Inhabiting the Whole Garden

Yesterday I was part of an ad hoc group of 10 or so mostly permaculture gardeners who visited Distant Hill Gardens, set on 58 acres straddling the small towns of Alstead and Walpole, NH. (Map.) The co-owner, Michael Nerrie, led an almost-three-hour tour of the many gardens that make up Distant Hill: a pollinators/monarch butterfly meadow, a flower cutting garden, a stone circle, a shrubbery, a large pond and a small pond, a bog/marsh with a boardwalk through it, a woods trail, ornamental gardens, fruit shrubs and trees for humans (blueberry patches, American cranberry, seckel pears) and animals (blueberries, giant pagoda dogwoods, ash trees, etc). There are more gardens we didn’t see, like vernal pools and forest seeps, which aren’t in season. There’s also a stand of maples for sugaring and a small Christmas tree farm area.

At the start of the tour, Michael expressed his feeling that all the places at Distant Hill are gardens, whether formally gardens or not (more on this here), and I couldn’t agree more. (Hence my “Earth Gardens” postings over the years here, the first of which was Penny Lake Preserve in Boothbay, ME.) A bog is a garden, a meadow is a garden … in fact, in my opinion a marsh, a beach, a cemetery, a hell strip in the city, and the tundra are also gardens, all with their unique soils, plants, algae, lichen, fungi and mycelium, insects, birds, invertebrates and vertebrate dwellers and visitors.

If you look at the Distant Hill website, you’ll see many plant lists, including one of native plants, and several of cultivated plants (e.g., cultivated shrubs; cultivated perennials), as well as photos and names of some animals who appreciate the habitat. You’ll also notice that he and his wife Kathy view ornamental gardening as an artistic endeavor (like Bedrock Gardens in Lee; link to my latest post on Bedrock Gardens), and to continue the thought in the above paragraph, while they are not usually collaborations of humans and nature, I nevertheless see marshes, beaches, bogs and fens, woodlands and meadows (as well as more cultivated natural spots) as art. The textures, patterns, nuances of colour, variety of media and materials, movement and sound in wind and rain, appearance in light and shade, and the juxtapositions of plants with each other and with birds, insects, and other animals all create ever-changing, ephemeral works of art: painting, mosaic, kinetic sculpture, mixed media works, poetry, dance, song.

Wind moving through grass so that the grass quivers. This moves me with an emotion I don’t even understand” — Katherine Mansfield

And in this garden, as in Bedrock Gardens, there is also a lot of positioned, not-so-ephemeral art, sculpture that’s often whimsical and right at home in the place it’s landed.

I can’t give you the benefit of Michael’s passion for his place, and his deep experiential knowledge of it, but I hope you enjoy touring the gardens virtually almost as much as our group did in real life.

(We also much enjoyed brunch at Burdick’s French bistro in town afterward — highly recommended. I bought some amazing basil at the Walpole gourmet grocery next to Burdicks and immediately on returning home made pesto with it; at the moment, I’ve gone through all my basil but today I planted 10 more mature plants in hopes of a late season harvest.)


Our guided tour started with the monarch garden — Michael and Kathy grow milkweed, red clover, and other plants for monarchs, and they participate in a tagging project to learn more about monarchs’ migration patterns — and then into the flower cutting garden. Note the solar panels. And the whimsical tennis player sculpture. Also note the lovely dog, Ruby, a rescue from Puerto Rico. She was a joy to have along the entire tour.

echinacea in the entry garden
painted lady butterfly and bumblebee on echinacea
swallowtail butterfly on echinacea
native bee house made of dried, totally dead (cut in winter) Japanese knotweed stalks
Michael telling us about the monarch meadow and project
Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly weed) in entry garden, with bumblebee
This particular common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) plant was actually situated beyond the bog, near the end of our tour, but there was a lot of it growing in the monarch meadow
tennis player sculpture (with basket of balls) and part of the annual cutting garden; blueberries in background
Solar panels on garage/barn; there is also solar on the house. Plus flower cutting garden.
Cutting garden, stone garden, lawn, and Ruby the dog.


Next was the stone garden (and fire pit), with a siting ring to celebrate the beginning of longer days in the northern hemisphere, which starts after the winter solstice. If you look through the ring, lined up with two stones, you can see where the sun sets that day, the shortest day of the year.



On to the shrubbery and ornamental gardens, much of which is not just ornamental but also edible for humans, birds, insects, and others.

giant pagoda dogwood, which birds — such as cedar waxwings — love (and ash tree behind)
Michael and Actaea (formerly Cimicifuga) racemosa, known variously as snakeroot, black cohosh, and bugbane.
The tip top of an American cranberry shrub, i.e., Viburnum opulus var. americanum, syn. Viburnum trilobum (although there is also a European cranberry in the gardens, and I’m not 100% sure which this is)
homemade crutch holding up a tree limb
sunlight in a thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) – edible! Like a raspberry.
blueberries encaged
blueberries and seckel pears
red seckel (dessert) pears … the tree was loaded!
bee hotel for solitary native bees (like mason bees)
sign for the bee hotel
Bergenia ‘Elephant Ears’ and an elephant sculpture
mating flower longhorn insects (probably Typocerus deceptus) on a Hydrangea arborescens (American hydrangea – native)
chipmunk (a tad far away from the camera)
red bee balm (monarda) in the sunlight
purple hosta and buddleia flowers
tall red Persicaria amplexicaulis “Firetail”
daylilies, small sumac (left), bird sculpture
another daylily


Most adorable Ruby interlude. She’s like a red furry corgi.



Now, the large pond, next to the sugar house and below the ferns:

part of large pond
another part of the large pond
heron with fish sculpture at large pond
bass (and shadow) in large pond
sugar house (for making maple syrup); the wood is pine cut to make the pond and milled on the property
Ruby is alert at the large pond (plus duck sculpture)
some of the group on path above ferns (above pond)


Next, the house and front yard:

front yard
little pond in front yard
dragonfly emerging from nymph stage in little pond


Trail walking. There’s a 3/4-mile accessible trail on the property, with lots of native woodland plants, plus a bog that morphs into a marsh on a side (boardwalk) trail.

woodland trail
Michael talking with some of our hazy group
our group on the bog boardwalk
two pitcher plants in the bog
Ruby on the boardwalk
green frog in marsh
vervain alongside marsh/trail
Persicaria maculosa (lady’s thumb smartweed) in newly cleared area alongside marsh
wintergreen (left) and (edible) Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) near marsh
wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) leaves and berry alongside marsh
Michael talking with some of us about chaga, in this instance growing on a yellow birch tree


If you’re anywhere near Walpole or Alstead NH, Bellows Falls VT (15 mins away), or Putney VT or Keene NH (each 25 mins. away), drop by. You can always walk the trail/bog (daily from dawn to dusk), and check out the schedule of events for garden events and open hours (open the first Sat. and Sun. of the month from May to October in 2017).


“To​ ​know​ ​what​ ​you​ ​prefer​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​humbly​ ​saying​ ​Amen​ ​to​ ​what​ ​the​ ​world​ ​tells​ ​you​ ​you​ ​ought to​ ​prefer,​ ​is​ ​to​ ​have​ ​kept​ ​your​ ​soul​ ​alive.”​ ​-​- ​Brenda​ ​Ueland

Leave a Reply