Join me in this series as I visit some of Frederick County, Maryland’s finest independent garden centers to find out what makes them unique.
Finding and buying plants that you love is often much more pleasurable than figuring out how to successfully incorporate them into your landscape once you get home. We all struggle with garden design woes, but there’s a nursery in Frederick County that specializes in helping you solve them – and it does so with the gift of inspiration.
Not only does Surreybrooke Nursery and Gardens sell thousands of annuals, perennials, shrubs and small trees every year – they intensively plant and maintain 20 acres of breath-taking display gardens and numerous historic outbuildings guaranteed to get your creative juices flowing and probably send you back to the cashier with another trolley full of treasures.
Add a rich assortment of workshops, a landscaped pavilion for special events, and a garden center filled with equal measures of sophistication and whimsy; and you’ve got the essence of what makes Surreybrooke special. It is an intensely personal garden offered to the public without pretense or affectation. It’s a destination.
Hidden, but not hidden
Nestled in a pastoral stream valley just outside Middletown, MD, Surreybrooke has been a part of local life for many years, but it didn’t start out as a nursery. Originally from Pennsylvania, Nancy and Ronnie Walz bought a portion of a large dairy farm in 1977 and grew hay and raised cattle. Though it seems incredible now, Nancy by her own admission knew nothing about plants.
However, her love of an outdoor life and a fascination with some of the great English gardens and their creators drew her ever-deeper into gardening. Ronnie and Nancy named the farm Surreybrooke, after both the English home county of Victorian plantswoman Gertrude Jekyll, and the brook that ran through the farm; and as her four little children played and explored around her, Nancy began to create the first of what are now ten themed gardens surrounding their 19th century brick home.
A themed garden for every taste
That first garden was the Lotus Rill – inspired by Hestercombe House and built around a rectangular water feature edged in slate. The Ellipse was next, and featured a hornbeam allée entrance and a handsome pergola built by Ronnie (a naval architect). Soon there was a children’s garden complete with an arborvitae maze and two story tower. Nancy edged it in plants whose botanical names began with A and ended with Z.
When the Walz’s heard of a nearby log structure under threat from development, they paid to have it moved to the property and they rebuilt and restored it themselves. Another garden resulted. More structures were saved…and more gardens created. Meanwhile, Nancy and Ronnie planted a host of unusual evergreen and deciduous trees throughout the property, giving the gardens strong bones and providing interest during all four seasons.
The nursery opens…
Through the years, Nancy’s knowledge and plant palette continued to grow. So did her children, who helped in the gardens and tended a wonderful assortment of animals from ducks to miniature horses. Selling plants just seemed like a natural progression of the work they were doing at Surreybrooke, and 1980 they opened to the public with one greenhouse and just a few tables of herbs.
Customers were encouraged to wander the gardens and buildings before or after shopping and to ask questions of ‘the staff’ – consisting of Nancy and her daughter Jessie, who was by this time working full time at the farm. When he wasn’t building something, Ronnie could be asked too, though he was quick to admit that he only knew plants in terms of “mow” or “not mow.”
The nursery was a hit, and gained a loyal following very quickly. Most visitors couldn’t believe that they could tour such exquisite gardens without paying an entrance fee. One small greenhouse grew to four large ones and Nancy began to seriously approach the nursery business, planting plugs in early February and hoping to sell out by the end of July.
Just a few years ago, a larger garden center was added, housing workshops and garden merchandise, and shortly after, a covered pavilion was installed to make a home for small events like showers, birthday parties and graduation celebrations. And, as usual, Nancy landscaped it with rarities that would make any horticulturist nod with approval.
Wander the gardens, gather your inspiration
Event goers are always encouraged to explore the gardens – and of course, the nursery – as soon as the cake is finished and the games are played.
Wandering those gardens allows you to see how big that ‘Black Lace’ elderberry might get…how salvia attract hummingbirds…how layers of interesting conifers draw the eye and anchor a space. Perhaps you’ve wondered how on earth to indulge your love of succulents without lining up troughs like soldiers against your house – Nancy has ideas for you and everywhere you turn you’ll find them.
There is always something new to see at Surreybrooke. Whether it’s a hidden garden room that you missed the last time you visited, or an hard-to-find clematis that has suddenly burst into bloom for your visit, this is a garden where you want to take your time and savor each moment.
Music in the Garden – an annual tradition
Certainly this is no truer than during their annual sold-out event “Music in The Garden – Twilight Walk,” On one magical night in June (this year the 23rd), local musicians set-up throughout the nooks and crannies of Surreybrooke and picnic-goers from as far away as D.C. set up picnics both lavish and lean. There is no longer any need to advertise this special evening, as the Walz’s keep it small to preserve the intimacy, and many shrewd souls – such as myself – mark it on their calendars as soon as it’s announced on the website. Proceeds go directly to The Frederick Rescue Mission.
If you’re lucky enough to have garnered a ticket this year, I’ll see you there – if not, there is always next year, for the Walz’s mission is to share these happy, enchanting gardens for a very long time.
Their vision for Surreybrooke has always been one of outreach – inspiring others in a gentle way that seems to come naturally to them. It is evident as you talk to Nancy and hear her happy laugher that she experiences great joy in sharing her work and this wonderful place with others. There are few with that energy, and even fewer with that contagious joy. How lucky are we that she chose to channel it into the miracle of a garden.
Surreybrooke is located just off Route 40 outside of Middletown MD and is open 7 days a week from 9-6 through June 30th. For information about events and workshops as well as their summer hours, visit their website at surreybrooke.com
This article first appeared in The Frederick News Post and is re-posted here with kind permission.
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