Woman creates new garden at Skene Manor

A local woman has spent the last four and a half months transforming a patch of overgrown land atop Mountain Street into a tranquil Victorian garden.

Margaret Ashline has cleared brush, built stone planters and stairways, hauled in dirt and mulch, designed a gazebo, and planted dozens of flower plants and ornamentals, including a number of rare and antique plants, on a previously puckerbrush and bramble-choked hillside below the Skene Manor.

“Before it was filled in, it was just a mess,” said Ashline.

From Main Street, the garden looks like a sea of green, but from up close, you see hues of pink and yellow, and dozens of flower buds waiting to pop.

The entrance to the garden sits just off the southern end of the Skene Manor’s parking lot, below three large pine trees. A short walk brings you to the top of the garden, where you step through a steel arbor and descend a 12-step curved stone stairway. Extending south from the stairway is a terraced garden of black-eyed Susans, hollyhocks, iris and clematis.

A lower terrace features sunflowers, a gazebo and a number of rose bushes and other flowers planted along the hillside.

Strategically placed in the upper terrace is a sculpture of an angel, and a sundial sits just above the gazebo in the center of a cluster of plants.

Ashline didn’t necessarily consider herself a gardener prior to this spring. “I’ve puttered a little but I’ve really enjoyed doing this,” she said.

Earlier this year, volunteers at the manor approached Ashline about the possibility of caring for the estate’s gardens and creating a new one on a hillside below the manor that over the years had been reclaimed by brush and raspberry plants.

“I took pictures, and starting making notes and drawing out plans,” Ashline said. “And then I met with the historical committee and discussed what I wanted to do and they gave me free rein as long as the flowers were from the proper historical period.”

The committee wanted a Victorian garden befitting of the time period in which the building was constructed, around the turn of the 20th century.

“I did a lot of research. I looked up period homes in England. A lot of Victorian gardens had follies and this whole place has natural follies,” said Ashline pointing at the rock walls that dot the landscape. “It’s as close to what would have been a formal Victorian garden as I could do.”

As she put her ideas on paper, she designed it so that from any location in the garden, a person would have clear sight lines of the flowers.

She also drew up plans for a number of arbors and a gazebo made from an old satellite dish. “I was a little concerned when she told me her plans. It’s the only solid dish I’ve seen,” said Chipper Holcomb, who made the gazebo and arbors and helped with much of the “grunt” work. “It’s a pretty neat idea,”

Ashline said the most difficult part of the process was bringing in dirt — the hillside is all ledge and there is very little top soil — and keeping the plants watered. “It’s been a challenge but that’s the part that got me hooked. You tell me ‘I bet you can’t,’ while I say ‘I bet I can.’”

She said a number of people have lent a helping hand throughout the process. “I’ve received lots of help from unexpected places.”

Future plans include a “secret garden” nestled in a thicket of trees to the north of the current garden and a French-style portage garden that Ashline describes as “functional and beautiful.”

“It should look nice when it’s established,” she said.

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