Take a Look Inside Three Outstanding Garden Spaces

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These couples have two things in common: green thumbs and beautiful backyards to show for it.

Les and Brooke sit with their feet in their garden pool
Les Wilson and Brooke Wilson’s backyard swimming pool has a swim jet system powerful enough to sustain infinite kayaking or swimming.

By James Dupree | Photography by John Michael Simpson

HISTORICAL HAVEN

After living for 14 years in a “cookie-cutter” neighborhood in Durham with a tiny raised garden, Brooke Wilson wanted a bigger space – something reminiscent of the farm she grew up on in South Carolina. In December 2016, Brooke and her husband, Les Wilson, discovered a 13-acre property off Old Greensboro Road. It had plenty of space to start a larger garden and for their two mixed-breed dogs, Gypsy and Greta, to play.

Originally owned by George Reeves in the late 1700s, the property changed hands once Sarah Reeves married into the Durham family in the early to mid-1800s. It remained in the Durham family for over 150 years. DiRienzo Builders constructed a home on the lot around 2007.

With the help of Chad Van Deusen, owner of Get Rooted Nursery, Brooke and Les have turned their property into a paradise with a mix of Mediterranean and pastoral themes. “Chad helped plan our landscape design,” Brooke says. “He’s done a great job. [Get Rooted] is where most of our plants come from.”

On an elevated portion of the property sits Brooke’s vegetable garden, where several large wooden planter boxes burst with vegetation. Crops include tomatoes, peppers, squash, zucchini, cantaloupe, okra and asparagus. Centered in the garden is an old chicken coop now used as a garden shed. “We harvest for ourselves and trade with our neighbors,” Brooke says. “We all have more than we could possibly eat on our own.”

On the northwest side of the house, the couple installed a pool and a pergola. The pergola was constructed from natural cedar by Lynn Hoffman of Rustic Garden Structures in Pittsboro. “I gave him total free will. I told him, ‘I trust you. You’re an artist. Do your thing.’” Brooke says. For two months, Lynn built the structure with a truckload of sticks and logs. Brooke and Les made the spot all the comfier by adding a fire pit and seating underneath. It’s perfect for their summer barbecues by the pool or drinking hot chocolate or cider on cool autumn evenings.

From the back patio and down a set of stairs, groupings of various medium to tall perennial shrubs appear as islands of green in an orange pebble sea. Japanese maples add spots of reddish-purple. A fragrant aroma comes from the Georgia sweetshrub’s solitary burgundy flowers. It’s the first time they have bloomed since Brooke and Les moved in. “It was really interesting to see the plants mature over the years [and] how things come to life,” Brooke says. “It’s a little surprise. It’s like Christmas morning.”

The pebble garden, featuring cypress trees, Japanese maples, shrubs and multiple sitting areas.
The pebble garden is filled with cypress trees, Japanese maples, shrubs and multiple sitting areas.

Italian cypress trees outline the pebble path leading down to a 1-acre pond at the bottom of the property, where fish keep the mosquitoes at bay and wild blackberries flourish along the woods. The landscape design promotes water runoff to travel south toward the pond using the natural slope of the land and through underground piping.

Looking ahead to fall, Brooke and Les have some more fun ideas in mind for their yard. “We’ve been talking about it for years, but we would love to have a Halloween party and do a haunted trail through the garden,” Brooke says. “It would be cool to have little scary spaces along the trail.”

WOODLAND WONDERLAND
There are several shady spots in Frances and Bill’s backyard to relax, including the gazebo and a swinging bench under the papaw tree.

For Frances Harris and Bill Harris, their Hillsborough oasis started with a green space of about one-third of an acre, a house built in 1951 and several massive willow oak trees. “When I grew up here, this neighborhood was [mostly] open field,” says Frances, a Hillsborough native. “We would play kickball and stuff. Following their 15 years in northern Virginia, where Bill worked as the resource manager for the Department of Defense and Frances was the executive director for the nonprofit Action in Community Through Service, the couple retired in 2015 to a neighborhood a few blocks northwest of downtown.

Frances wasted no time turning their small property into a woodland wonderland. “I had always wanted a woodland garden because I think they feel cool and safe and secluded,” she says. Bill and Francis are both Orange County Master Gardener volunteers, with Frances also having served on the Hillsborough Tree Board for six years. Their property has been twice featured on the Hillsborough Garden Tour, as recently as last year.

With the property receiving only pockets of sunlight throughout the day, Frances and Bill have been forced to get creative. They plant in layers, focusing on the position of large trees, understory trees, shrubs and ground covers. Much of the grass was replaced with a microclover, hiding brown spots on the lawn. Some plant species provide shade for their neighbor plants, while other species maintain a desired evergreen aesthetic. The garden is home to more than 400 native plants and almost as many nonnatives, requiring Frances to keep an extensive list of every species. “Invariably, people will ask, ‘What’s that?’ and I can’t remember everything,” she says.

Bill prunes spotted joe-pye weeds in the garden
Bill prunes spotted joe-pye weeds in the garden. Behind him are purple cone flowers and black-eyed Susans.

The landscape design promotes exploration with plenty of nooks at every turn and provides fun during visits from their five grandchildren, who run along the interwoven paths and hide in the dense shrubbery. Concealed in the nooks are “bits of whimsy,” as Bill puts it, including a fairy door and little figurines placed at the base of an oak, a St. Francis statue tucked away near the blooming hibiscus, the stout rock man concealed at the end of the stone waterway for the dry stream and the various multicolored polyhedron sculptures.

