"I see people craning their necks to look into our yard all the time," says Erwin Hubbard.
He's referring to the circa 1790 Ellicott City home he shares with his partner of 17 years
(and the property's resident gardener), Bette Chambers. Passersby simply can't help but slow down as they drive past the former toll house.
"I always invite them to have a look around to see Bette's work," Hubbard says. "When we've had garden tours here, she always greets people at the front door, while I meet them at the end of the tour. But I tell her she has it all wrong because visitors end up giving me the accolades, which should all go to her."
Indeed, the 81-year-old Chambers, along with her late husband, Melvin, who died in 1989, planted virtually every specimen in the garden—from the graceful Bradford pear trees to the white and purple clematis, Kousa dogwood, flowering almond tree, and weeping cherry—when they purchased the property in 1955.
And while the space has continued to delight visitors—both invited and uninvited—it was not always tour worthy. When Chambers first laid eyes on the property five decades ago, it looked condemned. "When I found it, it was falling down," she says. "It was nothing but poison oak and honeysuckle and grass up to my knees, and the inside of the house wasn't any better. The basement had a dirt floor, and there weren't even any cabinets in the kitchen. My father said, 'Bette, you are out of your mind!' But I was taught early on that anything you do, you leave it more beautiful than when you found it, and that's what appealed to me."
For as long as she can remember, gardening has been an integral part of Chambers's life. She earned her green thumb as a young girl by making frequent visits to her grandmother's 500-acre Ellicott City farm. "My grandmother, Martha Carolyn Baker, had a vegetable and flower garden," recalls Chambers. "Thanks to her, I was always around gardening. When you're around it, you just do it. There's nothing to putting a flower in the ground, watering it, and planting it."
Chambers, who has belonged to Howard County's Cross Country Garden Club for 52 years, and who also works as an interior designer, has a penchant for placing found objects in her garden. Her garden now features a German bathtub converted into a fountain, intricate ironwork from horse stalls that double as an entrance to the English section of her garden, and balustrades from the former Franklin Street viaduct recycled into pedestals for plants.
"I didn't plan my garden," says Chambers. "It just happened. We lost 11 trees in Hurricane Isabel, for instance, so my shade garden turned into a hot sun garden. Now it looks like my azaleas may have to come out. A garden is constantly changing. It is a lot like life, beautiful at times and other times dying. You just have to get used to it."