New Hampshire Home Article

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Published in New Hampshire Home magazine - January/February 2012 

A Year at Distant Hill

By Robin Sweetser
Photography by Michael Nerrie


A Walpole couple gives new meaning to "gardening" throughout the seasons.


For the past thirty-three years, Kathy and Michael Nerrie have worked to create a homestead and gardens on a knoll in Walpole known as Distant Hill. The result is fifty-eight acres of ornamental plantings, vegetable gardens, forests and fields (once part of a circa 1790 farm) that have been thoughtfully combined into a four-season sculpture garden. The informal gardens sweep around rock outcroppings and boulders, using these natural features to their greatest advantage. 


Winter Celebrations


The most compelling feature on this property is a standing stone circle made entirely from stones found on the property. Michael has placed seventeen 3 to 5 foot tall stones in a 30 foot circle. There are two 5 to 6 foot tall sighting stones outside the circle, and eight 2 to 3 foot diameter, 12 inch tall sitting stones within the circle.


Inspired by an ancient stone circle the Nerries saw in Ireland, they aligned their stone circle to the setting sun on the winter solstice. Michael has incorporated a metal sighting ring to enable viewers to correctly line up the tops of the outlying stones to the point on the horizon where the sun sets on the shortest day of the year: Dec. 21 or 22.


"This is one of our favorite yearly celebrations," Kathy says. "We gather together on the solstice with friends and neighbors to watch the sunset and welcome the soon-to-be lengthening days. We have a big bonfire in the center of the circle and follow the old tradition of burning our 'grumps' in 
the fire."


Another tradition the Nerries follow is growing Christmas trees as holiday gifts for friends and neighbors. It takes between ten and twelve years to grow a seven- or eight-foot-tall tree from a twelve-inch seedling. The Nerries give away about twenty-five trees each year, so every spring, the couple replants at least twenty-five more. "We buy all the balsam fir seedlings locally from the N.H. State Nursery in Boscawen," Michael says.


Spring Joy


Spring comes early to Distant Hill. After the sugar maples have been tapped, the indoor growing season begins around February 21 with the planting of onion and leek seeds. It progresses to celery and lettuce in early March, peppers in late March, brassicas in early April, and finally tomatoes in mid-April. The Nerries start all their own plants for the vegetable garden and save some of the previous year's garlic, shallots and potatoes for planting the next season.


Bulbs and early blooming shrubs kick off spring in the outdoor garden. Evergreen shrubs, such as juniper 'Grey Owl', provide a backdrop for bloodroot and spring-blooming bulbs. Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis), fragrant dwarf viburnum (V. farreri) 'Nanum', star magnolia (M. stellata) and white forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) are some of the first shrubs to bloom. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) contributes its yellow flowers about the same time the hundreds of daffodils planted on the hillside behind the pond burst into bloom. "They really raise the spirits in April," Michael says. "Last year, the first daffodil bloomed on March 23."


Native plants play a large part in the garden at Distant Hill as Michael and Kathy add more of them every year. "We have transplanted jack-in-the-
pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), white baneberry (Actea pachypoda), painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) and red trillium (T. erectum) along with a number of other plants and native ferns from our forests and fields," Michael says. "My favorite native plant in the gardens has to be our pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). A bird planted the seed fifteen years ago in a perfect location. At times, nature is better at garden design than we humans."


The three-acre milkweed meadow, grown especially for migrating monarch butterflies, is mowed just twice a year. "Once in mid-May to lessen the competition from grasses and other plants, so the milkweed can get a head start," Michael says. "We mow again in October after the plants have gone to seed."


Participating in the 2003 Monarch Watch, Michael tagged a butterfly in his garden that was found six months later in El Rosario, Mexico, an incredible 2,288-mile trip! One enterprising monarch caterpillar formed a chrysalis within the metal sighting ring at the stone circle the night before the garden was opened to hundreds of visitors during the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour in July 2012.


Summer Color


Summer brings color galore. Purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) paired with 'Autumn Red' daylilies bloom just outside the back door. "This is one of my favorite color combinations," Michael says. The orange centers of the coneflowers perfectly echo the color of the daylilies.


The dwarf water lilies-a favorite hiding place for frogs-blossom in the small pond, and the rock garden seen from the dining room bursts with bright pink alliums in mid-July. Dwarf Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila) and the butterfly bush (Buddleia nanhoensis) 'Nanho Purple' are two more of Michael and Kathy's summer- blooming favorites.


