Gardening guru Ellen Ashley creates her very own spot in Paradise
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Amy Freeman
“This house,” declares Ellen Ashley with an emphatic grin, “is really perfect for me, including what it doesn’t have.”
Sunlight streams through the 13-foot windows of her spacious open-concept kitchen and great room, flooding the gallery-white walls and the two adjoining sections of the gorgeous brick-and-glass contemporary house with afternoon light.
With a grin, Ashley ticks off a list:
“There’s no basement, no attic, no creepy places I might have to crawl into if the power goes out and, best of all, no steps — oh, wait!”
She laughs, glancing around as if to check. “OK . . . just one small step to the front porch and two steps to the pool! It’s the perfect house to age well and grow old in!”
Her afternoon visitor, an old friend, is impressed — both with the clean lines and economical beauty of her spectacular new house off a winding road in Summerfield and Ellen Ashley’s usual brio for life, home and garden. Before he can ask what the Triad’s beloved gardening guru loves most about her elegant new country digs, she volunteers: “It’s actually what this house has that makes it really so special and wonderfully livable, beginning with tons of light and air.”
She mentions the simplicity factor of her sleekly modern kitchen (“I’m in love with my induction stove!”) and airy great room, both of which are equally ideal for entertaining students from her gardening seminars or an intimate dinner gathering with friends. An equally efficient space is the customized pantry/laundry room combo where her collection of antique vases is displayed on glass shelves. Then there’s the dramatic black tile fireplace in the wall that produces several different flames and lighting effects depending on the desired mood, and the handy remotes that control virtually everything from door locks to lighting.
By design — her design — the walking tour is brief.
One end of the house features a two-car garage, (“Look, no steps! Perfect for my mom when she comes to visit!”), and a guest bedroom rendered in the dreamy hues of a summer sky, with 10-foot tall windows that open to the breeze and an elegant guest bathroom that leads to a high-roofed screened porch with a slowly turning Big Ass Fan, overlooking her heated saltwater swimming pool.
The other end of the house boasts the indefatigable gardener’s purple-and-celery-colored bedroom, (“my happy colors!”), a simple spa-like bath area, massive walk-in closet with an colorful wardrobe, a workout room with an elliptical machine in its nook and a cozy office with cool northern light filtered through a pine forest.
Whatever else may be said for a native Virginian who two decades ago gave up a busy career in sales in Dallas in order to move to Greensboro and immerse herself in the life botanic, this 2,600-square-foot marvel of glass and brick seems intimately connected to its surroundings, perfectly at home in nature.
Out back, beyond the shimmer of her saltwater pool, is a gated garden where late-summer zinnias, hibiscus and canna lilies linger on with a few valedictory blooms. Beyond this is is a wide natural meadow teems with wildflowers, asters, black-eyed Susan, broom sedge and Joe Pie weed humming with hundreds of bees and butterflies gathering up the final sips of summer’s sweetness.
What’s remarkable to discover is that, three years ago, none of this was here. Only a thick pine forest and the remains of an abandoned tobacco field occupied this remote spot in the country.
This splendid transformation came about because Ellen Ashley herself was in transition, amicably ending a 26-year marriage to husband Jim and seeking a “fresh start” somewhere near the pretty house and property where she grew a glorious garden and conducted her popular Learn-to-Garden classes for almost a decade.
She explains that the couple’s original plan was to buy local acreage and build a more efficient house that suited both of their lifestyles. Ashley’s passion is gardening and teaching; Jim’s is financial planning and flying his airplane. “After a lengthy search, the property we found turned out to be just five driveways or so away,” she explains. “When the four-and-a-quarter acres came on the market, we jumped on it before even selling the other place.”
In the process, the couple realized that what they also desired was to go separate ways. “It was one of those situations…” she explains. “It was one of those situations many couple find themselves in where each one has grown in different ways over the years. In many ways, Jim and I are closer and better friends than ever.” Evidence of this, she notes, is that her ex graciously insisted that she take his half of the new property to build a house that suited her tastes and needs. Jim moved to a townhouse in the city.
“So what began as a project for both of us became, in essence, a fresh start for us both.”
She began this process by drawing up her own custom house plans.
“There were things I definitely wanted — lots of light and open spaces, a one-story house with a pool and screened porch that could see each other, huge windows, low maintenance, no wooden decks, a central vacuum system and a garden you could see from almost every window.”
To bring her vision to life, she hired Gary Jobe Builders and found the ideal site contractor/advisor in Todd Powley. “He was fantastic. I tried to think of everything I could possibly ever want or need in a house. When I asked for changes, he always found a way for them to work. He’s the kind of thoughtful builder who helps you bring your dream alive.”
By the time house’s foundation was laid in the late summer of 2018, Ashley was busy laying out the garden spaces and planting the four acre domain with screening plants — Chindo viburnums, junipers, nandina and Japenese maples — along her driveway and the property’s perimeter. Not surprisingly, she also dug up and imported lots of plants from her original garden just down the road and transformed an old tobacco barn at the back of the property into a storage shed for her gardening classes.
Invariably there were a few minor hitches along the way, including delays over moving power lines and a new well that periodically produced brown water for more than three months. “The plants could live with brown water but I couldn’t,” she quips. “Try filling a pool with brown water or a nice white soaking tub!”
Today, barely one year on, Ellen Ashley’s “fresh start” is rapidly growing into the kind of elegant destination where guests and students alike feel drawn to just sit on the porch and contemplate the view, or set off to wander the gardens and natural meadow out back in search of natural treasures.
“Yesterday,” she explains as the walking tour pauses near a veggie garden that is overflowing with several varieties of figs, tomatoes and peppers, “I had a class of 10 students who gathered seeds from the various sunflower annuals. I think they enjoyed being here.”
Who wouldn’t? one wonders.
“It’s even great in winter,” she says, picking peppers and cherry tomatoes for her afternoon guest to take home. “Because the pool is heated, I can look out my windows on the snowiest days and see turquoise water.” The pool’s water, she explains, is heated by a natural solar system that circulates the pool water through black pipes located on the roof of the house.
“I come out here almost every night for a swim,” she explains. “The water is always warm and soothing. It’s the perfect way to end a day.”
“No brown water?”
She laughs. “Not anymore. It’s like paradise.” OH
To find out more about Ellen Ashley’s popular Learn-to-Garden classes, contact her at: Ellen@Learntogarden.net