When Jill Nooney began working on what would become Bedrock Gardens some 30 years ago, she intended it to be her own private sanctuary. The 20-acre garden in Lee is just a short distance away from the constant hum of traffic on Route 125, but as you stroll along the garden paths and walk the trails that crisscross the property, those outside distractions fade and, eventually, disappear.
That wasn’t an accident. “I designed it to always have your back facing the road,” Nooney says. “It felt like I shut out the world and drew the shade.”
The garden has received some attention from regional newspapers and gardening publications over the years, and it even has its own Wikipedia entry. But, if you haven’t heard of Bedrock Gardens, that’s not an accident, either. It’s only been within the last few years that Nooney and her husband, Bob Munger, have been letting the outside world into the garden, first with a handful of tours and now with concerts, art exhibits, and a series of open houses each summer. The garden is open to the public the third weekend of each month, from May through September, and the next open house takes place June 20-21.
Why the change? There’s an old saying about gardens, Nooney says: When the gardener dies, so does the garden. She doesn’t want that to happen.
“Our vision is to turn it into a center for horticulture, art, landscape design, and cultural events,” she says.
Bedrock Gardens is located on 37 acres of farmland. The property was a dairy farm in its previous life, though it had been fallow for some six decades before Nooney and Munger bought it in 1980. They cleared out pine trees and pucker brush and began work on the garden in 1985.
A plant collector and landscape designer, Nooney describes her technique as “act now, think later.” She makes it sound chaotic, but the garden has an organic orderliness to it, with each area leading naturally to the next. Take Conetown, a collection of some 50 conifers set off by a tall metal arch. Walk through the arch and, for a moment, you’re lost among the trees. Then the path leads you to the Wiggle Waggle, a 200-foot water channel surrounded by lotuses and lilies, which in turn leads you to the Garish Garden, a collection of brightly colored plants and sculptures.
Nooney and Munger worked on the garden every weekend. It took about two years to complete each area. The garden was, and continues to be, a collaborative effort.
“I call myself the problem maker, and he’s the problem solver,” she says. In other words, Nooney comes up with the ideas and Munger helps execute them, building everything from pergolas and pagodas to the Tea House, a small structure with a Murphy bed located at the top of a series of waterfalls and ponds.
Nooney has zillions of ideas, she says, and they’re not limited to gardening. She’s also a skilled metal sculptor, and her works, made from rusted farm and industrial equipment, are an integral part of the garden’s landscape.
In fact, along with being a sanctuary, Nooney wanted the garden to be something of an art gallery, a place where she could sell her art. She would host tours every now and then, but “eventually, (people) loved the garden more than they loved the art,” she says.
Nooney continues to sculpt, though she now mainly works with other welders. She designs and they build. The post-and-beam barn is full of rusted farm equipment, discarded saw blades, and piles of metal waiting to be fashioned into something new. Ideas for sculptures, and for the garden itself, just come to her, she says. The plants are from everywhere from Oregon to China; Nooney says she’s always in search of new plants she’s never seen or worked with before.
And the crowds just keep coming to the garden. Bedrock Gardens has its own team of volunteers and a nonprofit group, Friends of Bedrock Gardens, that Nooney hopes will help the garden transition from a private to a public space when she and Munger are gone. The volunteers help stage concerts and assist with tours and open houses. At a concert on a recent Sunday night, Nooney says, two volunteers set up a “garden shop” in the barn, where they sold T-shirts and other souvenirs, something Nooney had never thought to do before.
“It’s just amazing. We couldn’t do it without them,” she says. Nooney’s glad for the help with leading tours and organizing public events. “I’m an introvert, and that makes me worn out.”
Meanwhile, she and Munger are working on a manual for the garden. It’s already at 128 pages and includes a guide to the plants and an overview of the gardens’ infrastructure.
“I know all the plants, and Bob knows all the infrastructure and how to fix it,” Nooney says. “But imagine trying to put that together yourself.”
Nooney and Munger show no signs of slowing their work on the garden, though. There are still plenty of new areas in Bedrock Gardens to shape and sculptures to create. But bringing in volunteers and inviting the public in to her sanctuary has kept Nooney loose, she says. It’s a good way to collaborate and let go, but it’s also a way to ensure the garden continues to grow for another 30 years and beyond.
In the past, “I would have to chase people off the property,” Nooney says. “And now the public has to fall in love with it in order to take it over.”
Bedrock Gardens, 45 High Road, Lee, hosts its next open house June 20-21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday. $10 donation per person. Visit bedrockgardens.org or call 603-659-2993 for information.