Northford Garden: From Apple Orchard to Garden

By MJ McCabe as seen in Fine Gardening Magazine

We purchased this property in Northford, Connecticut, about 40 years ago. It was a former apple orchard. Gradually, the ancient apple trees started to decline, and we were left with a fairly blank canvas that needed to be rethought. We pruned and cared for a few of the apple trees, as they provided some nice structure and shade. One of my first steps was to start thinking of creating garden rooms — individual areas that would work well together but allow for a more cohesive look to the overall landscape.

The new trees and shrubs have grown nicely over the years—many perennials and mass plantings of spring bulbs have made the garden a beautiful backdrop to our 1890 home.

Persicaria polymorpha (Zones 4–9) is in the background, with ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, Zones 3–7), hakonechloa (Hakonechloa macra, Zones 5–9), ligularia (Ligularia dentata, Zones 4–8), and Pulmonaria (Zones 3–9) in front.

White aster (Symphyotrichum sp.) is against the fence, with hakonechloa and Kirengeshoma palmata (Zones 5–8) under a tree in the foreground.

Summer blooms: baby’s breath (Gypsophila panicuata, Zones 3–9) in the foreground, and shrub rose (Rosa hybrid, Zones 5–9), larkspur (Consolida ajacis, annual), and hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 5–9) in the background.

Buddlea alternafolia ‘Argentea’ (Zones 5–9) is blooming purple inside the fence. And in the foreground, roses, bearded iris (Iris hybrid, Zones 3–8) are in bloom, while lavender (Lavandula, Zones 5–9) and poppies (Papaver orientale, Zones 3–8) are getting ready to flower.

A viburnum (Viburnum plicatum, Zones 5–8) is covered in white blooms in the distance. Up close, shade-loving plants grow at the base of an apple tree.

Aruncus (Aruncus dioicus, Zones 4–8), ferns (Athyrium filix-femina ‘Victoriae’, Zones 4–8), and Heuchera (Zones 4–8)

Platycodon (Platycodon grandiflorus, Zones 3–8), with peach-tone daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrid, Zones 3–8)

‘Helen Elizabeth’ poppies (Papaver orientale ‘Helen Elizabeth’, Zones 3–8) and ‘Arabella’ clematis (Clematis ‘Arabelle’, Zones 4–11)

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium, Zones 3–9), culver’s weed (Veronicastrum virginicum, Zones 3–8) with phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 4–8) providing late-August color.

‘Festiva Maxima’ peony (Paeonia ‘Festiva Maxima, Zones 3–8), bearded iris (Iris hybrid, Zones 3–8), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, Zones 4–8), Allium christophii (Zones 5–8), and peach poppies (Papaver orientale, Zones 3–8)

The garden in autumn

A Folk Art Life with Allan & Penny Katz

A Special Feature from INCOLLECT
Text: Benjamin Genocchio
Photography: Ellen McDermott 
Interior Design: Melissa Barak Weiss, Indigo Interiors Co 
Architecture: CK Architects, Guilford, CT 
Garden Design: MJ McCabe Garden Design

Allan and Penny Katz have been on a journey. The 76-year-old Allan beams with energy and enthusiasm as he stands in his gallery, on the property of an immaculately renovated 1830s historic house on one of the more prestigious streets in the shoreline town of Madison, Connecticut. He’s describing the moment when 51 years ago, he discovered and bought his first weathervane. “I remember that day,“ he says, “the object just totally resonated with me.”


Add Native American Perennials to Your Garden

Now is the time to add some new color to your garden. Most of these plants are native American perennials that tend to be drought resistant as well as deer and rabbit proof. Strategically placing some of these dramatic bloomers will provide a consistent succession of color that will allow the garden to transition nicely into Autumn.

A Summer Abundance of Dahlias

At maturity, dahlias produce and abundance of ready-made cut flowers — the more you cut the more blooms to come.

