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Needham gardener creates 2-acre plant paradise in suburbs

Design New England Gardening
The folly built by Maine carpenter Bill McKenny and Lathi’s son, Jonathan, offers shelter to visitors who stop to enjoy the sights and sounds of the garden. Metal artisan Jill Nooney fashioned the tracor-seat sculptures.
The folly built by Maine carpenter Bill McKenny and Lathi’s son, Jonathan, offers shelter to visitors who stop to enjoy the sights and sounds of the garden. Metal artisan Jill Nooney fashioned the tracor-seat sculptures. Kindra Clineff

“My 10-year-old son, Jonathan (Jono), asked for a playhouse and changed my life,” says neurologist Ellen Lathi, a multiple sclerosis specialist, mother of two, and devoted dog lover. Over a 20-year period, Lathi has developed a magnificent 2-acre suburban paradise rich with trees, shrubs, and flowers, all tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac in Needham, Massachusetts.

“Jono’s simple request led me to Bill McKenny, a Maine-based carpenter, who built a cedar cabin I planned to place on the lawn,” says Lathi. “Bill thought it should be hidden in the woods behind the house.”

Lathi and labrador retriever Tiger relax in the meditation garden. The entrance to the house features tender ferns, a castor bean plant, dragon’s eye pine, and coleus. —Kindra Clineff

McKenny’s proposal presented a series of now amusing obstacles and fun, practical solutions. To find a suitable woodland spot for the structure, McKenny wielded a machete through a thicket of brambles, only to discover a swamp. He built a rustic, vaulted wooden bridge to reach the other side. Beyond the bridge, he found a creek and then a stream where Lathi had never ventured because of the overgrown bushes and brambles.

To get across them, he and Jonathan, who is now 30, constructed two more hand-hewn bridges before the ideal location for the playhouse — a pine grove — appeared. All was well until Jonathan requested a moat to surround his hideaway. Digging an actual moat was out of the question, says Lathi, “so I planted a ring of ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta to create a mock barrier. The next day, I received my first gardening lesson. Deer had eaten every one. I had no idea what I was doing. I had never even grown a houseplant.”

Remnants of Jonathan’s treehouse are 25 feet off the ground deep in the woods. —Kindra Clineff

However, a friend had given her four seasonal visits to Cairn Croft, landscape designer Kevin Doyle’s garden in Dover, Massachusetts, where Lathi noticed conditions in the woods and wetlands were similar to her own yard. She asked Doyle for help with her landscape undertaking. He showed her how to develop the woodland areas, contour the land, and build vertical engagement.

Along the way, she enhanced her wooded retreat with a folly — an open wooden structure with seating — and plantings including an allée of native black gum trees, which thrive in the boggy soil. Seen from the many paths are visual delights such as a bubbling fountain, a copper basin filled with glass spheres, a hanging brass gong, a frost-resistant urn, a carved antique Chinese bench, and several custom sculptures made from recycled farm equipment and tools by New Hampshire artist Jill Nooney.

A soothing rock fountain outside a wooden folly doubles as a birdbath. —Kindra Clineff

Once she was satisfied with the woods, Lathi moved to the front of the property, learning as she went. An area once choked with thorns became a colorful, sweeping multi-season border at the entrance to the woods.

“I did it myself,” she says, “because I wanted to be responsible for my mistakes and victories.”

To learn more about the fundamentals in 2000, she took professional landscape design classes at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, Lathi met Gary Koller, a garden designer, who would become her mentor and friend.

“When I toured Gary’s clients’ gardens,” she says, “I realized no matter how large the garden or where one starts to explore, there’s a pattern leading back to the starting point. Suddenly, I was motivated to continue adding paths around the house. I discovered how to grade and separate the front of the house from the side, which now features a gated boxwood-lined dog run.”

A fragrant vine of akebia forms a living roof on a cedar bridge. On the left of the bridge is a Japanese umbrella pine; low-growing bamboo and Himalayan sweet box are in the foreground, and a Carolina allspice is to the right. —Kindra Clineff

Here, her three Labrador retrievers, Georgia, Tiger, and Cooper, romp. At one end, a wrought-iron exit faces the backyard and overlooks a brick patio. The other end leads to the front gardens, where foundation plantings rise over a low fieldstone wall. However, it’s the tropicals that steal the show. Bananas, red and green cordylines canna, papyrus, abutilons, agave, bromeliads, and ferns live near the walkway and along the driveway in the garden from May to October. Before the frost, these behemoths are cut down, transplanted into lightweight pots, and trucked off to a private greenhouse for the winter.

Beyond a patch of lawn, a multilayered hedge of Japanese forest grass, American beech trees, Carex, and boxwood shield from the street a meditation garden with a water feature and stone seating nook.

Clumping bamboo and fastigiate hornbeam form a privacy screen between the neighbor’s property and the driveway, which is lined with an array of potted annuals, tropicals, and garden art. A gargoyle, which Lathi calls her flying monkey, guards more container plantings outside the garage, where a giant Abyssinian banana soars above the roofline.

Next to the garage, the seasonal plant display continues through a pergola past a brightly painted 3-foot-tall metal rooster Lathi found in an antiques store and leads into the backyard and woods.

Like the garden, Lathi’s family has grown to include daughter Stephanie’s husband, Steven, and their two young children. Their toddler, Riley, adores splashing in the fountains and digging in the dirt with her grandmother. When Jono visits, he admires his mother’s handiwork and explores the boyhood escape that started it all.

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