Home: Paradise Found

A North Wilmington retreat called Frog Hollow is a modern-day Eden for its owners and their amphibian friends

As Eve Thyrum heads into her garden, she slips off her shoes and strides barefoot onto the grass. The soft green touches her soles and her soul, a tactile connection between woman and nature.

“Our lifestyle is to live in our garden,” she says. “It makes us feel good and smiley.”

As Eve Thyrum heads into her garden, she slips off her shoes and strides barefoot onto the grass. The soft green touches her soles and her soul, a tactile connection between woman and nature.

“Our lifestyle is to live in our garden,” she says. “It makes us feel good and smiley.”

With its verdant carpet and series of outdoor rooms, the garden is a retreat for entertaining, dining and an occasional game of croquet. Thyrum and her husband, Per, named their North Wilmington sanctuary “Frog Hollow” after the amphibians that thrive among shady stands of ferns and splash in a sunken pond equipped with a frog-size ladder that helps them climb in and out.

The frogs might have been there first, but they now share the garden with people at large, open-air parties. The Thyrums integrated several dining areas into the landscape, including a picnic grove that can seat 20. “We love to have dinner parties in our garden,” Eve says. “Being able to sit at tables is so much more relaxing than asking people to balance plates on their knees.”

A gazebo is tucked into an intimate glen in a corner of the property. The verdigris candelabrum that illuminates the table is a repurposed lightning rod. A cast-metal bat, its wings spread, descends from the ceiling. “It’s often much cooler here than in the rest of the garden, so we like to lug our beer out here,” says Eve.

The gazebo sits on the banks of a large, man-made pond that occupies what once was a swampy flat. The pond is the only element in the garden the Thyrums didn’t completely build themselves. “We started hand-digging and got nowhere,” Eve says. “So we hired a guy with a backhoe to dig it for us.”

The Thyrums introduced a large snapping turtle, goldfish, largemouth bass and native turtles to the pond, an experiment that met with varying success. The goldfish multiply fast enough to keep the pond stocked, despite occasional raids by herons. The bass were recaptured and donated to Chanticleer Garden in Wayne after they began to pick off small robins who stopped to drink. The Thyrums released the snapping turtle in a nearby stream when it began depleting the goldfish supply, and the other turtles wandered off until Per discovered how to lure them back. “Turtle food,” he says, “that’s the secret.”

Constant Gardners
Both the Thyrums are trained scientists and put their analytical acumen to work at Frog Hollow. Per crafted a dovecote, modifying a copper cupola salvaged from a stable in Virginia. He sheathed the pillars with copper so squirrels can’t gain a foothold. Eve immersed herself in the study of horticulture at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, eventually retiring from work to garden full time. “At Longwood, I got interested in great, unusual trees you can’t find in local nurseries,” she says.

A Franklinia tree — propagated by John and William Bartram, renowned Philadelphia plant explorers and botanists of the 18th century, and named for John’s good friend Ben Franklin — graces Frog Hollow, as do small witch hazel trees that unfurl spiky yellow blossoms in February. A Himalayan cedar, now 60 feet tall, sprang from a single seed Eve harvested from a cone.

The constants in the garden are the Thyrums, passionate nature lovers who were smitten by the lush topography of northern Delaware’s fertile Piedmont region after living for years in arid Texas. The prospect of gardening in harmony with the changes of the seasons tugged at their hearts, as well as their roots. Per is a native of Norway and an avid outdoorsman; Eve grew up in Chester County, only about 25 miles from Frog Hollow.

They bought the property in 1980, more for the land than for the Cape Cod-style house on it. The plot was thick with trees and shrubs, the remnants of orchards planted in the 1950s. In creating her private Eden, this Eve shunned the apple. She cleared out the decaying fruit trees and blueberry bushes. “I wanted to have a clean palette,” she recalls. “But we left the quinces because they were so beautiful with their gnarled trunks.”

Private Eden
Over the years, development has inched nearer the garden, as a residential community went up on what were once adjoining fields. A buffer of huge white pines forms a dense, living wall between the serenity of the garden and the whirl of the world beyond.

Only slightly larger than two acres, the property feels far more expansive, thanks to the open lawns that separate the rooms of the garden. “We left lines of sight to make the property look bigger,” Per says. He added hardscaping, placing walkways to invite visitors into the garden’s rooms. A recent project is a path made of Pennsylvania bluestone, from a nearby stone yard. But most of the hardscaping was crafted from rocks Per unearthed on the property.

The biggest open area was designed to accommodate a formal English croquet court, as well as large-scale entertaining for more than 100 guests. “Then, the tent goes up and the tables and chairs go in,” says Eve. A stroll away is the sundial garden, a plot that features a collection of the whimsical timepieces, some of which date to the early 1700s. Sun-loving cherry tomato plants form edible topiaries.

The Thyrums’ interpretation of an English knot garden is a precise grid formed by an interlocking circle, square and diagonals. Traditionally, knot gardens are plotted with herbs such as germander and lavender. But the couple planted a knot of variegated boxwood, green boxwood and crimson pygmy barberry, low-growing shrubs of contrasting colors and textures. They appear to be intertwined, a visual trick created by allowing the plants to grow taller where the bushes intersect.

The Thyrums use one plot solely for growing duplicates of their existing plants in case one needs replacing. “When a shrub dies, you bring in one you’ve been coddling that’s been clipped to the same size,” says Eve.

Each year, the Thyrums start gardening under the rays of the April sun, edging beds and clearing plots for the shoots that will soon emerge. After years in the garden, Eve has found that she is moved most by the subtleties of foliage, the chartreuse of the Spiraea thunbergii or Ogon Spirea shrub, the sprightly yellow of Cotinus coggygria, also called ‘Golden Spirit.’ “Japanese maples look magnificent in fall,” she says. “Their leaves go from corals to oranges to deep purples.”

As the days grow short, Eve digs up dahlias and other tubers and tucks them in the heated garage for a winter nap. Then she contemplates the garden from inside, marveling at the beauty of a walnut tree, its leafless branches silhouetted against the snow. “Sometimes it’s nice to just sit and look,” she says. “Gardeners do deserve a break.”