For those of us who know Richard, we admire his tenacity and love of gardening. Watching the transformation over the last few years we have often been puzzled and appreciative of the work that has transpired at the old Oakley House. His love for the garden is unmistakable. Richard follows in the footsteps of the house’s namesake, Cletus Oakley, professor of mathematics and passionate gardener.
Recently, we were given a private tour. It was great to see how the garden has evolved over the last few years. Last time we spoke, Richard had been waging war on invasive plants. It appears that war has been won only to be replaced by another. Richards new nemesis is Pennsylvania’s heavy clay soil. Growing up in northern Virginia, Richard is very familiar with the hardship that gardeners face with these soils. Instead of doing battle, he decided to remediate. He started excavating portions of the garden, completely removing the red clay. Not a couple inches, but feet! I’d get the occasional email asking for wood chips, leaf mold or any excess soil. We’d deliver by the truck load. Holes would start appearing in the front garden as he excavated. The pile of discarded soil across from the house would get larger. We were all impressed by his dedication.
We wandered through his garden admiring the display of lilies, phlox, dahlias and black eyed susans. Each plant has a story. The Oakleaf Hydrangea seedling dug out from a suburban Washington D.C. swim club, the little Pitch Pine pulled from a sidewalk crack in Avalon and the many small trees from his family’s home in Maine. Each plant lovingly tended.
When asked how he got into gardening he told us of a trip to England. He had admired the hanging flower baskets, and upon his return hung several from his porch. While the basket eventually died a bird nested in one of them and over the years this has come to define Richard’s gardening style: “wild, but a little cultivated.” His garden attracts a variety of different wildlife: birds, rabbits and the occasional fox. The bird and hanging plant inspired him to find more plants that would attract wildlife, and with encouragement from Grounds and Arboretum his garden has grown to what it is today.
Our tour brings us to what Richard calls Stonehenge, two stone tables with benches. During my last visit four years ago, these tables were loaded with different types of stone. During his gardening endeavors he has uncovered stonework laid by Cletus Oakley: Flagstone, Belgian Block, brick, rocks of many different shapes and sizes and large slabs of glass which were once the Magill Library floor. Over the years he has hired students who’ve assisted him in creating walkways and edging throughout the garden. Looking at the piles he has materials for many years to come.
Our last stop was the woodland that screens the house from Walton Road. Haverford’s tree contractor, John B Ward, removed several Norway Maples creating dappled shade, perfect for some of our native understory trees. In order to eliminate non-native competition, Richard blanketed select areas with a foot of leaves. His reasoning being that you nurture the good and suppress the bad. Small specimens of Beech, Shadbush, American Holly and Redbud are scattered on the woodland floor.
The glimpses from Featherbed lane do not do justice to the beauty that is hidden behind the house. 1 Featherbed Lane is truly a labor of love.