In 1984, when Meta and Bill Boyd first saw the 1970s Mediterranean country home designed by Baltimore architect Alexander Porter in the Green Spring Valley, the hilltop setting reminded them of Bill’s childhood home in St. Michael’s and of Meta’s in Italy and France.
“This would be so perfect!” Meta remembers thinking. All that the property lacked was a fine garden.
Now, more than 20 years later, that lack has been corrected— and then some. Walking through the Boyds’ garden feels like taking a European adventure that spans much more than 2.6 acres.
During their first five years in the house, the couple, busy with three young children, removed trees around the shady swimming pool and transplanted the surrounding rhododendrons to the woods farther off. Gradually, they cut away at the woody hillside to create a long, grassy slope and a view of the neighbors’ trees and pond.
In 1990, the Boyds visited Tuscany and stayed in an Italian villa that inspired them to approach the garden in a grand, new way. On returning home, Bill said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to terrace this garden?”
Landscape architect and family friend Helen McCarty set about adapting a classic, Italian Renaissance design for the “bones” of the garden. At the same time, Meta discovered a lush, rollicking English perennial garden, Bampton Manor in Oxfordshire. They combined the two to create a garden that marries formal Italianate to looser English country. In Italianate style, the inside and outside of the home connect via a central axis that leads to interconnecting garden rooms not visible to one another.
Visitors to the Boyd home arrive at a courtyard bordered mostly by English boxwoods and holly trees. A stone path lined with junipers and a pair of fragrant styrax trees leads north to a private garden with benches and a reproduction Bernini fountain.
Back through the courtyard, the house rises up in European style, free of foundation plantings (the original boxwoods and azaleas were moved during the driveway renovation). The central axis continues south, through the ivy-covered front door and hall to the back door, out to the original patio then down bluestone steps to the swimming pool.
Down a few more steps, a sweeping bluestone terrace creates a handsome base for the wide house. Terra-cotta olive jars, pots and concrete urns showcase orange trees, pink geranium standards and cascading ivy geraniums. A trellis, with curves and columns, is threaded by vigorous akebia vine.
The garden below is breathtaking, yet what is most inspiring is that nothing looks new or calculated. Romping English perennial beds soften the formal, geometric Italianate design.
A perfectly centered staircase made of granite ship ballasts leads to a series of grass terraces. Six pairs of rectangular perennial beds, flanked by Japanese holly hedges, border the now grassy central axis. Mature, round English boxwoods, which Meta grew from cuttings 20 years ago, punctuate the corners.
A backdrop of mature evergreen and deciduous trees is interspersed with conical junipers ‘Robusta green’, reminiscent of the trademark cypress trees of Italian gardens. Here, however, one tree casually runs into another: a blue spruce and magnolia mingle, clematis winds up both tuteurs and hollies. Tree limbs overhang flower beds, creating pockets of shade in this southern exposure and the opportunity to grow astilbe and dicentra amid peonies, irises and poppies.
“I do not like tight,” says Meta. “I like design and symmetry and a certain amount of surprise … nothing too fussy.” That’s why she left the lawn on the lowest terrace free of the water feature normally found there in Italianate gardens. “I wanted the tranquility of the green. … Sometimes you have to break the rules.”
The element of surprise continues at the base of the hill, where an allée of junipers leads to more garden rooms. One, surrounded by hemlocks, features six rectangular beds and a sign marked, “Dad’s vegetable garden.” Though the Boyds’ daughter once pushed for an authentic bocce court in this space, it instead became the simple vegetable garden Bill first envisioned for the hillside. “This was the most expensive tomato garden I’ve ever put in!” he still jokes.
A turn north leads to another garden room surrounded by hollies, rhododendrons and the entrance of a wooded area— “always slightly mysterious in Italian gardens,” explains Meta. The Boyds’ brims with native plantings: dogwoods, azaleas, hostas, wildflowers and 5,000 spring bulbs. Stone mushrooms suggest that a gnome might appear any minute. Parallel but out of view of the geometric terraces, the woodland garden leads back up the hill to the house.
“This garden has given my family a source of peace and a source of beauty,” says Meta. “It has becalmed and relaxed us. It is important to be in an environment with sensual beauty, which, like that Tuscan villa, brings transcendence.”