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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the June 16, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Garden Paradise – in Trenton

‘My goal was to have not one blade of grass,” says Susan Kutliroff, social work professional and gardener extraordinaire. Sitting on her hand-made, two-tier deck overlooking an array of small gardens connected by curving paths of crushed red stone, she shows off the result of a radical yard management style.

Not only has Kutliroff transformed her own yard, but, she says, taking care to be modest, she is quite sure that she is the founder of the Island garden movement. This is a movement — almost a lifestyle, really — that causes newcomers to rip up their grass within months of arriving and replace it with everything from handmade tee-pees supporting tomatoes to rock-bordered sunflower preserves to mini-orchards. And not just in the backyard. No, these gardens are fast replacing front yards, side yards, and even areas that are not, strictly-speaking, the gardeners’ property.

All of this jubilant gardening is taking place in — of all places — Trenton, in a neighborhood that feels like nothing so much as an isolated pocket of deep country. There is little of suburbia here, and little of the city, either. A lovely stretch of the Delaware River unifies the neighborhood and gives it a sort of Huck Finn feel. The Island, a neighborhood just off Route 29 at Mount Vernon Avenue, not far from the Lower Ferry Road exit on Interstate 95, is having a garden tour on Saturday, June 19, at 10 a.m.

The hidden garden in the cottage that Kutliroff and her partner, Barbara Snyder, share is a highlight of the tour every year. It has been a quarter of a century in the making, and is still evolving.

“When I moved in 24 years ago,” says Kutliroff, gesturing to her back fence, “it was all just brush and dead trees.” It took two years of work just to uncover a white picket fence at the rear of the yard. “The lady across the street said it was mine,” she recounts. “She’s been here for 50 years.”

When Snyder, who works at the Levittown post office, moved in some 16 years ago, the gardening began in earnest. Individual gardens began to take form in inter-twined pockets. The water garden, home to fast-growing koi, sits near the middle. “Barbara dug this twice,” says Kutliroff. “It sprung a leak once.” Nearby, a wood sprite presides over an oval garden of low plants; an acorn hydrangea hangs over a riot of ferns; and crystals add energy to a rock garden.

Everywhere there are unexpected touches. A trio of rolicking frog musicians play in deep shade not far from a stretch of fence made of thin birch sticks. A mother wren darts protectively from a bird house. A deep blue bird bath shimmers in a tiny pool of light.

Throughout the garden there are benches. “Everywhere you sit, you get a different view,” says Kutliroff. It’s true. Sitting on the bench nearest the entrance, which is framed by an arch covered with climbing hydrangea, the view at twilight is of deep green serenity. Lounge on deck and the view is of hanging plants on the back fence, from which a piece has been removed. “A 90-year-old woman used to live behind us,” explains Kutliroff. “She loved to look into the garden, so we made her a ‘window.’”

Move to the newly installed rocking chairs, off in the right hand corner, and the view includes whimsy in the form of a flower pot woman, who sits at ease, her day’s work obviously done, on the opposite side of the garden. “Barbara and I saw it at the Miami Botanical Garden,” Kutliroff says of the prototype. The pair took pictures and, after a number of near misses and a fair amount of frustration, managed to reconstruct the sculpture.

The garden is more than a visual delight. It is a lesson plan for every gardener who has ever thrown her hands up and said, in piteous tones: “I can’t do anything with my yard! There is no sun!” The garden that Kutliroff and Snyder have brought to life is canopied by trees — big trees, mature trees, the kind of trees that let very little sun light through.

“The secret to shade gardening,” says Kutliroff, “is texture.” There can be no roses, no sunflowers. No matter. “We have all different ferns,” she says. “We have millions of different hostas.” Begonias and impatiens add color, as do azaleas. At the fringes of the garden, hibiscus is about to bloom.

In true Island style, the hidden garden is no island. “We took down the fence there,” says Kutliroff, gesturing toward the yard next door, where her garden flows toward that of her neighbors. “All the good bushes grow in that direction,” she says cheerfully enough. In the yard at the other side of the garden, a three-story tree house looms. “Noah’s condo,” laughs Kutliroff.

She and her partner are just back from a cruise. “While we were gone, Ellen took care of the back yard,” she says of one neighbor. “Barbara took care of the front yard,” she adds, “and Kathy across the street fed the fish.”

The garden requires constant attention. “It takes about two weeks in the spring to rake up the leaves,” Kutliroff says. In season there is always a new project — a bulb garden on the deck this year, and the rocking chair set up. “Some people sit on the deck and say ‘I love looking at the garden, but I wouldn’t want the work,’” says Kutliroff. “But we love it. For people who like to garden, it’s relaxing.”

In fact, the gardener adds, “I don’t think we’ve had time to sit in those rocking chairs yet.” When she does have a chance to sit — maybe in the fall — Kutliroff can reflect on the fact that she has achieved much more than her original goal. Not only is there nary a blade of grass anywhere in her yard, but the cherished suburban staple is fast becoming an endangered species all throughout her neighborhood.

Island Garden Tour. Saturday, June 19, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Rain date: Saturday, June 26. Route 29 and Mount Vernon Avenue, Trenton. Tickets: $5.

The writer is also a resident of Trenton’s Island neighborhood, which she profiled in the March 26, 1997, issue of U.S. 1.


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