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Mystery Writer’s Garden Has Had Some Twists and Turns

BALTIMORE SUN

If our gardens are reflections of ourselves, then Barbara Mertz is a woman of mystery, a bit wild, with a quirky sense of humor, a fascination with the past, and little or no interest in calm vistas and orderly beauty.

But that won’t come as any surprise to anyone who knows what she does for a living. Barbara Mertz, under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, is the bestselling author of 59 mysteries.

“Lord of the Silent,” published this spring, is the latest in a series about the adventures of Amelia Peabody, a 19th century Egyptologist. Mertz has a PhD in Egyptology and is the author, under her own name, of two popular nonfiction books on the subject.

Twenty-one years ago, newly divorced, she decided to buy one of those marvelous old houses she was always writing about. She found one at the end of a winding, tree-shaded country road near Frederick, Md., an 1820s stone farmhouse where she now lives with six cats and two dogs.

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The house was exactly right (it had been owned by an interior designer, so it was charmingly renovated), but there was no garden, just 10 acres of pasture and woods.

“There was nothing back there but a fence and a row of white pines,” Mertz says. The house, with its handsome solarium, is the work of the former owner; but, she says, “The garden is all mine” (with the help over the years of a number of landscape architects, gardeners and teenage boys hired for the summer to weed, as she readily admits).

“I do take credit for the basic plan,” she adds and then stops a moment.

“No. There was no basic plan.

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“If you want to give people advice on what not to do,” she says with a laugh, “I did it all wrong. I just stuck things in at random. As time went on, my plans got more and more grandiose.” She would come up with an idea and find someone who could make it a reality.

The sloping pasture behind the house needed major work before it could be converted into a series of gardens. The soil was poor, and the pasture was full of rocks. Her first landscape designer was Colleen Bugler, who terraced the pasture with dry stone walls and created flower gardens, Mertz’s first pond and a gazebo.

That was just the beginning.

“This thing just kind of mushroomed,” Mertz says one warm, sunlit morning as she takes a visitor on a tour of her gardens. Her inspiration, she explains, was Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which has a series of garden “rooms.”

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The tour starts at a little stone terrace under the white pines, with just enough room for a cafe table, two chairs and houseplants brought outside for the summer. Here Mertz can sit and drink her morning coffee and smell the lilacs. A stone path leads past the rose garden to the lily pond.

In late May and early June, the rose garden is the yard’s main attraction. It’s filled with her spectacular collection of 90 antique rose bushes, which bloom only once a year in late spring. They inspired one of her books, “Vanish With the Rose,” a Barbara Michaels thriller published in 1992.

Up the path a little way is the lily pond, which is, after nearly two decades, a pleasantly shady spot filled with water lilies and surrounded by fully grown paper birches, a weeping cherry tree and yellow iris that threaten to take over the yard. The pond is stocked with fat goldfish. Here and there are accessories you might expect to find in an Egyptologist’s garden: a small statue of the Egyptian king Ramses peering through the iris; stone crocodiles lurking near the water.

Mertz added a little bridge over the pond and then, most ambitiously, a terraced waterfall. Only the throaty croak of a bullfrog disturbs the peaceful sound of the water falling over the stones.

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“This is a place I make an appointment with myself to come out and sit,” says Mertz. “The water is very soothing. Everybody who comes by who looks stressed, like the FedEx guy, I tell to sit down, to sit by the pond.”

Because the lily pond eventually became so shaded as the trees grew taller, Mertz created a second pond for Egyptian lotus in a sunny area further up the slope. Water gardening has been a matter of experimentation and consultation .

“Some plants succeed, some don’t,” Mertz says. “The tropicals didn’t survive, and we have to treat the papyrus as an annual.”

The lotus pond is surrounded with Japanese iris and different varieties of thyme, meant to be walked on so the crushed herb releases its fragrance.

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At almost the top of the terraced yard is the gazebo. Not a white wedding cake of a gazebo in the Victorian style, but one made of gray weathered wood furnished with wicker chairs and a tea cart. Silver lace vine winds its way up and through the latticework and roof. Hanging baskets spill over with petunias.

“The diversity in the garden is unusual,” says Hans Bleinberger, a designer who helped with the latest landscaping. “It’s an eclectic blend of styles that works.”

Along a path behind the gazebo are azaleas, rhododendrons, lavender, sweet woodruff, lady’s mantle and even potted tangerine trees that winter in Mertz’s greenhouse.

The path passes by a stand of pines, under which are the graves of several beloved pets, an antique olive jar and a small statue of Anubis, the Egyptian jackal-headed god who leads the dead to judgment.

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The piece de resistance is at the end of the curving gravel path--the mystery writer’s newest and most secret garden.

“It all comes of being totally extravagant,” she says with a laugh. “I was saving for my old age and then I realized I’m in my old age.” (She’s 73.)

On a trip to Florence three years ago, Mertz found a man who makes marble reproductions of ancient statues. She commissioned a life-size reproduction of the Discobolos, a Roman copy of a Greek statue of a discus thrower.

“It wasn’t till it arrived that I realized the sheer size of it,” she says.

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The marble statue was only the beginning. For a backdrop she had pillars and an arch built, and a reflecting pool in front of the statue.

The border around the statue and the rectangular pool is planted with a thousand white narcissi, a thousand white anemones, a thousand white crocuses and a thousand white alliums, which bloom in succession. The path and the pool area are lighted so Mertz can entertain in her antique garden on summer evenings.

Fans of Barbara Michaels will remember that “The Dancing Floor,” published in 1997, has a heroine who is fascinated by ancient gardens.

“She ended up as my heroines always do,” says Mertz. “In a terrible mess."Elizabeth Large is a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, a Tribune company.

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