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What's Up Magazine

Garden of Earthy Delights

May 13, 2014 09:52AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Beth Rubin // Photography by Tony Lewis, Jr.

Image titleLittle did longtime Annapolis resident Debbie Buchanan know when she left her job in human resources for a career in pastry that it would lead to a love of gardening. The path has been anything but straight.

Weary of the long commute between her Bay Highlands home and Washington, D.C, she began to think outside the box. “I wanted to work closer to home, and baking had always been a passion,” she says. So she began working at “local restaurants and bakeries to gain experience,” then enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena (Napa). She could have gone to a school closer to home, but her daughter was a college student in Sonoma at the time. And who would pass up studying culinary arts among some of the country’s best known restaurants and wineries?

Buchanan got on-the-job training, doing wholesale desserts for some local restaurants, and creating elaborately decorated specialty cakes for weddings and other private events in Maryland. And, while her pastry business grew, her half-baked interest in gardening evolved, as many things do, nurtured by circumstance and serendipity.

Living in a “small cottage that needed lots of work,” Buchanan directed her energy outward. Instead of focusing indoors—the small kitchen, unfinished second story, and a host of things she learned to adapt to—she concentrated on her “gorgeous lot on Black Walnut Creek.” Her first order of business, she says, was “cleaning out all the poison ivy and overgrown weeds to create a peaceful spot on the water.” Around 1990 she started with 30 azaleas, carved out beds “little by little, and added something new every year.”

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Coincidentally, her daughter Jenifer returned home for a visit. Jenifer—“always interested in horticulture,” her mother says— brought some prize-winning irises from California where she’s lived for many years, currently as a biologist. (That mother and-daughter share the same DNA is obvious. Jenifer once managed Raymond Burr’s private orchid collection for Sonoma State University.) The irises “were one of the first things I planted near the water,” Buchanan says.

Image titleAs the years passed, Buchanan spent more and more time landscaping and less and less time inside, while formulating a plan to raze the cottage and put up a more substantial home. In order to help qualify for a refinancing of the major renovation, she took a job at a local non-profit. Fast forward a few years. She razed her 1945 cottage and built a 4,200-square-foot butter-yellow house, completed in 2008. Today, it looks as though it’s been part of the landscape for decades, with its welcoming circular driveway, mature trees, and Southern-style front verandah with rockers and geranium-filled hanging baskets.

Out back, the sight is heart-stopping. Those who have had the pleasure of sitting in the garden (this journalist among them), have told her, “it may be [unofficially] one of the most beautiful private gardens in Annapolis.” Buchanan says, “There are a hundreds of tributaries off the Chesapeake Bay, and this one little slice of heaven is little known.” She says an author-friend describes the unspoiled land directly across the creek as a “sacred space.” 

The well-shaded yard, which slopes to Black Walnut Creek, is an under-appreciated Walden Pond between the communities of Bay Highlands and Blackwalnut Cove. Serenity reigns supreme. Slipping into an Adirondack chair facing the water invites relaxation and contemplation. The occasional kayaker paddles by. In a word, tranquility. The silence is pierced by a circling osprey’s screechy call. “The setting is in my soul,” says its owner. “It’s a very spiritual place—magical, especially in the mornings. I see at least one great blue heron on the dock every morning. I watch ospreys diving for fish. Houseguests are in awe of the beauty of the setting.”

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Here, less is not more. More is more! And it works. Hydrangeas predominate. The gardener assesses her domain and makes no apologies. “I always loved hydrangeas. They took over the place.” Even though they were not planted at the same time, she says, “they all grew up at the same time. Untrained gardeners look for instant gratification.” She laughs. “So I may have gone overboard.” Not surprisingly, her favorite flowers are hydrangeas, peonies, and irises. The irises bloom first, followed by the peonies; the hydrangeas continue to flourish in late summer.

When asked about her landscape education and training, she chuckles, her green eyes sparkling in the afternoon light. “I am not a real gardener.” Early on, she says, “I was in denial about what would grow and what wouldn’t. I plant what I want and hope for the best. If it lives, it stays. If it dies, it’s out.”

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Like many, perhaps most, gardeners, Buchanan says roses have been her biggest challenge. “I love them. Yellow and white are my favorites. But I lived in denial for years.” She scans the well-shaded parcel with its canopy of hardwood trees, some probably 200 or more years old. “Not enough sun back there. But I still grow roses. Much to my surprise, this year my long-stemmed yellow roses took over. After not much happening, they just took off.” She shrugs.

“In 2012 a stand of hydrangeas was lavender. This year they were pink. I can’t figure it out. Something changed the soil ph to cause the change in color. I did nothing, it changed by itself.” Reflecting further on the mysteries and changes year to year, she says, “The deer ate the hostas. But I love to see them in the yard, munching. They have my blessing. They can’t go to McDonald’s. What are they supposed to eat?”

Keeping her company, if not assisting her, is Gepetto, an 8-year-old golden retriever she rescued from Louisiana last year, driving alone 19 hours to pick him up. Her affinity for retrievers is well known in the neighborhood. Gepetto is the latest in a long line of canine companions. He’s with her in the yard, in the house, and on long walks. When she’s working in the garden, Buchanan says, Gepetto “is either supervising, looking around for something to eat, or sneaking into the creek. I’d like to say that he is helpful, but he’s not.”

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Butter, a yellow lab, and her first rescue in 1995, loved to swim in the creek. “It was her creek, but she wasn’t much help in the garden.” Cady, who followed, was “my heart and lived here the longest.” Once Buchanan recalls, “I tried to train Cady to dig the holes for the bulbs. But she started digging where I didn’t need bulbs, so we stopped doing that!”

So what connection is there between her twin passions? What do gardening and baking have in common? Buchanan pauses a long minute before replying. “There are similarities. Both must have color, balance, and symmetry. You can’t just plant things without first considering what colors go together and what might clash. And, because your garden is an extension of your home, you need to take into consideration the style of your house, so that your garden makes sense and becomes just another room.”

Image titleShe says she enjoys the solitude of both. “When I was baking professionally, I was never happier than at 5 a.m. in the kitchen. It’s almost Zenlike.” She says that baking “requires a certain amount of science, but the rest is all personal creativity. You have to have confidence in your ability to make it happen.”  

Once, while adding flowers to a wedding cake at a reception, she was asked, “what is it going to look like when you’re done?” Her answer: “I don’t know, but it will be very pretty. It’s the same thing with the garden.” Things change from season to season, she says. There’s weather, deer, things don’t come back; and sometimes they come back better than you thought they would. You just know you will tweak it accordingly, and let it be what it’s going to be.”

Buchanan says that when she’s baking, especially when trying something new, she says to herself, “get it right the second time, maybe even the third. I don’t care how long it takes, as long as in the end, I like it. A garden is very different. It will never be perfect. It is constantly changing. You cannot control a garden the way you can control a cake. It teaches you patience, and acceptance for the way things are.

While the garden has been a work in progress for 23 years, she says, “ it’s prettier this year than last year, prettier last year than the year before.” Her next projects include subdividing the irises, which her daughter will help with, relocating the Inkberrys crowded out by the hydrangeas, and sanding down and repainting some of the garden benches. “After all, what’s the point of a garden if you can’t sit a spell and watch the bees and the butterflies?”