In the center of the yard is a frog pond with soft stones and lily pads and other greenery to encourage algae growth. On one of the larger stones sits a rotund caricature of a lobster, more of Bill’s whimsy on display. “I can just sit here, the same as my grandchildren, and stare at the frogs for hours,” he says.

At the back of the property, surrounded by black cohosh, woodland asters and columbine, is the gazebo, inspired by the couple’s three-year stay in Japan. The six posts are made from natural cedar, retaining every knot and curve. It’s an intimate spot for two with a great view of the purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan.

Near the back porch is a garden shed. Designed by Bill to mirror their home’s brick foundation and white siding, the shed looks more like the front of a lovely guest cottage. “We figured if it’s going to be this close to the house, we might as well enjoy looking at it,” Frances says.

After about six years of hard work, Frances and Bill show no signs of slowing down. “Every year, about 20% of the garden changes,” he says. Frances adds, “It’s definitely a team effort. Bill puts a lot of labor in. I try to put in shrubs and trees because, as we get older, it’s easier to maintain. It’s fun to see when something works and frustrating when something doesn’t. But I’ve had surprises, too. You never know.”

PLANTING A SEED
Meg holding produce from her garden
Meg’s produce includes tomatoes, squash, okra, cucumbers, watermelons and peppers.

In 1989, when Meg Molloy and Cameron Binnie were riding their bikes through a quaint Carrboro neighborhood north of Wilson Park, they stopped in front of a lot. It had less than an acre of land, an unfinished home (due to the development company going bankrupt) and two fallen pine trees in the front yard. They soon bought the lot, and over the last 34 years, the couple has turned the property into an eclectic sanctuary.

Having a comfortable outdoor environment was essential for Meg and Cameron. “We’re outside all the time, so we wanted to create spaces that we can enjoy and entertain in,” Meg says. Since she began working from home for her consulting business, Strategies for Prevention, Meg often traverses her yard or sits out on the front porch on her laptop or phone. “Sometimes I’ll walk around the yard on conference calls and pull weeds when I see them,” she says.

Meg has been an Orange County Master Gardener volunteer since 2018, where she was mentored along the way by Frances Harris, and has also been a member of the Carrboro Community Garden Coalition. “It’s a bunch of people who visit one another’s yards, and we swap plants and advice,” Meg says. “Gardening is a very social thing.” She also periodically writes for Chapelboro’s garden column.

The biggest challenge for Meg’s garden has been the overwhelming deer population. “I would come home, and there would be 12 deer asleep in a food coma because they had eaten every single thing that I had planted,” she says. To counteract this, Meg plants deer-resistant species in the front yard while keeping the tastier plants fenced in behind the house.

She has gradually replaced most of her front lawn with a stunning array of blooming perennial and annual pollinators, attracting plenty of bees and butterflies. “I saw so many monarch [butterflies] this year. I was so excited,” Meg says. But she has kept a large enough strip of grass in the front so she and Cameron can still play croquet and badminton in their free time.

The seed donation box in Meg's garden by the street
When Meg has enough seeds, she shares them with the community by placing them in the little free library box at the edge of her swale garden by the street.

The front swale was converted into a dry stream with stones and anchor plants to help hold nutrients from stormwater, which reduces pollutants and mitigates damage to the lawn. “The low parts of your yard are great places to put ‘wet feet’ plants,” she says. Swamp milkweed, joe-pye weed, Culver’s root and two small groupings of pitcher plants flourish in the moist soil.

Above the swale is the exquisite moon arch gate, designed by Meg and built by Steve Fagan of Fagan Industry in Pittsboro, leading to the vegetable garden and greenhouse where Meg’s tomatoes, squash and okra thrive. The greenhouse allows her a space to propagate and harvest and dry seeds. When Meg has enough seeds, she shares them with the community by placing them in the little free library box at the edge of her swale garden by the street.

Behind the greenhouse is the edible courtyard where an impressive 25-year-old pomegranate tree stands tall, full with ripening fruit. Surrounding the pomegranate is a ‘Celeste’ fig tree, a papaw, planter boxes with herbs and a potted white ginger lily, to name a few of the many species present.

Beyond the artistic metal gate and lattice fence is the backyard, which hosts Meg’s shade-loving perennials, with pollinators in sunny spots for added color. “My favorite is the Indian pink,” Meg says. “It looks like a Dr. Seuss plant. It’s so pretty.”

But the most noticeable additions to the backyard are the recently renovated curved Cumaru wood deck with a metal handrail, also built by Steve Fagan, and the outdoor stucco fireplace built by Scottie Edwards of A Mark of a Pro in Durham. Inspired by her recent trip to Barcelona, Meg had Luke Miller, a Pittsboro-based craftsman, add sections of multicolored and patterned tile to the fireplace and steps of the curved deck. Soon, the couple hopes to add an open “Casablanca-style” pergola to the back deck and fill in a new mulch bed with native plants. “I’m always editing my garden,” Meg says. “Gardeners never really quit.”

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James Dupree

James is an Editorial Intern for Chapel Hill Magazine. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and walked away with a fancy-schmancy English degree. When not taking cool photos of weird flowers, James sits in cafes attempting to write anything worthwhile. You can read James' work on his site and view all those cool photos of weird flowers on his instagram.

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