When Jeff Maddox moved into his sprawling contemporary cedar-and-brick North Baltimore home in 1998, he was too busy renovating the interior to turn his attention to the outside. "I redid the whole house," says Maddox. "The whole yard needed regrading, and it was too much to take on at one time."
But two years later, when Maddox got married, he and his wife Leah decided to tackle the half-acre heavily wooded tangle of scrub trees, bramble, and poison ivy.
"It was unusable," says Maddox. "We wanted to make it both a useable space for the family as well as a space that we [could] share with our friends."
Though Leah was an inexperienced gardener when she married Maddox, she now considers herself a serious dabbler.
"I do enjoy it," she admits. "I had almost no interest at first, but because it's something Jeff loves and he spends so much time doing it, I have gravitated toward doing more."
Maddox, on the other hand, is a veteran gardener who, as a young boy, lived on his grandparents' 1,000-acre Kentucky farm.
"We had corn, beans, and tobacco on the farm," he recalls. "Early on, I developed an appreciation of what's involved in growing things. I gained an awareness that it's a very involved process."
After the initial landscaping, the couple's garden had a formal feel. But eventually that changed. "I realized I don't like formal gardens, after all," says Maddox. "I realized I couldn't control nature."
More than a decade later, the space spills over with annuals and perennials, four-foot walls of flowers, a pond-like pool area, and intricate stacked stone walls. The garden structure is comprised of three distinct levels. The first is a wide, open, flat parcel of grass for family whiffle ball and badminton games with a spectacular tree house that provides a bird's-eye view of the grounds. The middle level—with its mass plantings of brightly colored peonies, daylilies, phlox, and Shasta daisies all clustered around the pool and waterfall—creates a natural look that blends seamlessly with the wooded setting. ("We have fooled plenty of ducks who think this is a pond," laughs Maddox.) The third level, which acts as the entrance to the garden, is a catchall, where a kind of liberating randomness reigns.
"We call it The Island of Misfit Plants," laughs Leah. "We can't bear to throw anything away."
Best of all, the Maddoxes have passed their passion for the earth onto their 8-year-old son, Ethan.
"He has taken an active interest in keeping things going," says Maddox. "He helps weed and transplant plants, and helps pick out plants when we go to the nursery. The other night, I was setting up a sprinkler to water some of the plants that weren't doing so well, and as I started to walk away, Ethan said, 'You missed one.' I wasn't inclined to go back and reset it, but he said, 'Dad, it's a plant—it has a life.' When they say stuff like that, you know that you have reached them."