When the owners of this three-acre North Baltimore home moved here in 1979, the grounds were a maze of English boxwoods.
“Hundreds of 7- and 8-foot boxwoods were everywhere,” says the owner. “They had been planted in the ’30s by the parents of the previous owner.”
Little by little, year after year, the blight that has decimated boxwoods throughout the East Coast wreaked havoc on the property’s trees— despite the fact that they were pruned, sprayed, fertilized and attended by regional experts, some from the National Arboretum.
In 1987, faced with mounds of dying limbs and foliage, the couple removed all but a few boxwoods that stand near the driveway entrance. “I still have a visceral reaction when I remember the day they took out the boxwoods,” says the owner, hand to chest. “Losing them made me realize that we could lose anything. … But also, that they would be replaced by something new and different.”
And indeed they were— almost immediately— according to the plan created by the owner and Chapel Valley Landscaping. “Although I wanted variety, I wanted plants that would tie the garden together,” says the owner. So instead of English boxwoods, disease-resistant American boxwoods were planted, along with holly, rhododendron, azaleas and laurels. Beneath a tall canopy of original oak, maple, cedar and pine trees— and even a few elms unaffected by Dutch Elm disease— these five plantings thread through the entire three acres and tie them together.
After the boxwoods were removed, the tennis court hedge and nearby box allees were replanted with euonymus. An azalea hedge and laurels replaced the boxwoods closer to the house, and miniature boxwoods were placed in the window boxes to maintain the flow of shrubbery, even from the inside of the house looking out.
A more recent renovation of the gardens in spring 2001 brought together Chapel Valley Landscaping and landscape architect Jonna Lazarus. Given the owner’s desire for year-round interest in the sunken parterre garden, reached by a stone staircase, it was refurbished with hundreds of roses, herbs and perennials. “Each bed is a color,” says Chapel Valley designer John Hreno. “And each bed is different. All of the plants have a purpose. They romp, sway, tickle and cavort.”
The central beds are filled with roses and plantings in warm colors like red, orange and yellow: yarrow, brilliant red rose trees, flaming crocosmia lucifer. The sides of the oval are filled with cooler colors like whites, blues, lavenders and pinks: forget-me-nots, asters, astilbe, brunnera, clematis, columbine, chrysanthemum, lamb’s ear, lavender, artemesia, phlox and peonies that provide three seasons of color.
In the long border by the tennis courts, many of these plants are repeated then punctuated by taller flouncy, kinetic pink filipendula, cimicifuga and a variety of grasses.
“Now there are a lot more flowers,” says the owner, with a laugh. “Only after the perennials were planted last year did I realize how maintenance-free a boxwood garden was!”
On the southern border of the property, once an open green for the three-house, family compound, Lazarus designed a highly textured curve of low-maintenance, evergreen trees and shrubbery: blue spruce, hollies and assorted pines, with an understory of rhododendron, andromeda, daphne and deutzia.
By restoring and reseating on flagstones a pair of antique garden benches with arched trellises, Lazarus created a charming garden room. A third bench appears magically at the bottom of the old stone steps, reminiscent of the Italian Villa d’Este, that lead to the refurbished pond. Dragonflies buzz bright pink waterlilies, majestic iris and a fanciful contemporary sculpture. Nearby, tangerine tetraploid daylilies, once in the parterre, bloom in a brilliant sweep.
What is most striking about the garden is that it maintains a flow and airiness throughout its vastness, a characteristic Lazarus attributes to the tall canopy and the narrow passages and walkways that open onto larger and larger rooms. “There are, if you will, hallways and doorways that give way to rooms of various sizes. You never see the whole garden at once,” says Lazarus. “As on the inside of a house, one room leads to another. The views change constantly from small intimate spaces, like the area around the pool, to the large ‘ballroom’ of the south lawn and brick terrace.”
Certainly the owner thinks of her garden as an extension of her spacious home. “The garden is part of the life of the house,” she says.” Different spaces feel like different rooms.”