Making a hillside garden room

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IN JUNE OF 1993, I was asked to consider how a hillside of wasted space could be turned into a garden for a residence in southern Connecticut. The size (two acres) and conditions of the site were daunting the slope was considerable, there was ledge rock everywhere, and the vegetation was a jungle of ailanthus, sumac, and poison ivy. Even though the site had been clear-cut every few years, when I first inspected it the brush was nearly impenetrable (except, of course, to the local deer when I reached the presumed center of this trashy mess, I was nearly bowled over by a buck and three does). Moreover, there was the possibility that the land would later be turned into a divisible building lot, and so no large permanent structures could be erected.

The owners were not too specific about their requirements (low maintenance and beautiful were the extent of their demands), and so I was able to fantasize about what I wanted the hillside to be. First, however, there were some preliminary tasks that had to be accomplished. I did an assessment of the soil, water availability from the house, and the extent of the ledge rock. The first two were close to being nonexistent; the third was seemingly omnipresent. Undeterred, I had the hillside cleared, allowed the brush a few weeks to rebound, and then eradicated the undesirable plants with a nonselective herbicide.

Even after these preparatory steps, it was clear that, given the size of the area to be gardened and its distance from the house, site work would have to be kept to a minimum to keep costs from skyrocketing. Moreover, any plants we used would have to be tough enough to thrive in the mediocre soil. I did, however, bring in some screened loam so that the plants would at least have a fighting chance, and to further the goal of low maintenance, I had the hillside cumbersomely (but effectively) wrapped with heavy-duty weed barrier fabric, which was pinned to the rough grade. For extra insurance, we incorporated a locally produced, leaf-based compost into each planting hole. The herbaceous plants also got a dose of hydrophilic polymer.

The preliminary work accomplished, I could turn my attention to the kind of garden I wanted to create. Aside from the site’s sloping, rocky nature, its most distinctive feature was its distance from the house. This presented the opportunity to create a large garden room, one that would of course be linked to the house in some way but that, in its spatial relationships and use of plants, would stand in sharp contrast to the usual residential landscape with its predictable foundation plantings, paved areas, and groundcovers.

I established the link to the house with an allee of fastigiate flowering cherries (Prunus `Amanogawa’). Where the allee meets the garden, it becomes a grass path that bisects the hillside, thus providing access all the way from the house to the stream bed at the bottom of the slope. A second, servicepedestrian path extends from the side yard and ends in a cul-de-sac. Two other major architectural components define the garden space a rectangular bluestone terrace, measuring 16 by 30 feet, in the visual center of the hillside, made possible by a fortuitous outcropping of ledge rock, and a simple, classic wooden fence painted forest green, which provides a sense of security and enclosure for the terrace living space.

Next came the most enjoyable phase of the design process the selection of woody and herbaceous plants. Early on, the owners and I decided that, because of the distance between the hillside and the house, we would forgo a lavish display of spring bulbs. (An extensive planting of bulbs would also have precluded our using the weed barrier fabric–another compelling reason to omit them.) Instead, we decided to rely on woody plants to provide early color; their size would also be more appropriate to the scale of the site. The main plantings consisted of three Malus `Radiant’ and three M. sargentii each group arranged in a triangle and placed diagonally opposite each other on the slope. (Because the specimens of M. `Radiant’ were larger and more mature, we decided to put them downhill of the younger M. sargentii) Few other small flowering trees can equal the carefree beauty and reliability of the crab apples.

Flanking the entrance to the garden, I placed two large groups of Syringa palibiniana. This low-growing, floriferous lilac produces its lavender-pink flowers a bit later than the well-known cultivars of S. vulgaris. By massing them, we could be sure that their wonderful fragrance would draw visitors to the garden each May.

As enticing as a spring display may be, it’s not particularly difficult to achieve. I find it much more satisfying to design a garden that reaches its peak from midsummer into the fall. As a first step toward meeting this goal, I planted an allee of Hydrangea paniculata `Grandiflora’, one of my favorite plants, along the service path that extends from the side yard. In southern New England, this old-fashioned large shrub doesn’t even begin blooming until mid-August or early September. By mid-October, its dense panicles of ivory flowers have turned a clear pink, a tint that lingers until mid-November; after this, the ghostly dried clusters continue to provide interest throughout the winter–a minimum of three months of color without having to lift a finger! To supplement the hydrangeas I planted several specimens of the Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha. This choice native (thought to be extinct in the wild, although it is well established in cultivation) begins to bloom in August, the white, camellialike flowers continuing through the fall, despite heat and drought. The tree, which is about the size of a flowering dogwood, often will be in full bloom even after the foliage has turned a glorious red purple. In maturity, it also displays handsome exfoliating bark.

Finally, to provide some shelter for the terrace (and to encourage the owners to linger there in warm weather), I planted two columnar lindens (Tilia cordata ‘Greenspire’). Their narrow, geometric form enhanced the classic feel of the terrace area while providing enough of a canopy so that visitors would have the option of relaxing in shade or bright sun, depending on their mood, the weather, and the season.

To further the goal of providing lots of color late in the season, I augmented the trees and shrubs with a carefully selected group of perennials, ornamental grasses, and landscape roses. These plants would begin to put on their show in late June, just when outdoor living begins in earnest in this part of New England, and reach their peak in mid-August and September, when most residential landscapes have only a glimmer of color. Among the standouts are the classic blue-lavender Aster xfrikartii `Monch’; the astilbes ‘Cattleya’ and `Sprite’; towering Eupatorium fistulosum `Gateway’, which has huge panicles of small pink flowers that change to red in September; and Salvia nemorosa `Blauhugel’, a medium-size, blue-flowered sage that can bloom from June until December. To provide the naturalistic qualities I sought for the hillside, I turned to Miscanthus Sinensis ‘November Sunset’, my favorite silvergrass cultivar, with silver plumes and rusty red fall foliage, and Pennisetum alopecuroides `Hameln’, a dwarf, fast-growing foxtail grass whose flowers last well into winter. Nearly all my projects make use of landscape roses for their disease resistance and long blooming period. Here, with the selections `Bonica’, `The Fairy’, and the `Carefree’ series, our rose vignettes begin in June and keep going until Thanksgiving.

At first I was concerned that the owners might not venture out into the garden as often as I hoped they would, but as it turned out I didn’t need to worry. Even at some distance from the house, the garden became a center for family gathering and entertaining. Our goal had been to take this difficult site and give it a welcoming quality. By providing an abundance of color and fragrance, as well as a dramatic metamorphosis from May through November, I think we achieved it.

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