A pocketful of art and plants
Look around Deborah Richards’ garden and discover a space filled with beauty, enchantment, and amusement. No wonder her home has been featured four times on Portsmouth’s popular Pocket Garden Tour.
Richards’ unique design style and bubbly personality reflect her sense of adventure and zest for life. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, she worked as a stewardess for United Airlines, then as a floral designer in Connecticut for 35 years. After her husband died, Richards moved to Portsmouth to be closer to her two children.
Her passion for art is matched by her love of antiques and historic design. Thus, she was drawn to Portsmouth’s South End, containing Strawbery Banke Museum and carefully preserved Colonial, Georgian, and Federal buildings. Richards bought a home built in 1750 by a shipbuilder and restored by a prior owner before she purchased it in 1994. It was exactly the right size to accommodate her adored eighteenth-century antiques, most of which were handed down from her parents. Included in these treasures is her childhood bed where she still sleeps.
Except for its colorful painted interiors, the house has undergone few changes in the 23 years that Richards, 84, has lived there. Artwork adorns floors, walls, stair risers, and even the bathtub. “I painted a fish in the tub. I get carried away sometimes,” she says. She painted the kitchen floor in a charming black-and-white check that is a perfect backdrop for the antique stove (now electrified) on which she cooks. Richards has a passion for primitive painting and folk art, much of it inspired by Rufus Porter, an itinerant painter and inventor who lived in New England between 1792 and 1884.
The evolution of Richards’ eclectic backyard is a different story. The tiny space was totally bare, except for a garage. Given that the front yard is only a sliver—there are approximately two feet between the house and the road—her creative energy found its outlet in the bleak back plot. Then magic happened, starting with a paintbrush.
Richards transformed the garage into a summer room, a cheerful gathering spot featuring the same black-and-white checkered floor that she had painted in the kitchen. The room displays quirky treasures discovered at flea markets and antique auctions, along with her beloved pond boats. Richards says, “I just bought my fourth boat. It’s over five feet long and has quite a tall mast. I’m still working on how to get it into the summer room.” Next to the boats is a striking painting that commands center stage. It depicts a harborside battle and was painted by J. Andre Smith in 1939. Smith gave this to Richards’ father, a chiropractor, in appreciation for treating the phantom pain he suffered after the amputation of a leg due to an injury from World War I.
Adjacent to the summer room is a charming outdoor patio accommodating her parents’ wrought-iron furniture. Intriguing pieces, many painted by Richards, fill the space. There is something to see in every direction—a metal squirrel races down a wall, a painting of the Connecticut River, and an assortment of small wooden animals on the table. And, of course, each object tells a unique story.
Richards’ favorite item of garden décor was purchased at a small rural auction for around $115; it hangs prominently over the entrance to the summer room and portrays two bounding deer. “It is even wired for lights,” she says. Another prized possession is the huge birdhouse that anchors one corner of the yard. It was on the property when she bought the house. The only thing she added was the little wooden squirrel in the doorway. Richards used to be at war with squirrels until they came to terms with each other. She feeds them and they stop creating mischief in the garden.
Richards proudly shares that she has a collaborator when it comes to planting and decorating the backyard. His name is Mark, and he is her son, a landscape gardener in the area. They dream up design ideas side by side, from incorporating unusual staghorn ferns in compositions, to repurposing a wooden pallet as a vertical garden filled with impatiens, or weaving a gorgeous passionflower around the tines of an old pitchfork. “Mark came up with the idea of a maritime garden, complete with an anchor, driftwood, buoys, and a lifeboat ring,” Richards says. She has lived near the ocean for much of her life and has a special love for sailing, rowing, and boating.
This attraction for the water is reflected in most of her paintings, whether they are on fences, knickknacks, walls, or floors. Her ingenuity for incorporating water into scenery is evident in an old iron gate set against her stockade fence. She painted a stone path on the fence, starting at the base of the gate, and drew a winding walkway to an imaginary pond, crafting a remarkable illusion.
With her appreciation for painting and novel garden design, Richards has created a space of wonder. While her garden may be pocket sized, it bursts with her same exuberance for life.
2017 Pocket Garden Tour