American Classic

A landscaping makeover gives a Boston house with an august history just the sort of lush, but refined, grounds the grand home deserves.

Text by Megan Fulweiler Photography by Eric Roth

Gorgeous women choose clothes that highlight their attributes, not upstage them. Too many frills, too much finery could detract from their high cheekbones or their attention-commanding curves. A garden for a grand old house must fulfill a similar role; it should complement and emphasize the architecture.

Of all of New England’s landscape designers, few are more aware of this than Julie Moir Messervy, the principal of an eponymous design studio based in Saxtons River, Vermont. Having created gardens far and wide as well as being the author of eight highly praised books on the subject (the latest: Landscaping Ideas that Work, from The Taunton Press), she’s very much aware of the importance of marrying every home to its site. Not for this designer are overplayed compositions or explosions of vivid color that aim to be the center of attention. Little wonder, then, that when the owners of this Boston property sought to enhance their urban garden, there was no one else they wanted more to lead the way.

The thoughtful garden changes they had previously undertaken (with the help of Stephen Stimson Associates Landscape Architects of Cambridge and Princeton, Massachusetts) had made the property handsome, indeed, but the owners saw potential for even further improvement. They envisioned a private area shielded from passersby, for example, and room for their dogs to romp. “The beautiful bones were in place,” says Messervy. “We didn’t need to change the structure; we just needed to fill in the gaps and better shield our clients from the street. It was important that their wonderful house remain the focus.”

The designer began by turning a small grassy area into a green parterre. “Think of it like a pool, but instead of water there’s grass,” she explains. Existing granite steps to the upper walkway, which stood to one side, were slid to the middle of the oval “pool.” This clever choreography placed the steps on center with the home’s beautiful facade.

At each end of the pool, lush plantings, including inkberry, mountain laurel, magnolia, and dense fothergilla, were added to soften the garden’s look and to create a natural screen. Mingling with existing plants like viburnums and yews, these healthy additions obscure a newly forged secret oasis. Today, a delicate path of stepping stones and haircap moss (one of Messervy’s favorite garden recruits) leads to a small bench just the right size for one person with a book or two carrying teacups to enjoy a quiet moment unobserved.

The skillful designer also boosted the brick patio’s privacy factor by pumping up the plant material along and at the end of an existing stone wall that frames it. In spring, when the garden is at its peak, white-flowering redbud trees—several planted in containers so as not to disturb the roots of a venerable nearby linden—and pots of sky-blue hydrangea give the patio a spell-binding ambience that promotes al fresco meals and entertaining.

By limiting the palette to white, blue, and green, Messervy has smartly pulled the picture-perfect setting together. Stands of snowy Calgary tulips intermingling with dazzling grape hyacinths serve as spectacular accents to classic boxwood hedges and signal the freshness of a new season beginning. As all good hedges should be, these shrubs are meticulously trimmed. The boxwood running alongside the brick house (behind a low, decorative iron fence) stands just beneath the bottom of the elegant windows—and not a single inch higher, the designer points out.

Care and maintenance for the showcase spot is the responsibility of Paul Lee, principal of Foliaire in Boston. With every change of the seasons he and his crew ramp up their fine-tuning, seeing to everything from pruning to updating containers. Pots of hydrangea introduced in spring, say, are underplanted with pretty variegated ivy or white New Guinea impatiens for summer. With fall’s arrival, out go the fluffy hydrangeas and in their place come classic mums and robust kale, followed, as temperatures begin to drop, by dwarf evergreens. Frosted with snow, the trees will interject a subtle hint of holiday enchantment—a boon for the owners when they view their garden from indoors. Something Messervy, who considers every aspect of the stellar gardens she designs, certainly planned. •

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