Settle into a pretty and private garden oasis and leave the noisy demands of city life behind.
Photography by Nat Rea
(page 1 of 2)The English poet William Blake and his missus took tea in their garden in the buff. Nothing we’d want to try (we’re certain the Blakes’ friends wish they hadn’t), but there is something to be said for a garden where you can sip a coffee in your pajamas or at least raise a glass without alerting the guy next door. Such a personal sanctuary seemed unattainable until we ran across the trio of gardens that follow. Traffic may roll and pedestrians pass beyond the hedge, but once inside, the world falls away. Inspired by their distinct and innovative approaches, we just might be able to forge our own retreat. Not one where we plan to undress (bugs, sunburn, wrinkles), but sweet nonetheless. Come see.
It stands to reason that landscape architect Don Leighton, head of Gates, Leighton & Associates Landscape Architecture in East Providence, and his wife, Denise, would have an affinity for plants. But to accommodate a family of six on one-and-one-quarter acres also warrants an acute sense of design.
Along with flowers, there had to be room to play ball, a spot for a pool, space for entertaining and a niche for a vegetable garden. Above all, they wanted some seclusion from neighbors, as nice as they are, which was a tall order for a Barrington lot that was heavily overgrown back in 1985 when the Leightons took up residence.
To begin, the couple concentrated on clearing the land. Beneath the rambling vines and scrub, they uncovered a number of mature, worth-saving trees, among them a few black locust and a handful of evergreens. Most of these they slid to the perimeters to help shape a new backdrop and lend structure. “It was slow going because we did the work ourselves. And, at the same time, we were busy with babies,” Denise explains. When a new kitchen addition yielded mounds of excavated soil, which could be used to construct different levels, the garden was really off and running.
Today, a series of circular grass rooms flow from one to the other, maximizing the site and providing options for enjoying the outdoors. The upper terrace, rife with colorful flowers, gives way to verdant lawn and curved beds filled with texture. Behind these, more layers: shrubs backing up to showy trees and stately evergreens chosen for their specific effect. “Every season has interest,” Denise says.
What aren’t readily apparent are the more intimate spots: a woodsy area dubbed “the camp site,” where there’s room to rustle up a fire or stage a picnic, for instance, and a slightly elevated nook where twin chairs catch the last rays of sun. The wished-for pool is also here, although no one would guess. Don used the excavated soil this time to build a berm. Before the above-ground pool was even plunked in its nest, he’d layered the berm with trees and shrubs to fashion a round screen that has thickened with time.
The Leightons constantly tweak their robust plantings and shift about even large trees, playing with colors and contrasts; just recently, a Japanese maple put on too much of a spread and had to give up its post by the gazebo. “It’s a work in progress,” Denise tells us. Spectacular now, could this garden get any better?
Spring, right around Mother’s Day, is our largest push, says Denise. “That’s when we plant our traditional annuals like shade-loving impatiens and tidy the garden,” she explains. “During the height of the season, Don gets up early and weeds, which then gives me incentive to weed. I do a section at a time. My primary focus is the perennial garden.” Don also edges the beds with a power trimmer about every two weeks. Every three to four years, the perennials are lifted and split. Compost is added to the beds and tilled to about four inches deep. Pruning is only done to keep things in bounds. “We don’t get many leaves,” Denise says, “so we don’t do a huge fall clean-up.”
Most often perused reference: Stone by Design by Lew French
For information on the next Barrington Garden Club Tour (on which this garden is often a star), visit: gardencentral.org/rigardenclubs/barrington.
While Providence swelters, the owners of this garden sip cool drinks on their leafy East Side patio. As New York- and Hopkinton-based landscape designer Louis Raymond of Renaissance Gardening explains, the urban oasis is framed by a pair of Bauhausian brick houses. A large carriage house, a separate property, survives next door, and all three are enfolded in lovely stucco and tile-topped walls.
Raymond was recruited to create a garden—never mind the existing trees nor dense shade—that would complement the home’s handsome architecture and provide an outdoor escape. Since walls—romantic masonry—heighten garden drama, the savvy designer used these to frame the setting as well as some borrowed views. Through one wall’s window grill, for instance, we spy showy flowers, bloomers that couldn’t survive here, lined up beside the carriage house. The opposite direction is punctuated with a sculpture actually decorating the neighbor’s lawn. Seemingly threaded together, such vistas, more a peek than a panorama, subtly lighten the mood of enclosure and expand the city garden’s horizons without diminishing privacy.
