above: A perennial garden is bordered by steel edging, punctuated by boxwood globes. – Photo by Neil Landino
ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS ON HOW TO TURN THAT OUTDOOR SPACE INTO AN ENTICING, VIBRANT OASIS
With the darkest days of winter behind us (we hope), it’s time to swap those mittens for gardening gloves and get back out to the garden.
Or, we could just contact one of the many talented landscape architects, designers, contractors or gardening experts in our area. Their seasoned advice, along with professional services, can turn the most static of yards into a dynamic, verdant paradise.
Here, some of the best local gardeners and landscapers around share their projects and expertise on everything from designing winding paths and walkways to creating cozy outdoor rooms and lush organic gardens.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
One common issue for some homeowners is almost always living with yards that challenge conventional notions of landscaping. But these are grounds of opportunity for professionals.
The best thing homeowners can do before contacting a professional, however, is to have a clear idea of their goals for the property. “Draw up a list of the things you’d like to do,” says Dan Mazabras at Odd Job Landscaping in Norwalk. “If there are things you missed, we can make suggestions and give you the options to spend more or less depending on your budget.”
For a mansion in Byram with a 30-foot grade change from the house to the shoreline, Wesley Stout Associates of New Canaan designed a vanishing-edge pool with waterfall on the outer edge. That element, which can be walked through in hot weather, presents to sailors the equivalent of curb appeal. To one side of the sloping terrain is a winding path bordered with splashes of perennials and grasses; on the other side, a jigsaw composition of stone walls that contain a rain garden—for capturing storm water runoff while addressing the steepness of the site.
If a new vegetable garden is the object of summer desire, location on the property is a key consideration.
“Garden location is generally a compromise between which spots get the most sun and which are most accessible, close to the house and near water,” says John Carlson of Homefront Farmers in Redding. “If the property isn’t getting six to eight hours of sun a day, there’s not a lot we can do.”
What Carlson might suggest, though, is cutting down or trimming back trees to gain another hour or so of sunlight. An app on his crew’s cell phones tells them how much sun different parts of a site get at any time of the day and year.
PATHS, STEPS AND GATES
Before the entrance to the yard, thoughtfully designed paths and gates introduce a property, reflect the owners’ tastes and welcome guests, and lead from one outdoor room to the next. For a collector of New England antiques in Westport, Diane Devore, of Devore Associates Landscape Architects in Fairfield, designed a path from the street to the house with a gate that plays off architectural elements from Colonial Williamsburg.
Modern architecture, meanwhile, would seem to defy logical landscape design, but again, not to landscape architects. For a walkway that bridges a modern main house and studio outbuilding in Greenwich, Wes Stout designed a straight line of plinth-like steps but also a serpentine path that winds through the green space between the structures.
“It’s really like a labyrinth,” he says of the meandering path. “If you walk the curves, it’s very meditational. Otherwise, if you’re in a hurry, you can take the steps and walk straight across the space.”
As the world intrudes, homeowners are increasingly interested in staying at home to enjoy the outdoors for as long as possible. As a result, outdoor rooms have become both popular and well-equipped for year-round living, with fireplaces, firepits, grilling stations and kitchens.
Behind a country house in Westport, Wes Stout worked with Beinfield Architects to create interlocking indoor and outdoor spaces that are at once rustic and sophisticated. A massive stone mantle over the outdoor fireplace, rich in age and patina, anchors the patio that’s used year-round. “We refer to these spaces as social opportunities,” says Stout. “More and more, we find people wanting spaces outside where they can gather around a fireplace or firepit.”
More formally, in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich, Southport architect Mark Finlay designed a series of courtyards and outdoor rooms, intimate as well as open, that extend the style of life lived inside an elegant French manor. A terrace outside the greenhouse is used for brunches and teas.
A twist on the “room” motif is a maze, hedged with thuja aborvidae, Diane Devore designed for the children of a Fairfield couple that attracts adults as well. Pivoting gates change the configuration of the paths. “Williamsburg had one of the first mazes in America,” says Devore. “This maze and the crabapple trees lining the driveway recreate a traditional New England landscape.”
