Gasp-worthy garden

A West Norriton couple have built paradise around a pond, by a rushing river, a suburban backyard surprise.

Posted: September 07, 2007

From the front, Ritamary Hanly's house looks typically suburban - a two-story stone Colonial with a respectable lawn.

But out back, in the garden, it's another world. Hanly calls it paradise.

Not to knock "paradise," but this is West Norriton Township, near Norristown, which even Hanly, a retired family doctor, admits isn't exactly the gardening capital of Pennsylvania.

Turns out, paradise truly is where you find it, or make it, and hers is one of those complete surprises that you can't see from the road and would never imagine is back there.

Which only adds to the pleasure of its discovery.

"People gasp when they see it," Hanly says.

First, you have to walk through the front of the home she shares with husband Ted Speaker and their "rescued" menagerie of two dogs, three cats, two parrots and two doves. Then, through a large window in the living room, you begin to - literally - get the picture.

Finally, out you go, to the garden. And then, like everyone else, you gasp.


But it isn't only the garden that takes your breath. Beyond the flowers, down the hill, the Schuylkill churns by, all brown and roiled after three days of rain. Closer in, a solitary bicyclist cruises along the Schuylkill River Trail headed for the city.

You're thinking, this is some backyard! Then your eyes focus on thereal thing.

Which isn't all yard. Its focal point is more water: a pond that's 41/2 feet deep with a waterfall, koi and goldfish, surrounded by Japanese and bearded iris, ornamental grasses, and balsam (Impatiens balsamina), which blooms in a rainbow and spreads easily.

The rush of water, the shade of a pin oak, combined with the river vista and the chilly air of this strange late-summer day, make you want to park yourself in one of the lounge chairs by the pond and check out for the afternoon.

By the look of things, this peripatetic gardening couple must not rest often.

"There's always something to do," says Speaker, who cheerfully handles the manly jobs.

Of all the plants in her garden, which is organic, Hanly's favorite is Phlox paniculata. Garden phlox, as it's called, is one of those tried-and-true perennials beloved by our grandparents but often overlooked in the trendy frenzy for something new.

"Whatever's 'hottest,' I don't buy," Hanly says, but she does go for the newer phlox varieties 'David' and 'Robert Poore.' They produce big clusters of bright white and violet-pink flowers, respectively, jazzing up the garden in late summer, when most other perennials have pooped out.

They attract wildlife and have a pleasant fragrance. Best of all, they're fairly resistant to powdery mildew, a common scourge that leaves phlox looking dusted by chalk.

Hanly also has a slew of Buddleias, or butterfly bushes, which during a recent visit were covered in swallowtails. All around are cosmos and salvias, perennial begonias and sedums, cleomes, coreopsis, lavender, and more.

She has about 15 beds, or "mini-gardens," in all, many dominated by purple and pink. But she's learning to appreciate yellows and oranges because they don't bleach out in the sun.

Over the last 15 years, Hanly and Speaker have created their paradise from scratch, all but the pond their own work.

"Imagine a place with everything that you ever wanted," Hanly muses. "Animals, birds, plants, frogs, butterflies, flowing water, sunlight, and endless fresh air."

Animals are a big part of it. Besides their rescued pets, the couple have a host of birdhouses and a front-row seat for the river's daily show of herons, hawks and cormorants.

Hanly once hopped out of a car to save a box turtle and revived a toad floating upside down in the pond. She nursed a hummingbird trapped on the roof and is a volunteer helper with abused and elderly horses.

This reverence for life also informs her three careers. A Roman Catholic nun who left the convent to study nursing, Hanly then went on to medical school and became a family doctor. Now 60, she retired three years ago as medical director at Norristown State Hospital.

Speaker, 73, who has five children from a previous marriage, has had three careers, too - in Army intelligence, as a police officer, and as a township official. In 1977, Officer Speaker met Dr. Hanly in a hospital emergency room, where he'd gone to check out a (false) bomb threat. They married two years later.

Last spring, Hanly suffered eight broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a badly broken leg after being kicked by a horse. Not surprisingly, she bears no ill will toward the horse.

She is still mending, doing fine but not yet able to resume the ballet and tap-dancing she so enjoys. All in all, a life-changing experience.

"I don't worry about anything anymore," Hanly says, "and I'm not afraid of dying."

She is, however, grateful for her garden's healing power. Last spring, still hobbling along on a walker, she somehow got herself out there to weed.

Her husband marveled. But he needn't have.

She has, after all, found her paradise. And that, she insists, keeps her fully alive.

Take a video tour of the Hanly/Speaker garden at .

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or

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