When Courtney and David Sieck and their two daughters moved into their 1910 Georgian Colonial house in 1976, their gardens consisted of foundation plantings, privet and forsythia hedges, with a big backyard that functioned as the neighborhood baseball diamond.
“We had one of the only flat yards” in their section of Roland Park, says Courtney, a retired first grade teacher in both private and public schools, who, with her husband, a retired Baltimore County Public Schools psychologist, has created Williamsburg-style gardens that remain child-welcoming.
“The yews were halfway up the front windows,” remembers Courtney. “Privet hedge went around the perimeter—typical Roland Park—big forsythia bushes were on the side and gorgeous holly around the 30-foot patio.”
A tulip magnolia tree behind the house was likely planted when the place was built, while a sugar maple, spindly when the Siecks arrived, is now huge.
The original owner, a great entertainer, put in wide French doors that opened to the patio and a side porch that has since been enclosed as a sunny family room. Another original feature was a long cement walkway adjacent to the house. It led, via three steps, to another sidewalk across the back of the yard, with more steps down to Sunny Lane (in Roland Park, alleys are discreetly called “lanes”). The path gave pedestrians easy access to Falls Road and public transportation, but the Siecks replaced most of it with a brick walk through the center of the back garden.
In implementing these—and other—changes, the couple eschewed conferring with professionals. “I only consulted with David!” laughs Courtney, a onetime painter whose artistic eye envisioned the garden’s evolution. “We did them a little at a time, and because we did all the work ourselves, the garden is very personal.”
First, they removed the yews and forsythias, which opened up a lot of space. Next to go: the hollies across the patio, which died during a cold winter in the late 1970s.
Because of the Georgian Colonial style of the house, the Siecks chose the compatible Williamsburg style for its garden: symmetry, with central paths dividing the front and back gardens; boxwoods; and controlled bedding, but with relaxed plantings for a semiformal effect. White accents also recall Colonial Williamsburg. Chinese Chippendale gates punctuate a central axis that runs from the entrance gate through the front and back hall doors to the brick path out back; an identical gate opens by the garage to Sunny Lane.
“The way we garden,” Courtney explains, “is I take the shovel and say, ‘I want to put something here,’ then start digging. There’s no planning ahead.
“When a tree dies, the area becomes a garden while we wait for the stump and roots to rot.” (One perennial challenge has been heavy clay soil that is hard to dig and which requires the addition of organic material for plants to grow.)
Key plantings include collections of hydrangeas such as “Limelight,” “Endless Summer” and lacecap cultivars, as well as Nellie R. Stevens holly and magnolia trees. “It’s important to have your own greens for flower arranging,” says Courtney, whose artistic creations provide year-round interior color.
In front, azaleas, hollies and acuba bushes have replaced the overgrown yews. By the sun porch, an arch covered with native wisteria took over from the forsythia. “It leads to my ‘Peter Rabbit’ garden,” says Courtney, stepping into an area complete with Peter’s blue coat and hardy, low-growing perennials: black-eyed Susans, lamb’s ear, bee balm, asters and coreopsis.
A long, serpentine perennial border runs the length of the garden’s north side. Around the patio, boxwoods and flaming euonymus now grow in the space formerly occupied by the hollies. Down the central path, a fountain and pond attract wildlife; farther along, bright annuals surround a new red buckeye tree.
Thanks to two grandchildren who live nearby, the Siecks’ backyard remains child-friendly, with a trampoline, gymnastic rings and a wide swing that hangs from the stately tulip magnolia.
Current projects include the gradual removal of acuba bushes from beneath the magnolia’s base, with David digging out their tenacious, woody roots with a pickax and shovel. “It’s going to be a pink garden,” says Courtney. The first planting: pink Japanese anemones; coming soon: a new and lower-growing variety of hydrangea called “Pinky Winky.” Another upcoming project: removal of the flaming euonymus by the patio, also supplanted by something lower-growing.
Even after 40 years, the energetic couple continues to conjure new ideas for their half-acre. “Always keep dreaming of a new garden,” advises Courtney. “Don’t just give up.”