Doorways seem the obvious place to start designing a garden. What you see from them becomes the garden's introduction, and the paths that extend from them are an invitation to explore. When I moved with my family 30 years ago to Duck Hill, a 19th-century farmhouse painted yellow and white and perched on the side of a hill in upstate New York, it had no gardens. No flowers at all except for some old, gnarled stands of lilac that bloomed extravagantly in May. Statuesque sugar maples and white ash trees lined the perimeters of the three-acre property, but the interior space, sloping down the hill to the south, was mostly rough grass, with an outlying thicket of scraggly trees. With this virtually empty canvas, I began to plot the garden. I knew I wanted separate areas in which to grow a variety of plants: green rooms, essentially, opening out from the house. It seemed logical to use Duck Hill's doorways as my launching pads.
That first autumn, I staked out and dug flower beds around a 50-foot-square piece of lawn just below the south side of the house, using the front door as the central axis. Here, I planted old shrub roses and perennials that I had brought from my previous home. A year later, after we had added a kitchen, I began an herb garden outside its French doors. First, low stone walls were built to hold the slope and provide a level space for a gravel terrace immediately outside the house. From there, I put in steps leading up to a series of beds in a geometric pattern. Between the beds I laid gravel paths, ending at an arbor with a bench to stop your eye.
Paths became the crucial link between these first two garden areas. Along the way from the front garden to the herb garden, a small white garden was inserted, with a path that became the link between the south and west sides of the house. Other rooms of flowers were added over the years on each side of the original two, strung together always by a connecting axial path, so that you catch glimpses of one garden from another and are lured on an adventure around the house.
The door we all use to enter the house, on its north side, leads into a plant-filled porch off our library. Originally that door spilled directly onto the driveway, where the garage jutted off from the house. But I hated having cars and trucks parked right outside our library windows. After we'd been in the house ten years, I was finally able to reroute the driveway 30 yards away, out of sight behind a hedge. On an axis with the porch door, I created a little courtyard of crabapple trees in boxwood squares. A straight path leads from the new parking area down to this small garden, all green and trim except when the crabapples flower in May and when they are littered with red fruit in the fall. Instead of looking at cars, I now see past the four crabs and past openings in two clipped hedges to a dogwood tree. How much nicer to look out to flowers than to the UPS truck.