North Hill Garden in Readsboro has become internationally known as an one of the best private gardens in North America, an example of the naturalistic American garden style.
The home of Joe Eck and his spouse Wayne Winterrowd, who died in 2010, North Hill has become world famous through Eck and Winterrowd’s popular jointly-written books chronicling their exploits in the garden, including A Year at North Hill (1995), Living Seasonally (1999) and Our Life in Gardens (2009).
Although unknown to many people living in southern Vermont, this remarkable formerly private garden only a few miles outside Windham County is now open to the public. Dedicated to instruction and demonstration, North Hill is open each Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until the middle of October. Two workshops, seminars or demonstrations will occur each month. Guided tours will be available to garden clubs and horticultural societies.
Roger Swain, host of the PBS television series The Victory Garden, said North Hill Garden “is of such quality and diversity that it rivals any in Europe. But there is nothing derivative about North Hill; it is American gardening at its best."
“The garden is 40 years old,” says Eck. “At 20, it looked mature and now it is at its peak,” says Eck. “A garden goes through a life cycle like any living thing. It never will be more beautiful than it is now.”
Eck says the garden attracts all kinds of people, from expert gardeners to those who just like a pretty place to visit.
“Some people stay a half-hour, while others stay six hours,” says Eck.
The mission of North Hill Garden is “to demonstrate ornamental horticulture at its highest level in the context of the Green Mountains.”
Verlyn Klinkenborg has written, “Some gardens matter for their design or for the collection of plants they contain. But North Hill, Wayne and Joe’s garden, mattered for another reason, too: the spirit in which it was inhabited.”
The New York Times said that this Vermont garden “blends the deep pleasures of a New England homestead — meat and fresh vegetables are raised on the land — with the passion of two inveterate plant collectors who filled their south-facing slope with tens of thousands of trees, shrubs, ground covers and bulbs, many of which were not supposed to survive a Vermont winter.”
The creation of North Hill Garden was the passion and mission of life-long gardeners Winterrowd and Eck, who after years attempting indoor gardening in their apartment on Beacon Hill in Boston, moved to the wilds of Vermont in 1977 and carved seven acres of gardens out of 28 acres of meadow land and forested hillside cut by a stream.
“In 1976, there was nothing here but forest,” says Eck. “No buildings, wall, or paths. Everything now at North Hill is open because we cleared the woods and thinned the outside forest.
“We had no garden plan. We were dictated by the land. The stream running through the middle of the parcel was our central feature. Every single flat stone at North Hill, Wayne and I brought here ourselves. For the first few years here, we made a vow never to leave home without returning back with a stone.”
Eck says that they used very little heavy machinery in clearing the forest or, for that matter, all the gardening at North Hill. “As the chef, Paul Bertoli, once wrote about cooking, but could well apply to gardening: the finest achievements are made by long laborious unmechanized labor.”
After Eck and Winterrowd cleared the hilly wooded land they had acquired, they planted a diverse variety of plants, including as many as a half a million bulbs, 100,000 of those daffodils. Here they grew the very rare Himalayan blue poppies, Japanese dogwoods, locust trees, magnolia, and stewartias. They also grew their own fresh vegetables and raised dairy cows, pigs and poultry.
Andrian Higgens says that Joe and Wayne “lived off the land, with poultry, pigs, dairy cows, and an abundant fruit and vegetable garden.“ Daniel J. Hinkley, a founder and former owner of Heronswood, a rare-plant nursery in Kingston, Wash., adds, “In the 1960s and 1970s, they were part of the homegrown food movement. And to create what they did in Vermont — this hyper-romanticized garden of exciting plants — is extraordinary.”
Eck says that he and Winterrowd “developed this garden by hand without any landscape designers. Neither Wayne or I had any formal training in gardening. Ironically, I now make my living as a landscape designer.”
Not that Eck claims he and Wayne worked in isolation.
“One learns from looking,” Eck says. “Gardening is a visual art. From any good image one takes away information, and it was only through years of study I developed a rhetoric of gardening.” Eck is the author of a celebrated book of theory, Elements of Garden Design (2005).
“We did not want to imitate other national styles. North Hill may be close to an English garden, but this is no English garden and no Englishman would call it one. North Hill is far more spontaneous. Our goal was to make this highly contrived piece of growth seem a natural phenomenon.”
In the past, the private garden was open to the public only rarely. However, for 17 years, Eck and Winterrowd opened their home as benefit to the Southern Vermont AIDS Project, raising more than $175,000.
The Burlington Free Press wrote at the time of Winterrowd’s death, “At home and in their travels, Winterrowd and Eck always clearly communicated by example and by charity that they were a gay couple. They were joined in civil union in 2000 and married in 2009, as much as a political statement as a legal or relationship statement, friends say.”
The death of Winterrowd in 2010 caused Eck “to give great thought to the future of this garden. It is in some ways a Vermont, if not a New England, institution. Thousands have visited and we deeply wish that it can remain a source of beauty and inspiration for our so many friends. But clearly, its role had to alter.”
“It is very difficult and expensive to keep up a garden,” says Eck. “A garden does not run by itself. We have now have three full-time employees and soon perhaps a forth. A garden is in constant need of renewal.”
Eck’s sister told Joe that he had to consider the posterity of North Hill Garden and to open it on a more regular basis, turning it from a private to a public garden. Eck chose to enlarge North Hill Garden’s purpose in the direction of education and simple community pleasure.
“So North Hill Garden Charitable Trust was formed and we are now in the process of applying for nonprofit status,” says Eck. “When approved, the garden shall be open even more days. North Hill’s more public mission will rest entirely on the generosity and support of its many friends and visitors.”
Friends of North Hill Society offers many levels of membership, each with special benefits and rewards. “For any institution, founding members are crucially important. They obviously and of necessity provide the core capital that enables an institution to establish and sustain itself. We hope the pleasures people have found here will make it seem not unreasonable.”