Interest in the environment and sustainability is leading homeowners to Homefront Farmers in Redding, where owner John Carlson and his crew design and build handsome raised beds and fenced spaces for growing organic vegetables and berries. Ranging from six by eight feet to 40×80, the gardens cost from $7,000 to $100,000 with amenities, although the plants themselves are extra, as is Carlson’s crew doing the planting and maintenance. The company also builds and installs covered boxes for strawberries, as well as enclosed patches for blueberries.
In Wilton, Carlson constructed a 25×40-foot garden framed in cedar for durability and fine-mesh wire fencing to keep smaller critters out.
“Organic really is more about the practice than about the products,” Carlson says. “It’s about starting with the soil and making sure that the soil is healthy, that it has the right structure, the right nutrition. It’s also about having a balance of different crop families, and the right kind of flowers to attract the right kind of insects. Balance will keep the garden fairly healthy.”
Smaller yards and homes set close to neighbors or the street benefit from privacy hedges that screen the property from neighbors and passersby.
“The biggest demand over the past couple of years has been for Giant arborvitae, which are fast-growing, easy to care for and can grow up to 70 feet high,” says Jay Nathans, a designer at Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses on North Street in Greenwich. “When you have the space to let it go, it’s very effective.”
For smaller yards, Nathans recommends Emerald Green arborvitae—narrow, pyramid-shaped evergreens with bright, glossy-green foliage—that are also fast-growing but top out at 15 feet in height. “If you’re planting Green Giants and have 20 feet between the hedge and the house,” he says, “it’s only a good idea if you really dislike your neighbors.” Otherwise, he says, stick with birch and holly.
A more subtle screening is an allée—a walkway lined with trees—between the house and property line. It’s a European look Wesley Stout Associates used to great effect on the Byram shorefront property, where shaped linden trees line either side of a broad, gravel walkway that does double duty as a dog run.
GARDENS FOR ALL SEASONS
Where professional landscape designers can be particularly valuable is designing gardens that look good all year round, no matter the season or weather.
Kathryn Herman of Kathryn Herman Design in New Canaan mixes low, horizontal plantings and vertical elements to extend the life of gardens through the fall and winter. In New Canaan, she framed a very formal courtyard with a continuous line of high plantings and lower boxwood that, in turn, encloses a series of squared beds of globed boxwood and perennials, including free-ranging allium. In one, a young magnolia tree delivers verticality and reinforces the bed with a compelling structure.
“It’s important to have something evergreen in the garden,” Herman says. “Anything that’s really structural has a presence and maintains that presence even in winter, when it can be very beautiful in snow.”
In the end, sophisticated landscape design is simply a good investment for when it comes time to downsize or head to a warmer clime.
“First impressions are really important to a potential buyer,” says Maggie Smith, a Realtor at Coldwell Banker Riverside Real Estate in Westport. “A well-groomed landscape signals that the home is also well-cared for. If done thoughtfully, cohesive, crisp and colorful landscaping is a home improvement investment that immediately adds value.”
But owners should keep maintenance in mind. “Homeowners need to make sure that lawns and gardens are adequately watered and mulched, and fertilized and limed in the spring and fall,” says Manny Pelez of Pelez Landscaping and Design in Fairfield.
“Even weekend warriors can easily handle these jobs,” adds Dan Mazabras at Odd Job. “If you’re not able to maintain the property yourself, hire a professional horticulturalist or arborist to protect your investment.”
This spring, according to designers and contractors, homeowners in Fairfield County are looking to install
or upgrade the following features on their property:
1 Outdoor rooms for being with family and entertaining friends
2 Well-constructed organic vegetable gardens for sustainable living
3 Natural screens and buffers for privacy and serenity
4 Ornamental gardens that keep their structure throughout the year:“Homeowners today want structure as opposed to bunches of flowers,” says Heather O’Neill of Second Nature Landscape Design in Darien, “and they want contrasts—a horizontal green hedge and a vertical white birch tree, for example.”