Gardens of Love: Paul Doherty and David Behnke

Color, variety, and a host of “rooms” adorn the waterfront property.


Updated July 2

When visiting Paul Doherty and David Behnke’s home to write about their art collection, I knew I had to return to see their garden. They purchased the home on William Street in 2013, and made the move from 60 acres outside Washington, Conn., to just under three-quarters of an acre in Vineyard Haven. Before Doherty and Behnke bought the house, it had a neglected landscape after being on the market for three years.“We slowly dug everything out and started over,” says Doherty.

The original stone walls weren’t visible when Doherty and Behnke first moved in. “You could only see them if you cut the ivy back three times a summer,” Doherty says. “I just got sick of it. I went out one March with a hatchet and cut them all back. They were about six feet thick because they’d been growing for almost 80 years.” The stones all came from England, where they were once used as the ballast for ships, according to Doherty.

The garden, which feels huge to me, is divided into areas. There’s a garden on each side of the house facing the street, and then another off the right — an herb garden, centered around an abstract sculpture. Below that, there’s an almost secret garden (which hides a propane tank), and another garden room as you make your way behind the home. There’s a small “room” in front of the guest cottage, and another after stepping through hedges and an arbor that leads to a grand vista facing the waterfront, with plantings along the borders.

The garden rooms are each distinct — some are full sun, others shade, and beside the house Doherty added three small planting areas to create a semicircular feeling on the large lawn, where they host an annual outdoor charity concert. There are some plants from their former Connecticut home, like the blooming purple irises. Doherty is the main gardener; it’s not something he grew up doing in Brockton, but he says his father always kept a clean and trim lawn, which Doherty also favors to this day.

When I ask about flowers, Doherty, who has enjoyed getting his hands into the dirt for the past 20 years, says he knows some types, but not most — just the general family they belong to. For him, gardening is all about colors and how things look. “I prefer soft, pale pastels, and creamy colors,” Doherty says. But he knows his Siberian irises — a hardy long-blooming iris that can be enjoyed from early spring and ranges from 12 inches to three feet high.

Something I was not familiar with was the climbing hydrangea growing up an archway between garden areas. Doherty said he planted those about three years ago, and he and Behnke are still waiting for the growth spurt. Climbing hydrangeas can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet, and are great for trellises, chimneys, and pergolas. Climbing hydrangea are also salt-resistant. Their intricate lacy caps produce delicate, aromatic white flowers.

So far, deer have not feasted on the evergreen yew hedges they planted as borders for privacy. Doherty planted about 12 ‘Limelight’ hydrangeas on each side of the garden that goes down to Main Street. They can expect to enjoy the voluminous white blooms for about 16 weeks. Two Adirondack chairs with a large stone vessel between them sit on a small brick patio, and offer a perfect view to cap off the garden room farthest from the house. The hardy coniferous cypresses planted three years ago for privacy have already shot up to at least 20 feet.

There are 11 elegant dwarf Japanese maples, but only one was there when they moved in. “It was dying, so I’ve fed it every year,” Doherty said. “The others we planted.” I learned about ‘Golden Mop’ threadleaf false cypress — bright yellow, smallish plants, which will fill out in time. Behnke and Doherty’s bonsai trees are moved indoors for the winter. They’re taken care of by Ernie Carlomagno, president of the M.V. Bonsai Club, at Donaroma’s.

The herb and vegetable garden sits alone in a lawn area where bunnies are already enjoying this year’s spinach. Also growing are “lemon verbena, mint, all kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, basil, strawberries, sage” and more, Behnke said. The gardens have many daisies, irises, daylilies and roses of Sharon. Behnke is trying a perennial lavender this year, which is more moisture-resistant. The large potted plants on the back patio and porch are all on wheels. They have twice transplanted an ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia that will have primrose-yellow flowers and a “beautiful structure,” Doherty said. Another tree they point out is the stewartia, “a three-season tree with flowers in the spring, berries in the fall, and in the winter the bark gets gnarly and turns different colors.”

Behnke also keeps a planter on the porch outside the kitchen, with herbs for cooking: basil, curly parsley, lemon thyme, and rosemary. Doherty calls himself “a blue-collar gardener.” He does not believe in cutting gardens, and admits, “I’m more of a border person.”

In the end, what’s important to Behnke and Doherty is shape and aesthetic, offset by borders. They have an assortment of garden sculptures, including bunnies, dogs, birds, an otter floating on its back, and goddesses, which accent each room — plus another sitting area, perfect for coffee in the morning.

Doherty and Behnke have worked together to create an elegant, contemplative, and magical series of garden rooms at their home. I look forward to seeing them in full summer bloom.

*Updated to correct the William Street house’s origins.