A ‘labor of love’: Area man creates backyard haven with garden rooms

WILLIAMSBURG – Told that his sprawling yard and garden seem almost like a vacation area, George Dempsie nodded in agreement, before adding with a laugh, “With one tired gardener.”

The exhaustion is understandable. Dempsie, 52, has transformed his yard into a space filled with “garden rooms” – small spaces in the yard that follow a single theme and seem like separate rooms.

“Garden rooms are created by bushes kind of delineating the walls of the rooms,” Dempsie said.

He said garden rooms date back to the ancient Romans, who had central gardens in the middle of their homes.

Dempsie’s home has a connection to the Williamsburg landmark Royer Mansion. The house was built in 1836 and was home to the sisters of ironmaster Samuel Royer. Royer ran the Springfield Iron Furnace and lived in Royer Mansion.

Dempsie said he’s always been active in the preservation of Royer Mansion, part of the Blair County Historical Society.

“In the past, I was the chairperson of The Friends of Royer Mansion,” he said. “It was a very active group for about 10 years. But I would say every group has a shelf life, and people got tired of things … I stepped away and, thankfully, they have a new group.

“I try to help with it when I can. One of the ways I’ve helped with it recently is I had my house on the garden tour, which raised money for Royer.”

Dempsie, a second grade teacher at Ferguson Township Elementary School in the State College Area School District, grew up in Williamsburg, but has lived throughout the area, including Huntingdon and Bellefonte. But he always had a soft spot for his current home, where his high school librarian, Mr. Potteiger, lived for 40 years.

He came back to Williamsburg nine years ago, when the house went up for sale. Potteiger had done a lot of work in the yard, but Dempsie also had a lot to work with.

“I became interested in gardening when I lived in Bellefonte, where I owned a Victorian house with a nice, sunny yard,” he said. “At that point, I could’ve kicked myself because my grandparents, who lived out in the country here, outside of Williamsburg, and my grandfather in Pittsburgh, they were all master gardeners.

“And when I was a kid, I couldn’t have cared in the least. I could’ve learned so much from them. It’s one of my biggest regrets.”

But Dempsie has made up for lost time. His garden rooms are a product of trial and error and a lot of reading, but he’s done most of it himself. (He gets help from TLC Landscaping in Williamsburg with bigger projects).

Right off of Dempsie’s porch is his first garden room – a wooden box with an antique water pump on the top, running down into a half whiskey barrel.

“This is a water garden,” Dempsie explained. “There used to be a well here; it was probably the water for the house when the early people lived here – this was built in 1836. … It’s nice because my bedroom is up there, and at night, when I have my door open, I can hear the water running and it’s very relaxing.”

Next is a bench placed underneath a wooden, overgrown pergola and a rose garden highlighted by Rugosa roses – hardy flowers with very pronounced veins in their leaves. But just steps away is a small pathway tucked between a privet hedge and a Forsythia bush.

“I got the idea for these garden rooms when I was touring some places, these old estate kinds of places, in Maryland and Virginia,” he said. “There were two things that I had heard about: one thing, is that a lot of these older estates have a fern garden … and then after the fern garden, it leads to a hidden passageway behind the bushes.”

After encountering one of these “allees” – a French term meaning path or alley – in Virginia, Dempsie was struck with the desire to create one of his own. As it happened, he had the perfect spot – he just didn’t know it yet.

“I just kind of stumbled upon this one day and realized that I had an area that I could prune back and create this kind of hidden passageway,” Dempsie said, showing off the fern garden which lines the path.

The pathway comes out into an Asian garden room – featuring decor that represents the four elements, like a traditional Asian garden. But the Asian influence also led Dempsie to another “hidden” room.

Between another privet hedge and a few evergreen trees lies another pathway, this one opening up into a small clearing under tree branches. In the clearing, he has set up a small “tea house,” with a table, chairs and more Asian decor.

“It’s just kind of this natural (room),” he said. “It’s nice to come out here and sit, especially if it’s hot.”

Underneath a nearby set of honeysuckle and burning bushes, Dempsie has a group of dolls and figurines set up. He says it’s a growing trend to have such whimsical spaces in a garden.

Opposite the elves and fairies is what he calls a “Victorian garden.” This room grew out of a problem -a large burning bush did not make it through the winter in 2011 and left a gaping hole in the landscape.

“I wasn’t sure what to do with it and then I decided to make a Victorian garden room,” Dempsie said. “I had this statue that I had gotten in Maine and I never had a place for it, so I put it in here. And the Victorians were real big on bedding, where they’d create a carpet out of different types of flowers, so I did that and put an archway.”

He also has a cutting garden, where he can cut fresh flowers for his home, as well as a vegetable garden that just started and contains traditional vegetables and a few raspberry bushes.

There are a few undeveloped areas in the far corner of Dempsie’s yard, but he plans to get to work there, as well. He says that as he approaches retirement, he doesn’t imagine slowing down with his “labor of love.”

“I know I’ll never be at a loss for things to do. … I’ll be doing this probably up until I’m in a wheelchair. It’s in your blood. You get bit by the gardening bug.”

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.