Ruxton Abbey Over 40 patient years, a couple has transformed their Ruxton acres into gracious gardens.

0
39
Layers of evergreen and deciduous trees (here, a volunteer Japanese maple and blue Colorado spruce) against layers of perennials and groundcovers (here, Chinese ground orchids, sedum, and sweet woodruff) create a tapestry of texture, shape and color
Verdant Tapestry: Layers of evergreen and deciduous trees (here, a volunteer Japanese maple and blue Colorado spruce) against layers of perennials and groundcovers (here, Chinese ground orchids, sedum, and sweet woodruff) create a tapestry of texture, shape and color.

The sweeping drive up to Mona and Floyd Lankford’s Ruxton home has a stately “Downton Abbey” feel: low fieldstone walls, lush lawns and an impressive collection of well-pruned and well-sited mature trees. They create a painterly, established setting for the 1937 Colonial Revival house. Nothing looks dowdy or dated in the gardens surrounding their house, but elegantly green. New plantings weave gracefully among those planted decades ago.

The multi-stemmed Persian ironwood tree on the first lawn, with its exfoliating bark, tiny red flowers in early spring, and spectacular fall color, bespeaks the fine horticulture and four seasons of interest in the 4.5-acre garden. “The land in the front moves. It is beautiful, and one reason we bought the house,” says Mona of the rolling hill on which the house sits.

“They were on life support, in need of resuscitation!” adds Floyd of the house and the garden where the couple and their two daughters settled in 1973. “The yews on the driveway were so overgrown they covered the second-floor windows. We couldn’t see the house. The fish pond had been used as an incinerator.” In the back of the large house, designed by prominent Baltimore architects Howard M. Mottu and Henry S. Taylor White, a once formal garden was filled with dozens of broken English boxwoods.

Project No. 1: Hire contractors with a bulldozer to remove the overgrowth, so the Lankfords could see the house and what needed to be done.

A few years after the house was rewired, re-plumbed, repaired, renovated and repainted, Floyd and five other men learned that the old Towson Nurseries was closing. They were auctioning off trees and shrubbery. The men pooled their resources and bought bidding blocks. “We had digging rights to one-sixth of the whole nursery.” That translated to Floyd’s digging about 1,200 trees and bushes over two growing seasons. “Saturday morning he was up at 6,” remembers Mona. “And sometimes made two or three trips in a day. We spent every weekend working in the garden. We had no design. Nothing was specified. It was pure improvisation.”

Improvisation is not a standard approach to gardening. “Plan first; plant later” is a good rule of (green) thumb, but it’s a rule hard to follow when horticultural opportunity knocks. With so many plants coming in so rapidly, Mona opted to call celebrated landscape architect John Donofrio. Nationally known, the late Donofrio thought of a garden as an outdoor painting. That dovetailed well with the landscape and the Lankfords’ artistic eye. Although Floyd is an investment banker, he is an avid photographer. Although Mona is a community volunteer, she has always had an artistic bent brought fully to life in their homes and gardens.

“We tried to frame the lawn … and to keep the front simple and green with various shades and textures,” she says. No flowers are in those beds, only shrubbery and ferns. The curved azalea beds Donofrio laid out with garden hoses are on the wings of the house and garden. “The curves are very important throughout the gardens,” adds Mona. A graceful tree canopy, curved lawns, beds, paths and stone walls embrace the house.

In the early stages, trees and bushes made their way to Ruxton via a blue pickup Floyd’s father loaned him for two years. Among the treasures he brought home: between two and three dozen wide-spreading Taxus media and 1,200 azaleas, including now 15-foot tall, fragrant pink Royal azaleas that anchor gardens in the back.

Shallow-rooted azaleas were not hard to dig out. Floyd brought home six to eight at a time. “I got so I didn’t wrap burlap on them. I just put them in the truck and brought them right back,” says the self-described country boy from Southern Maryland.

Then there was the seven-foot American holly, the hardest of all to dig with roots deep in heavy clay soil. “I had some help with that!” laughs Floyd. Today it stands 50 feet tall, still a centerpiece, along with a Blue Atlas cedar, Japanese holly and an ancient linden in the large circular bed by the front door.

