Both enticing and humorous, Bedrock Gardens is a cross between the garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England and the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden in Springfield, Massachusetts. As does the famous garden at Sissinghurst, Bedrock Gardens has distinct outdoor rooms, including one planted entirely with white flowers. Both gardens arose from enviable creative partnerships between complementary spouses. At Sissinghurst, writer Vita Sackville-West collaborated with her husband, Harold Nicolson, an author and diplomat, to create their famed landscape. At Bedrock, owners Jill Nooney, a sculptor, and her husband, Bob Munger, a retired family doctor, do much the same. “I’m the problem creator,” says Nooney, “and Bob is the problem solver.” She is the garden’s visionary artist. He is the implementer of those visions, including hydraulics for half a dozen water features.
But Seussian whimsy is another reason Bedrock Gardens has become a beloved cultural landmark in Lee, New Hampshire. Its rill, which squiggles down a hill, is called the Wiggle Waggle. The Garish Garden is a planting with deliberately clashing colors. A nook of round gazing balls and orb-shaped ornamental onions is dubbed the All-You-Need-Is-Balls Garden.
You enter Conetown, an outpost of cute dwarf conifers (the pug puppies of the plant world), through a welded gateway that looks like the entry to an Old West movie set. And then there are those vaguely menacing art installations, like the suspended Bag of Bones hung in The Dark Woods, a stand of white pines sometimes used for children’s scavenger hunts. Surely, this will be remembered as a magical place for the rest of some youngsters’ lives.
Nooney is a well-known artist who uses old farm equipment and industrial objects to create outdoor sculptures that make their way to connoisseurs’ gardens throughout New England.
“Gardeners recognize and value her art because each piece is unique and creative,” says Boston garden designer Gary Koller. “Her pieces and her names for them make you smile. She’s exceptionally clever,” says neurologist Ellen Lathi, who has more than a dozen Nooney sculptures, including 10-foot-tall totems and a gate made of gears, in her own garden in Needham, Massachusetts. “It’s true art, not just ornamentation.”
Though it appears modest from the road, Bedrock Gardens is actually expansive, with 20 cultivated acres. Nooney and Munger live in an 18th-century farmhouse on the property, which had been a dairy farm before they bought it in 1980. The serious landscaping began in 1987. Six years later, when Munger got a golf cart for his 50th birthday, the genie was out of the bottle and the garden expanded quickly. Standing in the back of the cart like a bareback rider while Nooney drives, he likes to trim the wavy top of a serpentine hedge.
Almost a mile of looping paths leads the visitor on a journey past rare species planted in woods, meadows, and allées integrated with hundreds of Nooney sculptures, many for sale. Garden features incorporate spiral paving, tractor seats, twirling roof ventilators, and an 8-foot-high steel arch of acrobats framing a Japanese Tea House. The GrassAcre adds a meadow of movement with contrasting color blocks of waving red switch grass, green Hakone grass, and native little bluestem. Even more textural is a long Belgian Fence in which 11 kinds of apple trees are espaliered in a diamond pattern. The journey ends at a steep ledge of rock garden plants and statuary. A stone staircase leads to a pergola that affords a view of an 850-foot axis that stretches across the garden to a pine tree glinting brightly from 200 CDs screwed to its trunk. “It’s a very personal vision,” says Koller, “and they’ve created it all themselves.”
The couple open the garden to the public the third weekend of the month, May through October, a tradition started by Nooney to sell her art but which she confesses backfired. “The garden proved too good ... and too big,” she says. “People started coming in droves to see it. By the time they finish, they’re staggering. They’re too dazed to buy any art. I shot myself in the foot.”
But as the couple grow older — Nooney is 65, Munger is 71 — and their fan base widens, the goal has shifted from selling art to preserving the garden itself.
“We want to give it to an organization that can run it as a cultural organization, but we need a dowry,” says Munger. So they have been adding more open house days and a docent program in addition to holding sculpture summer camps at the garden.
Nooney has always treasured her privacy. “But now I think the more people, the better. Maybe someone who comes through will be the one who’s going to save us.”
Open houses are the third weekend of the month, May through October, Saturdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults with no charge for children. Dogs are not allowed. On May 17 and 18, guests will be invited to view “Noah and His Ark,” a project in which 175 junior and senior high school students created pairs of sculpted creatures. “There will also be live music and a volunteer curator,” says Jill Nooney. “It’s just going to be a fun thing.” Find out more about Bedrock Gardens at bedrockgardens.org. Nooney’s art can be viewed and purchased at finegarden.com. To learn more about preserving gardens in northern New England, visit gardensne.org.