On the shores of an island in the Stockholm archipelago, landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell has created a garden shared by adjacent houses that both complements and contrasts with the natural environment
The approach to Villa Norrnäs, two contemporary houses on the shores of Värmdö – an island within commuting distance of Stockholm – is through mixed forests of ash, oak and hazel interspersed with clearings of rocky grassland. It is this landscape, and the swampy shoreline at the bottom of the two-acre plot, that provided landscape architect Ulf Nordfjell with the key elements for his thoughtful design of this five-year-old garden. “We wanted to preserve this lovely natural area and to celebrate the challenging topography,” he explains, as we descend the sloping driveway. The drop from the top of the drive to the granite parking area is three metres, and it’s the same again from here to the main garden where the land continues to fall gently down to the sea.
Seeing the view for the first time – the open sea in front with wooded islands on the horizon, an expanse of marshy grassland giving way to forest trees, and the vast arc of sky – makes me wonder how you start to make a garden with such a distracting outlook? Ulf’s clients built both houses, designed by architect Hans Blomqvist, and still live in one (the house on the right as you look up from the sea), but they share the garden with a colleague who owns the other. They love the wildness of the landscape and wanted to ensure the sea view wouldn’t be obscured, but otherwise gave Ulf free reign to ‘do something nice’. He decided to make a symmetrical framework that would contrast with the flowing lines and contours of the natural terrain but would also create a visual link to the surroundings by incorporating different forms of the plants (trees, shrubs, grasses) and materials (primarily granite) found there.
The planting bordering the lawn is kept low, and is punctuated in the space between the houses by a cluster of elegant oaks – Quercus robur ‘Koster’. Although each half of the garden has its own identity, the repetition of plants and materials creates cohesion – the overall effect is one of tranquillity. “It’s very lovely to have a piece of land that’s free of clutter,” says Ulf.
The shared entrance to the garden, via a gap in a circular clipped hornbeam hedge, creates the first of many framed views. Pre-grown mats of Waldsteinia, chosen for its foliage, form a green apron between the houses. In front of the left-hand house, this ground-hugging
evergreen accentuates the changes in level on either side of granite steps that lead down to a sunken terrace. From an indoor pool room a sculptural combination of staggered slate steps and granite cobbles lead the eye up to the lawn and on to the two timber guest houses, separated by a fishpond, on the shore. A meadow of Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ interspersed with Betula utilis var. jacquemontii anchors these buildings and references the swamp grasses that were cleared when this part of the land was built up to make the garden. On the far side of the meadow is a boardwalk made of the hard-wearing hardwood ipe, where boats can tie up and sunsets can be enjoyed on summer evenings.
The boundary on the left side is a high hornbeam hedge, screening a large, neighbouring house. The 4m-wide border in front of this is a multi-layered composition of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses and bulbs selected for their robustness, and include Pyrus salicifolia, Crambe cordifolia, Stachys byzantina and Sesleria nitida. Some glaucous-leaved species, including Hippophae rhamnoides (the dwarf formH. rhamnoides ‘Hikul’ is used as an understorey) and Elaeagnus angustifolia were chosen for their association with the seashore. The warm tones of Chaenomeles x superba ‘Crimson and Gold’, Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ and the new growth of Amelanchier lamarckii fire up the border in spring. Ribbons of camassia, Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ and Iris ‘Silver Edge’ introduce grey tones at ground level.
On the right-hand side, the planting near the house is in blocks of cool blues and whites. In the deep boundary border that leads
down to the sea the planting is multi-layered combining the small tree Amelanchier lamarckii with Hippophae rhamnoides, and fruit trees including Pyrus communis and heirloom apple trees, with a band of Philadelphus ‘Mont Blanc’. This border blends seamlessly into the tree canopy of the surrounding forest. Ligustrum hedges frame a small kitchen garden where asparagus, potatoes and currants are grown. In an open-sided glasshouse, peaches and grapes get enough protection to produce fruit.
Remarkably, without the use of a single fence, wall or screen, Ulf has given each house its own unique garden and yet also created a harmonious shared space. USEFUL INFORMATION You can contact Ulf Nordfjell at email@example.com and find out more about his work and products at nordfjellcollection.se
Massed planting of the grass Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, links the mown lawn to the marshy grasslands of the original site. Low-level planting affords both houses a stunning view across the shared lawn to the sea and beyond to the rich forests on neighbouring islands.
Bottom row left to right
At the rear of the houses, Ulf has used gravel for the narrower, more intimate pathways that lead through the rock garden. Shrubs and small trees, such as Malus sargentii and Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Nivalis’, form an intermediate layer against the backdrop of soaring native pines. Granite stepping stones lead across a rectangular pool to a circular terrace that forms the entrance to the garden. A gap in the framework of clipped hornbeam hedges offers a tantalising first glimpse of the sea. Crisply cut granite steps, descending at right angles through ground cover of Waldsteinia ternata, provide a sculptural solution to the change in levels from the garden entrance to a sunken terrace.