From the February/March 2013 Issue:

The Life of a Garden

    Writer: Robin Amster | Photographer: Patricia Burke |

Rumson homeowners and their gardener spend 20 years bringing Linden Hill to life

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enlarge | Beyond a rock garden, a weeping cherry tree sits next to a red cedar gazebo.
Clive Deeble stoops to pull a weed from a flowerbed as he shows a visitor around the Linden Hill estate in Rumson. Beyond a gracious white colonial house lie eight acres of colorful flowerbeds; majestic linden, maple, beech and magnolia trees; a fruit orchard; and a vegetable garden—all of it enveloped within wide expanses of deep green lawn.

Deeble knows every inch of it.

Eugene and Sue Mercy hired Deeble nearly 28 years ago as estate manager, caretaker and gardener for Linden Hill, their summer home. “I’m a bit of a dinosaur,” Deeble says cheerfully, as he explains that he’s responsible 24/7 for everything on the estate. He and his wife live on the grounds in a house built on the site of an old barn and acts as electrician, plumber, mechanic and security guard. But his passion is the garden and grounds, which he has designed, planted and nurtured.

Linden Hill’s stunning horticultural landscape would not have been possible, however, without the Mercys’ support and commitment, Deeble says. “Most people want an instant garden, but the Mercys we’re in it for the long haul; they were willing for it to take time.”
It took 20 years, in fact, to create what visitors see now. Deeble says the plantings took shape after about 12 years but they needed eight more years to mature. Since then Linden Hill has been on many garden tours, including the Two Rivers Garden Tour.

Sue Mercy, who was active in health and arts organizations in Monmouth County and New York City, died two years ago. But she left a lasting imprint on Linden Hill, where she directed creation of the landscape and gardens. Creative with colors, she selected the flowers and proposed ideas for Deeble to implement. “I didn’t make a move without her,” he says.

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enlarge | One of two kidney-shaped perennial beds contains orange zinnias and red celosia (foreground).
Flowers Galore
Flowers played a major role at Linden Hill from the start, Deeble adds. Sue Mercy’s directive when he signed on in 1985 was for “lots and lots of flowers. She loved fresh flowers and she cut them to decorate this house as well as her apartment in New York City,” he says.
Deeble says the Mercys also requested the kind of “horticultural compartments” typical of English estates: an arboretum, vegetable garden and fruit orchard in addition to flower gardens.

Fulfilling that wish list was a natural—and a joy—for Deeble. He grew up in a rural village in Cornwall, England, gardening at home alongside his father, who was the gardener on a large English estate. Along with his father, Deeble’s other major influence was his uncle, a celebrated gardener who was made an associate of honor by the Royal Horticultural Society and received a British Empire Medal from Queen Elizabeth upon his retirement in 1993.
Like these mentors, “gardening is my life,” Deeble says. He studied horticulture at two English colleges before coming to the United States, where he worked for several nurseries and owned his own business before filling the position at Linden Hill.

When Deeble started work the grounds had just two flowerbeds near the house and two “very sick” rose beds off the main patio. There also were several large trees, including Norway spruces, maples, large pin oaks and the estate’s namesake lindens. A tennis court was in place, and a red cedar gazebo was constructed later in front of it.

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enlarge | Three colors of New Guinea impatiens make up two flowerbeds off a patio.
Rooms with a View
“It was a beautiful canvas,” Deeble says of the grounds. “I just needed to paint a beautiful picture.” He took his initial design cue from observing the views from the home’s master bedroom. “I’d walk around the house and look out the windows, but the bulk of the design was how things looked from the master bedroom,” he says.

Working from the main house out, Deeble designed the landscape in stages. “Every­where you look, there is something to attract your eye,” he says. There are more than 2,500 varieties of flowers, plants, shrubs and trees throughout the property. The 13 garden sections are related but none imposes on any of the others.

Among the gardens are two formal, seasonally planted beds a little beyond one of the home’s patios. After a spring tulip display they are filled with New Guinea impatiens. Behind them, white birches rise over two small pools and fountains, an ambling stone path and a profusion of lilies, day lilies and hostas.

Farther from the house is an unusual 96-foot long, two-tiered stone-wall bed. Deeble says Sue Mercy had suggested building a rock wall and looked to him for suggestions. He showed her examples from the many horticulture books he’d brought from England. The result, built by Clive’s father, Edgar, during a 1988 visit to the United States, is a low-lying dry stone wall that’s densely filled with a wide variety of grasses, shrubs and hundreds of spring bulbs, perennials and summer annuals.

At the back of the property lies a “secret garden,” which was Sue Mercy’s cutting garden. It’s filled with cosmos, dahlias, zinnias, snapdragons and asters. Nearby, tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, lettuce, beans, onions and herbs grow in the vegetable garden, while the fruit orchard consists of pear, apple, peach, cherry and plum trees.

The gardening cycle starts in mid-January with Deeble’s sowing of seeds in the on-site greenhouse. He plants the flowerbeds starting in early May and, at the end of the flowering season, removes the dead plant material and adds it to a compost pile.

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enlarge | Linden Hill’s landscape in winter holds its own charms as snow coats the large trees.
English—and American—Style
Deeble says no one garden or style dominates the landscape, rather Linden Hill is a hybrid of English and American styles. Grand English gardens are formal affairs with planned compartments, while American gardens have a more open landscape and more space between different areas, he says. Deeble’s own garden behind his house is more of an English “cottage garden” where “anything can go anywhere at any time,” he says.

Visitors to Linden Hill are “stunned by its beauty and size,” Deeble says. But instead of being discouraged, they should be inspired. “Yes, it’s huge,” he says of the landscape, “but you can always scale it down to any size garden you want and create the same thing. We have 14 fruit trees, for example, but you can put in, say, one apple, one cherry and one plum tree. You can also have a vegetable garden; you don’t need eight varieties of beans like we have; you can have one.

“Start off small,” he advises. “If you want a 12-foot garden, start with a six-foot garden. If you can maintain that, then make it a little bigger the next year. People start with wonderful ideas and all the enthusiasm in the world, and then July comes and their interest wanes.”

Since losing his wife over two years ago, Mercy has decided to put Linden Hill on the market and move on with his life. Deeble will be retiring to Florida. “Gardens are like babies,” Deeble says. “You bring them into the world, feed them, nurture them and end up with a mature child. It will be difficult to say goodbye to this place.”