3 Families Used More Time at Home to Create Enviable Gardens

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Evan, Erin, Wyatt and Rory Gwyn take a break on their back patio with pups Willie (far left) and Waylon.

Photography by Beth Mann

Plants with Purpose

A year after moving into their custom dream home and its surrounding 15 acres in south Chapel Hill, Erin Gwyn and Evan Gwyn have a sprawling sustainable garden with crops that would rival any grocery’s produce section: tomatoes and cucumbers, watermelon and blueberries, carrots and herbs; the list goes on.

“We grow the things we like to eat and nothing that we don’t,” Erin says. “Our kids [Rory, 2.5, and Wyatt, 1] eat cucumbers like they’re going out of style, so we’re growing a lot of those, and that’s the reason for the melon as well.”

And those are just the edible plants. The Gwyns also focus on permaculture, a form of farming and landscaping meant to mimic natural ecosystems by designing a space that requires minimal work to produce maximum yield.

gwyn gardens
Wyatt and Rory play at the water table – a gift for Wyatt’s first birthday in May. “It’s all the rage with the littles these days!” Erin says.

“Permaculture served as the inspiration for things we had done gardening-wise to date before we moved here,” Erin says. “It was fun to put our heads together [with landscape designer Amy Strunk] and come up with a design heavily focused on native and pollinator species, and useful and edible plants. Everything is not only beautiful to look at, but also useful in some way.”

Establishing a garden space after 18 months of disruptive construction was especially important to the couple. Amy set up the garden’s foundation, and Erin and Evan continue to expand upon it, adding and filling out sections as they can. Quarantine allowed more time to fill in the holes, literally.

Except, the couple hasn’t spent more time outside in the traditional yard-maintenance sense. There’s no grass to mow, and an irrigation system waters the plants. A composting system enriches their soil, takes care of the weeds and provides food for the 10 chickens they purchased from Dragonfly Farm. (Erin’s stepdad, a stone mason by trade, built their chicken coop from scrap materials.)

“We’re looking for opportunities wherever we can to have things work for us and not the other way around,” Erin says. “Because we do enjoy growing our own food. It’s a big draw, a big attraction. But we don’t want that to be what we do full time, either.”

Gwyn gardens
The Gwyns use reclaimed water from a rain barrel for the kitchen garden, where the family grows produce like carrots.

The permaculture-focused design “makes things easier for us,” Erin says. “It makes plants and animals happier. It makes the ultimate yield of high quality and quantity.”

Erin and Evan are officially certified in permaculture design after taking a two-week course in 2015 in Summertown, Tennessee. Erin, who was born and raised in Chapel Hill, hopes to eventually develop a garden project for the community that shares permaculture concepts. But for now, she’s content with getting her hands dirty in the backyard and preparing farm-to-table meals for the family.

“Mostly, our inspiration comes from being foodies and just loving great, fresh food,” Erin says. “Nothing tastes better than when it’s freshly picked and knowing where it came from – and not having to buy it.” – by Hannah Lee 

Home to Roost

Last spring, Kim Parke and Rick Williams cultivated a raised garden bed, where they now grow zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, five varieties of tomatoes, peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots and potatoes. This year, they acquired four chickens from their son, Brad Parke, and daughter-in-law, Jessica Parke, who have 30 at their home in Oakboro, North Carolina. And with stay-at-home orders in place, the couple turned their Pittsboro home into a sanctuary for those chickens, as well as the koi fish in their recently constructed pond. 

Kim Parke gardens
Kim Parke and Rick Williams hold their chickens Amelia and Lily. Amelia is named after Amelia Earhart because she tried to fly away.

Three years ago, the couple moved from a rental in Fearrington Village to their current home, seeking the peaceful privacy of countryside living. Rick works at Whole Foods Market in Chapel Hill, and Kim is a real estate broker for Real Living Carolina Lifestyles Realty in Pittsboro.   

“We love the historic charm of downtown Pittsboro,” Kim says. “There’s room to breathe out here. We both like to have land around us, and it helps that the taxes are lower.” 

For the first two years, Rick carefully considered each corner of the property, looking for the “perfect spot” to build a water feature. Water gardens and aquatics have always interested him, and he has experience building them for family and friends. 

Rick finally landed on a corner with adequate amounts of both shade and sunlight for plants and fish to thrive. Surrounded by banana trees and adjacent to their outdoor patio and fire pit area, the koi pond adds a meditative touch with its reflective surface and ambient bubbling sounds. 

After mapping out its oblong kidney shape, Rick dug out the pond, which measures about 9 feet wide at its largest section and 5 feet at its narrowest. Next, he laid down a pond liner made out of fish-friendly, synthetic butyl rubber, which is commonly used for such a project. Kim helped select aquatic plants such as water lilies and water hyacinths from the Atlantic Gardening Company nursery in Raleigh. Pittsboro landscaping company B & L Supply assisted the couple in choosing Tennessee sandstone flagstones to encircle the pond’s edge.  

“The pond is an ecosystem that maintains itself,” Rick says. “The roots of the plants filter the water, and we’ve got a mechanical and biological filter that pumps the water.” 

Kim and Rick now have eight unnamed goldfish and two koi fish, an orange-and-white koi named Nemo and a white-and-blue koi named Casper. Their home receives town water supply, so Rick ensured the pond’s water was thoroughly dechlorinated before releasing the fish. “We’ve also acquired a number of frogs,” Rick says. “They croak at night – we call one ‘The Lifeguard,’ as he sits on the edge and watches over the fish.”

