A master plan was never drawn for these elegant gardens. “I’m an intuitive gardener, not very disciplined,” admits Sally O’Brien of her method for creating the painterly gardens, which gracefully embrace the Roland Park home where she, her husband, Tom, a neonatologist, and son William, an artist, have lived for 22 years.
When the O’Briens first moved into the large stucco house built on 1 acre in 1904, they found an untamed yard. In it were clusters of peonies, orange daylilies, some spring bulbs and a dozen mature shade trees, most of which are now gone. Sprawling yew bushes stood in front and back, as well as groups of euonymus, aucuba and raspberry bushes. The lawn was a “moonscape,” says Tom, who often came in from mowing with cuts from flying stones.
Clearing the overgrowth and pruning were first projects. Sally removed some ancient yews and aggressively cut back two at the front corners of the house. “I don’t generally like to shape shrubs, but these provide strong anchors,” she says. This senior vice president for institutional partnerships at Pew Charitable Trusts is decisive and energetic. Her keen eye and green thumb are inherited from her late mother, Anne, whose garden in Wales served as inspiration.
“She was a typical English woman,” Sally says. “Her order of priority: garden, dogs and children. I’d have to go and find her in the garden and ask if we were having some supper. … I’m not really a plantswoman, but my mother was.”
She tells a story of how, after her mother’s death, she brought a canister of unmarked perennial geranium seeds back to Baltimore hoping for something magnificent. “Now we call them ‘Annie’s Revenge.’ They’re invasive with minute pink things for blooms.”
Sally did all of the early work in the garden. Her mother did a drawing for the perennial border, some of which Sally adapted. “I am obsessed with privacy,” she says.
She quickly added more euonymus to those in front to form a hedge. In doing this, she not only added privacy, but also began the evergreen backdrop that today frames all of her gardens. As with any landscape painting, background is key.
Also key in defining the hardscape is a large rectangular, bluestone terrace installed in the mid-1990s. “The terrace joins the indoor and the outdoor spaces. It’s an L-shaped house, and a big house,” Sally says, walking to the back terrace. Large enough for a party tent, as well as a colorful tent in summer, the terrace includes a wide marble table where the O’Briens eat and entertain.
Across the long back wall of the house, Boston ivy climbs above an elegant row of Annabelle hydrangeas and a gurgling fountain. On the short side of the L, espaliered apple trees crisscross the stucco, with three, sweet-smelling jasmine standards flanking the door to an expansive family room/kitchen.
Just as the rectilinear aspects of the gardens — green border and terraces — serve as backdrop and framework for the gardens, elements such as the jasmine standards, ornamental trees and trunks of shade trees provide vertical interest within the garden canvas. An allée of dogwoods along a bluestone path breaks up the lawn, creating a graceful corridor from the garages to the house. Plum, Japanese maple, star magnolia and smoke trees punctuate a nearby, wide and diverse perennial border, which complements [single as ‘which’ refers to the border] the house.
In front, more dogwoods, a magnolia and a sculpturesque river birch, with textured bark, bespeak the owner’s attention to four seasons of garden interest.
Below the trees, shrubbery such as spirea, beautyberry and azaleas add another layer of plantings, similar to the midground of a painting. Beneath them, in the foreground, layers of perennials feature a palette of white, purples, pinks and oranges. “No yellows or reds,” Sally says. “I have to remove those magenta phlox in the border and the yellow baptisia in the breakfast garden,” she says heading to a secret garden room by the garages, where in warm weather she sits with her newspaper and morning coffee. “Most of the soil is horrible, but for some reason the soil back here is black and loamy,” she adds.
Sally and her son, years ago with his red wagon, went to Sherwood Gardens for the annual tulip dig. They brought home hundreds of bulbs and planted them on the garage perimeter. She later dug up the adjacent cement apron to create this intimate, geometric space. “I’m about to redo it,” says Sally, who always has a project and still does most of the planting herself.
“I go intensely in one area at a time, or I’ll run over and see a lot of different plants at the nursery, then come home and try to find them a home.” She recalls seeing flats of tête-à-tête daffodils, buying four, then coming home and planting them in this back area. Soon, she will remove all of the Knock Out roses but will leave the four boxwoods at the corners, as well as assorted perennials and a white redbud tree that anchors this charming garden room.
“I’d like to find an orange crocosmia,” she says. “You don’t see them much here in America.” She points to one in a small book of photographs of her mother’s cottage and stunning gardens in Wales. The first picture could easily have been taken in the northwest corner of Sally’s garden, which, after two decades of work, is now itself a masterpiece.