Bucks County : Little house on the hayfield

Rake4LeavesJuly 8, 2005

Here's an article about a Upper Bucks County log cabin home,

with cottage gardens.


Fri, Jul. 08, 2005

Go to above link to view the article's photo

LINDA JOHNSON / Inquirer Suburban Photographer

Nancy Ondra and her dog, Guinevere, relax at the "personal entrance" to her log house in Milford Township. It overlooks the cottage garden, one of several types she has put in over three years.

My Backyard : Little house on the hayfield

A writer homesteading on her family's Bucks County farm created her dream home - a log cabin with lush gardens.

By Denise Cowie

Inquirer Staff Writer

If not for a high school project on log houses, Nancy Ondra might never have built her dream home.

"I really got interested in them back then and thought, 'Oh, I'd love to have one of those,' " she says.

The notion was pushed to the back of her mind for years, as she coped with college and career. But she never gave up the idea that one day she'd live in a cozy log house of her own.

And now she does.

The day she turned 34, Ondra moved into a log cabin in a five-acre hayfield carved from the Milford Township, Bucks County, farm that's been in her family since the 1930s.

In the three years since, she has transformed the bare farmland around the house into a kaleidoscope of flower beds, meadows, orchard and shrubbery. Defined by split-rail fences and set off by wooden arbors and a neat cedar barn, the gardens make a spectacular splash of color in the rural landscape.

Ondra drew the original sketches for her 1,200-square-foot white-pine dwelling, and worked with log-home specialists Kuhns Bros. of Lewisburg, Pa., to make it happen.

The small structure captures the charm she associates with log houses, yet it provides ample space for both her personal and professional lives.

"Because I'm a writer, I can work from home," says Ondra, an editor and author of gardening books. (Her most recent is The Perennial Gardener's Design Primer, written with horticulturist Stephanie Cohen.)

She characterizes her decorating style as minimalist.

"It's sparse, but I like it that way. I don't like things I have to dust," Ondra says.

Some decorative touches are holdovers from magazine stories she's done, such as the dried herbs hanging from a shelf above the log-frame bed in one bedroom. Throughout the house, natural-wood tones dominate the floors, walls and ceilings.

"It's very soothing, in contrast to the outdoors," she says. "That's where all the color is."

One side of the main floor is a modest great room, a two-story-high open space that accommodates the kitchen, dining area and living room. On the other side are two bedrooms and a bathroom. Three entrances and lots of windows contribute to a light and airy feel.

A staircase leads to an open loft above the bedrooms. Ondra has turned this into an office, much of it furnished with pieces created by her mother, Ethel Ondra, who lives a stroll away in the original farmhouse.

"She taught herself woodworking from books I brought home," Nancy says, clearly proud of her mother's prowess.

There's a bed custom-made by Ethel Ondra for Guinevere, Nancy's 8-year-old sheltie, who keeps her company as she writes. And from the window beside her desk, she can keep an eye on Daniel and Duncan, alpacas she acquired about a year after she moved in "because it seemed a shame to have a property like this and not have any animals."

A covered porch wraps around three sides of the cabin, expanding the living space and providing a transition between the indoors and the garden, where Ondra spends much of her time.

Climbing roses clamber over the porch railings at the side of the house. More roses, intertwined with clematis and honeysuckle, all but obscure handrails on the stairs of what Ondra calls "my personal entrance," which opens onto her cottage garden. Violas have seeded themselves among the stones at the bottom of the stairs, creating a floral welcome mat.

Behind the house are two acres of flowering meadow, and Ondra mows a labyrinth pattern into another meadow of cool-season grasses that separate her from a neighbor on one side.

On the opposite side, she is creating a one-acre shrubbery - "sort of like Jane Austen," she says - that will be planted with different ground covers to create meandering paths.

None of this is what Ondra first envisioned doing with the land. Though her parents didn't live there while she was growing up, she thought she would farm it, and enrolled at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown to study agronomy and environmental science.

"I had to go to college for four years to find out that a farm is not a great way to make a living, especially if you don't like driving tractors and using chemicals," she says.

So she switched to horticulture, working for Rodale Press as an editor of garden books. About 10 years ago, she became a freelance writer when she opened Pendragon Perennials at her former home in Emmaus, a nursery specializing in unusual plants grown from seed collected from all over the world.

But Ondra closed the nursery at the end of the 2000 season and put the house up for sale.

"The garden was finished," she explains. "There was no more room for anything else."

When Ondra was looking for another place to live, her parents offered her the field and suggested she build her log house.

At her new digs, not all the gardens are merely decorative. An intensely planted acre around the house includes a walled kitchen garden, a courtyard garden, and a color garden where Ondra tries out plants and tests color combinations for her books.

Some beds change quickly in this living laboratory, as a magazine editor discovered when he wanted to photograph the flower border along her front porch that plays a featured role in The Perennial Gardener's Design Primer (Storey, $24.95).

Too late, Ondra told him. Except for some Rosa glauca and a lovely golden elderberry (Sambucus racemosa "Sutherland Gold"), that border has been filled by replacements with colorful leaves in preparation for a book she's writing on foliage.

"I needed a place where we could have combinations of plants for photography, a series of little vignettes," Ondra says.

She still loves to grow from seed, though - plants such as the four-foot-tall Hydrangea arborescens ssp. discolor that march along one fence.

Even when the gardens around the house are finished, she won't stop.

"I want to grow plants and donate them to places like Delaware Valley College for them to sell," Ondra says, "or collect seed of native plants around here, propagate it, and donate the plants to our township or the [Natural] Lands Trust for their plant sales."

She stops to consider what she has said, and laughs.

"Once I become independently wealthy. Maybe it will be a retirement project."

Contact gardening writer Denise Cowie at 215-854-2719 or dcowie@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/denisecowie.

Here is a link that might be useful: My Backyard : Little house on the hayfield

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Kathy46(Z6 Pa)

Nice story. Wish it included pictures.


    Bookmark   July 8, 2005 at 3:56PM
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We bought a very old log cabin from the local historical society.We dismantled it brought it here to our property and rebuild it the way it was.Mine is only 1 room downwith fire place. with a small loft upstairs.Were getting ready to put a porch on it.Its so sweet.We built an enclosed kitchen garden beside it.brick floor with 8 raised beds.picket fence around it.

    Bookmark   July 9, 2005 at 2:43AM
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Pipersville_Carol(z6 Bucks PA)

One of my neighbors is in the final stages of adding a vintage log-cabin addition to his stone farmhouse. It's a large two-story cabin from the early 1800s, and I think it came from York, PA. He also bought two vintage barns and had them re-erected on his property. It's really cool how those structures can be taken down and put back up. Very efficient.

    Bookmark   July 11, 2005 at 3:36PM
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