- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 13, 2002

Low black clouds rumble menacingly across the sky, and the temperature pouts at just below 50 degrees. It's more of a day for a good book than a good garden. But soon enough, people in fleeces, hats and brightly colored rubber clogs are tromping up the concrete steps of Eric and Harriet Fraunfelter's home on Upton Street NW this chilly May morning, all of them hoping to visit the Fraunfelters' garden.

Theirs was one of seven private gardens in the District opened to the public May 18 through the Garden Conservancy's annual Open Days program.

Open garden days, which draw from 75 to 200 people to each of the private sanctuaries on the schedule, will be held in Virginia and Maryland on Saturday. They will afford fans of the serene an opportunity to visit more of the best private gardens in the area, from Bethesda to Arlington, Fairfax and McLean.

Here at the Fraunfelters' in the District, guests enter through the wrought-iron gate, to be greeted enthusiastically by the smiling homeowner and two joyful white standard poodles, Henry and Oliver.

"They actually own the house," Mr. Fraunfelter says with a laugh, shaking hands and guiding people to the back, where they are greeted by Mrs. Fraunfelter and Garden Conservancy volunteer Carlos Kearns, who offers coffee and a guest book.

"I really don't know anything about gardening," confides Mr. Kearns, a longtime friend of the Fraunfelters'. He has traveled from Pittsburgh to assist with Open Days for the third year in a row. "I mow my dad's lawn sometimes; that's it."

He tucks each required $5 donation into a small white cardboard box, and guests are free to meander through the perennial garden of noble purple irises and plump pansies, to relax on a bluestone terrace shaded by Japanese maples or to mill around the L-shaped swimming pool. The only sounds are of water gurgling and the pip-pip of cardinals flashing in and out of the trees.

It makes you wish people would open their gardens to perfect strangers every day.

•••

If you have ever sneaked a peek over your neighbors' fence and wondered how they coaxed roses to climb and encircle an archway or what makes their fluffy peonies achieve that perfect pink hue, this weekend's Open Days are for you.

Open Days is the main outreach program of the Garden Conservancy, the only national nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the nation's finest private gardens. Begun in 1989 and based in Cold Spring, N.Y., the Conservancy works with gardeners, local community groups and public agencies to advocate garden preservation.

Its open garden days are scheduled on weekends, and exceptional private gardens nationwide are opened to the public throughout the spring and summer. For $5 (which goes to the conservancy) at each site, you can wander beneath the wisteria and traverse the terraces of ordinary people with extraordinary gardens. You also can meet the owners and draw on their expertise to help make your own garden grow.

The Open Days Program is the only national program of its kind, although it was modeled on Britain's popular National Garden Scheme and Australia's Open Garden Scheme. It began in 1995 with 110 gardens in New York and Connecticut and includes more than 450 private gardens nationwide.

But why are gardens so important? And even if you love gardens, why care about those of people you don't even know?

"Gardens are exciting," says Antonia Adezio, president of the Garden Conservancy. "They combine art and nature and teach us about the gardener's era: its values, horticultural science and aesthetic standards. We conserve gardens because they are a vital part of our nation's cultural heritage."

Ms. Adezio's reference to the "gardener's era" underscores an important aspect of garden lore: Much like clothing, gardens have followed various styles through the years, and these are identifiable to those who know horticultural history.

However, more than two-thirds of our country's great gardens are lost. Nature itself can be a problem; climate, weeds, erosion and pests can quickly eradicate a garden if it is not tended properly.

Development is another issue. When owners move or can't continue their gardens, they are either forgotten or lost to building developments unless help arrives. In fact, such a crisis led to the establishment of the Garden Conservancy. In 1988, when a much-admired San Francisco area garden of cactuses and native California plants became too much for its owner, Ruth Bancroft, to manage, it was in danger of being lost. Garden enthusiast Frank Cabot rallied support and by founding the conservancy was able to obtain the first conservation easement for a garden. Today, the Ruth Bancroft Garden is a public facility with tours and educational outreach programs. At 92, Ms. Bancroft still can be found working there.

Maintaining a good garden requires more than a shovel or two. The Chase Garden, a public garden in Orting, Wash., requires more than $50,000 annually and two full-time employees to maintain. "It costs money to build support and allow parking, staffing, facilities and educational programs and tours," Ms. Adezio says. Not all gardens need that much in funding of course; a little appreciation is all Ms. Adezio asks. "If not for plants, none of us would be here. Community appreciation and support now will help keep these gardens around in the future."

•••

Not just any garden can be on the Open Days tour. It needs that extra something special to be recruited by one of the conservancy's 150 regional volunteers, whose judgment plays a large part in the conservancy's decisions.

Professional gardening help isn't required, but it certainly doesn't hurt. All of the District gardens have used expert designers at some point. But Open Days gardens are not necessarily grandiose or intricately manicured. Many are sculpted by amateurs from rough, rogue backyard plots.

"The program is very diverse," Ms. Adezio says. "You can see enormous variety on an Open Day. We look for gardens with creative use of plants and original design. Most of the gardens in the program are residential in nature, with big ideas in small spaces."

One of the goals of the Open Days is to make gardens accessible, to show that anyone can garden.

"The gardens aren't perfect; that's what makes them so wonderful," says Alice Consolvo, a bubbly "passionate gardener" and fund-raiser for Bethesda's Holton-Arms School. "These are real people doing this work, so you know that you can do it, too, or at least get some great ideas."