The vegetable garden is in full swing with its intensively planted, eight raised beds of broccoli, lettuce, beans, peas, garlic, onions, leeks, spinach, cabbage, peppers, zucchini, tomatoes and basil. There are separate beds for corn and pumpkins, and a long asparagus bed.


Autumn Harvest


Fall is time for harvesting the last of the vegetables, planting garlic, and cutting and stacking wood. "We use two cords of wood a year to heat the house for the entire winter, and boiling the sap uses about the same amount," Michael says. "Fall is the most beautiful time to be outdoors in New Hampshire, and the work keeps you warm even on those frosty October mornings. They say wood warms you five times: when you cut the tree, split the wood, stack it, move it into the house and finally when you 
burn it."


Sedum 'Autumn Joy', chelone 'Hot Lips' and pee gee hydrangeas brighten up the fall garden. The colorful leaves of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenia) and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) 'Henry's Garnet' accent the changing seasonal foliage around them.


Garden Artwork


Unique metal sculptures are artfully placed around the property. Guard geese made from old snowmobile mufflers graze on the lawn near the pond, while a tall, cleverly crafted, scrap-metal scarecrow stands watch over the pumpkin patch, and a ruby-shoed Dorothy oils the Tin Man. Waldo the peacock has a tail of old shovels, and a monarch caterpillar is made from springs and horseshoes. Michael has constructed most of these sculptures from found objects.


"The last farmer to work this land was a logger who had work horses. He discarded dozens of worn-out horseshoes and other scrap iron in the farm's old dump site in the woods," Michael says. "This two-hundred-year-old scrapheap is a veritable treasure trove of metal parts for sculptures."


In addition, Taylor Welding of Alstead has contributed four creations, including a red-headed woodpecker near the sugarhouse and a hummingbird feeding at red metal flowers.


Striving for Self-Sufficiency


The Nerries built their own passive solar home and several outbuildings. The timber-frame house has an attached sunspace, which collects heat during the day, stores it in a foot-thick brick and concrete wall, and radiates it back into the house at night. The space also serves as clothes dryer, greenhouse for starting plants and an oasis on a sunny winter's day.


"In the winter, on a sunny day when the temperature outside falls below zero, there is nothing more satisfying than putting on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, setting up the hammock and reading a good book in the greenhouse, which can be between 80 and 90 degrees," Kathy says.


Along with the passive solar sunspace, the Nerries have a closed-loop solar water heater, which provides half of their hot water needs, and a 3.15 kW photovoltaic system mounted on the roof of the house, which supplies about 75 percent of the electricity.


In addition, the Nerries dug a swimming pond and restored eight acres of abandoned sugarbush back to maple syrup production. Their sugarhouse is not only a practical workplace but also a work of art, built from pine harvested from their woodlot and sawn into timbers and boards on a portable sawmill run by three local women. "Thinning our woodlands to improve the health and productivity of the trees is no different than thinning our carrots to give them room to grow," Michael says. "And those three women worked during the coldest days of the winter of 2004. I still shiver just thinking about it!"


He puts out about 250 taps each spring, yielding enough sap to make between twenty and forty gallons of syrup a year. "We don't sell much of our syrup, since we use it in everything from the fifty jars of blueberry jam we make each summer to the maple-sweetened iced tea we drink year-round," Michael says. A bottle of Distant Hill Liquid Gold syrup is their standard gift for whatever occasion comes up.


Sharing Their Environment


Realizing that they are the stewards of a unique piece of New Hampshire land, the Nerries have been working to turn their property into a nature-based educational facility. Antioch University graduate student Maisie Rinne has worked with the couple to create a network of educators, conservationists, environmentalists, schools and universities.


"We've had a multitude of people visit Distant Hill and feel confident that it is a unique place for children to explore wild wonderlands, for college and graduate students to develop research projects, and for people of all ages to explore the idea of 'gardening' on a much deeper level," Rinne says.


While turning Distant Hill into a special place for themselves, the Nerries have also created a haven for wildlife and birds. "In some cases, it is best to just step back and do nothing to the land," Michael says. "One of the many unique natural communities we host is a network of vernal pools where we try to let nature do her thing. Certain species of frogs and salamanders rely on these pools for survival."


"We strive to improve the aesthetics, fertility and productivity of the land in a way that is sustainable and will leave this a healthier and more beautiful 'garden," Michael says. "We hope to make Distant Hill into a venue for environmental and nature-based classes, workshops and field studies that will inspire both children and adults to explore and cultivate their own connection to the natural world." 


© 2012 New Hampshire Home magazine