While front plantings are green, with occasional white-flowering trees—kousa dogwoods, a magnolia and Natchez crape myrtle—flowers spill forth on white gardenia azaleas, dogwoods and perennials by a wide bluestone path to the lower garden and pond. The fluid movement of the front hill continues as dozens of different perennials swirl together along the curved path.

Constructed between 1981 and 1983, and again designed by John Donofrio, the lower gardens were inspired by Thuya Garden on Mount Desert Island in Maine. Renowned mason Primo Dorio and his father Carlo, along with another man, worked at night under floodlights and on weekends.

The couple built an irregularly shaped pond with a waterfall. The pond is still full of koi, lotuses and lily pads, all surrounded by shrub and perennial borders.

A patio and a stone staircase connect the sunken garden to the south gardens and lawn and the back terrace.

“We have the balance of the sweep in front with the flat in back, perfect for wedding receptions,” Mona says.

Pyramidal American boxwoods stand at three back doorways, with a hardy Nandina hedge that can take the baking southern exposure. A group of creamy yellow Knockout roses brightens one corner of the terrace. Across the lawn, the south garden often shows a blue and pink motif, with pink Royal azaleas, native rhododendrons Floyd recently planted, lavender lilacs, blue hydrangeas and caryopteris.

The Taxus media originally placed by the front door are now gone. “They were too big and broken by snow falling off the roof,” says Floyd. Dave Thompson of Foxborough Nursery helped to redesign the area in 2008. Again, they kept the design simple and green, using groupings of American boxwoods, andromeda, sweet box, Japanese painted ferns and deer-resistant hellebores.

There’s always another project on the horizon. With a kitchen addition, a river birch came down. Now under collaborative discussion: planting an ornamental tree.

“Every aspect of the garden has been a collaboration,” Mona says, “except for the size of the garden, where I would have stopped sooner!”

[tie_slideshow]

[tie_slide]

Among the Lankfords’ collections of peonies, a Bartzella peony. These are intersectional, or Itoh, hybrids, a special class of peonies with parentage from tree and herbaceous peonies.
Among the Lankfords’ collections of peonies, a Bartzella peony. These are intersectional, or Itoh, hybrids, a special class of peonies with parentage from tree and herbaceous peonies.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

In the sunken garden, gracefully curved drystack stone walls, a bluestone path with unusual 2” thick and 3’ x 4’ pavers, and a perennial border lead to a curved fish pond and bluestone surround.
In the sunken garden, gracefully curved drystack stone walls, a bluestone path with unusual 2” thick and 3’ x 4’ pavers, and a perennial border lead to a curved fish pond and bluestone surround.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

Self-sewn, perennial foxgloves provide vertical interest.
Self-sewn, perennial foxgloves provide vertical interest.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

Sweet woodruff, a mat-forming perennial, is used here as a shade-loving groundcover.
Sweet woodruff, a mat-forming perennial, is used here as a shade-loving groundcover.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

A series of gracious outdoor rooms includes intimate seating and dining areas. Variegated hostas (irresistible to neighborhood deer) and autumn ferns bring light and texture beneath a Kousa dogwood.
A series of gracious outdoor rooms includes intimate seating and dining areas. Variegated hostas (irresistible to neighborhood deer) and autumn ferns bring light and texture beneath a Kousa dogwood.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

A pond with lotus, water lilies and a waterfall fills a quiet corner of the garden
A pond with lotus, water lilies and a waterfall fills a quiet corner of the garden.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

Yellow Bartzella (also known as Itoh hybrid) peonies.
Yellow Bartzella (also known as Itoh hybrid) peonies.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

Dozens of mature trees, including a yellowwood planted by Floyd Lankford, surround and fill the rolling front lawn.
Dozens of mature trees, including a yellowwood planted by Floyd Lankford, surround and fill the rolling front lawn.

[/tie_slide]

[tie_slide]

Baptisia australis is among many perennials planted en masse in the Lankford gardens.
Baptisia australis is among many perennials planted en masse in the Lankford gardens.

[/tie_slide]

[/tie_slideshow]

Published in the August 2016 issue of Baltimore STYLE.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here