Spreading the Green

One urbanite’s gardening passion spills over to his Downtown neighborhood.

By
From the June 2014 edition

New hostas appeared one morning along Town Street in Downtown Columbus.

“Andy must be at work,” says Georgeanne Reuter, noticing the plants on her way to work as the director of the Kelton House Museum & Gardens on the same street.

For the past 20 years, Andy Henn has been generously sharing plants from his townhouse’s courtyard garden to beautify his pocket neighborhood along Franklin Avenue and Town Street. Here, he’s created a unified block-wide landscape, lining sidewalks with his signature plants—hostas, flowering pear trees and monkey and pampas grasses.

This urbanite’s passion for gardening is infectious. As neighbors see how he transformed his townhouse courtyard, they are eager to do the same at their own properties.

“Since he keeps his place so nice, we’re inspired to get out and take care of ours, too,” says neighbor Sharon Sullivan, who lives next door in a century-old home and is grateful for Henn’s help landscaping her front patio.

Twenty years ago, Henn moved from Manhattan to the neighborhood to be closer to his family in Columbus. While he visited several urban locations in search of an investment property, he was drawn to an 1845 Italianate house and the surrounding Franklin Avenue-Town Street area, with its character-rich brick apartment buildings, lush trees and well-kept century-old homes. At the time, the historic neighborhood was being marketed as a cultural hub for its four colleges, beloved Topiary Park and attractions like the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Shedd Theater and Kelton House Museum—all just blocks away from his new home.

No doubt, the house was in need of renovation, but he saw potential to restore its four units—one for him and three others for prospective tenants—plus cultivate a lush garden in its shared brick courtyard.

“It reminded me of a New York brownstone,” he says.

Stepping away from a successful sales career with lingerie designer Eve Stillman, Henn says he was ready for a change to property management and “cut his teeth” renovating his Franklin Avenue home and leasing three of its units. Years later, he would expand his property-management responsibilities to 193 nearby rental properties—The Belmont Apartments, five turn-of-the century houses on Franklin Avenue and additional buildings on Town Street.

JERSEY SHORE INSPIRATION

In the midst of renovating, Henn took time out for gardening, a hobby he discovered as a teenager when he worked alongside his late father in the garden of their coastal home in southern Monmouth County, New Jersey. Even when he moved to Manhattan, he would return on weekends to garden with his father. On these weekend escapes, he fell in love with the area’s estate gardens and their manicured privet hedges, lush hosta borders and brightly colored floral beds, which would later inspire his garden designs in Columbus.

“Here, in Central Ohio, I hoped to recreate that verdant splendor I found while gardening alongside my father,” he says.

GARDEN EVOLUTION

Henn confesses he had no master plan for his garden. Rather, it evolved project by project, through trial and error and through “forces of nature.” His first such project was planting a Jersey shore-inspired privet hedge along the front of his house, complete with an arched iron gate providing a glimpse inside his ornate courtyard. Inside the gate, he added four upright European hornbeam trees and trained euonymus vines in living lattice patterns along the brick walls. He also filled the courtyard with a multiplying collection of urns and pots of boxwood and ferns. Today, the collection has grown to 47, with pots lining a black iron staircase, sitting atop columns and adorning each unit’s front stoop. He also acquired black cast-iron furniture, metal and stone benches and ornaments such as statues, a wire bird cage, a wall fountain and stone-like spheres. Henn confesses a designer friend occasionally has to “pull back” his accessorizing enthusiasm.

“It can be like a bad Italian restaurant sometimes,” he says. Joking aside, his garden embellishments favorably echo the home’s Italian-styled ironwork, from its curved window guards and arched front gate to the ornamental fence-top finials.

He points to the front courtyard’s water feature as an example of his trial-and-error approach. When he moved into the home, he pulled out a former container’s overgrown yews and unsuccessfully tried other plants. At the suggestion of a friend, he decided to convert the container into a water garden. The weekend project involved digging out the dirt, adding a rubber lining and filling it with water, aquatic plants and stones. Later, he tried a litany of various fish and frogs, but only the goldfish survived. “The frogs would hop out and get eaten by my dogs,” he says of predacious chow mix Victor and shepherd mix Louis.

In addition to trial and error, Henn says his gardening efforts can be “undermined by acts of God.” For example, in the back courtyard, he says a giant locust tree was hit by lighting and “imploded.” With it gone, the courtyard was open to more sunlight and became a blank slate for new landscaping. He added a vine-covered arched entry, a central pond and several lush beds to create a park-like setting for the townhouse residents.

In the back courtyard’s “triple-tiered” garden, he encircles a weeping birch with Francis Williams hosta, boxwood and autumn joy sedum. In a far corner, he tucks a cupola he salvaged from a Long John Silver’s dumpster. Here, he adds whimsical forms with a spiral silver juniper, a blue atlas cedar, Japanese cedars and dwarf weeping maple trees.

In the opposite corner, Henn formed an intimate seating area with an elaborate iron gazebo beneath the shade of a large sycamore tree. He filled the inviting space with various hydrangeas, a southern magnolia, Dutchman’s Pipe vines and containers of ferns and succulents.

In designing the back courtyard, he cleverly built perimeter walls just high enough to obscure the view of the adjoining parking lot while still offering a glimpse of the Downtown skyline. He then camouflaged the walls with neatly trimmed privet hedges.

Over the years, Henn says his gardening style has evolved.

“I kind of liken it to a style where Italy meets New Orleans,” he says. “I like that whole bawdy courtyard feel.”

SPREADING THE GREEN

As Henn took on management responsibilities for The Belmont Apartments and other rental properties, he transformed their landscapes with his favorite plants. The Belmont’s steps are lined with boxwoods and hostas. Other properties’ landscapes were transformed similarly. In addition, he started lining sidewalks with monkey grass, beginning with his own townhouse before expanding to neighbors’ residences and the rental properties. He says he fell in love with this tough southern groundcover plant when he visited his sister in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta and admired it bordering beautiful manors. Later, he found the plant did well in his Ohio garden and decided, “I’m going to give Franklin Avenue that impressive manor look. I didn’t ask permission … I just beg for forgiveness later!”

As Henn’s plantings expanded, neighbors began to catch his gardening passion.

“He’s up at 4 a.m. working early in the garden before any of us even roll over,” Sullivan says. “He’s very enthusiastic, and it rubs off on us.”

When Sullivan, now 80, moved into the home next door, Henn offered to landscape her front patio.

“You can have the back, but don’t do anything in the front. I’ll take care of the front,” she says Henn told her teasingly.

“He didn’t want me to look shabby, since he had properties on both sides of me,” she says with a smile.

In front of Sullivan’s house, he planted a privet hedge and pear trees so she could have some privacy as she sat on her front porch. He further filled the space with a vinca groundcover and a colorful border of 36 hydrangea plants he found on sale at Wal-Mart for a dollar each. While Henn does the planting and pruning, he recruits Sullivan’s help for the watering.

“Watering—that’s my homework,” she says.

Beyond gardening, Henn spreads his cheerful demeanor and acts of kindness throughout the neighborhood. For example, Sullivan says he greets neighbors by name and surprises them with Saturday-morning doughnuts or cut-flower bouquets from his garden.

“You wish you had somebody in every neighborhood like Andy,” Sullivan says.