It took me 21 years, but I finally made it to the annual Lewes Garden Tour last Saturday. The eight properties reflected a theme of “hidden gardens” whose curb appeal only hinted at the treasures awaiting beyond the public view. They didn’t disappoint, but neither did Lewes itself, a picturesque town whose charms are anything but hidden.
Picking up the brochure and map at the Fisher-Martin House in the center of town required a stroll through the outdoor garden market in Zwaanendael Park, a bustling confluence of plants, lawn ornaments, furniture, and vintage flea market finds. Best of all, it led to the Fisher-Martin Herb Garden, an authentic colonial restoration whose thriving plants are tucked between formal brick paths and labeled according to name and use. Common plants like lavender, rosemary, thyme, and dill were easy to pick out, but I was delighted to notice bedstraw, an avowed fly repellant and source for yellow dye. Dozens of varieties of herbs were at their peak, making the garden an ideal starting point for the day.
Map in hand, I headed towards the nearest garden, but was stopped in my tracks by an enormous Victorian house painted a lurid purple and replete with wraparound gingerbread porch. Utter disaster if it weren’t for a border of same-hued hydrangeas blooming madly against the white porch railings and proving irrefutably that such a color actually exists in nature. Two other purple blooming plants – a glorious late-flowering magnolia and a container spilling over with pastel petunias – complemented the house in such a way as to suggest a very savvy designer.
Ambling along Lewes’ historic streets was its own delight, as so many houses have inviting front borders or curious architectural details. After visiting the first few gardens, beautiful shady retreats where I was tempted to slip into an empty chair with a book, I made my way down Chestnut Street. Halfway down the block, a front perennial border jammed with colorful lilies and blooming perennials, waylaid me again. The owner, Bill Hughes, was sitting on the front porch and with his wife, Pamela, walked me through the property. It turns out the colorful border was only two years old, filled with oriental lilies from Costco or transplanted from their Newark home. In May, the garden erupts in roses, many of which Pamela brought in her suitcase from California when she lived and gardened there. Against the house wall she built a trompe l’oeil trellis for the climbers and worked more transplanted perennials into the borders. She and Bill laid all the brick paths themselves and when they dismantled a huge pond in the back yard, they built a low wall with the reclaimed rocks. It runs the entire length of the house and acts as a neat edging for daylilies and hydrangea. As I left I encouraged them to sign on for next year’s tour.
All the gardens I visited were truly hidden treasures, with many a side walkway meandering into a back yard to die for. The relatively small gardens in close neighborhoods managed to feel intimate and relaxing. Kevin and Marion Moore’s historic property on Mulberry Street had people lined up along the sidewalk where they could see the curving brick path leading to a beautifully rustic garden shed at the corner of the garden. Kevin restored the structure, which was in disrepair when he bought the property two years ago. He moved the building eight feet, poured new footers, and used salvaged wood from a neighboring house as flooring. Three of the interior walls have the original wood. It features an overhang that juts out into the back yard where brick walls retain raised planting beds and a table was set for afternoon tea. The entire scene was caught by painter Libby Zando, one of the painters and quilters on site throughout the gardens.
It won’t take me another 20 years to attend the Lewes garden tour, nor will I pass up the chance to visit Delaware’s loveliest seaside town.