A secret garden in Belfast reveals its charm

By Nancy C. Hauswald | Aug 15, 2014
Angel watching over the garden.

Fairy lights and a hemp rope pergola; a tunnel of Romano beans and giant zucchini that grow upright; tipsy pots on rebar stakes and an old headboard tucked among a bed of delphinium; these delights (and countless others) await visitors on Friday, Aug. 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the Belfast Garden Club hosts its final Open Garden of the season at Diane Coller-Wilson’s intimate garden at 124 Charles Street in Belfast. No small part of the garden’s charm is that it can’t be seen from the street — it’s tucked behind a children’s playground and fenced in on three sides. Thanks wholly to Diane’s creative talents, it’s a delightfully intimate and happy space.

“I build a lot of my garden in my imagination over the winter,” Diane says. “Actually, I build a lot in my imagination” she laughs.

And what an imagination she has! Anyone who knows Diane from her many appearances on Belfast stages — she was a founding member of the Belfast Makers — knows that she is witty, creative and tireless; happily, she uses those talents in her garden as well as on stage.

When Diane moved to her home 30 years ago, there were two lilacs and two forsythia in the yard. The most dominant feature was a 200-year-old cedar tree that provided shade, “bones,” and depth to the space. Diane decided to build a patio beneath the comforting presence of the cedar and its shady canopy, but required money she did not have. So Diane designed it herself and enlisted her son Brian in 12 years of what they called “rock snarfing” to find just the right stones for just the right place.

“No,” she makes it clear, “we never took a rock from private property.”

She explains that it was another adventure digging the foundation for the stones. “I was building the patio over the roots of the cedar tree, so I had to choose each stone to fit within the labyrinth formed by the roots. It was like working on a jigsaw puzzle for 12 years,” she says.

Today, that labor of love is the centerpiece of the garden’s “living room,” a cozy place to sit and read or chat with friends. When the beloved cedar died (“My son was so sad to see it go,” Diane says, “he told me, ‘It holds me just like you do, Mom.”), Diane’s creativity sprang into action. Always on a tight budget, she found a beautiful, rusted iron gazebo at a local shop and asked the owner to sell her just a few segments because she could not afford the entire piece. He did, and those segments now form the basis for climbing vines and, new this year, a hemp rope pergola that Diane made. A beautiful, late-blooming white clematis now climbs up the gazebo pieces and snakes across the pergola, giving the space a gossamer-like canopy. An enormous, brilliant red Mandevilla anchors the other end of the living room.

Diane explains that she’s always wanted a place to live and entertain outdoors, so she’s continually creating spaces to do just that. In addition to her living room, she’s crafted a tiny “dining room” under a found arbor that’s entwined with fairy lights. From both the living and dining rooms, guests can enjoy watching flames flicker in a fire pit. All she needs in her garden now, she laughs, is a bedroom.

In late August, Diane’s vegetable gardens will be the stars of the show. She has transformed tiny patches of dirt into several rich beds that yield large and healthy crops of scarlet nantes carrots, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, enormous zucchini, butternut squash, beans, sage and delicious white strawberries. In keeping with the intimate and whimsical theme of the garden, Diane’s vegetables are not grown in the traditional manner. Her Romano pole beans are planted a foot or so away from the side of her homemade, salmon-colored potting shed, which serves as a colorful accent in the garden. They grow up a trellis that Diane fashioned to gracefully link to the side of the potting shed, thereby creating a “pea tunnel” that the kids in her daycare business adore. And all visitors to her garden, young and old, get a kick out of spotting the numerous cast concrete animals Diane has tucked away in hidden spots. If you’re observant, you’ll find a frog, giraffe, angel, dragon, pig and other critters lounging about.

New this year is a tiny raised bed that Diane created at the back of her porch. It’s held in place by rocks that she’s “planted” vertically and is home to heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers whose vines wend their way over, under and through the rocks, and a ceramic bunny with a chipped ear. Because space is at such a premium, Diane fashioned wire “tents” to provide upright supports for her zucchini.

Instead of the plants “sprawling all over ground I don’t have,” she explains, “they grow upright and they’re happy as can be. Because they’re growing vertically they get more sun and I don’t have any problem with mildew.”

All of the vegetable beds contain copious amounts of cow manure that Diane works into the soil each year, and she fertilizes every two weeks with Miracle-Gro. The result is an abundant crop of healthy vegetables.

Mary Lennox, the 10-year-old girl at the center of the 1911 classic children’s story, The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, would feel right at home in the Coller-Wilson garden. The Belfast Garden Club invites you to take a few minutes out of your busy day and be 10 years old again in this secret garden.

The Coller-Wilson Garden is located at 124 Charles Street in Belfast. From downtown Belfast, go up Main Street to Charles Street and turn left. The public is cordially welcome to visit the garden by making a $4 donation at the “door.”

This is the final Open Garden for the year. Members of the Belfast Garden Club are actively seeking gardeners who would like to open their gardens for a day next summer. If you, or someone you know, are interested in learning more about being on next year’s garden tour, please contact Martha Laitin at 948-2815 or by email at marthalaitin@yahoo.com.

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