After two successive hurricanes hit their Ruxton property in 1979, Bill and Penny Owen needed to do some serious clean up in their backyard. "It looked like a bomb went off," recalls Penny. "Our property was devastated." Though they had little in the way of a garden, trees were uprooted, fences downed, and—worst of all—the meandering stream that ran the length of their two-acre lot had not only widened but was moving toward their house. "When we moved in, my 11-year-old son could jump across the stream," notes Bill. "After the hurricanes, all of a sudden, it was 20-feet wide."
The first order of business was stabilizing the stream. After doing some research, Bill learned they would need to build gabions (baskets of thick galvanized wire filled with stone to serve as both retaining and retraining walls), but the estimate—a jaw-dropping $35,000 to fix the problem with no guarantee—was more than they could afford. Instead, the couple took a do-it-yourself approach.
"Our neighbor's son went to McDonogh School and was on the football team," explains Penny, "so that summer, we had the better part of the McDonogh football team living here in our basement. I would make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for them in these giant pots. Their girlfriends would come over and weave these wire baskets together, and the boys filled them with 500 tons of rocks. We had a wonderful time together."
Once the work was done, the self-made gabions inadvertently inspired a garden. The Owens hired Maxalea to help create soil-retentive flower beds filled with liriope, cotoneaster, and daylillies to hide the gabions. "The boys were so angry with me when I was done," says Penny, still smiling at the memory. "They said, 'How could you do this to our gabions? You can't even see them.' I said, 'That's the point.'"
Before long, Penny, never a gardener, had fallen in love with planting. "I got absolutely hooked on gardening," she says. "My mother must have kept me scrubbed up clean and neat because the dirtier I get, the happier I am."
Nearly four decades later, the yard is a park-like haven with towering trees, seasonal flowers, numerous statuary, and a charming footbridge that allows visitors to traverse both sides of the stream.
The latest project? A perfectly manicured English-style garden that now stands on the former site of the Owens' swimming pool.
"Penny told me she always wanted a formal garden," says Maxalea designer Sandy Wicklein, who planned the garden on the exact footprint of the pool. "Everything else is so naturalized, we thought it would be the perfect counterpoint."
And more than 30 years after those hurricanes hit, the Owens' garden is an absolute sanctuary. "One of my friends said, 'I can never get you on the phone,'" says Penny. "And I said, 'I don't want to be got. I want to be out there in the quiet and serenity of my garden.' My garden has given me so much more than I have given it."