A Chance to Peek Behind Private Garden Gates

High walls invite benign violation, a peek through the cracks or chin-up for a bird's-eye view over the top. Those of us reluctant to snoop might welcome a more gracious entree to glimpse what lies on the other side of a tall green hedge or the end of a long tree-lined driveway.

Our invitations are in the mail.

In the form of a yellow paperback, "The 1997 Garden Conservancy Open Days Directory" is a guide to 258 of this country's loveliest private gardens, open to the public on specific weekends, May to September, in 17 states, from Hawaii to Massachusetts.

Ringing cash registers at nurseries and garden centers across the country signal a burgeoning interest in gardening. And gardeners are curious to see what their neighbors are creating.

This spring for the first time, the Conservancy offers a national selection of private gardens. And the generous gardeners opening their gates are on their knees in the dirt at this moment.

In a garden north of Boston, open day (May 17) preparations are in full swing.

Dressed in rubber Wellingtons, plaid smock, and sunglasses, Margarett Vernon is stalking the beds she has been shaping for the past 37 years.

"I'm not one to move the mothballs," she says, waving a hand at the chipmunk-repelling white pellets sprinkled among emerging apricot and purple tulips.

"Don't have time to coil all the hoses or spirit away wheelbarrows, either. No good pretending we have a staff of 49 around here," says the septuagenarian, who knows exactly where each beloved green pet will show its floral face in her extensive garden.

"Ah, here you are sweet-ums," she says bending to greet a nub of euphoria nosing through the soil.

When it opens to the public in two weeks, the Vernon garden will be dappled with sunlight shining through unfurling dogwoods, magnolias, a silver aspen, corkscrew willows, cherry trees, and Japanese maples.

Perennial beds will bloom with dusty mauve azaleas, white bleeding hearts, and streams of delicate blue forget-me-nots.

"I could simply weep over my little yaku princesses," says Mrs. Vernon about her once-lovely, unusual Himalayan rhododendrons. "Regardez! The deer chomped them to naked sticks."

In her kitchen garden, spinach seedlings will just be leafing out under clear plastic umbrellas that warm the soil in oak barrels. Sweet peas and cucumbers will begin their scramble up trellises. While she weeds the raised strawberry beds in the vegetable enclosure, Vernon can hear the trickle of water from a rustic stone fountain set in an adjacent gravel clearing. She refers to this grouping of peonies and hydrangeas laced with peastone paths as "MSM's garden," named for her mother, Margarett Sargent McKean, artist and formidable Boston Brahmin.

"The hour Mama died, years ago now, a towering old spruce toppled over right here," Vernon notes. The sleeping figure of a dog, one of Margarett Sargent's sculptures, lies nestled in a tangle of glossy green myrtle.

Using an entirely different palette of plants, California gardeners are getting ready for their opening on May 9 and 10. Overlooking the crashing surf on Carmel Beach, Hallie and Brad Dow's all green and white garden, Fiddler's Green, is shaded by a single, graceful Monterey pine twisted by Pacific winds.

In sharp contrast to the Vernons' four-story, white clapboard Victorian hidden behind 100-year-old trees and an eight-foot stockade fence, the Dows' low adobe cottage takes in sweeping views of Point Lobos to the south and Pebble Beach to the north.

While salty breezes can sculpt masterpieces of the trees, they also present an ongoing challenge to West Coast gardeners. Always experimenting with new sea-worthy plants, Nancy and Paul John relandscaped most of their 10-year Carmel garden last year with hardier strains of flowers.

Which sturdy gems might the Johns recommend to a visiting seaside gardener from, say, Virginia Beach?

"Our hope is that gardening ideas will cross-pollinate from coast to coast," says Antonia Adezio, executive director of the Garden Conservancy, located in Putnam County, N.Y, in the Hudson River highlands.

"The variety of gardens listed in the directory is incredible, a national compendium of styles, really. And next year we will make another geographic leap," she says, referring to volunteer efforts under way to include areas of the country not yet represented.

The 1997 Directory provides descriptions of and directions to gardens. Dates, open hours, maps, and information about local public gardens are also listed. A $4 admission fee to individual gardens benefits the Conservancy and charities specified by the garden owners. In its third year coordinating the open days, the Conservancy has been preserving exceptional gardens nationwide (12 in all) by helping transfer ownership from private to nonprofit since 1989.

Believing that great gardens are an important part of our national heritage, Frank Cabot founded The Garden Conservancy to protect selected gardens from the ravages of time. The Open Days Directory extends the Conservancy's mission.

With a bouquet of 258, the difficult part will be choosing.

* For a $10 copy of the directory call (888) 842-2442.

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