Written and photographed by Tovah Martin
Jessyka Patterson has befriended her backyard. Literally, she feels a connection with each plant that she placed in the earth and her botanical buddies are many. When Michael and Jessyka Patterson were married in 2004, they created a gift registry at a local nursery rather than on Amazon or a department store. So, friends and family members gave them perennials, shrubs, and trees in celebration of their wedding. Those plants have grown lush and now populate their life. “So everyone’s always with us here,” Jessyka says with a wave of her hand to encompass the buddleias, honeysuckle, Concord grapes, and various other plants that have come to reside around their home, representing the generosity and good wishes of friends and family.
The 3-½ acre property beside the Shepaug River in Roxbury has come a long way since Michael bought the forlorn house in 1996. Originally a 1920 Sears & Roebuck kit house (its twin sits across the road), the home was in need of substantial repair upon purchase. Meanwhile, the surrounding property could be summed up simply as 3-½ acres of brambles engulfing the entire landscape and encroaching on the front porch. A third generation artist, esteemed for his talent in his own right and the grandson of acclaimed artist Howard Ashman Patterson, Michael can see the diamond in the roughest terrain. He immediately went to work clearing, cleaning, and adding his unique vision to the landscape. In return, the setting inspired his creativity. The dappling of the river as it flows through his property is a frequent theme for his paintings. Recently, he’s returned to sculpture as one of his primary forms of expression and his sculptures have an organic quality emanating from their core. On the flip side of this win/win exchange, the garden gets its personality partly from the sculpture. Finished pieces as well as works-in-progress serve as focal points in the landscape.
Not many couples can claim that they met through a tap dancer. But it was thanks to the friend and colleague of a tap dancer that Jessyka and Michael were introduced, shortly after Michael adopted the house. Jessyka was living in New York City and teaching at a MOMA-based program called Studio in a School. The tap dancer was one of 15 other artists who shared a communal house in Ashville, North Carolina where Jessyka lived prior to the NYC stint. Although both artists were otherwise romantically engaged at the time of their first meeting, they began dating when fate found them free simultaneously. Not surprisingly, the two talented artists with much in common fell in love. When Shepaug High School needed a substitute art teacher in 2003, Jessyka made the move to Roxbury. They were married in 2004 with 150 guests watching the couple exchange vows as the glistening light of the river played against the rocks on its bank.
One hundred and fifty guests is a lot of plants, and Jessyka tallies her garden beds at thirty areas where she’s worked with nature to create meaningful scenes. Although the gardens hold many of the wedding gifts, cultivated plants aren’t the only focus of the Patterson garden. Jessyka is fascinated by wildflowers and invites them to join the design. Her enthusiasm and her liberal, loving, all-inclusive approach to gardening serve as a whiff of fresh air in a discipline that is too often constricted into cultivated, container-grown plants.
All of Jessyka’s lovingly tended green associates romp through the beds defined by Michael’s stonework. Walls, cairns, and fences accent the property and make it imminently clear that a pair of artists work this land. What Michael has created goes far beyond the usual definition of walls—these are sculptures with peep holes, windows, turrets and marble elements incorporated. Each fantastic, imaginative creation is literally a work of art. And because the garden sits beside a frequently traveled road where traffic is clearly visible, Michael built up berms of earth to block the road and screen the house for privacy purposes. Those berms have stone steps, retaining walls, and wells around the trees beside the road’s edge. They are an ingenious solution to a privacy problem that many yards face. “Michael calls himself a berm-ologist,” Jessyka proudly proclaims.
Michael does the stonework and Jessyka adds the plant palette in the medium that has become her artistic expression. Pocket gardens are tucked everywhere and each has a story rich with memories of friends. Beyond the plants from the wedding, Jessyka continues to add plants from forays to nurseries and plant sales. “I collect plants,” Jessyka explains, and the garden is filled with evidence of her claim in the form of intriguing sedums, stokesias and echinaceas (her favorite being a creamy white version with a froth of disc flowers in the center appropriately named ‘Milkshake’) as well as other little wonders. The resounding mood is blissful informality. “It’s a little bit wild, like my hair,” says Jessyka. “Manicured gardens are not my personal style.” However, everything is clearly well-loved and tended. “My hands have touched every inch of this land,” Jessyka says of the gardens both around the house and extending into woodland paths.
The heart of the cultivated area is the vegetable garden within critter-proof fencing, accessed through gates that Michael accented by nailing on poetically gnarled bittersweet vines scavenged while clearing the land. Providing the fresh produce for the family’s table, the vegetable garden has a bounty of beans, tomatoes, arugula, herbs, and other crops. Potatoes and corn are not part of the inventory — due to their attraction for pests, both large and small. But true to form, Jessyka allows wildflowers in that domain, including tradescantia and vetch. She even welcomes the citrus-scented oxalis that runs rampant — nicknaming it (partly for the amusement of visiting nephews) “lemony snicket” for its scent. Meanwhile, the vegetables climb teepees constructed of cut saplings and twigs pruned from the woods. The scene has the romance of a pioneer settler’s garden with roots from a bygone era.
Gardens arch around the property, running around Jessyka’s art studio and curving around the berms, always with wildflowers included. On her 40th birthday, Jessyka decided to plant 40 lavenders on an overlook hillside, however, they haven’t fared so well. But other success stories defy conventional garden wisdom. Jessyka makes plants grow where they don’t generally thrive. Trees topple down in storms and she manages to coax them back to life. And the Pattersons aren’t the only Roxbury residents to benefit. Many of the plants in the garden — including the wildflowers — are fodder for the four beehives that Jessyka tends. With plenty of flowers to work on the premises, the bees need not wander far.
For Jessyka, the garden and its evolution is a touchstone for her life and her artistic development. “I work with Mother Nature and keep it simple,” is her theory for combining cultivated plants with their wild kin. The end result is a very personal garden that reflects the harmony of the two artists in residence. “It’s like an extension of me,” says Jessyka, “it’s my art form.” No wonder it’s ravishingly beautiful.