Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : July 2005

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A Green Thumb and a Cast-Iron Back
By Patrick Tandy

A green thumb and a cast-iron back

Peter Ward takes a stroll through the hillside garden that he and wife
(and fellow attorney) Nell Strachan (inset, right, with Ward)
cultivate at their home in Ruxton

A small white plaque staked alongside one of the switchbacks that descend from the hillside home of attorneys Peter Ward and his wife Nell Strachan belies the overwhelming sense of tranquility that causes one to forget at times that the sloping verdant acre is in fact someone’s garden:

What a man needs in gardening
is a cast-iron back with
a hinge on it.

And upon reading these words of the 19th century American writer Charles Dudley Warner, advertised on the aforementioned plaque, the visitor to this quiet Ruxton hillside is momentarily rousted from his or her dream-trip and reminded that such things do not come into being on their own, nor do they happen overnight . . .


Plants respond
to tender
loving care,
just like
people do.

Nell Strachan

“I’m not very interested in things that require a great deal of sun because we don’t have very much garden that gets a great deal of sun,” says Strachan, who, as the first-ever female partner in the history of Venable LLP, practices commercial and appellate litigation in the firm’s Baltimore office. “In a woodland garden, you have the canopy of trees at the top and the layers coming down. [T]here’s a layer of tall, mature trees, and there are ornamental trees underneath – like the dogwoods that you see blooming now – and then shrubs under that. Then the ferns and the groundcovers and the small wildflowers [form] the bottom layer.”

Started in the early 1980s by the home’s previous owners, the garden has been a work in progress for Ward and Strachan since moving into the place four years ago. In the meantime, the couple has planted everything from hydrangeas to rhododendrons to witch hazel.

“It’s like getting on the treadmill: you know, if you don’t keep moving you’re going to fall off,” chuckles Ward, a criminal defense attorney in nearby Towson, as he points up the hillside. “[But] it’s very tranquil back here. You come back here on a weekend day when it’s 90 up there [and], it’s 80 down here – and it’s quiet. You hear the birds.”

Prior to their current charge, Ward and Strachan spent many years honing their green thumbs elsewhere, including a garden at their previous residence in the Roland Park section of Baltimore.

“I’ve weeded on Sunday afternoon listening to the Orioles game since my children were old enough not to require my minute-by-minute supervision on Sunday afternoon,” admits Strachan. “I’ve had four or five Walkmans, a couple of other portable radios – you know, you can only leave them out in the rain once.”

During the last few years the couple has bolstered their firsthand gardening knowledge with more formal training, including a recent master gardener’s class. Strachan fosters her blossoming expertise through supplemental courses at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

“There’s not a formal plan,” she admits. “[But] I’m getting more knowledgeable about what will do well in different environments and that makes a difference. When things have succumbed to the winter or other difficulties, I’ve had different ideas about what to use to replace it, to try to be a little bit more colorful, a little bit more ornamental with some choices.

“We do a lot of moving. Peter says most men have a wife who says, ‘Honey, could you move the chair from over here to over there?’ He has a wife who says, ‘Would you move this shrub from over here to over there?’ And there’s a lot of truth to that. But he’s a very good planter, and not everybody is reliable at digging things up. We’ve only lost a couple things that we’ve moved, [and] we’ve moved some very big plants.”

Just then, Ward calls attention to a small splash of color in an otherwise unyielding sea of green. “Look at this flower – it’s really a circle of flowers,” says Ward, indicating a small cluster of flowers. “Isn’t that pretty?”
I nod in agreement. “What exactly is that?”
Strachan pauses in thought for a moment. “Viburnum plicatum...
“What’s the common name?” Ward bellows in mock frustration.
“Double-file viburnum,” Strachan replies. “When you look at it from the side you see the flowers are above the stem and in a double row? These are infertile flowers that attract the pollinators. And these are the fertile flowers – underneath they form the berries.”
“See that?” Ward laughs, a glint of mischief in his eye. “More than you ever thought you would learn.”


But plants aren’t the only thing the couple moves; English by birth, Ward has traveled extensively throughout the world with his wife (who originally hails from Portland, Oregon). Their often physically strenuous outdoor adventures have taken them from such domestic pursuits as rafting through the Grand Canyon to hiking over the Andes in Peru.

“About 15 years ago, I said to Peter, ‘We’re not getting any younger. We’ve got to prioritize. We’ve got to make a list and figure out where to go when, or we’re going to run out of time,” admits Strachan. “And we sort of did, but we have deviated from that because of lack of planning or spur-of-the-moment ideas.”

“The rafting trip [through the Grand Canyon] was something we always wanted to do,” notes her husband.

“And the trip to Peru,” adds Strachan. “It was a great trip.”

“We hiked eight days to Machu Picchu,” recalls Ward. “We came up to the Gate of the Sun and looked down. Of course, it was pouring down with rain.”

“But it was still very dramatic, very satisfying,” says his wife. “We like the scenery. We like being outdoors. I particularly am not very good at sitting around on the beach. After a couple of days of reading I get bored with that and I want to do something more active.

“If you hike, you can see things you can’t see from a car. I grew up hiking – it was just something we did. But now it has the added advantage of no telephone, no e-mail, no office intrusions. A lot of people go on vacation and take their communication devices with them. We try to find places where the communication devices won’t work.”


“It’s very satisfying, watching things grow,” explains Strachan. “Plants respond to tender, loving care, just like people do. The more you understand what the plant needs to grow well and the more you provide it, the better it grows and the better it blooms.”

And for those thinking of fostering a few plants of their own, Strachan offers a few suggestions.

“Walk around your neighborhood and see what looks good, because if it’s growing well in your neighborhood it probably is going to grow well in your garden,” she explains. “If you don’t know what it is or where to get it, ask your neighbors. And if you plant it and it dies or doesn’t do well, try to find out what was wrong with the conditions. Pick things that are known to be easy to grow, [that] bloom for a long time, [that] don’t require a lot of attention and maintenance. Like roses – roses are not a good choice for somebody who doesn’t want to provide attention every single week for most of the year. The objective is to have the right plan in the right place; try to understand what the qualities of your place are – you know, is it in the sun? Is there a lot of wind? Is it right next to the house? Is it going to get reflected heat from the house? Things like that. Then start slow and see how it goes.”

And of course, it never hurts to have a cast-iron back with a hinge.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: July, 2005

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