Small Treasure

Pretty, aromatic, serene, and practically maintenance free. What’s not to love about this little gem in the heart of the city?

Text by Paula M. Bodah

City living conjures images of close-set buildings on postage-stamp lots with views of the neighbors’ houses or the high fences that guard them. That’s not what this couple imagined, however, when they replaced the old ranch on their plot of land in Brookline, Massachusetts, with an airy, modern dwelling. They wanted to look through the broad windows and see nature. They wanted to sit in the backyard and feel relaxed and free, as if they were lounging at the beach. “My vision was of something that would fit with the organic feel of the  house, serene and peaceful,” the wife says.

With busy schedules and an outlook on life that places a premium on enjoying time with their two small boys, the couple also wanted to avoid weekends devoted to weeding, edging, and trimming. “I wanted my garden to be like my hair,” the wife says with a laugh. “It’s wash and wear; I don’t do anything to it.”

Landscape architect Matthew Cunningham took his cue from the contemporary nature of the house, designed by Stern McCafferty Architecture and Interiors.  He wanted to create a sense of serenity to match the simplicity of the structure, while introducing softness to complement its geometry. He achieved both aims with a variety of ornamental grasses in shades ranging from chartreuse to dusky blue-green. The slightest breeze sets their pliant blades to swaying, evoking just the sort of beachy quality the homeowners wanted.

Cunningham didn’t limit the grasses to one or two, here and there. “I like to think of plants as colonies,” he says. “I like to plant in masses of ten or twenty or thirty of the same plant.” At the front of the house, for example, he used vivid yellow carex aleta—a grass-like sedge—both at the foot of the retaining wall and stairs and in the yard atop the wall. “You see the yellow mass at ground level, then it jumps to the upper level,” he explains. “By using swaths of the same material, it has a calming presence in the landscape.”

The grasses bring visual interest to the garden all year long. And an additional advantage: “They’re somewhat shade tolerant and drought tolerant, an aspect that’s nice on the wallet and the environment,” Cunningham says.

Other easy-to-maintain plants, including low- and high-bush blueberries, bayberry, and hay-scented ferns, act as companions to the grasses. Cunningham kept the color scheme serene, too, ­choosing salvia, lavender, and allium for their blooms of soft purples and blues. “The grasses and lavender and flowers that grow kind of look wild,” the wife
says. “They were actually selected extremely carefully, but they have a ­carefree, happy feel.”

The backyard of the eighth-of-an-acre lot feels surprisingly open and spacious, thanks to a carefully planned mix of hardscaping and plantings. Working with landscape contractor Martin Lucyk, Cunningham created a bluestone terrace for lounging. Rather than giving the terrace a defined border, he explains, “we let it kind of break apart.” The asymmetrical edge becomes a narrow walking path across a lawn Cunningham describes as a “freeform space where the family can just spill out of the house and be active.”

Strategically placed granite slabs salvaged from an old seawall pull double duty as garden borders and benches for sitting and enjoying the yard. That enjoy ment means admiring the garden’s good looks, of course, but Cunningham has also turned the space into an olfactory heaven. “The grasses and ornamental perennials have scents,” he says. “There’s Russian sage, the salvia, a couple of types of creeping thyme, hay-scented fern. Even when things aren’t in bloom, there’s something special about the garden because there is an aroma that’s really nice.”

All that sensory pleasure comes with privacy, as well. A slatted screen at the yard’s edges, planted with dwarf American wisteria, shields the space.

Whether throwing a party or just hanging out together, the husband and wife find their yard and gardens a pleasure. No matter that the grasses can prove challenging for finding the occasional over-thrown ball during a game of catch with the boys. For the active family, this is, indeed, an urban oasis. •

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