Kathleen Murphy, and the Gardens of Singer Castle

By: Patty Mondore

Volume 14, Issue 5, May 2019

Last summer, while visiting the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, my husband and I had the honor of finally getting to meet the person responsible for the amazing garden that grows there. The museum has a spectacular seasonal perennial garden and I comment about it every time we visit. Though, up to that point I had never been able to share my appreciation with the gardener. So, when I spotted someone hard at work in the garden that day, I quickly made my way over to introduce myself to her.

Kathleen Murphy was pleased that we took the time to let her know how much we appreciate her gardening talents. To our surprise, we learned at that time that she is also the one responsible for the beautiful rose garden at Singer Castle. I asked her if I could ask her a few questions so we could let others know a little bit about the woman behind those beautiful gardens and the Singer Castle Rose Garden in particular.

PM: "When did you start doing the gardens a Singer Castle?"

KM: "Singer Castle on Dark Island has always held a great fascination for me. Our family cottage is four miles downriver so every boat ride seems to include a circling of the castle. Our daughter began working there the year it opened for tours. She would mention the different ideas that were being discussed for the garden area, which at the time was a courtyard with nothing more than a lawn. I remember thinking, 'oh if I could only get my hands on it!' The good news is that with so many other priorities needing to be done on the castle, they never followed through with any of those landscaping plans. So, in the fall of 2005 when I did propose a garden appropriate to a turn of the century castle, I began with a clean slate."

PM: Could you briefly describe your garden to us?

KM: "Tom Weldon, manager at that time, realized the castle had great potential as a wedding venue and in particular the courtyard area. It was apparent the area was a garden in the castle’s heyday. Stone benches and a table were all that remained. The challenging part of turning it back into a garden was deciding how to have vast areas of plantings while leaving enough lawn for the seating of wedding guests; as well as the large groups of visitors that pass through daily on tour. Basically, this was accomplished by incorporating a series of beds within and surrounding the lawn area. It was years after the garden was planted that Judy Keeler, the castle historian, found a photograph taken in the early years of the castle, showing the garden then, laid out almost exactly as designed now!

Keeping in mind this was to be the site of weddings, I wanted to create a romantic garden abundantly full of fragrant flowers. Many people don’t know that the architect of the castle based its design on a fictional castle in Scotland. I’m always trying to balance the blowsy exuberance of the romantic garden with a bit of the rugged, wild look which surrounds that fictional castle in my mind.

I have always specialized in the growing of heirloom annuals and perennials so the garden contains plants that would have been growing in gardens a century ago. At the same time, a turn of the century, six-acre island would have seen full-time gardeners on staff. Nowadays that is not possible so, I try to choose varieties which put on a long show without a great deal of fussiness.  Scott Garris, the caretaker, somehow manages to keep the garden watered, lets me know when the weeds are getting a bit rambunctious and when calamity strikes any part of the garden, be it storms, beavers or marauding voles, is on the problem in a flash."

PM:  "Will there be anything new in the garden this year we should look for?"

KM: "The garden is constantly changing throughout the year. The early and mid-season perennials such as the Lupines, Sweet William and Delphiniums, along with the Canadian shrub and Climbing Roses give way to the annuals and late blooming shrubs. The roses continue to bloom into the fall although, nothing like the show they put on in June. Being situated right on the water, the first hard frost comes late to the castle. That first season, Scott and I were lulled into feeling it would go on forever. We didn’t put it to bed until the second week in November at which point I had to drive-up through a blizzard to meet him at the dock. We now have it tucked-up late October each year no matter how lovely it still looks."

PM: "What do you love most about your work, and gardening in general?"

KM: "I truly love the process of growing flowers. When I look at my garden, I know every plant was started from seed in my greenhouse. Seeing all those flowers coming into bloom never fails to excite me! "

PM:  "Do you have any recommendations for us amateur gardeners and gardener wannabes?"

KM: "I have loads of recommendations, but at the end of the day, gardening comes down to soil, soil, soil. You can spend a fortune on plants but if your soil is poor, you are simply throwing your money away. My other advice is to start small. I always tell my students and clients when laying out a garden to put away the beautiful Instagram and magazine photos and instead picture yourself weeding on a muggy August day with horseflies bothering you. That tends to be a bit more realistic!"


I was so glad I finally got to meet Kathleen and to now share her, and her garden artistry with you.  And it seems all the more appropriate considering the fact that the early Native Americans referred to the Thousand Islands as “Manatoana” or the “Garden of the Great Spirit”.  I think they were onto something.  In fact, did you know that gardening was the first assignment God gave humankind, and there happened to be a river flowing from that garden?  We read, "Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden. . .  A river watering the garden flowed from Eden. . . he Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:8-15). And this wasn't just a food garden but was also described as “pleasing to the eye”. Gardens were created to be beautiful. No wonder we love them so much, along with their rich colors and heavenly fragrances. I think gardens were also created to allow us the opportunity to use the gift of creativity God gave us when He made us in His own image. Gardening, along with painting, designing, and other artistic outlets give us the chance to be what He made us to be - creative, like our Creator. Now, if you ever saw my garden you would realize this particular gift is not very evenly distributed. But it is no less exciting for me to see flower bulbs springing out of the earth in the spring (especially if I don't plant them upside down).

You can learn more about Kathleen Murphy and her gardening business on her website at http://www.primrosehillflowercompany.com.  But if you are going to the Antique Boat Show show or Singer Castle this summer, I hope you'll get the chance to stop by the gardens and experience her creativity and talent for yourself!

By Patty Mondore

Patty Mondore and her husband, Bob, are summer residents of the Thousand Islands. Patty's most recent books include River-Lations Revisited: More Inspirational Stories and Photos from the Thousand Islands, River Reflections: A 90-Day Devotional for People Who Love the Water and its two sequels, Nature Reflections and A Bird Lover's Reflections. She and Bob co-authored "Singer Castle" and "Singer Castle Revisited" published by Arcadia Publishing, and co-produced "Dark Island's Castle of Mysteries" documentary DVD, in addition to a Thousand Islands Music DVD Trilogy. Patty is a contributing writer for the "Thousand Islands Sun." Her column, "River-Lations", appears in the Vacationer throughout the summer months. The Mondores are online at www.gold-mountain.com. (Be sure to also visit Bob's singercastle.blogspot.com.)

Posted in: Volume 14, Issue 5, May 2019, People, Places, Nature, Current



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