Originally published May/June 2011
It’s hard to tell where Gale Unterberg’s home ends and her garden begins.
There are walls, of course, to keep the outdoors out. But with natural light flooding in through the windows – offering a panoramic view from most of the house of a neatly manicured lawn, rose bushes, wooden trellises, sculptures, fountains and flower beds – the garden at first seems to be an extension of her home.
Gale and her husband, Ed, moved to Chapel Hill 10 years ago from the Chicago suburbs. They were ready to retire and wanted to live somewhere with a pleasant climate year-round. Plus, they’d always wanted to build a house, and a nearly three-acre lot in Governors Club was a perfect starting point.
Ed worked with architect Bill Hirsch of Cary to design a home that had a view of the outdoors around every corner (even the downstairs bathroom). Gale worked with Tony Tyznik, the former head landscape architect of the Morton Arboretum near Chicago, to come up with a blueprint for the landscaping.
Dozens of photos taken by Ed illustrate the garden they left behind in Illinois, which was more reminiscent of an arboretum than a typical suburban lawn. Gale’s North Carolina garden had a lot to live up to.
As you step through the Unterbergs’ back door onto a patio with a grill, dinner table and chairs, the immaculate, dark green lawn stretches to either side and slopes down in front of you into a thicket of trees.
If you head to the left past flower beds full of roses, tulips, candytuft and peonies, you’ll spot a climbing hydrangea encroaching on a stone bench. There is a greenhouse, too, stuffed full of plants, like an orange tree and geraniums, which require warm weather that has yet to arrive. Across from the greenhouse, a wooden trellis covered with climbing new dawn roses is surrounded by bushes of knockout roses. And you can’t miss the swan-shaped topiary that Gale formed herself.
Or, you can turn to the right off the patio, passing a screened-in porch with a fireplace and white wicker furniture, as well as a New Orleans-inspired walled courtyard that leads up to a second-floor deck, before descending a stone path to a wooden gazebo among the trees.
While the garden is immaculate, it’s certainly not stuffy. If you look closely, it’s full of quirky little touches – a chain-saw sculpted wood carving of a bear attached high in a tree and lattice covered in vines that have been shaped into a much-larger-than-life owl on one side and cat on the other. Real wildlife certainly feels at home here; the garden is full of feral cats, birds, squirrels, a resident fox, a few too many deer and even an occasional coyote.
For Gale, gardening has always been more than just a hobby – it’s a family tradition. Her grandmothers and one great-grandmother were all known for it, winning national awards from their garden clubs. She pays tribute to her great-grandmother with a peony plant and antique cement bench, which have been passed down. Gale says she’s simply always had a penchant for plants. “Gardening certainly is – other than grandchildren – my favorite hobby,” she says.
Although she does hire help to mow the grass, blow off the driveway and do some of the trimming, Gale does the rest of the work herself with some aid from Ed on what she calls the “hard drudgery.”
“For me, the most fulfilling part is probably just the sheer beauty of being out in nature and creating how it looks,” she says. “I always feel better after I’ve been outside for a day.”
After an unfortunate incident involving the removal of a still-living peony tree by an unwitting landscaping manager, Gale became even more particular about doing things herself. The mowers are now asked – politely, of course – not to touch anything. Gale even spreads the grass seed herself, making sure none of it is accidentally mixed into the flower beds.
“I tend … to be a very tidy person,” she says, stooping to pick up a small piece of debris lying in the grass.
Gale’s favorite place to relax isn’t outside at all. From her chair in the conservatory, she can enjoy the garden during any season – but from a safe distance.
“If a gardener sits down in her garden to enjoy it, she’ll see a weed and have to jump up to get it,” she explains.
Gale doesn’t put much stock in the idea of people inherently having a green thumb. Rather, gardening takes time, attention and devotion. She estimates that she usually spends two to three days per week gardening. Some days that means staying out from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Or on some summer days she splits up the hours between the morning and the evening to avoid the hot sun. If she has a spare moment while she’s out running errands, she’s sure to swing by the closest garden center. And even when she’s indoors, Gale spends “untold hours” creating miniature garden models. “This is how I used to spend January in Chicago,” she says, laughing.
The interior of her home features nearly as many plants as her garden. In addition to her office full of garden miniatures, there’s an entire wall covered with the botanical prints she’s been collecting since the 1960s. A pattern of roses adorns the sofas, plus there are paintings of wildlife, photos of landscapes and bookshelves full of gardening resources. Animal-shaped containers and a rustic rooster light fixture brighten up the kitchen. And that’s just the downstairs.
At first glance, the garden appeared to be an extension of the Unterberg home. But perhaps the home is just an extension of the garden – and a place where its gardener can rest before another day’s work outside. CHM