In the course of 24 years, Thomas Van Damme has transformed a 32-foot-square crumbling cement slab into a fanciful, multi-layered back yard full of plants, topiary, water features and sculpture- even an Egyptian temple entrance.
Van Damme’s Butchers Hill garden begins just outside a glass wall at the rear of a sunroom filled with plants and reproductions of classical sculpture. He installed the glass wall to join the house and garden. “The drama of the garden is first viewed from the bosom of the house,” explains the 58-year-old artist/designer who came from Indiana to Baltimore 37 years ago as a graduate student at the Rinehart School of the Maryland Institute College of Art. “While both are separate physical elements, they function as one visual unit.”
Reminiscent of a Roman courtyard, the center of the garden is a rectangular parterre of tightly clipped Korean boxwoods, known for their compact growing habit. An urn whose plantings change with the seasons stands in the middle surrounded by four jasmine standards. Brick walkways extend from the edges of the boxwood parterre.
“I’m always pruning,” Van Damme says. He pinches and trims ivy, boxwoods and Alberta spruce to get the desired shape and effect, to maintain the formality and geometry- and to contain so many plantings within such a small space. While this garden contains hundreds of plants, everything is carefully arranged, like tiles in a mosaic, so it does not look crowded.
More than a horticulturist, Van Damme is a sculptor who uses plants to bring his artistic vision to life. “I have been drawing architectural plans since I was 9,” he says. “Now the plants are living sculpture in my garden fantasy.”
The design work for the garden happens not on paper, but in his head. He builds a path over a new koi pond then sees a piece of the notoriously invasive, but beautiful, Houttuynia at the garden store. So he buys it and then sticks it in a large pot, twists wire around the pot and suspends it from a pear tree into the pond. “I love this!” he says, lifting his surprise creation. Not only is the invasive Houttuynia contained, but it is also transformed into a sculptural element and an aquatic plant.
Besides the ground and ponds, every vertical surface- porches and decks, columns, shelves and brackets on fences- holds plants, one on top of the other, like paintings in the Louvre. Walkways are edged with pots and containers; tables and garden benches are covered with more. “There are so many containers,” says Van Damme, “it is almost impossible for me to go away in the summer.”
In the afternoons, the blinding sun is filtered by ornamental pear and crabapple trees, and an elm (originally mis-marked, saying it would only grow to 15 feet) that extends three stories, almost to the Victorian cupola he installed at the top of his house.
When Van Damme recently acquired the property adjacent to his, he installed the temple entrance because of his love of all things Egyptian, especially strong pyramidal shapes. Eventually, he hopes to re-create an Italian grotto inside and add a shower.
“Everything I see and experience is processed in reference to my house and garden,” says Van Damme. “This whole thing is a stage set for real life!”