Land of the Free

by | Aug 1, 2013 | Landscapes

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN A founding member of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and her husband, an admirer of trees, bought 100 acres of former cornfield in Virginia’s hunt country that was overgrown with every kind of invasive exotic?

Beth and Wayne Gibbens worked hard. They named those acres Innisfree and inexorably and energetically restored the land, guided by an internal compass that pointed true native. Twenty years in the making, Innisfree is now a splendid patchwork of woodland, meadows and hedgerows, a masterpiece of landscape restoration.

Plan For The Best

A master plan for InnIsfree allowed Beth and Wayne Gibbens to visualize their entire 100 acres and break it down into manageable areas. linking all of the pieces with a mown path gave their plan cohesion.

Homeowners can benefit from creating a master plan for their properties, no matter how small they may be. A drawing, usually available for a small fee from the county office of land records, gives a bird’s-eye view of a property. It can be extremely helpful in laying out paths and drives and as a general guide to the lay of the land.

Use the plan to locate use areas such as doors, a garage, existing paths and the driveway as well as trees, outbuildings, the prevailing wind, patterns of sun and shade, and views. experimenting with changes – much easier to do on paper – demonstrates whether an alternate layout might work better than an existing one.

The Gibbens, who prior to moving to Innisfree lived in Washington, D.C., did the lion’s share of the work themselves. In the beginning, they made the one-hourplus drive back and forth from the city.

“We came out every weekend. We didn’t have any structure, so we’d work from dawn ’til dusk,” remembers Beth. “At first we had to pick up all the rocks and get rid of all the poison ivy. A lot of people are shocked by [our doing the work ourselves].” But, points out Beth, “It’s our joy.”

“I’m really happy with it,” agrees Wayne. “Beth, who was a dear friend of Mrs. Johnson, was inspired by the First Lady to do what we did here. Then Beth went to the Cullowhee native plant seminar and heard Gary Smith talk.”

Landscape architect and artist W. Gary Smith’s reverence for the native landscape resonated with Beth. She was so impressed with his presentation that she immediately called her husband and said, “You’ve got to come down here!’”

Wayne Gibbens joined his wife at the conference in Cullowhee, North Carolina. It was the beginning of a 15-year collaboration with Smith that has become a warm friendship. For his work on the project, landscape architect Gary Smith won a Gold Medal Award from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers in 2011.

The timing of that meeting in Cullowhee was propitious. The Gibbens had spent five years clearing the land and had begun to plant. They were ready for the next phase.

On Smith’s part, he says, “What really inspired me was their level of commitment.” Although most of Smith’s work is for larger botanic gardens, after speaking with the Gibbens at the conference he was intrigued.

“When working with native plants,” Smith says, “it’s crucial to have a certain degree of humility. They have that humility. They get it.”

It wasn’t until he actually visited Innisfree and saw the serpentine lines of horse fencing that flow over rolling hills that he understood the Gibbens’ level of sophistication. When he saw how local craftsmen had built walls, paving and stonework “without detailed construction drawings” and how local stone was used to complement historic walls, he says, “I felt a spontaneous connection with them.”

The couple had already begun planting trees. It had been a great labor of love. “Before we had a well, we would walk down to our pond and carry back water. We watered the trees – everything – by hand. When Gary came, he said, ‘Well, the good news is they’re just perfect. The bad news is, except for one. You’ve got to move it.’” Having to move one of those precious trees was hard to hear, says Beth. Nevertheless, they did it and the collaboration took off.

“Gary helped us,” says Beth. “He drew us a plan and said in the next 50 years we should follow it.” The plan is simple and ingenious. It connects the property’s various destinations with a meandering mown path nicknamed “the Daily Jaunt.” Consulting ecologist Jeff Wolinski provided advice and installed many of the meadows in pursuit of the plan.

“We named every place that we’d walk to. The woods in the back are the Confederate Woods. We had the Animal Cemetery. Everything has a name.” Among others are “the Scrim,” a beautiful hedgerow, and “Groundhog Hill.”

Designating these separate locales broke the property into manageable entities, each with a separate character that dictated its specific landscape treatment. Joining all together, the mowed path through 99.9 percent native wildflowers like asters and sunflowers and grasses gives the property lyrical cohesion. The Gibbens planted thousands of woody plants, native grasses and wildflowers “with their own hands,” says Smith.

A ride along the Daily Jaunt is like being on safari. Beth tosses off the names of all the plants in botanic Latin: Asclepias syriaca, Amelanchier, Silphium perfoliatum, Camassia scilloides. Overhead, singing birds swoop; butterflies hover over coneflowers; a groundhog scurries to his hole and a doe keeps a wary eye out while a small herd melts into the trees. Here and there, a tree is allowed to remain where it fell, offering habitat to birds and insects. One prized tree is a gorgeous living Magnolia virginiana.

“The Smithsonian ran a program last year called ‘Living Landscape.’ They had people coming out to monitor bees and butterflies,” says Beth. “We had all eight native Virginia bees and a lot of non-native bees.”

The hedgerows (of oakleaf hydrangea [Hydrangea quercifolia] in one spot) and the meadows can look “kind of unkempt to people who don’t appreciate what we’re doing,” says Wayne. A neighbor offered “to come over and ‘Bush Hog®’ close to the fences,” laughs Wayne. “They don’t get it,” he jokes. “You would be amazed at how much time and how much money it takes to make it look like I don’t give a damn!”

“The single most difficult part about doing what we’re doing,” he adds, “is to let nature takes its course. If you do that literally, then tree-of-heaven takes over. How you let things go back to nature and still control the invasive non-native things is a constant struggle.”

Happily, the Gibbens are persevering. Innisfree, though named for a beloved Irish thoroughbred horse, recalls Yeats’ poem “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a utopian landscape with a “bee-loud glade,” “where the cricket sings” and evenings are “full of linnet’s wings.”

Carole Ottesen is author of the horticultural mystery “Dying for the Chistmas Rose.”