Home: Garden: Solid Ground

A Bucks County couple built their garden paradise on the most unlikely foundation

When Sue and Mike Wert bought their Bucks County home in 1996, they didn’t own so much as a house plant. Little would they have guessed that virtually one-third of the nearly 15-acre property they fell in love with would be filled with gardens one day.

The seed that started them on their long, green path was hiring landscape architect Carter van


When Sue and Mike Wert bought their Bucks County home in 1996, they didn’t own so much as a house plant. Little would they have guessed that virtually one-third of the nearly 15-acre property they fell in love with would be filled with gardens one day.

The seed that started them on their long, green path was hiring landscape architect Carter van Dyke, president of a landscaping company of the same name in Doylestown, to correct a steep drop-off from the rear terrace. After he raised the lawn behind the house nearly 14 feet, van Dyke sold the Werts on a full-scale garden design. “They never had a garden before, but they loved the concept and thought it was something that they could enjoy,” says van Dyke. One project led to another, and before long, the Werts were the proud owners of almost five acres of lushly landscaped grounds. They named the property Tarp Farm, after a term used in the insurance industry, a field Mike has worked with closely.

“Our objective was to create a turn-of-the-century garden, one that looked like it belonged to Bucks County,” says van Dyke. The foundation of his plan — both literally and figuratively — was cement, sandblasted for an aged appearance and used for all the hardscaping: paths, steps, walkways, walls and pillars. The building material was a subtle homage to Bucks County’s Henry Chapman Mercer, who, in the early 1900s, was one of the first architects to design a building made entirely of concrete. Van Dyke also planted a series of vines — climbing hydrangea, wisteria, clematis and Boston ivy — that have wrapped around cement pillars and steps as they’ve grown, making the property look older than it is.

A combination of formal and informal gardens are united by the concrete paths. Separate plots are staked out for rose, perennial, vegetable and cutting gardens, plus a vineyard. “Creating a garden is like choreographing a dance, so that one sequence leads to another sequence, each of which is not anticipated,” says van Dyke.

The rose garden evokes the romance of an earlier time with peony- and lavender-lined beds enclosing ‘Ballerina’ shrub roses, pastel climbing ‘Cecile Brunner’ and overlapping petals of the brilliant red ‘Dortmund’ that look like miniature ruffled collars on the bushes. “In the spring we get thousands of rosebuds, and as the season progresses the petals fall and cover the ground,” says Mike. “It’s really beautiful.” Even when winter tightens its icy grip, the rose garden displays bright orange hips that peer through the dusty snow.

Sue, a passionate cook, spends most of her time in the vegetable garden, among metal archways hanging with purple hyacinth beans, imagining the ripening thyme, basil, brussels sprouts or tomatoes as ingredients in her next dish. “For me, relaxing is going into the vegetable garden, picking vegetables and thinking about what I’m going to do with them,” she says. Toward the end of the growing season, she ritually makes caponata, an Italian dish made with tomatoes, eggplant, celery and onions.

In the cutting garden, row after row of gorgeous blooms — astilbe, Stokes’ aster, ‘Blue Danube’ — sit atop raised wooden beds arranged by color: pinks, blues, yellows and whites. “I love cut flowers,” says Sue, “and I never have to run to the florist.” Thanks to van Dyke’s planning, something wonderful is on display all year long.

Beyond the cutting garden, apple and pear espalier trees have been trained through pruning to lay flat against the guesthouse. Then there is a perennial garden behind the house, which includes a 120-foot-long water rill, a narrow man-made stream that runs through drifts of perennials. The garden captures bold colors of burgundy, chartreuse and purple, and includes exotic species like Korean Angelica, one of Sue’s favorites.

In warm weather, this area is a common site for parties. “We love to entertain,” says Mike, “and we’re both involved in philanthropy so we’re always sponsoring different events.” They hardly need to issue invitations; garden enthusiasts from all over (one time, from as far as Washington state) journey to Tarp Farm. The gardens have also been featured on numerous tours, including some given by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and the Garden Conservancy.

And if the Werts still don’t exactly have green thumbs, they have been inspired by the gardens. Mike has taken up garden photography and occasionally photographs some of van Dyke’s other landscaping projects. Sue has worked closely with van Dyke to introduce the concept of healing gardens to St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne. They are currently working on one for the cancer center and a rooftop garden that patients in the intensive care unit can see from their hospital room windows.

“It’s been great for me to have clients that are so enthusiastic about gardens,” says van Dyke.

“I love sharing it with others,” says Mike, “and when you get a misty morning or a summer evening when the light is warm, it’s just wonderful.”

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