WOODFORD COUNTY — Kentuckians know the first Saturday in May is the Derby. But traditional wisdom holds that it's also a safe time in the state to transplant tender green shoots outdoors. Damaging frost is no longer likely, and the Bluegrass typically has greened up. It's when Kentucky gardens really start to come alive.
One of the best ways to see this is on a home and garden tour. They're a timely source of inspiration and advice, and a great way to get out and enjoy the late spring sunshine.
The Woodford County Woman's Club's lineup on May 12 includes eight private gardens in an array of settings and styles, including the large landscape of the historic Elmwood estate and an upscale village townhouse, with a shady entryway planting of sweet lady ferns and hostas.
Perhaps the most spectacular home on this year's tour is well tucked away in the countryside south of Versailles, and this will be a rare opportunity for the public to have a look.
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Sue Van Patten and Steve South completed their contemporary home in southern Woodford County about five years ago. The steel, glass and stone structure seems to be part of the hillside, tracing a curve of land that rises above a wide pasture. A striking 100-foot glass wall that comprises the building's entire south face gives an ever-changing view of the hills beyond.
The couple had been looking for a home site where they could retire after long careers in finance and chemical engineering that had them living around the Midwest and in Texas. Van Patten says they had considered ocean and mountain views, "but what I got was the top of this hill."
South, who grew up in the Cincinnati area and had worked baling hay on a farm in high school, says, "I wanted a place in the country where I could justify buying John Deere equipment."
Eventually they were led to Central Kentucky.
The first building on the property, their home base during construction, was an equipment shed from Morton Buildings; it now houses a collection of tractors and mowers that South has used during the past seven years to, among other things, eradicate invasive honeysuckle in the woods and cut paths through fields.
Van Patten, inspired by childhood memories of her grandmother Ethel Van Patten's gardens in Iowa, participated in master gardener classes offered by the Cooperative Extension Service and has established a large vegetable garden. It is surrounded by an 8-foot-tall fence that South built to keep out deer and raccoons; a smaller area inside the garden is home to tender lettuces and is fenced to provide double defense against nibbling rabbits.
"I try to grow things with a taste value that is much better when picked just 100 feet away from the house," Van Patten says.
Asparagus, strawberries and unique varieties of potatoes are especially delicious. "I have an obsession with tomatoes," she says. About 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, including green and red zebras, sit under grow lamps in the kitchen, ready to be transplanted.
In another field, a fenced orchard contains about 30 fruit trees and bushes, including cherry, pear, apple, pawpaw, gooseberry and elderberry. University of Kentucky Extension horticulture specialist John Strang helped locate a site for the orchard, facing north and slightly sloped toward nearby Clear Creek, taking advantage of natural air flow to help avoid frost damage.
"Last year we had a bumper crop," Van Patten says. "I thinned (and counted) 1,273 tiny peaches off of one tree alone."
Tour visitors will be able to stroll the grounds and visit the many perennial gardens surrounding the house.
Architect Susan Hill of the Lexington firm Tate Hill Jacobs says the main house was designed using strategies that "reflect the environmental integration of building and site."
South, who had audited building construction projects and was well aware of the strengths and weakness of various materials, wanted to use steel framing instead of the usual wood.
Van Patten envisioned a home similar to one she had visited in Dallas that was created by Emily Summers Design Associates, a firm just listed by Architectural Digest as one of its new 2012 AD100 top talents. Her style is marked by clean open lines, juxtaposed textures and new materials.
Hill worked with the couple to create an innovative plan that allows the beauty and innate elemental character of glass, steel and rock to shine through. A high-ceilinged living room, with exposed steel beams and many atypical angles in windows and interior openings, required precise planning and the engineering skills of Bill Hodges of Lexington.
Environmentally friendly features were used: passive solar heating, lots of natural daylight, locally sourced wood, rock from a quarry just south of the Kentucky River, and a geothermal HVAC system. Above the porch outside the glass wall, a roof slants at the perfect angle to allow light to penetrate the home's interior directly in the winter, but it blocks strong rays in the summer.
Landscaping around the home was designed by John Michler. He describes the plantings in the sight line between the home and the open, grassy pastures to the south as "meadowesque."
Colorful, easy-care perennials including nepeta, Russian sage, joe-pye weed, asters and yarrow were planted to attract butterflies. This week, a pair of Baltimore orioles were spotted in the garden. Van Patten says the plants require no irrigation after an initial year or two of getting established.
Michler also chose plants that would soften the view and sway in the breeze, providing an easy, gentle contrast to the angular lines in the modern home. Accent plantings include a spreading sumac and Arundo donax, or giant cane, which grows to about 20 feet tall by the end of summer.
This is a home and garden that merges interior space with outdoor environment, using open views and natural materials. Bloom colors evolve throughout the seasons — in spring, it's the blues and purples of baptista and iris; in summer, yellows and oranges of prairie composites; and in fall and winter, grass silhouettes swaying in morning mists and sparkling with frost.