Autumn asters, garden rooms in Michael Gordon’s New Hampshire garden

November 29, 2021
Michael Gordon’s garden in early October is aster-licious

Through phone interviews for magazine assignments, I’ve gotten to “know” many interesting gardeners around the country. One of these is Michael Gordon of Peterborough, New Hampshire, whose garden I wrote about for Country Gardens in 2019. An optometrist by profession, Michael also has considerable expertise as a designer — for many years, he designed and maintained the public gardens in his picturesque town — and leads private tours of gardens in Great Britain.

Upper Garden

A curving lawn path leads through the upper garden

During my road trip through the state in early October, Michael invited me to come see his garden and took time in the middle of a workday to give me a tour. (He also connected me with his friend Joe Valentine, whose rural garden in nearby Francestown I visited that morning.) What a treat to meet Michael in person and see his garden during his favorite season, autumn, when “the weather is nice, there are no bugs, the light is beautiful, and there’s no weeding. It’s just enjoying,” to paraphrase from the Country Gardens article.

Michael’s 100-year-old home perches on the edge of a steep hillside that falls away in back. Through terracing, he created three distinct garden spaces: an upper garden, lower garden, and woodland garden. The upper garden runs the length of a white picket fence facing the street, gifting neighbors and passersby with a colorful, pretty view that, in early October, was spectacularly aster-licious.

Michael started our tour in the upper garden by the front door, where a sinuous lawn path flows between neatly clipped boxwood balls.

Richly planted window boxes with variegated abutilon add height as well as wine-colored waterfalls of foliage.

As the boxwoods lead you in, a crabapple tree greets you along with lots of purple aster and other late-blooming perennials and ornamental grasses.

Monkshood and asters color-coordinating in shades of purple

A frothy cascade of aster

And button-like seedheads of great burnet, perhaps?

Rickrack brick edging neatly contains the exuberance of the perennial borders, rampant with tall verbena…

…yellow Japanese anemones on wiry black stems…

…sparkling grasses, blazing bat-face cuphea, toothy-leaved melianthus, and heaps of purple aster.

A wider view

And more

I exclaimed over these ‘Color Guard’ yuccas, which looked bigger and brighter than the ones in my Texas garden. How can it be that a cold-climate gardener grows heat-loving yuccas so well? Michael just smiled with satisfaction.

The path here transitions from lawn to brick, and rough-hewn granite pillars topped with round stones team up with twin boxwood balls to create a gateway into the next space…

Hall With Balls

…the Hall With Balls. This transitional space is semi-public, leading from the street to a short flight of stairs into the upper garden (at right) and to stairs and a yew arch into the private lower garden (straight ahead). ‘Blue Zinger’ sedge and boxwood make up the green plant palette.

Michael and his sons built the strikingly layered stone retaining wall that supports the upper garden beds.

Flowering plants cascade romantically over the wall.

Lower Garden

Stepping through the arched doorway in the yew hedge and then looking back, you see straight out to the street.

In the other direction, an axis view through another yew hedge ends at a flared granite pillar. That doorway leads down into the woodland garden. But first let’s explore the lower garden. At left, a long stone bench faces the house and anchors the end of this T-shaped space.

A pair of Japanese stewartias that Michael grew from seed frame the bench. Their gray trunks add depth in front of the deep-green yew hedge that encloses the garden. Later in the fall these trees flame out with orange foliage.

The bench looks straight down a narrow lawn bordered by flowering perennials, enclosed by a yew hedge on one side and a retaining wall on the other. The charming white house with green shutters draws you forward, toward a small patio with blue Adirondack chairs.

A beautiful mix of annuals and perennials in their late-season glory

The chairs circle around a fire pit for a cozy seating area. But wow, check out those parasol-sized tropical leaves! If I remember right, Michael said he enjoys trying different exotic plants around his patio every year. Notice there’s a small potted agave here too.

Across from the Adirondack patio, a more-intimate space has room for two wooden chairs…

…and a blazing mix of orange begonias and other potted plants cooled by luscious and bold green foliage.

Ka-pow!

This space is enveloped by a container display that Michael takes down each winter until spring returns. In the background you see the lawn path and stone bench. Let’s head back that way…

…stopping to enjoy pink hydrangeas and anemones and a quick glance through the arched hedge into the Hall With Balls.

Opposite, a vine-smothered arbor and pair of boxwood balls frame a view of the flared granite pillar. Let’s go through, into the woodland garden.

Woodland Garden

The manicured upper and lower gardens are left behind as you descend a steep, grassy path. A rustic tree-trunk handrail holds back a frothy stand of asters.

The yew hedge looms above, but here shade-loving woodland plants, naturalistically planted, hold sway.

So romantic, don’t you think?

Aster and goldenrod, I think

A pair of unpainted Adirondacks perches here, overlooking the steep slope below. Behind them, wooden steps lead up to the lower garden.

The view downhill — a wilder garden

A mulched path muffles footsteps as it winds slowly downward, past found-object sculpture…

…and a long wooden bench.

Pink and purple asters bloom here in the shade too.

Heading back up, you see the house high above you.

Michael recently added custom iron handrails to the stairs throughout his garden. Their gracefully curled ends suggest unfurling fiddleheads.

Let’s head back up to the lower garden.

Blue Bench Terrace

You emerge between boxwood balls onto a small stone terrace with facing blue benches.

The begonia patio is visible just beyond.

The lower level of the house opens onto this brick passageway between the garage and lower garden. Notice the doors at left are aligned with the blue-bench terrace. Aligning garden rooms and focal points with windows and doors like this unites house and garden.

The blue-bench terrace overlooks the woodland garden below.

A quick look back through the lower garden

And turning around, you see a tidy garden shed. The sunken blue-bench terrace is hidden from view but lies between the shed and begonia patio.

Inside the shed, neatly hung tools and pots of allium seedheads make for an inviting work space.

Behind the shed, a fun surprise — a drinking fountain

Side Entrance

A flight of steps leads into a glowing, fir-paneled vestibule in the garage, which Michael and his wife recently remodeled.

The detached garage used to have one large garage door, and, as Michael explained, you had to go through the garage to reach the lower garden from the kitchen door. To better connect the house and lower garden, they shrank the garage door and sectioned off the left side of the garage as a pass-through vestibule to the garden.

Over the kitchen door they added a portico — constructed to match an existing one from the 1890s over the front door — and laid a wide brick path that creates separation from the driveway. A teak bench, potted plants, and lush window boxes all say “welcome.”

Kitchen door entrance with potted tropicals

Michael’s garden is stunning and a great example of how to frame views and create distinct garden rooms on a relatively small, hilly lot. All the structure — evergreen boxwood balls, yew hedges, and a formal layout — make it beautiful during the long New Hampshire winter too, as you can see on Michael’s popular Instagram @thegardenerseye.

Thank you, Michael, for sharing your garden with me!

Up next: Fall foliage in the Green Mountains of Vermont. For a look back at Juniper Hill Farm, the country-formal garden of Joe Valentine, click here.

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Autumn asters, garden rooms in Michael Gordon’s New Hampshire garden