“Where You Tend a Rose. . .”

Sandy Helsel’s Williamsburg cottage garden, inspired by a trip to the Cotswolds, packs plenty of surprises in a not-so-secret place.

“Oh! the things which happened in that garden! If you have never had a garden, you cannot understand, and if you have had a garden you will know that it would take a whole book to describe all that came to pass there.” – THE SECRET GARDEN, FRANCES HODGSON BURNETT

In the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden, recently orphaned Mary Lennox embarks upon a journey of self-discovery when she finds an abandoned garden on her uncle’s Yorkshire estate. With the help of two young friends, Mary secretly weeds and prunes the neglected plot throughout the fall and winter, finally reaping the joyous reward of seeing the garden returned to its full glory in the spring. Only then do Mary and her friends realize that they too have bloomed and healed. While Williamsburg gardener Sandy Helsel is not a child, she too embarked upon a journey of self-discovery, creating a spectacular garden that also brought her joy and healing.

Like Mary Lennox, Sandy Helsel was a late bloomer … literally and figuratively. She was 51 when she began to pursue her passion for gardening, and after 10 years of hard work, her English cottage garden at her home in Williamsburg is no secret. Featured in Better Homes and Gardens, and by the Williamsburg Garden Club during Virginia’s 2009 Garden Week, Helsel’s organic garden combines British design with Tidewater plantings to create an oasis of natural beauty.

In 1992, the death of her mother, Betty Johnson, left Helsel emotionally and physically drained. “We were very close, and that last year with her being sick was really tough,” she explains. When her close friend Nancy Altznauer called out of the blue one day and asked, “What are you going to do for yourself now?” Helsel’s answer surprised both of them. “I think I want to take a tour of English gardens,” she replied, having no idea that Altznauer was actively involved in putting together exactly that kinds of trips for her garden club in Connecticut. Helsel’s mother had left her a small bit of money, so Altznauer got to work on the arrangements, and the next summer the two women traveled across the pond to see the best of England’s gardens.

They started with the formal gardens of Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, but Helsel was yearning to see the small private cottage gardens of the Cotswolds. So, the women motored to the country, carefully navigating the left-side driving until they arrived at the Swan Inn, located at the gateway to the Cotswolds. “We saw three or four gardens a day,” Helsel recalls, “and one day, as we were flying down a narrow country road [in Gloucestershire], heading into town to get some film developed, Nancy suddenly screamed, ‘That’s Rosemary Verey’s home!’ We came to a screeching halt when we saw her walking around giving some guests a tour.”

One of Britain’s most admired garden designers, Verey, who died in 2001, had designed for such notables as the Prince of Wales and Elton John, but many consider her own home, Barnsley House, to be her finest work. Verey’s elaborate layout, which features knot gardens, ornamental fruit and vegetable gardens, and statues by Simon Verity, is one of England’s prides and joys. The sudden opportunity to see the place was “serendipitous,” says Helsel. “It was a time when lots of things like that happened.” And Verey’s laburnum walk at Barnsley House “was like the portals of heaven to me,” she adds. “The trees form a long allée with panicles of yellow to guide you, and at that time, I cried at the drop of a hat anyway, so I just cried throughout that whole trip.”

Helsel returned home and dug into every gardening book she could find. In Good Planting Plans, she was inspired by the town garden Verey had designed for the Chelsea Garden Show. “I used the same premise … an octagonal green area in the middle and the same kind of pathways with four major beds,” Helsel says. “But I had to modify her plan to suit the landscape and lot of our house.”

In fact, when Helsel and her husband, David, began building their house in Williamsburg’s Governor’s Landing development, they positioned the house to accommodate a symmetrical English garden, laying out the fence lines and paths first. “While many English gardens are terraced in height, I wanted more of an undulating and blowsy feel, like a cottage garden, with little ‘rooms’ that have surprises in them as you walk through,” says Helsel.

And each year, she adds to those surprises. David Helsel found an antique English chimney pot, which is the focal point from the front gate view, while a blue bench surrounded by Cecile Brunner roses invites visitors to settle in and enjoy the scenery. You may see whimsical statuary among the fairy roses, and kitchen herbs that mingle amid the perennials. A bell-shaped garden shed modeled after George Washington’s at Mt. Vernon adds another distinctive architectural accent, as well as a practical workspace.

A brick patio and fountain anchor the other main allée, adding the soothing sound of tumbling water to the serene landscape. Plantings include skip laurels, several varieties of viburnum, both fall and spring camellias, dogwood, nigella, lovage, rose campion and both Japanese and German iris. Several old roses, including William Baffin and Zephirine Drouhin, and hundreds of other plants and flowers tumble beside and around the formal walkways, giving the garden an exuberant and spontaneous feel in every season. Borders are an important feature of Helsel’s garden, one of the most significant gardening secrets she learned while exploring the countryside of England.

Like Mary Lennox, as Helsel’s garden evolved, so did she. “The more I learned, the more I began to appreciate the formal gardens,” she says, “but the thing that made my heart sing was seeing the borders and the cottage gardens, so mine is a cross between those two. It’s just a pure joy to me every day, and my grandson, Jack, loves to help me pull weeds.”

Sandy Helsel’s garden is not just a testament to her talent for growing things. It’s a triumph of the beauty of the cycle of life, constantly replenishing and surprising us all with its bounty. And, as Mary Lennox learned in The Secret Garden, “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow. •

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