A cobbled walkway leads to a hidden back garden in a deep lot nestled near Medford's downtown. - Photo by Denise Baratta

Peace in the city

When Frann Wolfe bought the 1922 Barber-Riddell house in historic east Medford five years ago, the newly refurbished home was all she could hope for.

But the backyard was a disaster.

Anchored by a huge, 100-year-old walnut tree, the vast lot was totally covered with gravel. The greyness was broken only by four, old trees and a lilac. In addition to the walnut, there was a large maple on the side, and at the back line stood an old deodar cedar and sequoia. A small Trex deck varying from 6 to 12 feet deep hugged the back of the house.

Wolfe turned to landscape architect Kerry KenCairn of Ashland for help.

"As soon as we talked, she understood exactly what I was looking for," says Wolfe. "I wanted just a little bit of grass. I didn't want a lot of maintenance. I wanted it to be beautiful and relaxing."

"She wanted a tranquil living space close in and to take advantage of the yard with spaces to walk through and sit in," says KenCairn.

KenCairn divided the huge space in two by installing a cedar fence 36 feet behind the house, bookended by two large trellises spanning granite pathways. That left the trunk of the walnut in the "living room" while the second area — about 64 by 90 feet — contained the other trees.

The outdoor living room is anchored by a barbecue set and dining bar, but its outstanding feature is the fan-shaped, cobblestone-patterned ground cover. Imported from Florida, the cobblestones are set in a mesh web for easier installation, with spaces between the stones filled in with sand. It creates an elegant statement.

The biggest problem planning the yard was the toxicity of the walnut tree, which limited plant selection. Walnuts survive by poisoning other plants that grow nearby with the toxic chemical juglone.

"What I did was research plant material that does OK under walnuts," says KenCairn. "Then I extrapolated to other similar plants and plants that grow well locally. It was an intuitive process."

Most of what was planted has managed to survive.

Wolfe wanted flowers in shades of pink, lavender, red and blue, with occasional touches of yellow. Annuals are rotated in front of the walnut trunk, so there always are blooms. Hanging pots and other large pots on the ground add to the color in the front room.

"There's always something coming into bloom as others are fading," says Wolfe. "We planned for colors, size, shape and scent."

Wolfe enjoys her outdoor living room, but what she loves best is the private park on the other side of the dividing fence. It now features curving, meandering, granite paths lined with large lavenders that lead past a rose garden, a small green lawn, bulb gardens, herbs, daphne, peonies, hellebores and many other plants, leading to a curved wall with a recirculating waterfall. She goes out there with her coffee every morning, summer through winter, and also enjoys it in the evening. A few strategically placed walkway lights and spotlights add to the nighttime ambiance.

An ornamental cherry, redbud, magnolia and nonfruiting mulberry were planted in the park, as well as a number of evergreens. Bunches of tall grass here and there add another accent. The corner bulb garden boasts more than 100 tulips and dahlias. Three euonymus alatus produce leaves that turn red in fall.

"When they first started bringing all the plants in," says Wolfe, "I thought 'Holy cow, are they going to plant all that?' You don't realize how big the space is."

Five years later, with the trees growing and the shrubs filling in the space, Wolfe considers herself incredibly lucky.

"I love the peace," says Wolfe. "It's a refuge. I'm living right by downtown, but I have a quiet, peaceful location."

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