A planter’s paradise in Sea Cliff

Secret Garden Tour wows residents

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The scorching heat last Saturday morning didn’t discourage visitors from attending the Bi-Annual Secret Garden Tour, sponsored by the Sea Cliff Beautification Committee. Since 1997, committee members have identified “hidden retreats” in the village that residents can explore in a self-guided walking tour.

“This is a big year for Beautification because it’s our 60th anniversary,” said Gwynne Lennon, a member of the Garden Tour committee. “There are nine stops, including six private gardens, and we try to keep the gardens secret until the day of the tour.”

The event celebrates “home-grown horticulture” in Sea Cliff and flaunts the “floral ambitions” of some of the village’s residents. Among this year’s stops were a micro farm, a garden vista with water views and elaborate perennial shade gardens.

“People will be able to see beautiful suburban gardens, a smaller garden based on a French landscape design, and one stop which is very creative is the micro-garden,” Lennon said. “The family sells veggies throughout the season in their front yard.”

Donna and Peter Kianka have nurtured a micro-farm since 1989, when they moved to the village. What began as a few modest plantings along the north end of their property has blossomed into small “maze” that fills the backyard, abundant with herbs, fruits and vegetables. This is the first year their home was featured on the tour.

“We put it off for a couple of years because it’s a little bit of a maze, but we had faith that people would be able to navigate it,” said Donna, who is an herbalist by avocation.

Her husband’s interest in farming grew out of spending summers on his grandparents’ 90-acre farm in New Jersey. He called sharing his expertise with fellow plant-lovers “fun.”

“I like answering their questions and running into people who also like to garden, and they give me some ideas, too,” Peter said. “We had one guy come earlier, and we were sharing advice regarding irrigation systems and whatnot.”

The micro-farm boasts more than a dozen raised beds bursting with vegetables like tomatoes, onions, peppers, corn, beans, carrots, cucumbers, garlic, squash and eggplants. Lining the beds are vibrant marigolds, which act as a natural insecticide, true to the Kiankas’ tradition of organic farming.

“We would like to see more people growing their own herbs, avoiding all those pesticides, and we’d like to see more of an interest in vegetable gardening,” Donna said. “I think it’s better for your health, and it renews the spirit to be out cultivating and nurturing plants.”

Just across from Pirie Park, on Summit Avenue, Nancy Gordon, another first-time exhibitor, greets guests visiting her clifftop garden, which blends stone, metal, wood and greenery into one tranquil scene. She said her green thumb was only recently realized, when she saw the opportunity to transform the eroding cliffside of her new home into a planter’s paradise. It took over 10 years to complete, which included the building of tiered retaining walls.

“I’ve always loved the garden tour, and it’s been a lot of fun being a host,” Gordon said. “We’ve been working very hard the last three or four years to restore the backyard.”

Hydrangeas, roses and boxwoods border the stone stairwell at the top of the cliff. Taking a closer look in between the stones, one can see a cultivation of Irish moss, sedum and other succulents flourishing in the cracks. Farther down on the patio, surrounded by shade plants, visitors are offered panoramic views of the waterways below.

“In my last house, I didn’t have the spots that I have here [to garden], so this is really fun for me, but the lead-up to it is really the most fun,” Gordon said. “I like the idea of it being a secret.”

Down a shady, winding road, self-proclaimed anglophile Posey Heisig, who has been designing gardens for 30 years, gives tour-takers detailed descriptions of her own secret garden, which emulates the ethereal landscapes of southwestern France, a beloved destination she and her family used to visit every summer.

“The French designers of the 17th century weren’t out of their minds,” Heisig said, explaining the garden’s layout. “There was a reason they built the châteaus [on top of hillside] and the gardens down [below].”

The result is a cascade of roses, peonies and hydrangeas into Heisig’s backyard, which is dotted with upcycled antiques — think refurbished doors and wrought-iron benches. Two lines of manicured bushes cut a walkway through the middle of the space to Heisig’s back porch. At the center of it all stands a marble fountain, burbling with glee. On the side of the house, handmade mosaics crafted from shards of old tea sets provide a pop of color.

“I don’t like what’s going on in the world today, so I make my own world here — this is my little paradise,” Heisig said.

This is the third year Heisig has put her immaculate gardens, which span three lots, on display. She enjoys the visitors, especially those with green thumbs. “I think gardening people are the nicest people in the world,” she said.

Check out next week's edition of the Herald Gazette for more photos from the tour.