DANVILLE — Tree-lined avenues, manicured lawns and stately gingerbread-trimmed Victorian homes elicit a vision of bygone days for visitors to historic Danville. On May 11, the Garden Club of Danville's first tour, of eight gardens, will offer a peek at places ordinarily hidden behind closed gates.
Voted the most beautiful small town in America in Rand McNally and USA Today's 2012 Best of the Road contest, Danville is a great source of ideas.
This tour includes homes in the city and country, spanning three centuries of style. Historic preservation and habitat restoration play a part in some garden designs, as do an artist's eye and children's whimsy.
The tour's theme is "Welcome to My Garden," and the gardeners really are most hospitable. Proceeds from this event, also sponsored by nearby Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, will support the club's projects, including four public gardens in Danville and a garden therapy group at Commonwealth Cancer Center.
Here are three of the tour stops.
On the National Register of Historic Places, Cambus-Kenneth was home to surgeon Ephraim McDowell, who performed the first ovariotomy in 1809, and was married to Sarah Shelby, daughter of Isaac Shelby, a two-time Kentucky governor. McDowell named the farm after Scotland's Cambuskenneth Abbey, a landmark near where he once studied.
The farm later belonged to local preservationist Cecil Dulin Wallace, known for her efforts in preserving nearby historic Perryville. Wallace left the farm to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, with restrictions that it never be subdivided and that it continue in the production of traditional Kentucky agriculture.
"We were ambushed by the farm," says Elizabeth Kennan Burns, who now owns and cares for the historic property with her husband, Michael Burns.
In addition to an Italianate brick home built in 1880 on the footprint of an earlier 1790s structure, it includes a constellation of outbuildings including several barns, an ice house, a smokehouse, slave quarters, a spring house and a detached kitchen.
A former president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Burns said she first saw the house when she visited Wallace and Mary Ashby Cheek, both Mount Holyoke graduates with Danville roots. The Burnses developed a strong attachment to the place, sharing their love of conservation, preservation and horses. They eventually became curators and then purchased the 540-acre estate, which has continued as a farm of crops and livestock for more than 220 years.
In restoring and renovating the gardens, Michael Burns says, "We did uncover the bones of old paisley-shaped beds behind the main house and next to the brick kitchen cottage, probably from the early 20th century, if not before. We have re-established those beds with low box hedge borders."
They also consulted with Nashville landscape architect Ben Page, who encouraged the establishment of clear sight lines from the house to the gardens and historic outbuildings; one such sight line is dubbed "Ben's Way." Page also helped design a brick terrace behind the main house that includes a fountain made of two large millstones used on the farm during the 1800s.
The Burnses are working to protect a 15-acre savannah woodland remnant, stabilize stream banks and plant trees and shrubs including oak, baldcypress, tupelo, hazelnut and elderberry, which support and protect the abundant birds, including a pair of nesting green herons, that call the farm home. Michael Burns adds, "T.S. Eliot had it right, at least as far as most gardeners are concerned: 'Home is where one starts from.'"
The Webster home
Brenda and Robert Webster's white farm cottage, built in the mid-1800s, sits on about 7 acres of land bordering fields near the edge of town. Shortly after buying their home about 30 years ago, Brenda earned a degree in horticulture and worked as a garden designer with Louis Hillenmeyer, a member of the iconic family of Central Kentucky garden businessmen.
Her skill is readily apparent.
"I wanted my house to seem like it was sitting on an island of green," Webster says.
Lawns surrounded by curving perennial beds create that effect, with under-story shrubs like the light lavender poukhanense azaleas now in bloom to add soft color, and boxwood trimmed into round "clouded" shapes. Tight taxus hedges form visual barriers to block out unwanted views and establish pathways and garden "rooms." The arching maples and sycamore trees bring a fresh, restful atmosphere. At the same time, this garden has survived ice storms, home additions, and the active play of two young grandsons and one large dog.
Sarah Wiltsee's garden
Garden Club of Danville president Sarah Wiltsee is an artist, which is easy to see in her colorful combinations of succulents, heuchera and other perennials, in hues ranging from chartreuse to burgundy.
Not-to-miss great ideas from her urban sanctuary are the exquisite tree peonies with enormous, bright pink blooms and a set of Four Seasons sculptures in an Art Deco style placed throughout the garden.
For privacy from nearby neighbors, Wiltsee installed open-lattice panels that permit light and air to get through, and vines to climb the trellislike structure.
IF YOU GO
Garden Club of Danville tour
What: Themed "Welcome to My Garden," the group's first tour includes eight gardens in the Boyle County seat.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. May 11
Tickets: $20. Available on the day of the tour in the Garden Club of Danville's tent at Constitution Square, 134 S. Second St., Danville. Tickets come with a list and map of garden locations.
Learn more: (859) 236-9828, Thegardenclubofdanville.org
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: gardening.bloginky.com.