Dahlias come in a multitude of different colors, forms and sizes making them the perfect addition to your summer garden. Flower forms go from tiny, one-inch pompoms to massive dinner plate sizes, making them a great complement to any garden.

Colors are abundant too, ranging from soft pastels to brilliant hot oranges and reds. Dahlias are prolific growers producing an endless number of flowers right up until a heavy frost.

It is best to plant them in well-drained soil that has been enriched with compost. To maintain a steady stream of cut flowers, stake the larger varieties early in the season. To keep them healthy and vigorous, fertilize them every 2 weeks with a concentrated liquid fish emulsion and seaweed diluted in water.

Early Spring-flowering Bulbs

Daffodil “Rapture”

Early spring-flowering bulbs are soon to unfold into a kaleidoscope of colors — exploding in all sorts of shades, sizes and textures, delightfully banishing our winter doldrums. Bulbs are true harbingers of spring, and they are very rewarding as they multiply and spread in our home landscapes.

Magical Witch Hazels

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’— Russet-orange flowers in late winter

Witch Hazels are absolutely magical — they light up the late winter landscape with blooms that last several weeks filling the air with an intoxicating aroma that pervades the entire garden. The richly colored airy flowers range from butter yellow, brilliant canary, rich burgundy, russet-brick, to even a silvery purple.
Witch Hazels need to be planted in well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Allow for plenty of growth as they can reach 12-15’ at maturity. Since they bloom so early in the season, it is important to prune after flowering to keep the plant contained and in proportion to your garden. These shrubs need to be kept well-watered during dry spells in the summer–mulching around the base of these plants will help to retain beneficial moisture.
The witch hazel genus has several members. The American native Hamamelis virginiana has yellow flowers that bloom in late Fall. It is also the source for the natural skin astringent and other medicinal uses. Thomas Dickinson built the first witch hazel distillery in 1866 in Essex, CT.
Hamamelis x intermedia represents Asian hybrids of Hamamelis japonica and H mollis. They are remarkably hardy often blooming through snow and late frosts. These witch hazels are relatively disease resistant and maintenance free turning with foliage that turns glorious colors in the Autumn. They are especially wonderful planted in front of a backdrop of evergreens. Winter blooming, enticing fragrance and wonderful flower color makes witch hazels a must for every home landscape.

The Formal Garden

Repetition, form and symmetrical lines make this garden inviting — the inner garden beds are changed throughout the year to reflect the changing seasons

Dating back to Persia and the Islamic tradition of courtyard gardens, popular elements of formal gardens found their way into those of the Italian Renaissance. Today, they are echoed in tiered French parterres used throughout Europe and the imaginative ground tapestries of Elizabethan knot gardens prevalent in historical British gardens.

For us to borrow from these traditions here in New England, it is important to use strong, bold lines and geometric patterns based on the architecture and character of the home, always remaining mindful and respectful of the landscape’s vernacular. This is vital in creating a formal design, as there should be a seamless transition from the home into the garden space into the landscape. Generally, a flat piece of land or one that can be easily terraced to visually enhance the garden works best.

Alignment with the house is likewise important, as axial lines that flow from the house to the garden reinforce the powerful resonance of the formal garden style. The visual axis should continue into the distance, forcing the eye to a focal point such as a large pot, welcoming garden bench, or water feature. An added benefit may be a distant serene backdrop of established trees.

A semi-formal garden blends beautifully with the backdrop of a lake below

Careful planning is critical. Laying out the garden to scale on paper will allow you visualize the final results. Another helpful option is to use large stakes and string lines to lay out the design directly onsite. This method gives you the opportunity to visualize the proposed design from different angles and perspectives, as well as the views from the interior of your home.

Plant selection needs to be as carefully considered as the design. Boxwood or yew are generally used as hedging to define the overall composition and to delineate the pathways. If the grade drops significantly, stone retaining walls may be needed. Small trees or shrubs can provide a stable backdrop to the garden, and a sense of privacy and enclosure.