"Nature doesn't plant in straight lines," Mrs. Fraunfelter agrees. "There are no rules to gardening."

Some gardens burst with bloom: Landscaper Philip L. McClain's garden on a third of an acre on Poplar Lane NW, near Rock Creek Valley, makes you feel like a teen-age boy at the Miss America pageant so many beautiful, good-smelling things crowding for your attention, and you can't touch any of them. In fact, while the Garden Conservancy's guidelines do suggest that visitors not touch the plants on Open Days, most hosts are extremely forgiving. A rule of thumb might be: Ask.

Charles and Eileen Read's garden on Tilden Street NW is more subtle, combining formal and cottage-style sections with stone walls, minimal turf grass and a medieval knot garden. It was designed by Nicolien van Schouwen of European Garden Design, as was the Corinna Posner Garden on Plymouth Street NW, which includes waterfalls, rare plants and multilevel patios on a third of an acre. Elizabeth's Haven on Poplar Lane NW, designed by Tom Mannion, features a curving lawn, flowering shrubs, a rose garden and a natural-spring spa.

As for the Fraunfelters' garden, what makes the property Open Days-worthy is the blend of the garden and the couple's Georgian Revival house.

"It's classic Tommy Church," Mrs. Fraunfelter says, referring to the renowned 20th-century California landscape architect Thomas Church, whose original 1972 design the Fraunfelters began restoring in 1991. Church, who died in 1978, made the Fraunfelters' garden, on just one-third of an acre, one of his few East Coast projects; it was among the last of his career. "His trademark was the 'patio effect,' having the view from the house extend out into the garden. You won't find a garden that draws you out like this," Mrs. Fraunfelter says.

•••

People have come today for different reasons. Some are here to learn: A woman in biking gear discusses with Mr. Fraunfelter the advantages of Natchez crape myrtles over white birches. (Birches need a cooler, wetter climate than that in Washington.) Joel and Gloria Koenig want veranda ideas for their Georgetown home. Parent-teacher association volunteer Shannon Russell needs inspiration for Bethesda's Bradley Hills Elementary campus garden.

At Jane MacLeish's garden on Upton Street NW, guests are just having fun.

"It's so nice to actually be invited into people's back yards," says Helen Wayne of Bethesda, shivering, smiling and clutching a foam coffee cup. "In a city environment, you never get to do that anymore."

Ms. MacLeish's garden, of no more than 5,000 square feet, is designed to make guests feel comfortable.

"I wanted a garden in which my children could play and pets could run around. There are all sorts of paths and hiding places. I wanted it to be fun, not a place where I would freak out if someone touched something."

Ms. MacLeish is British, tall and easygoing in a yellow dress and curly graying bob. She lives next door to the Fraunfelters and has created a more family-style garden. A clipped lawn rolls down to the lower level, where there are dogwoods, roses, lavender and a small limestone temple she brought back from Britain. Each side is lined with plants of various shapes and sizes.

"I don't have a lot of color," Ms. MacLeish says. "I like texture pointed leaves next to rounded leaves and such. It's controlled chaos, really."

This is emphasized by the lone purple tree that stands in the upper-right corner of the garden. "I like pop art and have done some pop-art gardens for clients. When that tree died, I figured, why cut it down, why not add some color? So I painted it purple. It's fun to experiment; gardens should be fun."

•••

More striking than the gardens is how welcoming the Open Days hosts and volunteers are

Jim Dice begins the tour of the Dice-Sumner Garden on Reservoir Road NW in the street, stepping out to guide guests to parking places in the small gravel lot across from the white stucco house he shares with Duward Sumner. From there he leads guests through his garden and even into his house, which holds an extensive collection of art and antiques.

"It's always a pleasure to have people over," he says. "Why have something beautiful if you can't share it with others?"

His intimate garden, no more than 12 or 15 feet wide on both sides of the house, has a distinct Asian influence it emphasizes texture and greenery over bright blooms and incorporates wood, water and statues. Many of the artifacts he obtained during his 23-year career as a Navy dentist: a squat Japanese rain drum, a fountain filled with rocks he collected from the Yangtze River and the two bronze herons that stood in the lobby of a Bangkok bank and now adorn his goldfish pond.

"From any angle, there is a lovely view," he says of his garden, designed by Tom Mannion and planted by Dr. Dice. "But it's arranged so you only see one angle at a time. You are forced to go slowly, take your time."

Classical music plays, and the wind rustles his kousa dogwoods, which stand like sentries alongside his house, with their waxy, deep green leaves and fat white blooms with pointed tips. "I prefer white blooms to color," Dr. Dice says. He is excited, leading one couple down the stone steps to the hostas and astilbes of his shade garden, then dashing inside to discuss his paintings with a group of women who have just arrived.

His energy is shared by volunteer John Davis, who greets guests and offers detailed histories of the plants. "I was nature director at the Boy Scouts' Camp Roosevelt on the Chesapeake for 40 years, so this gives me a chance to share my knowledge about native plants," Mr. Davis says. "I've had a lifetime outdoors, so I really enjoy helping with the Open Days program."

Because of the work of people such as Mr. Davis, Mr. Kearns and Dr. Dice, visitors enjoy attending.

"I'm so happy I got here in time. This is my favorite day of the year," Ms. Consolvo says.


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