In response to my Homegrown National Park contest invitation this past summer, Mike Foster, who lives in Reading, PA, sent me some before-and-after photos of his property. I was intrigued by all of the stonework I saw in the photos, and any garden that contains a water feature is enough to catch my interest. (Foster’s landscape has two.) But I had no idea that I was in for such a jaw-dropping experience.

From the street, Foster’s house and property look like many others I’ve seen. Walk around to the back, though, and it’s like being transported to another world, because after only a few yards of level ground the land stands up. There’s the house, a narrow strip of flat land containing a patio and deck, and then, abruptly, a massive, nearly vertical hill. When I entered the space, I felt like I had stepped into a canyon.

Down the steep hillside tumbled a wonderful cascade of carefully-placed but natural-looking shrubs, groundcovers, and flowering plants. A series of steps on one side led to a narrow trail across the face of the “canyon” about halfway up the wall. A bit farther up, the steps opened suddenly onto a wide, level stretch of actual lawn, invisible from below. Up beyond the lawn was a natural, wooded area that Foster pretty much leaves to nature, welcoming many of the native plants that “volunteer” both there and on his canyon wall.

The wall was beautiful, spectacular, unexpected. A testament to an extraordinary vision and a lot of work: Foster created this whole thing himself. Downplaying his efforts, Foster told me that his grandfather had worked closely with Milton S. Hershey in the 1930s to design and plant the rose garden at Hotel Hershey. He thinks that this sort of idea—that you can plan and create something, even on a large scale—somehow got into his own psyche.

Foster and his wife, Carolyn, moved into their just-built house in 2004. Although the house was finished, the back “yard” was really a large hill of bedrock and rubble left from the blasting that had been done to make room for the house. Foster immediately got to work.

“I’d brought lots of plants from the previous house,” said Foster. “But everywhere I dug, I hit rocks. I couldn’t find any clean dirt.” He started visiting his local garden center and coming back with forty-pound bags of topsoil. He began planting junipers, to hold stones and soil in place.

To fill the rest of such a large, barren expanse, Foster looked for inexpensive plants. “I got a lot from K-Mart,” he said. “You know, mid- to late-summer, when they have plants in bad shape for less.”

Carolyn pointed out that there was plenty of trial and error. “Things did well, or they didn’t,” she said, “And we moved things a lot.”

The Fosters say that they see plenty of wildlife in their hillside garden, including foxes, groundhogs, snakes, chipmunks, frogs, turtles, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Occasionally, a great blue heron comes and “fishes” in the pond. Deer also come through the property, but Foster says that they don’t cause much damage. “I think what helps here is the variety of plants,” he said.

It’s no surprise that the Fosters’ property made me think of Grand Canyon National Park—if someone had found a way to plant it! And seeing the results of Foster’s vision made me recall that we didn’t always have a National Park System. It got its start on March 1, 1872, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law. It took remarkable vision and persistence to bring that first national park into being, and then to continue identifying and adding spectacular lands and forests.

Congratulations to Mike Foster! There were several top entries in my Homegrown National Park contest, and although I haven’t been able to visit all of them, Foster’s canyon garden stood out the most.

Pam Baxter is an avid organic vegetable gardener who lives in Kimberton. Direct e-mail to [email protected], or send mail to P.O. Box 80, Kimberton, PA 19442. Share your gardening stories on Facebook at “Chester County Roots.” Pam’s book for children and families, Big Life Lessons from Nature’s Little Secrets, is available on Amazon, along with her companion field journal, Explore Outdoors, at Amazon.com/author/pamelabaxter.

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