Beds that mirror each other may be planted with bulbs, annuals and perennials that reflect the changing seasons. Spring may be a mass planting of pastel colored tulips that transitions into bright colored flowers reflecting the warm colors of summer. Autumnal colors may be more muted and understated as the garden transitions into the solemnity of the coming winter.

For years I have passionately designed lush and abundant cottage gardens, which has provided much gratification for me and for my clients. But age has a way of instilling simplicity and order into our lives, and I find I am increasingly drawn to the quiet beauty of a formal garden. The distinctive lines and geometric order lends a specific sense of formality and ritual to the landscape, guiding us mindfully through the seasons.

A petite backyard garden reflects a formal style with boxwood balls and an espalier fruit tree
A well-ordered and maintained knot garden has a meditative quality
A newly planted garden contains beds lined with dwarf boxwood — with a carved out area for sitting — a long border of crab apples define the edge of the garden
A low fence surrounds a small border — the evergreen makes a nice backdrop that holds this winter garden visually together
A long line of trees provide a wonderful sense of perspective lending a formality to the landscape
Strong linear lines that are repeated on each side with small trees lead to a distant focal point
For those who have limited space a formally planted raised container will look lovely all year long
Grass paths lead the eye thru an arbor into another garden room — strong vertical evergreens provide a dynamic feeling of stability
On a grander scale, layered plantings give sweeps of contrasting colors and textures
Formal gardens depend on symmetry and balanced elements such as parallel evergreen hedges and sentinel placement of evergreen shrubs
The bare bones of winter reveal the fine linear lines and geometry of this snow-covered rose garden
Tightly clipped boxwood shrubs line a walkway that leads to a small formal parterre garden

Infuse Your Garden with Late Winter Blooms

“In a way, Winter is the real Spring, the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.” — Edna O’Brian

At present, your home landscape may look barren and devoid of life. We all tend to wait for the first warm days of March when daffodils and crocus magically appear to suggest that Spring is really going to return. But, with the addition of some interesting shrubs, perennials and bulbs, our gardens will come to life much earlier and make your winter garden really vital and truly inviting.


I recently found this image from so many years ago — it’s me with my wonderful Dad in a garden. I don’t remember this picture, it just fell out of an old box of pictures last week, but it made me remember how he instilled a love of gardening in me.

I think it’s genetic. I hope, because it’s so rewarding to involve your kids in creating a family garden. Laying out a garden, planting seeds and watching their daily growth gives kids a sense of excitement and wonder—knowing that they can grow their own food.

According to PBS Children programing, gardening with children is truly beneficial and educational. “For parents struggling to find ways to encourage their kids to eat a healthy and balanced diet, gardening can be an important tool. There is a myriad of scientific concepts you can discuss with your kids when planting and tending to a garden. One study showed that children who participated in gardening projects scored higher in science achievement than those who did not. The wonder of seeing a garden grow may spark your kids to ask questions like: Why do the plants need sun? How does the plant “drink” water? Why are worms good for the plants? Soon you will be talking about soil composition, photosynthesis and more! Add a little math while gardening by measuring how much plants are growing from week to week or counting the flowers on each plant.”

Gardening with kids gets them out in the fresh air adding positive energy while introducing a new activity that the whole family can be part of!

Spring Flowers for Container Gardens

By Deborah Hornblow, Hartford Magazine

Many gardeners and homeowners decorate their porches and patios with pots full of plants in summer, but springtime offers an opportunity to welcome the new season with container plantings created especially for this time of year.

“After a cold, gray winter, the sight of a colorful planter at a front door makes the entrance all the more inviting,” says M.J. McCabe, garden designer and owner of M.J. McCabe Garden Design of Northford.

Click here to read the full article.

Above: This window box designed by M.J. McCabe, is planted with osteospermum, Daffodil ‘Tete a Tete,’ white-flowering angelonia, Iceland poppies, pansies and cascading ivy, and will withstand a light frost. (M. J. McCABE)