Au­then­tic gar­dens re­quire long-term de­vo­tion

Pawtucket Times - - HOME GARDEN - By ADRIAN HIGGINS The Wash­ing­ton Post

Many fine gar­dens are can­di­dates for vis­it­ing and en­joy­ing, but only one gar­den mat­ters and that's your own.

Yours may amount to a nar­row ur­ban yard or just a few con­tain­ers on a pa­tio. It's not the space you have, it's how you shape it to love it that counts.

To me there isn't much dif­fer­ence be­tween an empty yard, where the owner grudg­ingly mows a weedy lawn, and a six-fig­ure land­scaped lot fea­tur­ing acres of mo­du­lar pavers, wa­ter fea­tures and su­per­size trees and shrubs in ir­ri­gated and man­i­cured beds. Both re­quire min­i­mal con­tact with the owner and pretty much lack the soul of a real gar­den.

If you want a gar­den rather than a yard, you have to in­vest your­self in it. It's fine (and usu­ally nec­es­sary) to en­list the help of pros, but it's your longterm cul­ti­va­tion of plants and the knowl­edge that grows with them that are the hall­marks of an au­then­tic place.

One of the best ex­am­ples of this I know is the Annapolis, Mary­land, home of Nancy and Pierre Moitrier.

Their ranch house sits on a flat, one-third-acre lot bounded on two sides by neigh­bor­hood roads. The prop­erty is lifted out of any or­di­nar­i­ness by the devel­op­ment of an en­cir­cling se­ries of gar­den rooms, shaped, var­i­ously, by trees and shrubs, fences, the house it­self and mod­est stone walls. Th­ese spa­ces vary in size and char­ac­ter while cre­at­ing part of a co­he­sive whole.

The Moitri­ers are land­scape pro­fes­sion­als, de­sign­ing, in­stalling and main­tain­ing gar­dens. (Their firm is called De­signs for Greener Gar­dens.) Clearly, the devel­op­ment of their gar­den, since 2002, is shaped by their skills and ex­pe­ri­ence, but you don't have to be a pro to em­brace their un­der­ly­ing idea that a gar­den evolves from its site; it's not im­posed upon it.

I was last at the Moitri­ers' in 2009 when I was fo­cused on two fea­tures driven by Pierre's sense of gar­den artistry (be­ing French helps with the aes­theti­cism). The first is a metic­u­lously crafted tree­house, high in a sweet gum tree in the rear of the lot. With its wooden sid­ing and cedar shake dormer roof, the folly in the sky has a fairy-tale qual­ity about it. It is so hand­somely de­tailed in­side that once you are in it, you might for­get you're shar­ing the space with a tree but for the pres­ence of its old boughs.

The other great el­e­ment is a dec­o­ra­tive veg­etable gar­den, 25 feet square, and framed in a high fence fash­ioned from har­vested trunks and branches of East­ern red cedar. None of it is milled to have edges, and Pierre put it to­gether as a puz­zle, a trac­ery of poles of sculp­tural and rus­tic en­chant­ment. De­cep­tively, the gar­den fence con­sumed about 100 trees. (Cedars grow like weeds in wood­lands, ditches and mead­ows, and he usu­ally har­vests them in ad­vance of their planned de­struc­tion.)

Any­way, th­ese two de­lights stood in the way of my soak­ing up the whole gar­den, a sit­u­a­tion cor­rected with a re­cent re­turn visit.

We sat on a pa­tio po­si­tioned in a shady and se­cluded spot at the rear of the house. It's a great place to gather and chat but, from a de­sign point, em­blem­atic of how gar­dens are as­sem­bled as a col­lec­tion of sub­di­vided spa­ces with their own char­ac­ter.

Pierre uses a lot of large land­scape stones but in a way that feels or­ganic and nat­u­ral. That same un­in­tru­sive­ness ap­plies to the cedar wood­work as well. Th­ese "hard" el­e­ments work with the ma­tur­ing trees and shrubs to frame spa­ces, and the plant­ings are rich in their lay­er­ing and plant­ing den­sity, but not fussy with flow­ers. If you are like me, you want this seren­ity in the gar­den – there's enough ex­cite­ment in the rest of the world.

Much of the plan­ning of the gar­den has been in tam­ing the stormwa­ter that af­flicts the site, achieved by de­vel­op­ing and plant­ing drainage swales, the berms that chan­nel them and rain gar­dens that col­lect and hold pre­cip­i­ta­tion.

One side of the house is given to an in­ti­mate out­door room where a low stone wall in­vites sit­ting and re­pose. Two up­right stones sit at one end of the space, soon to re­ceive a low gate that will re­in­force the sense of com­part­men­tal­iza­tion. This tweak­ing is es­sen­tial to the evo­lu­tion of the gar­den.

Re­cently, they moved a path that had been in a swale to the berm be­side it. "The view of the gar­den from above the swale is far more ap­peal­ing," Nancy said.

Nancy wrote to me later shar­ing some thoughts on gar­den­mak­ing. Like any suc­cess­ful de­sign, most of the ef­fort is not ap­par­ent. It re­quires "con­sis­tency of care," she said, and a sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion that comes with ex­pe­ri­ence. "The cul­ti­va­tion of a gar­den is not about tend­ing to what has hap­pened, but it is about hav­ing the abil­ity to tend to what will hap­pen or may hap­pen." She added, "Pro­cras­ti­na­tors do not make good gar­den­ers."

When I asked for her sources of in­spi­ra­tion, she men­tioned the ar­chi­tect Frank Lloyd Wright. "He talked about how you would go from room to room al­most like a tun­nel, squeeze and re­lease. When you de­sign a gar­den you're think­ing the same way," she said.

Pierre said he is in­spired more by places than in­di­vid­ual de­sign­ers, and he is struck by a gar­den in cen­tral France that is now at a des­ti­na­tion restau­rant but orig­i­nally at a 12th-cen­tury pri­ory. Named Prieure Notre Dame d'Or­san, the prop­erty and its gar­dens have that match­less French qual­ity of pair­ing for­mal­ity with util­ity, as seen in a vine­yard, or­chard and kitchen gar­den. I wish he hadn't told me about this place, be­cause now I have to go.

Pho­tos by Nancy Moitrier

Above, the gar­den of land­scape de­sign­ers Nancy and Pierre Moitrier, in Annapolis, Mary­land, is rich with their cre­ative touches, in­clud­ing a tree house built around a sweet gum tree. Be­low, the tree house shows off Pierre Moitrier's skills as a...

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