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P. Allen Smith's Garden Home
my garden home
"Are you still looking for a house?" asked a friend who called me quite unexpectedly one day. "well, I know where there is one you can have for next to nothing!"
She had my attention. Of course, I was interested. Who wouldn't be, especially since I had been looking for a house to restore? So without hesitation, we agreed to meet and have a look. My friend was right: The owners had other plans for the lot where the 1904 Colonial Revival cottage was located, and they intended to tear it down if a suitable steward could not be found. The house could be mine if I agreed to move and restore it.
I knew this was the house for me the moment I walked inside. I loved everything about it. Its tall ceilings, hardware, floor plan, and pocket doors were all original and intact, and the exterior of the house would make a perfect backdrop for a garden. There was no doubt that it would need a lot of work, but it was structurally sound and full of potential.
Soon, I found some property and a house mover. The new location was ideal. It was a double lot in a historic neighborhood, and the scale and vintage of the house would fit comfortably in the area. Since the land was on a street corner, moving the house into position would be easier. The extra room would also give me plenty of flexibility for siting the house and garden.
Wild vegetation had happily covered the lot since the original house was pulled down sometime in the 1970s. At one time, some well-meaning neighbors covered the area with six inches of gravel in an attempt to transform it into a neighborhood park. All of this had to go. When the bulldozer was finished, there was nothing left, except for one large oak tree in the back. While others said it looked barren and pretty pitiful, I saw it as a clean slate, a natural tabula rasa, on which to paint my picture.
After creating countless gardens for friends and clients, the day had finally arrived for me to design my own. I was exhilarated by the idea of putting into place many of the concepts I had developed over the years. I already knew that I wanted to surround the entire house with a garden and plant every square inch of the property, but I had to have a plan.
Time and again, I had witnessed how homeowners acted on their first impulse to jump ahead rather than taking on the process methodically. I, too, had to resist the desire to start planting trees and creating flower beds. I saw this house and garden as a model that could help me become a better designer and more effectively assist others with their own designs.
My ideal garden home would be place where the house and garden were blended together into a unified whole. A series of outdoor garden rooms would begin at the walls of my home's exterior and extend all the way to the lot line. In this way I would expand my home's living space by using my entire property. My goal was to create the same level of privacy, intimacy, and function that I had inside my home within these garden rooms. This would give me comfortable areas where I could reconnect with nature and foster a greater sense of place.
One of the first things I had to consider was how to position the house on the property. So often when I am called in to help with the design of a garden the house is already under construction. By getting started before the foundation is laid, I can often show them how just a slight repositioning of the structure can create better spaces for the garden.
So, when my house came rolling down the street on a cold January day in 1989, I had already spent considerable time working out exactly where it would sit on the lot. One of the most useful moments in conceptualizing my plan came before I even moved the house. To relocate the dwelling from one historic district to another, I had to gain approval from the city's planning and zoning board. I was required to submit drawings of how I intended to site the house on the lot and landscape around it. So before the house could be mine, I had worked through every possible scenario.
I made a cutout of the footprint of the house and moved it around on the survey plan. This helped me visualize the garden spaces around the dwelling. Eventually, I decided to shift the building into the southwest corner of the lot, which seemed to offer the most potential for garden rooms, to create a good balance between private and public spaces.
From there I began working out the various outdoor rooms I wanted around the house to see how they related to one another and to the house itself. The shape of the house and the lot created a series of rectangular spaces. One long rectangle ran across the front of the property, two others along each side of the house, and another along the back. With this arrangement, I recognized an opportunity to design strong, unbroken lines of sight or axes from one garden room into the next. Like an open door, these visual sight lines would allow visitors to stand in one room and see directly into the next.
After positioning these openings through portals or entries, I further divided the rectangles into nine garden rooms and began to imagine how each space could have its own personality yet remain a part of a cohesive whole. As I laid out this plan on paper, I added an entire circuit or path that looped around the house, connecting one garden room to the next.
From here I imagined hedges and fences that would serve as "walls" for each room, with arbors and gates as "doorways." At this stage I like to lay out a garden's framework as large blocks of various shapes and sizes before I think about which plants to use or worry about other details such as color or materials. In this case, the method resulted in a plan that was detailed and instructive enough to gain approval for moving the house and general enough so I could have some flexibility in refining my choices in the future.
Whenever I design a garden, I find inspiration often comes in unexpected ways. My own garden was no different. To make sure the house could fit under electric wires and was narrow enough to roll down the street, the roof and all of the porches had to be removed. Once it arrived, I stood looking at this forlorn shell perched upon the bare lot-not exactly a pretty picture. But surprisingly, seeing the house and property in this "stripped down" state allowed me to stand back and visualize what I needed to add to unify the look and style of my house with the garden. I began seeing porches, arbors, gates, and roof angles that would all work together. I also walked through the house and looked out the windows to decide what surrounding views I wanted to enhance and which ones I wished to screen.
Now, more than ten years later, my garden still has its original framework of rooms. And just as I adapt the inside of my home to my changing needs, my outdoor rooms have also been a work in progress, providing me with a series of "studios" where I experiment with new colors, textures, and features.
To give you an idea of each room's character and function, I offer a tour through each area.
The Front Garden
As you enter the garden from the sidewalk in front of my house, you walk through a double picket gate and step into an area significantly shallower than it is wide. A brick walk leads up broad wooden steps to the front porch and entry. A picket fence and plantings define the remaining "walls" of this garden room. It is an enclosed space that is only fully revealed once you step inside.
The space has a slightly formal feel, reflecting the 1904 Colonial Revival architecture of my house. To the right and left, at each end of the long lawn, are focal points. To the left is a large cast-iron urn draped with three large evergreens. To the right is a simple bench that beckons visitors to enjoy the view. This room corresponds with the entry hall in my home, a viewing station to orient visitors to the rest of the garden.
