DOES YOUR YARD have a problem location? Take a leaf from Beth and Robert Cummings Neville, who have turned a bad site into a good garden. Their Milton home is on a slanting rocky lot 20 feet above a busy street corner. “This place was just shale dust and crab grass when we moved in,” says Beth with a laugh. “We could have fracked it and made natural gas out of it.”
Instead they’ve embraced problems as opportunities. Little by little, since 1988, they have built small terraces to control erosion while colonizing each rocky outcropping with improved soil and suitable plantings. For 25 years they’ve had a “no rake policy” under their hedges, leaving leaves and pine needles alone there each autumn to enrich the soil, and spreading their lawn clippings on areas that need a vitamin shot.
Their efforts have developed almost two dozen mini gardens, each with a name and theme, in styles ranging from Asian fusion to Italianate. The resulting landscape invites exploration and feels much larger than its third of an acre.
Married 50 years, the Nevilles are adept collaborators. Bob is a professor of philosophy, religion, and theology at Boston University and was the “Voice of Marsh Chapel” from 2003 to 2006 on WBUR’s broadcasts of the Sunday worship service. He has also written 23 books. Beth is an artist and has designed the covers for most of them.
Bob paraphrases Immanuel Kant when he says that gardening is a fine art. It’s one they can do together, designing the hardscaping and nurturing their hundreds of plants. Various hedges, including an undulating tapestry hedge of Leyland cypress, hinoki cypress, pieris, and arborvitae, help define what feel like outdoor rooms. Beth enjoys pruning. She says it feels like sculpting.
The 1910 house was designed by John Rablin, a Metropolitan District Commission engineer who also built the graceful neoclassical Anderson Memorial Bridge that connects Harvard Square with Allston. House and garden fixtures are well integrated. Both are trimmed in rich shades of burnt sienna and ocher. A wall of windows on a building addition overlooks the Cupid Fountain garden and its trellises of clematis and roses.
Bob’s study opens onto the evergreen nook he calls “The Philosopher’s Garden, because I’m a philosopher.” Beyond that lies a 7-by-14-foot paved rectangle called the Taiji Garden, which is surrounded by Asian shrubs and statues of Buddha and Confucius. Here Bob does his exercises. “Taiji is a fixed form of 108 movements which take you around the space, so after about 25 minutes you end up where you started.”
The Nevilles also use columns to accent their garden. Working in harmony with their “borrowed view” of the classical revival mansion across the street, they have even erected a row of Corinthian-style columns in their garden to create a kind of visual echo. Many of these columns serve as pedestals for container plants, statuary, and even heirloom rocks passed down through the family.
A statue of a Chinese warrior guards the entry to the Round Garden, which took its shape from an above-ground pool that was replaced with circular paving and a tiered fountain. A ceramic Mexican chiminea provides heat in the shoulder months of March and November.
The Nevilles have even planted the municipal strip of earth along their sidewalks and the edges of their neighbor’s property, where they turned an overgrown granite cliff face into a rock garden of azaleas, mugo pine, and spruce, much to the neighbor’s satisfaction.
The couple have finally finished colonizing their property, says Beth. “We’re pretty maxed out at this point.” So they’re redesigning some of their earlier projects. Last year, Bob dug up an old perennial bed and turned it into an English rose garden, whose varieties include ‘Barbra Streisand’ (pink) and ‘Julia Child’ (yellow). Unlike a painting or a book, a garden is never really completed.
Carol Stocker writes regularly about gardens. Send comments to email@example.com.