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Secret Gardens of Cape May: Among the Stopping Points

secretgardenheader3Sshhh! I just came back from the Secret Garden Tour. Of course I can’t tell you physickestategarden4anything because, duh, it’s a secret. But listen, I’ve been trying to learn a thing or two about Victorian gardening from the Emlen Physick Estate (1879) gardener Hope Gaines. She told me about how the Victorians loved creating stopping points in the garden.

So, you’re wondering, what does the Secret Garden Tour have to do with stopping points. Well, that’s just it. I noticed that each garden had either a stopping point or a private sitting garden, or both.

So I decided to go out on my own and look at some of the gardens of Cape May. It’ll be our little secret – don’t tell anyone.

Now about those stopping points…

The Victorians used interior victoriangazingballdecorating schemes in an outdoor setting. For example statuary or “whimsy” was a common addition to the Victorian garden. Gazebos, (like the one at the Physick Estate) sundials, gazing balls, cherubic and fairy sculptures, fountains – anything that would stop your progress through the garden and make you pause. These stopping points, according to the Victorians, “purified your soul” by making you pause and look at the gifts of Eden.

The Victorian age was also a time of great exploration. Botanists were bringing in exotic plants from all over the world and the Victorians were game for trying them out in their gardens. Begonias, canna lilies and coleus were all new to England and to America in the 1800s.

Because the Victorians were not only flush with money from the industrial revolution but also flush with new knowledge stemming from these explorations abroad, they were anxious to show off their newfound horticultural discoveries.

I discovered that many of Cape May’s innkeepers have created stopping pointssecretgarden1 in their own gardens. Oh no. I can’t tell you that. We have cleverly blurred the names of the B&Bs to protect the secrecy of the gardens. So, guests who stay at secretgarden1, for example, will be happy to discover that the Bed & Breakfast has a private sitting garden with a small herb section. The large urn (which looks like a baby bathtub) was salvaged from a Philadelphia theater. A nice sense of place is established as soon as the visitor walks through the latticed archway. A red-bricked path leads the guest into a living room-like setting of white wrought-iron furniture. The setting invites the visitor to come in, sit down and relax and maybe have a cup of tea or a glass of sherry.

secretgarden2 Similarly, thesecretgarden2, provides guests with a plain wooden settee so they can sit and enjoy the simple perennial garden. What makes this garden special is the small fishpond with the little frog sitting on the edge looking, along with the visitor, at the bubbling waters. Shade plants and a young magnolia tree line the slate path to complete a picture-perfect sense of serenity.

At thesecretgarden3,all sorts of Victorian-style gardening ideas can be found beginning with the front entrance. Victorians loved urns, especially big urns. The Victorians would have loved the two white urns; each filled with an Alberta Spruce, which decorate the steps leading up to the wide wrap-around-front porch. The Alberta Spruce will eventually outgrow the urns and will have to be replanted but the two seem happy enough right now.

Around the back of the house, hidden from the generally public, is a lovely secretgarden3English-style garden filled with annuals, perennials, and ornamental grasses. A small Harry Lauder Walking Stick tree or “Contorted Hazelnut” is at the front of these gardens. The stems and leaves naturally twist and turn as they grow. This very unusual tree was named after a Vaudeville comedian who used a wild-looking bent gnarly cane.

Aside from the beautiful plantings, among them a flaming Dwarf Japanese Maple, is a quiet garden room set on a red-bricked circular path with Adirondack chairs.

In each instance, a sense of the isecretgardencatbenchndoor is brought outdoors either by creating a living room setting or by using a single visual tool like a fountain. In one of the gardens at secretgarden4, for example, a large cast iron tiered fountain is used as the centerpiece for a carpet bed (a circular path of flowers). The B&B also makes use of large urns and a pretty bench supported by two concrete cats that serve well as stopping points.

Now don’t tell anyone – but that’s the secret to gardening – be creative. Think of it like this. Your garden is your stage setting and you are the director. A stage with just the actors (flowers and plants) is kind of sparse without some props, backdrops and furniture to create a scene so your actors shine when the spotlight comes on.