Altogether, the pond’s construction took about a week and a half. Rick’s advice for anyone interested in building a water feature is to start out small and “try to naturalize it,” he says. “Try to make it look like it’s always been there by using natural materials around it. We’ve got elephant ears on the backside of our pond, which will grow around and camouflage the rocks.” 

Koi pond
Frogs, fish and aquatic plants thrive in their lush koi pond.

Shortly after the completion of their koi pond, Kim started to notice a shortage of eggs at local grocery stores due to the pandemic. After some research into suitable backyard chicken breeds, Kim selected two Golden Comet and two Ameraucana chicks from her daughter-in-law’s flock.  

Kim Parke gardens
Kim tends to last year’s project – a raised garden bed full of zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots and potatoes.

While the chicks stayed safe inside underneath a heat lamp, Kim and Rick sought out DIY chicken coop blueprints on YouTube and Pinterest. They settled on an easy-to-maintain house with a slant roof and one side that opens for cleaning access. The coop is 4 feet off the ground with a ramp that the chickens can run down into a spacious fenced-in area. To keep the coop protected from water damage, Rick purchased tin for the roof, house lumber for the interior and treated lumber for the exterior. 

Kim and Rick shop at Country Farm & Home in Pittsboro for chicken feed and supplies. As of press time, the chicken coop was close to completion. 

“It’s going to have swings for the chickens to perch on,” Kim explains. “We don’t want our chickens to be bored. They have a tetherball for them to be entertained – it’s a hanging cabbage that they can peck at.” 

Kim says that each chicken has its own name and personality. “I pick them up, pet them and talk to them,” she says. “I’m a crazy chicken lady now. We made them a condo and a playpen; it’s a pretty sweet situation.”

The couple excitedly anticipates the day their grandsons, Hayden, 6, and Holden, 8, can safely visit and enjoy their recent additions. Until then, they will continue to work on restoring their 1968 Airstream, “Norma Jean.” “We gutted the inside, we painted and put [in] a laminate floor, two twin beds and a sitting area,” Kim says. “We put a picture of Marilyn Monroe in it. She’s a sweet ol’ girl, and we knew she needed a glamorous name.” – by Marie Muir 

Room to Grow

Jeremy Salemson looked back to his years spent in England when it came to finding inspiration for his Country Club Road garden. He fondly recalls the lush landscape and historic buildings from two years at a school in Exeter and then a summer semester at Oxford University, the latter a part of his Duke graduate program. 

“England itself is sort of one green pasture just because of where it’s located and the amount of rain that it receives on an annual basis,” he says. “Past Plymouth and then on until Land’s End, you’ve got the cliffs, and there’s so much green, so much stone. Whether it was consciously or subconsciously, that was sort of imbued within my psyche from a young age and ultimately translated into some of the thoughts with the garden here in Chapel Hill.” 

Salemsons' gardens
The custom stone table is a central entertaining spot in the Salemsons’ garden. It has a long center sink with a built-in drain that can be filled with ice and drinks to act as a cooler.

When Jeremy bought the 1948 home with its cream brick exterior in 2013, it already had a garden dotted with bluestone. “We actually pulled it up, saved the stone and then modified the actual area using the traditional Chapel Hill stone … to mimic the University’s [well-known walls] and then filled in around that with a lot of grass,” he says. 

Jeremy, co-founder of residential mortgage banking company CIMG Residential Mortgage, says the landscaping took three or four months to complete because there were hardscape elements that needed to be constructed. For those projects and the home’s extension, he relied on Reid Lankford of HomeCrafter Inc.

Salemsons' gardens
Jeremy spent two summers at UNC during his undergraduate days, but obtained his master’s from Duke. His son and daughter are split between the two, with James pulling for Duke and Kate for UNC.

Since then, his home has only required some minor landscape tweaks. “It’s mostly been maintaining and really working on the grass [to get] that soft bed juxtaposed to the hardscape,” Jeremy says. “So you’ve got both elements competing, but also complementing each other to ultimately deliver what I feel like is a warm area, even though it’s got a lot of stone.”

To keep his yard and garden looking its best, Jeremy relies on Brenda Wallen of Laughing Goat Botanicals in Silk Hope. “She’s the one who really takes care of the property – cuts it, edges it, seeds it, aerates the whole thing,” he says. 

Salemson siblings

With the mild spring and stay-at-home orders, Jeremy says his daughter,Kate, 16, and son, James, 14, who both attend Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill, are enjoying the outdoor areas, which include a fire pit where they make s’mores. His kids stay active – Kate practices gymnastics on the stone walls, James performs his taekwondo or the family throws a baseball together in the
front yard. 

Jeremy recently hosted a few friends outside, everyone keeping their appropriate distance. “We had a beer and put music on, and it was great,” he says. “I think at that point, people were really looking for some human interaction in a safe way. That’s one of the big pluses of having [a yard] like that.”

Jeremy says he would encourage anybody to think about enhancing their outdoor space, whatever that may look like to them. “It doesn’t have to be an English garden, but just utilize it,” he says. “We are so fortunate to live in such a beautiful area. Whether you live on campus, whether you live in rural Chapel Hill or somewhere else, our climate really lends itself to being outside the majority of the year.” 

He continues to follow his own advice as he ponders the addition of a 75-foot lap pool. “It [would] end up being behind the garage,” Jeremy says. “It would have some additional sort of English garden stone elements to make [it] as seamless as possible. It’s not a guarantee, but I’m getting some bids right now, and hopefully we can make it fit in the budget and then start on that sooner rather than later.” – by Jessica Stringer

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