Fellow Ellen Bowman has the distinct pleasure of gardening in Rhode Island and Texas, two contrasting climates where she has learned to embrace their differences. Pulling from xeriscape practices, her Austin, TX, garden is predominantly comprised of redbud trees, mountain laurel, cactus, and rock. In Newport, RI, large rock outcroppings, meadows, hydrangea, roses, lavender, and her favorite flower, peonies, comprise this New England landscape. Also a patron of the arts, Ellen embraces the way gardens and art both nurture the soul, and she has recently fostered the skill of slowing down in her gardens to experience them on a whole new level – a practice we fully endorse.
When did your interest in gardens begin, and what first inspired your passion for gardening?
Growing up in Texas, pristine cultivated gardens were few and far between. Texas is known for having blankets of highway wildflowers along wild, untamed beauty – I see now what a big impact that had on me, and I still tend to lean toward the natural aesthetic.
As for passion, it started when we lived in London. The Chelsea Flower Show and the English countryside opened my eyes to the joy of gardening. Finally, I always think of my grandmother, who was very proud of her roses.
You and your husband, Steven, maintain a beautiful landscape in Newport, RI. Tell us about the garden. What aspects do you enjoy most? Any favorite plants or spaces?
In 2020, we made quite a few changes to the front gardens. I wanted to tidy up the front walk and along the front porch. Historically, we were in constant battle with hydrangea that just wanted to grow huge and messy all over the walkway and darkened our porch with too much shade. Finally, we made the decision to dig up ALL the healthy and happy peonies and hydrangea and place them in their own beds further up the drive. I am anxiously awaiting spring to see if the peonies and hydrangea that we transplanted will take and thrive!
As for our property, it has a view of the ocean, and the house sits nestled along a pond. There are many large outcroppings and hills which add a lot of visual interest. You need to be prepared for slight climbs to wander all the pathways and get to the best views. We have osprey, swans, ducks, geese, and all other kinds of creatures that come with being on a pond.
My favorite part of the property is the cutting garden at the top of a hill. Peonies still remain my favorite flower. We have several types and I never get tired of using the blooms in arrangements – I just wish their bloom time was longer.
You also keep a garden in Austin, TX. What have you learned from gardening in a climate that is so distinctly different from that of your Rhode Island garden?
I’ve learned vive la difference! While we haven’t gone completely xeriscape in Texas, we no longer have flower beds and have much less green lawn. The beds are now filled with pea gravel or river rocks, prickly pear, agave, lantana, dwarf palmetto, and red yucca. I love native burning bush, yaupon holly, redbud trees, Texas sage, and Texas mountain laurel. It is distinctly different from Rhode Island landscapes indeed!
As a member of the Society of Fellows since 2017, you have participated in several Fellows tours and many educational programs; thank you! Tell us about your experience as a Garden Conservancy Fellow and member of our community of garden enthusiasts.
I can honestly say that some of the greatest joy I’ve had in recent years has been with this group. The absolute privilege of being invited to experience private gardens, to speak with the gardeners and owners, and to travel with like-minded garden lovers is a special treat that I cherish.
You are also a longstanding patron of the arts and joined the Board of Trustees of the Newport Art Museum this year. In observation of your interests, how do you see nature and art intersect?
Being in gardens, green space, and open vistas feeds our souls. Experiencing a wholly unique artwork, that has been created from the human hand, can expand our souls. They unite us in the experience of something greater than ourselves. Recently, I have also been involved with the Aquidneck Island Land Trust which, like the Garden Conservancy, endeavors to preserve areas for future generations.
During the difficulties of the past year and a half, many have emphasized the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How have your gardens provided solace for you during this time?
Very simply, the absence of traveling and people demanded time be spent in solitude. After the first few months of fighting it, I allowed myself to sit and enjoy the garden's beauty in a different way. Rather than appreciating its beauty in a rush, I had the luxury of experiencing it on a more visceral level. Stop and smell the flowers, indeed.