A garden where art and plants talk to one another
A woodland sculpture garden is an appealing mixture of plants and interesting art.
Kathleen Williams invites me to sit with her on a bench beneath the katsura tree she planted years ago. The view of her backyard is across a ravine, where garden sculptures and specimen trees talk to one another.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"This I call the box seat," she says, where she rests to take in the drama of her own making. At the age of 97, Ms. Williams spends most days in her garden, still drawing inspiration and delight from it. Her eyesight isn't what it was, and she uses a cane when she's in the multilevel garden.
But here is a woman born before the Titanic sank who is still actively gardening and loving it.
A sculptor and later a jewelry designer, Williams has used her skills to create a woodland sculpture garden behind her Chevy Chase, Md., home. The garden, needless to say, has many stories.
In the early 1950s Williams was living in London with her three children. Her husband had moved to the Washington area to work for a political organization. He found the house for sale and phoned his wife to ask whether he should buy it. "I said, `I don't know, darling. You're there; you decide.' And the house was dreadful," she says, erupting into laughter.
She arrived "in the pitch black" on Christmas Eve 1951 and found that the front door opened almost to the stairs, the roof was leaking and the wallpaper was far too florid.
"There were cabbage roses all over my bedroom," she says. But when she looked out to the back garden the next morning, she saw the potential drama of the site, a hill that descended to a stream and then rose up behind it to what was then the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad line, now the Capital Crescent Trail.
In the front of the house, a garden has been crafted around a ceramic birdbath she designed, and an old yew has been carefully shaped to produce a cloud effect, a technique seen on many old shrubs throughout the garden.
"This is what I call my green sculpture," Williams says. A dwarf conifer named Hinoki falsecypress has been painstakingly pruned into a dome. "The name is too long," she says. "I call him Timothy," after the tortoise kept by legendary 18th-century English naturalist Gilbert White.
The back of the house, which was enlarged, now features a deck with transparent railings as part of Williams' careful framing of views. Likewise, trees around the deck have had lower branches removed. As other trees have fallen, the emptiness has become a platform for her sculptures. "I had been brought up to appreciate views," she says.
The area below the deck is a stage for an abstract sculpture, and in the open bed in front of it a large sitting figure of Pan gazes over the four descending terraces to the stream.
Seated on the bench, Williams explains that she views the garden in front of the stream as theatrical seating and the far slope as a stage. The main act is a drama she calls the Poet's Garden. The sculpted head of the poet directs its gaze toward an artfully pruned blue atlas cedar tree she calls "the Blue Princess."