If you have held a memory of a place in your mind and always wanted to re-create it, you will understand the inspiration behind my front garden. For me, it was the memory of those stunning double herbaceous borders I encountered at the Arley Estate during my student days in England. The inspiration for classic English flower borders first came from modest cottage gardens, so it seemed applying some of the same qualities would be right for my cottage-style home.
Originally herbaceous borders were designed as ways to display and organize the plants in more harmonious combinations. Ironically, many of the most favored plants used in these English borders are native to American meadows and prairies. On subsequent visits to England, I have found goldenrod, purple coneflowers, and towering joe-pye weed as well as phlox, spiderwort, rudbeckia, and asters-patches of color amid tapestries of greens and grays.
However, for my cottage garden, the classic English double perennial border would not work, but by duplicating elements of its form, I could create a similar look. Instead of the tall brick walls and yew hedges used at Arley, I planted a holly hedge and built a picket fence to contain the volume of space. And rather than plantings of only herbaceous perennials that would die to the ground in winter, I chose flowering shrubs, trees, and perennials to create interest throughout the year. Since the area was small, I limited the color palette to purples, magenta, all shades of pink, and lavender, accented with white.
Once the picket fence went up, I lined out the flower borders and began to enrich the heavy clay soil with manure, sand, and compost. The first year I planted cosmos, vinca, cleome, cockscomb, and salvias. These, along with purple fountain grass and morning glories that scampered up twig trellises, made a triumphant splash-the wildness and waves of color that first season resembled the paintings of Claude Monet.
Over the next few seasons I continued to rely on annuals to fill in as the shrubs and perennials became established. I also started an old-fashioned rose collection in this area. In early spring, the first wave of bloom begins with bulbs-hyacinths, tulips, and alliums. Next, the earliest roses unfold, and the color and fragrance build with other flowering plants until the roses peak sometime in May. Then summer- and fall-blooming perennials take center stage, along with a few annuals, until the curtain comes down with the first frosts.
A dominant feature in this garden is an arbor entry that supports the white climbing rose 'American Beauty' and leads you into the fountain garden. The columns, similar to those along my front porch, blend the style of the home and garden.
The arbor is framed within a tall clipped hedge that creates a solid green wall, blocking the view of the room beyond. I am always delighted when visitors ask, "What's through here?" as they walk toward the arbor, because it is just that aura of mystery that I am aspiring to create.
The Fountain Garden
As you pass through the arbor in the more formal front garden into the fountain garden, the mood changes. Here, a seven-foot-tall evergreen holly hedge defines the walls of the room, giving the area a quiet, private feel. The further you move inside, the more intimate in size and style the rooms become, just as you would find in most homes.
I designed the fountain garden to reflect the atmosphere of my library, but in this case, the plants serve as the volumes on the shelves. Because I am an avid collector of plants, one of my garden home's most important features is to accommodate my ever-growing collection. This is my favorite outdoor room for trying new perennials, bulbs, and annuals within its clearly defined framework. Like the indoor library, it is a comfortable place to sit and examine the plants and spend time relating their characteristics to one another.
When I took the design of my fountain garden from paper to reality, I knew the walls and paths within the room would have to project a certain precision-there is something about a solid framework in a garden that puts us at ease. It contains, it directs, it screens, and it helps us to organize our responses to the space both consciously and subconsciously. Perhaps the appeal of defined boundaries lies in our need for structure and order in our lives.
To help me establish the size of the enclosure, I looked for logical clues from the site. For instance, when I laid out the boundaries, I used the distance between my house and the sidewalk to determine its width. To establish its length, I found its center point by aligning it with a major gable on the roof of the house. From this point I measured to the nearest corner of the house and then used that same distance in the opposite direction to establish its full length. That measurement was nearly the same as its width, so it created a simple geometric shape, almost a perfect square, to fashion a garden within.
To arrange the hedges in a straight row I stretched a string and dug a trench along the line rather than plant the shrubs in individual holes. With this approach I could backfill the trench with a good rich blend of topsoil, compost, and manure. A total of thirty plants spaced thirty inches apart made the room-a space bounded on three sides by the hedge with the house finishing the square.
Using shrubs as the living walls and borders of a garden room is often less costly than masonry walls and fences. The downside is the time it takes to reach maturity. The Ilex crenata holly hedge around the fountain garden took five years to grow tall enough to reach the seven-foot height I wanted. While this required plenty of patience, cow manure, and shearing, the hedge now offers the sense of unity, boldness, and containment I had envisioned.
Soon after the hedge was planted, I began laying out the pattern for the walk. I wanted, within this square room, to create a circle that would eventually become a water feature. The hedge was a given, but how about the interior? How should it present itself? First, at the suggestion of a friend, I considered a single large tree in the center, but what about my dream of water? Ultimately, I decided to create the design in stages. For the first five years I made a planting bed in the center circle with four flowering trees to punctuate the corners and four conical hollies to accent the entries. Later, I replaced the bed with a circular water feature.
In its initial stages, this garden, like the rest of the property, looked raw, and I'm sure, to the passerby, without promise. I pressed on and poured the footings for what would be the borders and outline of the paths until my budget would allow me to buy the bricks and construct the water feature. I knew that if I didn't lose sight of my dream and took the improvements a step at a time, I would eventually achieve my goal.
The clearly defined lines of the walk and hedge established order and provided a necessary foil for the exuberance of plantings that one day would follow. Setting up this tension between two opposites gave life to the design.
As you enter the fountain garden through the pillared arbor, you step onto a gravel path that divides to encircle the water feature then merges on the other side where a matching arbor invites you to exit. This arbor frames the view of a toolshed in another garden room, creating a focal point that entices you to explore more of the garden.
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