The hidden garden

Nearly two acres of hillside behind the Fergusons’ home in Kilbuck Township have been turned into cascading gardens. Photo by Tom Steiner for The Citizen

Drivers passing by Jack and Tracy Ferguson’s Kilbuck residence have no reason to lurch to a stop to observe gardens of bubbling fountains, mesmerizing night lights, intricate floral arrangements. That’s because there aren’t any.

Yes, shrubs are carefully maintained, with hostas and annuals planted near the front of the house and the lawn being close to manicured. But that somewhat ordinary frontage belies what exists behind the home: nearly two acres of hillside cascading via pathways and walls to the Vinegar Hollow region below and opposite to Crawford Hill, along with a view of at least a 10-mile span of the hills bordering the Ohio River, enough beauty to fill Nebuchadnezzar with jealousy.

It wasn’t always that way, though. When the Fergusons purchased the property 25 years ago, the area was a veritable jungle of crown vetch, morning glory, Virginia creeper, prickles, sumac, poison ivy, grape vine, wild raspberry.

“We removed all of the trees that had grown wild and all of the pesky vines,” Tracy said. “What you see here now is what we have planted.”

Jack, a chemical engineer employed as vice president of manufacturing for Neville Chemical, mows the lawn and takes care of the lower half, and Tracy maintains the upper half, mulching the paths -- 85 bags so far this season, with 40 more to go.

“It’s easier to work with bags rather than in bulk. Tried that once. Hauling it over the hills in a wheelbarrow is almost impossible.”

In the process of digging through those hills, some treasures have been found: a Christian Brothers wine bottle, an Otto’s Dairy milk bottle, a vintage Coca Cola bottle. But the trade-off for those finds is not quite equal.

“Jack’s wedding ring is out there somewhere. He realized it was missing after hours of gardening. We have searched and searched, but so far, no luck,” Tracy said.

The Fergusons boast the ideal spot for viewing Fourth of July displays, with more than a dozen shows going off along the ridges that extend from the South Side area to the western edges of Neville Island.

“There used to be a fence around the front lawn, but we removed it,” Tracy said. “Neighbors just walk up and watch the shows, if they like.”

While Tracy has always had a love of gardening, Jack’s interests developed a bit later.

“When I was a teenager, I used to mow lawns and rake leaves in the neighborhood, along with the family yard -- all with heavy encouragement from my father for having gainful employment. I think I vowed that when I grew up, I would never mow or rake a lawn again. After 13 years of apartment and condo life, I bought a house, and the rest is history.”

That history began when he and Tracy married in 1993.

“At first, he only took care of the upper garden, but now it is a passion,” she said.

The project is all their own, with just a few exceptions. “We had the stone steps installed and had some of the tall trees pruned, but the gardening is all done just by us.”

How much time spent on a typical garden day? Tracy said that “It varies, but I can easily spend six hours out here. Of course, you have to be part billy goat to work these hillsides.”

Two areas of the garden are more easily accessible, located along a path bordering a shaded side of the house. The first garden memorializes Tracy’s daughter, Laurie Ewing, tragic victim of a car accident in 1993. The shade garden includes ferns, hostas, rhododendron, azaleas and a bronze-on-stone marker. The other is a “fairy garden” of miniature houses and figurines, all annually rearranged by Tracy’s five grandchildren.

But back to the back ---back gardens, that is.

Looking out over the cascading property, Tracy notes with resignation that the deer eat the lilies and that the chipmunks, groundhogs and other critters enjoy feeding on other plantings.

“I should own stock in Liquid Fence,” she says as she observes a red-tail hawk circling the hills. “And we have wild turkeys and coyotes -- heard, not seen.”

But the setting is an open invitation to nature -- human, flora and fauna.

The Fergusons have replaced the wild growth with yucca, day lilies, daisies, irises, St. John’s Wort, digitalis, Japanese maples, peach and apple trees, bee balm and regalia, along with milkweed.

“Milkweed attracts monarch butterflies, an endangered species,” Tracy explains as she points to butterflies cavorting around the plant.

And there are two very special trees: an Abraham Lincoln dogwood and a Walden Pond maple. “They are memorial trees, grown from seeds from the trees on those properties.”

Holding down a protected spot on a deck area, one hardy tomato plant represents the extent of the vegetable garden.

“Any more than this would just be food for the wildlife,” Tracy says with resignation.

Yes, it is work. Sometimes back-breaking work, especially when spreading those bags of mulch and when stretching to weed the gardens, but to Tracy, it is “…a form of meditation. It’s private.”

With an air of engineering practicality, Jack concedes, “I think we are moving into the ‘maintain mode’ and think more about how we will transition to handling garden-hillside maintenance as we grow older, especially the physical aspects of accessing/maintaining the lower gardens and hillside.”

But that is all still a few years off. For now, Tracy and Jack walk the gardens every night. The unity that the gardens bring to their lives is obvious in their answer to the question, “What, about gardening, provides most enjoyment for you?

Tracy answers, “We like to see what’s blooming and what needs work. We love to see the fruits of our labor.”

Jack, who admits that he likes working outside and the physical and creative aspects of their efforts, is on the same page with his wife. Without having heard Tracy’s answer to the same question, he says, “Enjoying the aesthetic fruits of our labors is a big plus.”