Bath twp.: You don’t have to travel to Washington to see one of the horticultural holdings of the Smithsonian Institution.
You just have to buy tickets to the annual home tour put on by the charitable organization Bath Volunteers for Service.
One of the stops on the May 23 tour is the garden of Dr. Ernie and Bonnie Estep, whose landscape is catalogued in the Smithsonian’s Archive of American Gardens. The Esteps’ garden was chosen in 2010 for the archive, a collection of photos and records that document the changing look of America’s public and private landscapes.
The look of the Esteps’ garden was doing quite a bit of changing all its own last week, as redbuds and magnolias burst into bloom and hostas pushed through the earth. By the time of the tour, the tree blossoms will be gone, but the hostas will have grown into the lush show for which the couple is known.
When the Esteps bought the house in 1976, a garden designed by the late landscape architect Jay Hess came with it. The couple hired him to expand the garden, which now covers about three acres of their 10-acre property.
The garden is mostly concentrated around the house, which the Esteps expanded from a ranch-style cottage to a two-story home. Barn stones edge the beds and create steps and terraces, giving the landscape a rustic look that fits with their wooded acreage.
Except for a sunny area that holds their stone-walled vegetable patch, the property is mostly in shade. That poses a challenge, since most colorful flowers need sun.
“We try to do with texture and greens what other people do with blossoms,” Bonnie Estep said.
The hosta garden is a case in point. The garden holds about 100 types of hostas in a variety of shapes, textures and colors — variegated and solid-colored, blue-green and chartreuse, with leaves that are ruffled, puckered or smooth and straight-edged. The hostas coexist under a canopy of towering beeches with woodland plants such as ferns and bluebells.
Off the driveway, a gate leads to a newer Japanese maple garden designed by landscape architects John Vittum and Jason Andrew. Lenten roses and ferns grow under 16 varieties of Japanese maple, accented by the gnarled shapes of tree stumps that serve almost as sculpture. The feature was inspired by the stumpery the Esteps saw when they visited England’s Highgrove House, the residence of Prince Charles.
A metal likeness of a Bernese mountain dog like the Esteps’ Mr. Buck stands next to the gate leading to the front-yard garden, where hostas flank the front door. Bluish-green Elegance hostas grow next to a fence, transplants that Ernie Estep and a friend rescued from the yard of a house that was for sale.
Ceramic containers filled with plants are arranged artfully around the garden. Bonnie Estep said she likes to fill the planters with “a little sample of what you’ll see in the garden,” so in early May they teemed with begonias, Lenten roses and the yellow corydalis that also grows from the stone wall edging the steps that lead to a lower patio.
The patio enjoys more sun since a nearby tree was taken down, so the Esteps have taken advantage of the sunshine to plant conifers in pots and more conifers and hydrangeas on the adjacent terraced hillside. They’ve also replaced a stone-edged perennial bed along the driveway with the shrubs, which are more carefree than the fussier flowers.
The garden is a passion for the Esteps, who are retired (he was an obstetrician and gynecologist; she was a co-owner of an interior design shop). She provides the design sense, while he supplies the muscle.
Ernie Estep said he can easily kill three or four hours a day working in the garden, but he doesn’t mind. “This is my golf course,” he said.
The couple has made continual changes to the property over the years. Some were by choice, such as planting Princeton Gold maple trees here and there so their striking chartreuse leaves would light up the landscape. Others were forced on them, such as having to plant disease-resistant dogwood trees to replace some 200 native dogwoods that were wiped out by dogwood anthracnose.
Bonnie Estep misses the snowy display of the native dogwood flowers, but she’s philosophical about the loss. “What can you do? It’s nature’s way,” she said.
The couple’s next project is a formal herb garden they’re planning to install in the sunny area near their vegetable garden. “Then I think we’re through,” Bonnie Estep said with a laugh.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.