“I grew up in a rural community in upstate New York, and I wanted something with a rural look,” says artist Nancy Valk of the Ruxton house she and her architect husband, Arthur, bought in 1977. With keen eyes for design and color and years of acquired gardening expertise, this creative duo have used their large, open yard as a continually evolving canvas and drawing board over the past 30 years.
“Our garden is not premeditated. It’s a reactive thing,” says Arthur Valk, a residential architect. “We throw things out and see what they look like when they mature. Then we move them if we want to.” This process-oriented approach violates the old garden stricture: “design then plant.” But no one can argue the artistic couple have not done a masterful job of integrating all parts of their garden canvas.
When the Valks bought the 1917 chestnut shingle house, the front yard was two rectangular areas full of mud and scraggly grass separated by a straight concrete path leading to the door. The backyard had no trees. Now visitors who pull into the Valks’ driveway are met by an Asian-inspired scene: a wall of bamboo on one side, fine Japanese maples (including a green ‘Sangu Kaku’), delicate nandina and well-spaced, pebble-surrounded geometric flagstones leading past a massive trio of white ‘Praguense’ viburnum bushes and a trio of young ‘Autumn Brilliance’ serviceberry trees. Juxtaposed against the delicate Asian motif at the entrance stand large massings of sedum, liriope and swales of grasses influenced by renowned landscape architect Wolfgang Oehme, with whom Arthur has often worked professionally.
Visitors move from the tall stands of grass in front toward a long, wide side garden where swales of golden bamboo light the space just outside Arthur’s first-floor modern glass and shingle home-office addition. The bamboo leads into an intimate, densely planted, shade garden designed by landscape designer Dejan Ernestl. Beneath a Blue Atlas cedar and a pair of original Eastern red cedars— which are not really cedars at all, Valk explains, but a type of Juniper— is a tapestry of varied textures and colors including variegated liriope, golden green lamium, Japanese painted ferns, glossy European ginger and mahogany-leafed coral bells. “We have Wolfgang’s big massing with a counterpoint of Dejan’s small massings, ribbons and pools,” says Arthur.
Out back, what was once a vegetable patch has evolved into something more sophisticated. A stand of white pines and a cluster of ginkos now provide vertical interest behind two rectangular beds punctuated with towers Arthur designed and built for entwining hyacinth bean vines and ‘heavenly blue’ morning glories. One bed contains vegetables and a dahlia collection while the other showcases herbs, flowering clematis vines and 30 varieties of peppers grown for color, shape and use in Arthur’s famous salsa.
Nowhere is it more obvious than at poolside, just off the house, that the Valks’ garden is connected not by paths but by “viewing stations,” focal areas where one can sit and take in the garden. Also at poolside, it is overwhelmingly evident that collectors live here. For decades, Nancy has collected rocks of all shapes and colors in Maine, Cape Cod and upstate New York. As if she didn’t have enough, she made more from terra cotta. In the pool garden they line the ledges and fill baskets and Asian-influenced stone vessels that are set among hundreds of succulents: Nancy’s other collection.
The color palette of the gardens is one of heaths and heathers. The dusty roses and burgundies of sedum, fountain grass, Japanese blood grass and Japanese maples mix with the deep greens of evergreen trees and blues of grape hyacinths, Johnson’s blue geranium, brunnera and iris. While it’s Nancy who paints this garden palette, it’s Arthur’s architectural acumen that shapes it, even as it constantly evolves.