In the beginning was the lawn. And the lawn filled the three-quarter-acre plot and the lawn required constant mowing, and no garden existed at this 1950s Butler stone rancher in North Baltimore. Then, in 1989, a couple who had never gardened before arrived. “We knew we’d better do something!” says one homeowner, a retired businessman, who in 19 years has become such an expert at landscape design that his garden has been featured on tours of the Horticultural Society of Maryland and Ladew Topiary Gardens.

“We knew nothing. We started from scratch,” says the other homeowner, a retired attorney who previously lived in apartments, with occasional geraniums in his law office, and is now an expert plant propagator. “There were a few foundation shrubs and a few scattered trees, but not one deciduous tree— just a volunteer osage orange and two crape myrtles.”

The two, who requested that their names not be published, knew enough to consult respected landscape architect Catherine Mahan, now of Mahan Rykiel Associates. Mahan drew up a plan for the sloped rear property, and the two started implementing it. “The idea of enclosure came naturally,” says the retired businessman. “We wanted a magical space inside the enclosure.” That is exactly what the two have created.

With the help of Corey Branch of Pinehurst Landscape Co., they terraced the sloping back lawn into two level areas connected by a terrace of intricately planted dwarf conifers and perennials. The lower level they used for volleyball and croquet and, on the upper level, they built a unique pool inspired by the old polar bear exhibit at the Baltimore Zoo.

A waterfall now cascades past huge boulders into the pool, with an evergreen backdrop of prized blue spruce, cryptomeria and a 20-foot photinia hedge for privacy. “Usually, a large part of the cost of a pool is removing the dirt, but we used it to create a berm,” explains the businessman who dreamed it up. Surrounded by grasses and Japanese maples, the pool looks like a curvaceous, naturally occurring pond. Open all year, it adds to the year-round garden
interest with winter reflections of evergreens on its icy surface.

As the pair traveled to gardens up and down the East Coast, as well as international gardens such as Sissinghurst, Hidcote and Great Dixter in Southern England, they brought home ideas. The retired lawyer took courses in the well-known horticulture program at Dundalk Community College; the businessman refined the geometry and form of the garden. Inspired by the English concept of garden rooms, he scribed with garden hoses an oval for the grass terrace and began planting around it.

After visiting the Dublin gardens of garden guru Helen Dillon, they then changed those plantings to incorporate her concept of cool colors (lavender, white and chartreuse) on the east and warm colors (yellow, gold and occasional burgundies) on the west, colors that reappear in varying combinations throughout the property. Aided by Jay Stump of Spring Valley Landscape Co., they sharpened the curved borders that had expanded past the croquet gardens to a wide, western boundary. 

These neatly scribed serpentine beds all flank a north-south axis defined by a stone fountain-turned-planter at one end and on the other, a whimsically painted, curlicue Harry Lauder walking stick branch, a concrete bench and in front of it a pebble mosaic dreamed up by the increasingly creative businessman.

This mosaic carpet of cut slabs of black slate, pea gravel and Mexican beach pebbles resembles cracked ice. Others recall a flowing rock river, a spider web, a whirling vortex and a spilled bucket of oatmeal. Like the clematis-covered arch to the lower terrace and the Harry Lauder walking stick sculptures, the pebble mosaic adds whimsy and surprise to the garden rooms.

“A lot of gardeners are too serious,” says the retired attorney. In addition to a peaceful, quiet environment, he says the element of fun and magic has always been important to them. “Besides indulging our intense interest in garden design and plants, the garden gives us a real creative outlet,” says the businessman, who never realized how innovative he could be until he began gardening.

Currently he’s building a path through a perennial island. As usual, it’s no ordinary path but one with 1-foot-square flagstones in a diamond pattern with cross- stripes of bricks joined by Mexican beach pebbles. “When you add some hardscape like this path, it defines the area and gives you a focal point around which to plant,” says the once-novice-gardener, now a pro. Like many artists, he finds that one creative garden project leads to another. 

Pinehurst Landscape Co., 410-592-6766, http://www.pinehurstnursery.com
Mahan Rykiel Associates, 410-235-6001,  http://www.mahanrykiel.com
Maryland Pools, 410-995-6600, http://www.mdpools.com
Redhead Landscape Design, 410-296-4435
Heritage Landscaping, 410-682-6688
Spring Valley Landscape Co., 410-902-8890

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