A garden becomes a work of art

Botanical artist Mindy Lighthipe taps her creativity to shape her changing garden.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    IN BLOOM: Mindy Lighthipe stands in her garden near ‘The Wizard,’ a statue belonging to her mother that was carved from an oak tree that had been struck by lightning.
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When botanical artist Mindy Lighthipe and her husband, Joseph Annicchiarico, bought their two-acre lot in suburban New Jersey eight years ago, the backyard was mostly grass. “It looked like a football field,” says Ms. Lighthipe.

She was a novice gardener at the time, but she reimagined the football field as a blank canvas and set to work creating a vivid garden picture. Now her living, changing work of art features an expanding purple house, a 20-foot-tall “wizard,” a beehive, a small waterfall, and a vast array of plants.

Ms. Lighthipe, whose former job title was botanical art and illustration coordinator at the New York Botanical Garden, started small. “I went to the garden center,” she says, “and bought what I liked and what I could draw.”

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Guided by her artist’s eye, she carved new beds and moved plants around until they came together in pleasing combinations.

She used her favorite color – purple – in many places, but found that purple flowers looked invisible if planted too near the purple house.

Over the course of several years, Lighthipe also discovered that the combination of hungry deer and specimen plants worked well for the deer but not for the plants.

After many attempts to discourage the animals with repellent sprays, she finally installed deer fencing last year.

The house and garden grew simultaneously. Two years ago, her mother, Nannette Lighthipe, moved into a newly built addition, bringing most of the plants from her former garden.

Now the weirdly contorted branches of a Harry Lauder’s walking stick shrub are the focal point of one of the new beds that surround the expanded house.

And Mrs. Lighthipe’s collection of Crocosmia (montbretia), roses, and hostas has settled in nicely.

Mrs. Lighthipe also brought with her a large piece of garden art. “The Wizard” is a whimsical 20-foot-tall figure that Pennsylvania chain-saw artist Rick Boni carved from the trunk of an oak tree that had been struck by lightning.

Clad in a flowing wooden robe that hides a squirrels’ nest, the giant wooden magician looms over a small waterfall and ornamental pond filled with bright goldfish.

Sometimes the carved owl that peeks out from the folds of the robe is joined by a live heron that casts hungry eyes on the darting fish in the pond.

Gardening has spurred Mindy Lighthipe’s interest in the cycles of insect life, and many of her paintings depict specific insects with their food and host plants.

The garden is convenient to her home studio, where she spends the majority of her teaching time, and is a plentiful source of subject material for her art: Three kinds of milkweed tempt bright orange monarch butterflies, and a Dutchman’s pipe vine draws dusky pipe-vine swallowtails. Butternut trees play host to the
ferocious-looking hickory horned devil caterpillar, the larval form of the regal moth. The native waterlilies in the pond attract dragonflies.

Lighthipe’s garden picture is also colored by environmental awareness, and about half the plants are native species.

She and her husband have fought a pitched battle against invasive plants, even replacing insect-friendly butterfly bushes, which self-seed aggressively in her area, with native plants that attract the same butterflies.

A shady flower bed on one side of the property showcases native columbine, trillium, wild ginger, May apple, and Virginia bluebells, while the graceful, arching stems of Solomon’s seal surround a tree in front of the house.

Shooting star, a northeastern wildflower with distinctive backswept petals, blooms by the pond.

The sunny beds that hug the property’s perimeter are full of oakleaf hydrangea, bee balm, jack-in-the-pulpit, and ironweed.

Since the deer fence went up, Ms. Lighthipe has dotted the open space on the back half of the lot with redbud, viburnum, catalpa, and dogwood saplings.

Not all the invasives have been banished. A previous owner planted a swathe of tall, nearly indestructible bamboo plants that is now 50 feet long and dominates the rear of the property. Every spring the couple thins out at least 200 canes to check the bamboo’s rapid spread.

Over the past few years, the garden has expanded to include food for humans as well as wildlife. Herbs and raspberry canes soak up sun by the swimming pool.

The vegetable garden contains a selection of Mr. Annicchiarico’s favorite hot peppers, plus an impressive rhubarb plant. This year, the couple has also added an asparagus bed.

A few months ago, Lighthipe became a licensed beekeeper and added a boxy hive to the outdoor decor. Honeybees buzz in and out of the new addition, which sits in a protected spot not far from her mother’s plantings.

This landscape is a work in progress, and in some areas the plants are just getting started. So is Mindy Lighthipe, who plans to sculpt paths that will meander from the front half of the property to new “areas of interest” at the rear.

Plans are also in the works for a bog or wetland garden. “The more lawn I get rid of, the better it seems,” she says, adding that she will always hold on to a little grassy space for boccie games and other outdoor activities.

Change is the one constant in the Lighthipe horticultural picture, where all the elements of the artist’s life and career come together. Her mother and husband help with the chores, and her father’s ashes rest beneath the dogwood tree. The family’s cats and dog have the run of the property.

Butterflies and flowers seem to fly from the garden directly to the studio, where their portraits line the walls.

Art and life have grown inseparable.

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