A Historic Old New Castle Property With a Secret Garden
Carol and Greg Kaspin took special care to revive the once-forgotten outdoor space.
Carol Kaspin envisioned the garden as a series of outdoor rooms, with a grand entry created from a wrought iron arbor.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
Carol and Greg Kaspin used to live in the suburbs, where they prettied up their yard with shrubs and flowers.
They didn't truly garden until they moved to the city, nurturing a secret plot of green in the heart of Old New Castle.
"In the suburbs you garden to decorate the yard," Carol says. "In the city, the home is the garden. It's one piece of art."
The Kaspins decided to relocate to the First State from South Jersey in 2002, when their daughter was a student at University of Delaware. Greg, an engineer, had just retired. Carol, an artist, is a teacher in Camden, New Jersey.
Greg drove over the Delaware Memorial Bridge, made a few turns and wound up in Old New Castle, a historic community first settled in 1651. He returned with Carol and they immediately began house hunting.
"We had always lived in suburban ranch houses," she recalls. "Old New Castle is like story book land."
They soon found a circa-1865 house that had been uninhabited for three years.
"We wanted a project," Greg says, and they got one. For nine months, the couple lived in an apartment with their two daughters while work was in progress on the house.
Ultimately, they expanded a traditional rear smoking porch into a year-round family room and installed a new kitchen. Greg did a lot of the work himself, Carol says, "and I kept him in paint and nails."
The Old New Castle house—circa 1865—took nine months to renovate.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
A secret garden
When it came to reviving the private garden behind the house, the couple was hands-on.
They started by putting a trash can the middle of the weed-choked yard, imaging it as the center of a wheel. The intimate, walled gardens of New Orleans, where Carol's brother lived for 40 years, were the inspiration for the outdoor living space that would radiate from that spot.
Red brick walkways are synonymous with Old New Castle and would become the spokes of the wheel. The Kaspins didn't have to look far to find vintage bricks. They were tucked away in various pockets throughout the property, stacked under the front porch, hidden beneath a mound of dirt in the back yard and scattered around the foundation of a weary brick outhouse that clung to its once-stately moldings.
Greg laid the walkways—"he is a master with bricks and did all the hardscaping," Carol says—and then turned his talents to stabilizing the outhouse, which has been repurposed as a gardening shed.
Carol envisioned the garden as a series of outdoor rooms, with a grand entry created from a wrought iron arbor resplendent with red honeysuckle, a species made even lovelier because it is noninvasive and attracts hummingbirds.
A small, curved bench ensconced in plantings of ferns and hydrangeas is a peaceful niche devoted to meditation. A chaise lounge under a shade tree is a tranquil place to read. A visiting grandchild enjoys a wooden swing beneath a canopy of wisteria.
The dining area is stationed on a raised platform of bluestone trimmed with red brick. They originally planned to use a vintage fireplace mantel as a buffet but wound up making one themselves from pressure-treated lumber topped with an iron headboard picked up for $5. The potting bench was crafted by an Amish carpenter.
A chaise lounge is the perfect spot for reading, as is the wooden swing beneath a canopy of wisteria.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
In the center of the yard, where the trashcan once stood, is a large formal fountain. In years past, the circular path around the fountain was seeded with grass, the only lawn on the property.
"We thought we need grass, a place for the eye to rest," Carol says. "But the grass was not restful."
Their solution was to remove the turf and replace it with pea gravel, which adds a new texture to the garden.
Interspersed among the potted plants and liriope are artifacts from New Castle history retrieved from the property, including a large stone that once held treads for the railroad. A brass plaque cautions visitors: "DON'T LOOK. BIRDS BATHING."
Boston ferns, long associated with Old New Castle, unfurl their fronds long with dappled Japanese painted ferns and the feathery asparagus ferns the Kaspins’ daughter, now 35, grew in middle school. Baskets and pots of blooms—billowing pink double impatiens and velvety purple and chartreuse coleus—provide pops of color in deep shades.
The front porch, with its black wicker rocking chairs, wrought iron railings and fanciful gingerbread trim, is a neighborly place where the couple can relax and take in the scenes from the neighborhood.
Year-round, the garden provides an ever-changing tableau of nature. Forsythia usher in spring with electric bursts of yellow. In summer, a lush hedge of gold-flecked Aucuba hedge sprouts fat red berries. "I love that crepe myrtle blooms even in the worst heat," Carol says.
Fall is an especially delightful time in the garden. It's cooler during the day. Sedum, late blooming camellia and toad lily emerge. "They look like little orchids," she says.
In winter, boxwoods, azaleas and rhododendron provide pops of green even in deep snow. Trees shed their leaves and stand like natural sculptures.
"I like the bark as well as the greenery," Carol says.
It's a long-term pursuit. Greg has been trimming the redbud tree in front of the house for 14 years, pruning the lower branches to coaxing the canopy upward.
When it came to reviving the private garden behind the house, the Kaspins were hands-on.//photo by Joe Del Tufo
Fences make good neighbors
A burgeoning lilac in the side yard is a gift from next-door neighbor Lillian Shue, who grew the plant from her own shrub. A wrought iron fence separates the properties and the neighbors collaborate on what they will grow along the boundary so both households can enjoy the view, rhododendrons on one side, French-lace hydrangea hydrangeas on the other.
"When we moved here, I thought, 'I think I have to be a gardener,'" Carol recalls. "There's great camaraderie among the neighbors."
She found further encouragement and expertise at Arasapha Garden Club, the members of which have been beautifying New Castle since 1934. At the club's May Market, gardeners can pick up local cuttings and seedlings at neighborly prices. For the winter holidays, members and other volunteers keep up the treasured tradition of decorating public buildings and businesses with more than 100 wreaths crafted from natural greenery.
The Kaspins learned their garden was once in the capable hands of Eleanor Tobin, a spectacularly gifted gardener. But as she grew old, her eyesight failed. In time, both she and her garden faded.
Carol perpetuates her memory through a miniature leaf maple planted by Tobin's son. She has grown several other trees from it, giving one to her sister and another to a neighbor.
Now, the latest seedling is growing in a large pot at the base of the Kaspins' front porch. They are confident it, too, will find a good home.
Meanwhile, Carol continues to garden. She is a steward for the homeowners to come and is respectful of the owners before her.
"We don’t feel like owners. We're caretakers. The town belongs to everybody."
Often, as she gardens, Carol talks to Eleanor Tobin.
"I say, 'I got a new bush for you. I hope you like it.'"
To learn more about Arasapha Garden Club of Historic New Castle, go to arasapha.org.
GET THE LOOK
Create infrastructure. What runs beneath a garden complements the plantings on top. Greg Kaspin ran plumbing in the garden to pipe water to a fountain. Electrical wiring powers lighting. Create relationships with suppliers. A trusted resource for plants, Carol Kaspin says, is Rosehill Plantery, "where the people are great." In restoring a 19th-century home in Old New Castle, the Kaspins found some of their best sources through neighbors who also had worked on houses. "Everybody has a war story," she says. Reimagine tradition. Instead of planting a hosta in the ground, Carol raised the plant on a pot to showcase its variegated leaves. They pulled out most of the ivy but allowed it to grow on a lattice fence to add greenery and privacy. Be a good neighbor. Sharing plants and collaborating on plantings enhances both properties.