Editor’s note: Sue Grafton died in December 2017 at 77. This article originally appeared in our February/March 2014 issue.
Kinsey Millhone, the spunky protagonist of Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries, wouldn’t be caught dead spading compost onto a perennial bed. “I hate nature. I really do,” the fictional detective proclaims in F Is for Fugitive. Grafton, who has called Millhone her “alter ego,” admits she once shared those sentiments. How, then, to account for the garden transformation taking place at Grafton’s 1912 estate, Lincliff? Perched above the Ohio River eight miles east of downtown Louisville, the grounds were a vine-
tangled mess when Grafton and her husband, Steve Humphrey, bought the place in 2000. Today, the once-crumbling fountain trickles and shimmers, boxwood parterres have been trimmed in-to shape, and a handful of spectacular new features, including an intricate knot garden, grace the property.
Humphrey, a philosophy of physics professor raised in south-central Los Angeles, is an equally unlikely suspect. “We had a tiny yard,” he says. “My father made the kids get up early on Sunday morning and hedge and weed. I never liked yard work, especially when forced to do it at gunpoint.”
The turnaround appears to be the work of professionals, but the couple swears no landscape designers played a part. So whodunit?
Upon further questioning, the truth emerges. “Something clicked when I met Sue,” Humphrey explains. “We rented a house when I was a graduate student at Ohio State, and I planted a vegetable garden. When we bought a house in Santa Barbara, I got into roses. I realized I love creating gardens.”
Grafton has a confession of her own: She’s becoming a garden lover, too. “Steve has taught me a lot about the virtues and benefits of a well-cared-for property,” she says.
Grafton grew up in Louisville but as a young woman, rebellious and burning with ambition, moved to California to become a writer. “When I left the state of Kentucky, it was ‘Thank you, Lord Jesus, I’m out of here!’” Grafton says. Decades later, after penning dozens of best sellers, she felt the pull of home. “I’ve been to a lot of places in the world. Coming back here, I realized Kentucky is quite beautiful. I’m proud to be a resident of this state.”
The couple’s original plan to build a house changed when Humphrey, touring a riverfront lot, scaled a hill and glimpsed Lincliff, a long-abandoned stuccoed Georgian Revival mansion. Their real estate agent told them the property was slated to be divided and sold off in small parcels. Smitten, they bought it all.
For the first five years, Humphrey cleared overgrowth, cut back shaggy boxwood hedges (in stages, a little every six months), rebuilt a fountain stone by painstaking stone, and refurbished a couple of antique greenhouses, all the while researching the garden’s history. Frederick Law Olmsted’s nephew John Olmsted, Humphrey discovered, designed the original hilltop site plan, including terraces, walkways, and massive limestone retaining walls. In the 1930s, landscape architect Bryant Fleming, known for designing Nashville’s one hundred-acre Cheekwood estate, drew up an elaborate landscape plan for Lincliff. Humphrey found a copy, enabling him to piece together the garden’s evolution.
In addition to restoring original elements, the couple has added new features inspired by some of the most famous gardens in the world. “Whenever we travel, I make Sue come with me on garden tours,” Humphrey says. Lincliff now sports an eight-foot-high maze of blue point junipers based on a seventeenth-century version seen at Hampton Court Palace near London, and an allée of European hornbeams inspired by a visit to Peterhof Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. Among Humphrey’s other creations: a knot garden woven out of hedges of boxwoods and barberries; an in-ground sculpture of stones carved into a geometrical turf pattern, each segment bearing a different mathematical symbol (such as pi and Dirac’s constant); and a woodland garden of densely clustered hostas, ferns, and other shade-tolerant plants inside an existing stand of hollies, hemlocks, dogwoods, and saucer magnolias. Humphrey is currently installing a sunken garden and designing a koi pond inside a restored greenhouse to protect his fish. “I’m tired of feeding the raccoons,” he says.
Grafton has become particularly fond of their kitchen garden. “We have an asparagus bed, potatoes, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries,” she says. “It’s all organic.” Next up is an apiary, where they’ll produce their own honey. “We’re like little farmers.”
The genteel pace of Kentucky life has also played a part in softening Grafton’s hard-edged stance against nature. Recently, she learned about a previous Lincliff owner, a woman known for her gorgeous camellias. “She used to have these flower boxes printed with ‘Lincliff,’” Grafton says. “If a friend was sick, she’d have her chauffeur deliver a box of her camellias.” Don’t expect to find Kinsey Millhone pulling such a stunt in Grafton’s next book (she’s up to the letter X), but her creator sounds delighted with the prospect. “We might have to reinstate that tradition.”