask. When national organizations such as the Garden Club of America and American Horticultural Society hold annual meetings or conventions in the area, "This is always one of the gardens they go to," Hudson said.
A reporter last week knew he had reached his destination when he saw a van belonging to the Sparks-based landscaping company Natural Concerns parked in the outer courtyard. Already hard at work in the garden was Natural Concern's Curry Harvey, whose family members own Natural Concerns and are longtime friends of the Hubbards.
"The garden is never finished," Hudson said. "It just keeps on going."
Convincing a skeptic
About 270 people turned out for the book launch party at Cylburn Arboretum's Vollmer visitor center, complete with a jazz combo, hors d'oeuvres catered by The Food Market in Hampden, libations from The Wine Source, also in Hampden, and an exhibition of enlarged photos — many selling for $500 — from Foley's work for "On Walnut Hill."
In a short speech at the book launch, Penney Hubbard thanked a lot of people, but Hudson most of all.
"I'm so glad we now have a friendship for life," she said.
The book is for sale on Amazon.com, and at area retail stores, including the Ivy Bookshop in the Lake Falls shopping center, Gundy's gift shop in Roland Park and Greetings and Readings in Hunt Valley, as well as on the website www.onwalnuthill.com. Plans are being finalized with a national distributor for sales to independent booksellers around the U.S., Hudson said.
"Any great garden changes with the seasons, and every hour of the day, but this one has changed the Hubbards and become their world," writes former New York Times garden columnist Anne Raver in the book's dust jacket blurb.
Many Roland Park residents had a hand in the book, including Laura Wexler (editor), John Fitzpatrick (horticulture editor), Martha Marani (fact-checker), and Caroline McKeldin Wayner, who gave the book a final read. Hudson and Penney Hubbard have signed 250 books just for the Ivy Bookshop to sell.
For Foley, who has contributed photos to hundreds of books and shot two of his own that won Award of the Year from the Garden Writers Association, shooting the photos for "On Walnut Hill," wasn't simply a job, but a labor of love.
"This garden has evolved," Foley said. "It makes it interesting to photograph. I want people to be able to feel what it's like to be there."
He also enjoyed working with Hudson, the Hubbards and the book's art director, Glenn Dellon, of Mount Vernon, to select photos for the book from the roughly 2,000 digital images he shot.
"It felt more collaborative," he said.
Foley, 64, of Arlington, Va., admitted he was a little skeptical when Hudson and Penny Hubbard contacted him in hopes of getting him involved in the project.
"There are a lot of people who think their gardens are fantastic, but when you get there, they're OK," he said.
But it piqued his interest that Bluemel, whom he knew by reputation and had met several times, had been involved in shaping the Hubbard garden.
After Foley toured the garden with Penney Hubbard, she asked him, "Is there enough here for a book?"
"I just smiled," Foley said.