Fall brings out the best in this Chestnut Hill garden

Fall is Jay Flaherty’s favorite garden time. The cooler weather and changing light “sharpen” the colors of the crimson cannas and Hot Lips Salvia, pink and orange zinnias, and purple phlox.

Jay’s neighbors in Chestnut Hill would agree. There, as everywhere during the pandemic, people wanted to be outdoors, and a favorite place to stroll became his corner property.

From the sidewalk, neighbors viewed bright floral displays framed by sculptural tree trunks and branches.

Jay said he and his wife, Nanie, “never wanted to wall the garden. We wanted to share it with the public.”

The Flahertys bought their French-country style home in 1985. The two-story house, built in 1961 on an acre of land, had been empty for six years and required a new roof, plumbing, and wiring.

Previous owners planted a lawn, roses, holly bushes and beech trees, several of which were storm-damaged and had to be cut down.

Back then, the Flahertys were busy working and raising three young children. They had moved from Center City and had little garden experience. Jay remembered, “I went to Kmart and bought a lawn mower.”

The couple became serious gardeners after their children were grown, and they retired — Jay in 2011 as a partner with an energy site development company and Nanie in 2012 as a psychologist at the Child Study Institute at Bryn Mawr College.

Jay collected gardening books and visited nurseries, asking questions. The two-car garage became a potting shed and storage space for gardening equipment.

Nanie said her husband, who comes from a family of artists, approaches gardening as an artist, working with color, form, and texture. Paintings by Jay’s grandmother and aunt are displayed in the house. Outside, his grandmother’s sculptor’s stands display flower-filled containers.

Jay found a broken sculpture of the god Pan in the yard and repaired it. Now Pan blows streams of water from his pipes surrounded by plant-filled pots. Blue pots complement the blue window trim and shutters on the cream-colored stucco house.

The over-80 holly bushes are the “bones” of the refurbished garden, Jay said. He “bonsaied” the hollies to clean out fungus. Their now treelike branches add sculptural interest.

Several wooden benches and a stone bench installed by Jay and his son Doyle “free me to sit, smell, feel and listen,” Jay said.

Oak-leaf hydrangeas, blue plumbagos, cardinal flowers, which attract hummingbirds, and other perennials have replaced the rose bushes, which required pesticides and continuous maintenance.

A fountain ringed with Japanese maples replaced the children’s swing set. An old sandbox mounted on the side of the house frames two wooden roosters, a fish, and a thermostat the Flahertys bought on vacation in Key West.

When the couple installed central air 15 years ago, they used their children’s playhouse to cover the compressor adjacent to the house.

For her vegetable and herb garden, Nanie starts seeds in her basement. She grows beans, peas, arugula, cucumbers, honey-colored koginut squash, and a variety of heirloom tomatoes. Fox urine keeps away squirrels.

Jay prefers shredded leaves to mulch. They hold moisture and have more nutrients than wood chips, he said. Wissahickon schist interspersed among plantings slow down runoff from heavy rains.

The landscape features the unexpected. Two pots of fat cotton bolls are near a vine of gold beer hops climbing a basketball pole. The hops need lots of sun and can withstand the grandsons’ errant basketball shots, Jay said. The Flahertys have seven grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 12.

Nanie was at Vassar and Jay was at Yale when they were introduced by their fathers who were tennis partners at the Jersey Shore. They married in 1969.

The Flahertys, who are in their 70s, want to stay in their home and continue to garden. “Our kids are OK with that as long as I get help when I need it,” Jay said.

Nanie finds it “incredibly soothing” to listen to audiobooks while she weeds.

Jay prefers to “listen to the crunch of leaves, birds, and insects” as he works.

When the couple travels, they visit gardens and chat with gardeners. “Unlike global warming or politics,” Jay said, “people don’t feel threatened when you talk about trees.”

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