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Gardeners reach new highlights on rocky cliff

By Virginia A. Smith
Philadelphia Inquirer

Think of all the tough places people garden: on traffic islands and tree stumps, between pavers and logs, along highways and sand dunes.

How about this: a rocky cliff 60 feet high and 120 feet long. Some rock garden!

Mark Isaksen and Daniel Walth weren't sure what to expect in 2001 when they went to see the house for sale on Cliff Terrace, a one-block, dead-end street in Wyncote, Pa. Turns out, it had what they were looking for — less house and more yard than their place in the Germantown area of Philadelphia — and two other pluses. It's close to the Jenkintown-Wyncote train station and part of a nationally designated historic district.

But these guys are gardeners. What really grabbed their attention was the cliff. What treasures lay beneath its blanket of overgrown trees and snarling ivy, they wondered? And something else, admittedly pretty crazy: Could they plant up there?

Absolutely, though not easily. With help from a 40-foot extension ladder belonging to a neighbor, Isaksen and Walth have created an original garden that's architecturally, artistically and, as it turns out, archaeologically rich.

Running along their western property line, the cliff was part of an old quarry that dates to the 1800s. The Wissahickon schist mined there built new homes in burgeoning Jenkintown and Wyncote, including the cottage-like, Queen Anne-style twins on Cliff Terrace.

The street was carved out in 1894 along the original cartway leading into the quarry, according to local historian Tom Wieckowski. A second quarry, behind Isaksen and Walth's house, provided stone for Philadelphia's City Hall, he says.

Which means the cliff these new homeowners inherited is literally full of history. Also poison and English ivies, which took an entire year to eradicate.

Several Norway maples got the boot, too, guilty of blocking the sun, propagating mercilessly, and inhibiting the growth of what turned out to be beautiful native flora.

In time, the cliff's deep shade turned to dappled, allowing a lustrous American beech to emerge and an overshadowed elm to find room in the canopy. The cliff-side rhododendrons and hydrangeas, seemingly sprung from sheer rock into blue and white bloom, are thriving now.

The couple has added a lower layer of ferns, including Christmas, maidenhair, ostrich and royal. They lend feathery texture and Victorian extravagance to the cliff's spare gray face.

“My idea was to garden more on the cliff,” says Walth, 45, an artist from Fargo, N.D., who works part time in a Center City, Philadelphia, art gallery, “but we're letting the cliff have a life of its own.

”Let the cliff reveal itself,“ he says. ”You shouldn't struggle with or deny it.“

Isaksen, 40, who grew up in Fairhaven, Mass., the son and grandson of commercial fishermen, is not an artist. He's a museum curator with the National Park Service, based in Philadelphia but responsible for 70 historic sites from Maine to Virginia. You might say he has a deep appreciation for heritage, whether at a Civil War battlefield or in his side yard.

”I looked to the land, to the placement of the cliff, our siting, things we can't do anything about, to tell us what to do,“ he says.

And the cliff says: Be patient.

This isn't the place for gardeners who want what they want right now, supersized and in Technicolor. This ”is the place to tend, transplant, propagate, divide, move around and shape till each plant finds its ordained home, size and season.

“Our happiness,” Walth says, “is to watch a tree or shrub or perennial grow from a young transplant, to cultivate and nurture it.”

On the side of a cliff, this means more than watching. It's work. A long ladder helps.

The pair struggled to find crevices with enough soil to plant in. Somehow, they squeezed white and yellow daffodil bulbs, liriope, and yellow-splashed ‘Gold Heart' ivy into tiny pockets up and down the rock face. They added Japanese kerria, for its wide arcs of yellow in spring, and climbing hydrangea, which produces lacy, cream-white flowers around heart-shaped leaves.

They began working the soil at the base of the cliff, discovering a cache of large stones Isaksen used to build a 3-foot-high retaining wall to separate cliff from lawn. And they unearthed the relics and refuse of generations past — a Pepto-Bismol-pink toilet bowl, glass bottles, toys, tennis balls and baseballs, even a boomerang that had obviously veered off a backyard beyond the cliff.

For the gardens out back, they hauled in truckloads of good soil, enriched yearly with compost, to create flowing perennial beds with unusual plantings. They also restored a small pond that earlier owners had filled with dirt and a butterfly bush.

Now, as goldfish glide down below, the pond quietly bubbles, not unlike the natural spring that in April ripples pleasantly down the side of the cliff.

Out back, the colors are cool pink, purple and white; red, yellow and orange are considered too hot, except for accents or “jewels.” Gardens out front and on the side of the house are greener, more woodland, but just as thoughtful.

Plans include extending the rock wall and building “steps to nowhere” on the cliff as a sort of garden folly. For now, it's fun to just sit on the porch swing, all senses heightened.

You see birds going in and out of the houses Walth has built. You see moving shadows and nodding branches. But mostly, you watch the rock. It's endlessly beautiful.

And mesmerizing. It's no surprise, then, to learn what Walth collects on vacations to Cape Cod: pounds and pounds of what he describes as “smooth, interesting, colored, patterned rocks.

”Each one tells a story,“ he says. ”I can't resist.“

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© 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): rockgarden AMX-2008-08-12T08:26:00-04:00

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