Feature Garden: The Secret Garden of Mapleton Hill

29 Jan 2011

This lush landscape is a 40-year work-in-progress for the homeowner, single mom who did most of the work herself.

photos by weinrauch photography.com The day Catherine Schweiger closed on her Mapleton Hill home, she walked through the front door with a sledgehammer in one hand, a shovel in the other, and a plan. mapletonhill-introIt was 1972 and she was 26 and recently widowed. She had a 5-year-old son to care for, and she knew two things for sure about her house: She wanted a cozy kitchen where her newfound Boulder “hippie” friends could congregate, and she wanted a garden to supply her child with the same fresh bounty she’d grown up with on her parents’ Nebraska farm. mapletonhill-2So on day one in her home, she personally demolished the rickety sink, stove and metal cupboard that constituted her kitchen. “I hadn’t even found anyone to rebuild it for me yet,” she recalls with a smile. “Boy, was I young and presumptuous!” On day two, she set out on a task that would take far longer. “Creating a garden is something that happens over a lifetime,” explains Schweiger, now 64, as she leads a visitor on a tour not only of the lush landscape surrounding her home, but also of the 40-plus years it’s taken to create it. “You just keep looking at it and dreaming up ways to make it better.” Today a wooden fence around her home conceals the glorious mystery behind it, but a recessed wrought-iron gate begs you to peek inside. Walk through that gate and you feel like you’ve stumbled into a scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic book The Secret Garden. Lush tangles of waist-high greenery and exotic-looking blooms have swallowed up the ground below, while a brilliant canopy of sunlit ash trees towers overhead. Around each corner rests a bench, a table or a bubbling water feature beckoning you to sit for a spell. And regardless of what season you visit, chances are something is in bloom. mapletonhill-before“I have a very light touch,” says Schweiger, who returned to school to major in landscape architecture when her son was in middle school. She just recently retired after 28 years. “It doesn’t smack you in the face that you are in a garden that someone has purposefully designed.” When Schweiger first set eyes on her odd-shaped lot four decades ago, it had a concrete driveway for a backyard, a plot of not-so-green grass for a side yard and a chain-link fence that offered zero privacy from the street. “It was kind of brutal and open-looking,” she recalls. mapletonhill-7But Schweiger wasn’t afraid of a challenge. She’d lost her husband in a motorcycle accident, moved from Lincoln, Neb., to Boulder with her son to build a new life, and didn’t mind getting her hands dirty in the process. “Life threw Mom some curves, and she had to buckle down and get stuff done. She is really tough,” says Billy Schweiger, 43, now (not coincidentally) an ecologist for the National Park Service. “For as long as I can remember, the garden has been her most important thing, aside from her family. She always had a deep connection to land and plants, and I think it definitely had something to do with what I ended up doing for a living. ”
Catherine Schweiger’s hand-drawn garden plan blossomed into the lush greenery you see in these photos.
Catherine Schweiger’s hand-drawn garden plan blossomed into the lush greenery you see in these photos.
When Schweiger literally took a first stab at the landscape, she used a jackhammer to rip up the linear concrete sidewalk and replaced it with a meandering red brick path she laid herself using secondhand materials. Then came the wrought-iron gate: “Ah, yes. There’s a story behind that too,” Schweiger says, recalling how she found the gate at an antique store for $75, installed it, and learned years later it had been mismarked: It should have cost $750. “I was very lucky.” Finicky to Fabulous When it came time to build the raised beds for her vegetable garden, she rallied friends and borrowed a bulldozer to rip out her driveway—the only spot sunny enough to grow tomatoes. Chunks of that driveway (now concealed by lovely sandstone slabs) rest in a retaining wall surrounding one of her three outdoor sitting areas. mapletonhill-9While Billy played in the yard’s new tree fort or dug holes for bulbs, Schweiger spent hours planting—and sometimes ripping out and replanting—striving for the mix that would turn a heavily shaded yard with finicky soil into a year-round showstopper. “What you do in a shade garden is you go after color and texture in your leaves because you can’t always rely upon flowers to give you interest,” she advises. She also notes that broad-leaved evergreens, such as boxwood and rhododendron, tend to grow better in shade than the needled varieties. Schweiger’s front-porch beds are home to a trio of hardy ‘Julia Jane’ boxwoods, a thriving 5-year-old rhododendron and a carpet of silvery-sage-colored ‘Jack Frost’ brunnera. As early as February, tiny white snowdrops erupt from bulbs beneath the ground, and the exotic purple blooms of ‘Christmas Rose’ helleborus burst forth from lush, textured leaves. In the sunnier side yard, late spring begins with a chorus of vivid-orange ballerina tulips (Schweiger splurges on 100 new bulbs every year). Then purple variegated irises, white daylilies, coneflowers and fuchsias pop up. mapletonhill-1Schweiger didn’t stop at plants, however. When she tired of looking at the blank rear wall of her neighbor’s white garage butting up against her side yard, she asked if she could spruce it up a bit. Today it’s adorned with an orange-and-green door reminiscent of a Nantucket cottage. All around the yard colorful pots abound, overflowing with painstakingly designed floral combinations, each accented with Schweiger’s favorite color—bright orange. “Perfection,” a visitor comments, taking a seat at a sun-soaked table near the overflowing vegetable garden. But wait. Not so fast. mapletonhill-6As Schweiger emerges from her garage-turned-workshop, she clutches a piece of drafting paper. On it, a detailed drawing of the landscape overhaul she’s planning for next spring. “You’re never done,” she says with a smile.  
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