Gardener Kate McLeod finds the beauty in a once-derelict lot.
Photographs by Molly Haley
The first time she lived in Belfast, about 20 years ago, Kate McLeod had a house in the village. Some evenings, as dusk settled on her neighborhood, she’d watch sardine-factory workers cross the Passagassawakeag River footbridge to their homes on Patterson Hill, which was still basking in the sun’s glow. “The sun set a half hour later over there,” says McLeod, an artist who also designs and installs residential gardens. “I thought, ‘I’d like to live there, because of the sun and the shelter offered by the slope of the hill.”
Today, she does live there, and the garden she’s spent eight years building on her one-acre lot supports perennials, like hardy gardenias, that wouldn’t survive anywhere else in town. “We’re in this microclimate, and I love it,” McLeod says. “When everyone else has frost, this garden is fine.”
Terracing downhill in a web of flowerbeds and patios, her garden is a dramatic transformation of what was essentially a small dump, though McLeod didn’t know that the winter she moved in. “The house was full of trash, but I thought the outside would be fine,” she says. “Then the snow melted. It was piles of garbage, and it hadn’t been mowed in 15 years. You’ve never seen such a nightmare.”
With the help of her friends and parents, McLeod cleaned up the rubbish and burned the burdock and other weeds to the ground. Then she delineated paths by laying down pieces of cardboard and rag-carpet scraps topped with a layer of pea stones (the paper and fabric scraps inhibited weeds while they slowly decomposed).
“I’m an artist, and flowers are so beautiful that I’ve always wanted to paint them,” McLeod says. “Once I had my own land, I wanted to grow them.” Her latest project is a shade garden at the bottom of her sloped Belfast lot.
The daughter of serious gardeners, McLeod isn’t deterred by physical labor. “I used to think my father buried rocks for us to pick up in the spring,” she says. She considers herself fortunate to have a yard that yields a seemingly never-ending supply of rocks for stone walls she’s built by hand.
McLeod is partial to Siberian irises, hydrangeas with big, showy white blooms, rose of Sharon, and coneflowers of all sorts — like Bubble Gum, with pink double blossoms, and Green Envy, whose petals run blush to green. On the west side of the house, the air hums as bees hover around the creamy-white spires of 8-foot-tall plume poppies. Golden Japanese forest grass and hostas in shades of chartreuse, blue green, and yellow lend texture all summer long. Along the property line, Joe Pye weed, tall grasses, and evergreens are a living privacy screen.
“It’s all-season beauty,” McLeod says. “It starts in the spring with the foxgloves and rhododendrons and marches straight through to September, when everything is overgrown and exuberant. I’m fickle: whatever month it is, I think it’s the best.”