LEE, N.H. — In the evenings, Jill Nooney and Bob Munger often stroll, glasses of wine in hand, through their 20 acres of gardens. Even they are surprised at what they have accomplished. What began as a lark more than 30 years ago has grown into one of the most beautiful and intriguing private landscapes in New Hampshire.
“I’ve been interested in plants since I was 9 years old,” Nooney told us when we visited Bedrock Gardens on the first open-house weekend of the summer. “I designed the gardens to amuse myself,” she said. Munger pitched in with the heavy lifting. He laid the paving stones, dug and installed the water features, and served as the all-purpose man with a wheelbarrow.
“It came as a shock to me that the gardens spoke to other people,” Nooney admitted. But speak they did. Last summer, about 4,000 people visited the gardens on open-house weekends and this year the couple has doubled the number of days that their private sanctuary is open to the public. In fact, with the help of a dedicated and highly enthusiastic “friends” group, Nooney and Munger are in the process of turning their labor of love into a nonprofit public garden. Open houses will continue on the first and third weekends of the month through September. The gardens will reopen on Columbus Day weekend for a fairy and hobbit house festival.
Visitors are as inspired by the sweat equity that went into creating the gardens as they are by the winding landscape and progression of blooms. When the couple bought the former dairy farm with its circa-1740 farmhouse in 1980, the land had been fallow for a generation. “It was a puckerbrush,” recalled Nooney. “We beat it back and got rid of acres of poison ivy and raspberries.”
The gardens began slowly. “Jill eked out gardens close to the house,” Munger said. “Then we got a golf cart and started expanding.” They did not have a master plan or an overall vision. But the land sometimes dictated its needs.
“A lot of the gardens were accidents,” Nooney admitted with a chuckle. “I’d hit an outcrop of ledge with the lawnmower and decide to put a garden there so I didn’t hit it again.”
Eventually, all those spontaneous pieces evolved into a cohesive whole. Guided tours of the gardens are generally offered on the third Saturday of the month. Otherwise, visitors follow a detailed map that traces a three-quarter mile path through the gardens and highlights 21 points of interest. Along the way, plenty of chairs, benches, and hanging gliders offer vantages to enjoy the view or pause for a picnic lunch. As the gardens have matured, they have developed a broad group personality. The de facto master plan seems to have been born in an offbeat sense of humor.
Garden historian and ethnobotanist John Forti, new director of the Friends of Bedrock Gardens, said he was delighted by the playful landscape. “I’ve never been to a garden with a sense of humor before,” he said. Forti recently worked at Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Elm Bank and is now helping to guide Bedrock’s transition to a nonprofit public property. “You go on journeys here,” he said. “It’s rare to find a garden with this kind of soul and spirit.”
That journey begins near the farmhouse where guinea hens peck in the grass. Nooney planted a lovely, symmetrical Parterre Garden with central fountain directly below the couple’s Colonial-era home. “I’m not a rule follower,” she said, shrugging off the juxtaposition of a formal French garden next to colloquial New England farm architecture. In any event, the vanishing-point perspective makes it a favorite place for people to pose for photos.
In the Garish Garden, brightly colored plants compete for attention. The 200-foot-long Wiggle Waggle water channel, planted with lotus and waterlilies, flows from the spring house behind a hedge of espaliered apple trees down to a small gazebo called “CopTop,” where rotating seats let visitors take in a 360-degree panorama. The Grumbling Gate frames a borrowed vista of horses grazing in the neighboring pasture, a reminder of Lee’s agricultural past.
It’s unlikely that those early Yankee farmers could have envisioned Nooney and Munger’s Japanese Tea House set amid rocks above aptly named Petit Pond. Nor would they have imagined the inhabitants of the somewhat eerie Dark Woods, as the couple calls the path meandering through the deep shade of a tall grove of white pines. Sculptures hang overhead and seem to spring from the needle-strewn forest floor like so many banshees and giant bugs.
Actually, there are sculptures at every turn in Bedrock Gardens, from modest little assemblages on plinthes to triumphal gates. “When the garden got to be middle aged, it needed some dressing up,” Nooney said. “So I figured that I’d make it some jewelry.” She and Munger dismantle old farm equipment — the rustier the better, she joked. Nooney and assistants weld the pieces into sculptural assemblages. So far, there are a few hundred of these whimsical objects on the grounds — and they continue to multiply.
The gardens do seem to encourage creativity, which is reflected in the ambitious program of summer activities. Local bluegrass, blues, and jazz musicians perform some weekends, plein air painters try to capture the color and rhythms of the gardens, and art students from local schools create installations inspired by the landscape. In addition, local craftspeople are scheduled to sell their wares on one weekend and fiber artists will demonstrate quilting, weaving, and dyeing on another. There will even be a ballroom dancing class.
But most visitors tend to dream of the gardens they might create at home. “There’s millions of hours here,” a visitor marveled as he strolled the grounds. “It’s like forever.”
IF YOU GO . . .
45 High Road, Lee, N.H.
Gardens open first and third weekends through September, Saturdays 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sundays noon-4 p.m. Suggested donation $10. Also open Oct. 7-9 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m for Fairy and Hobbit House Festival. Adults $15, ages 3-12 $5. See website for full schedule of programs and information about parking. Picnicking is encouraged. Bring your own or call 603-923-7856 to inquire about box lunches available on select dates.