Lawn—far too sun-loving—is out; brick paths with bluestone inserts and room-like stone terraces are in. But this is no sissy urban cocoon; the stylish garden derives a great deal of its appeal from an abundant and unique grouping of plants.
“A lush tree canopy is another essential part of the property’s floor-to-ceiling seclusion,” Raymond says. “But that also means only the most shade-tolerant plants will thrive.” Hosta, the supreme warrior for dark corners, is naturally at home. Lounging at the foot of a gold-leafed Ja-panese maple, though, the giant blue leaves turn regal. One walkway ends at a small box parterre, backed by a potted Tasmanian tree fern resting atop a plinth. Variegated ginger spills from a pair of antique urns, and evergreen cherry laurel tumbles along the base of a wall.
This is a sophisticated scheme. But can those be spider plants in full display along the steps? “They were a seventies cliche as a house plant but are carefree for shady summer containers,” says Raymond, clearly illustrating how a dash of playfulness makes an idyllic garden like this even more phenomenal.
“While this site’s detailed gardens could never be called low maintenance, they have some surprising advantages over more traditional styles,” Raymond says. “For one, mowing the limited bit of lawn—two throw rugs roughly eight by ten feet—takes about two minutes.” Very little edging is required. And another plus: Weeds are no match for the shade. On the down side, terraces and walkways demand vigilant sweeping. As for the shrubs, they are gone over every spring to repair storm damage. Box hedges are clipped yearly. The trees are pruned by an arborist every other year. The fantastic and fragile containers, many of which hold permanent conservatory specimens, are over-wintered in a greenhouse.
Most often perused references:
- Gardens Illustrated magazine, gardensillustrated.com
- Fine Gardening magazine, finegardening.com
- Garden Design magazine, gardendesign.com
Meticulously groomed, this luxe East Bay garden defies the term backyard. A lengthy rose arbor links greenhouse to fernery. The stunning gate, built by the husband, and the picturesque playhouse for grandchildren are a bonus. These passionate gardeners have been fine-tuning their half-acre paradise for almost thirty years, and with some help from Redwood Nursery in Swansea, they implement fresh ideas every season.
“Since 1980, this garden has grown in fits and starts,” the owner says. In the beginning, a sloping site meant the gardeners had to remedy the impression their garden was sliding downhill. Using remnant soil from construction on their nineteenth-century house (originally the gardener’s cottage for a nearby Victorian), they worked from the center out, building a middle berm and planting what they label anchor plants, like vertical yews and rhododendrons.
“Boundary evergreens, or indeed boundary anything, changes as shrubs and trees outgrow their space or start messing with the line,” says the owner. In general, trees and shrubs more than six or eight feet tall were not included to avoid blocking sunlight. Most of the high and graceful deciduous trees are in adjoining properties.
Also developed in stages was the bluestone terrace that now extends across the yard behind the house. Checkerboard bluestone walkways continue to grow as the gardeners hone their
vision. One path leads to the fernery. Launched with a gift of native ferns, trillium and hosta, the fernery, visually anchored by a shapely urn, is also home to a host of shade-tolerant spring ephemerals and early bulbs.
Cheery flowers march along the base of the arbor, but more interested in foliage than blossoms, the owners limited their invitation list to hardy types such as daylilies. Roses—‘Alchymist’ is the star—are also chosen for their resilience. “No mollycoddling,” says the wife. “We only grow what will survive.”
Still, so imaginatively have the gardeners contrived their plantings and their plan—which draws you from the back door through the arbor, across the top of the lot and down again—a walk about feels like a journey. With every step, there’s something to see. Meandering along, not once do you lose the sensation that you’re indeed in a place both private and perfect.
Toward the end of February, the owners start to tidy up, and by mid-April winter debris is all but removed. Compost is added every other year; on alternate years the beds also get a light dressing of lime. Honeysuckle and roses are pruned, and rhododendrons are reshaped if they’re looking shaggy. In addition, the roses get a sprinkling of Epsom salts around their base to kick-start them into the new season. Should a rose look sickly, it’s dosed once with aspirin. “About one to one-and-a-half Bayer aspirin per gallon of water,” says the owner. Come fall, the clematis and the hellebores also receive a small bit of lime. Certain hydrangeas are cut to ground level. Some perennials may be divided and replanted in appropriate locations. Containers filled with boxwood are moved to the playhouse for safe keeping.
Most often perused references:
- Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs by Michael Dirr
- The American Woodland Garden by Rick Darke
- An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials by W. George Schmid
- Plants that Merit Attention, Volumes One and Two by The Horticultural Committee of the Garden Club of America.