ISSUE 28  |  Bastille Day

Hedge Fun: At Home with Garden Designer Deborah Nevins

July 14, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Cara Greenberg

Every gardener has a signature, and Deborah Nevins’s is the monumental hedge. Her NYC-based landscape design firm Deborah Nevins & Associates deploys walls of uniform greenery to organize and define space in projects as diverse as a Hudson Valley estate surrounding a Neoclassical mansion; a 40-acre park for a Renzo Piano-designed cultural foundation in Athens, Greece; the courtyard of a new Tribeca loft building; and her own East Coast weekend house near the water. 

At home, Nevins has hedges within hedges: layers of towering hornbeam, privet and yew, punctuated throughout with five types of rounded boxwood. She invited Cara Greenberg to visit the other day:

Photography by Deborah Nevins except where noted.

 Above: Behind the house, a bluestone walkway passes under an allée of sycamores. 

Nevins, a member of the Remodelista + Gardenista Architect/Designer Directory, grew up in New York City and New Haven. One of her earliest memories is collecting wildflowers with her mother in a New England field. Her career in landscape design began when she was studying architectural history at Columbia University in the 1980s (“They didn’t think landscape history was academically serious enough”). Someone asked her to help with a garden in Connecticut–and it happened to have been laid out by landscape-design luminary Russell Page.

Above: Nevins’s two-acre property was neglected and overgrown when she bought it in 1998; she built the cedar-shingled, Shaker-plain house two years later. “There are some beautiful trees on the property,” she says, “but I didn’t discover them until I started clearing the land.” Photograph by Cara Greenberg.

Above: A grand old white oak dominates the front yard. 

Around the perimeter of the property, she left in place tall cedars, junipers, American beech, and red and white oaks. Within this ring of native woodland are three well-defined, hedge-rimmed garden rooms: one in front of the house, centered on a majestic white oak, and two in back. “I knew the spaces from the very start,” Nevins says.

Above: Nevins calls this space behind the house her “hornbeam room.” It has little in it but lawn, a Luytens bench, and two cherished Meyer lemon trees in pots.

Above: Beyond the hedges, a peek into the perennial flower garden. 

The impressive wedge-shaped hornbeams were planted at 4 feet and grew to twice that height in just a few years. Nevins clips them heavily in February or March and again, lightly, in June.

Above: The perennial flower garden spills over in summer with such cottage-garden stalwarts as tall orange Turks cap lilies and white hollyhocks. But flowers are not the main attraction. “They’re never the starting point,” Nevins says. “You start by thinking about space and vistas and how a property should be organized. Flowers can come later.” Photograph by Danny Nevins.

Above: The manicured hedges make for a tidy and soothing environment, imparting a sense that all is under control–within the deer fence, that is. About 20 percent of Nevins’s property is protected against marauding deer.

Above: Beyond the fence, a mown path leads through native trees, tall grasses, and clumps of fragrant bayberry. The contrast with the rough native planting reminds you how close you are to the beach. “That’s what I tried to do,” Nevins says. “Use the formal to contrast with the natural, which is all around me and which I didn’t touch.” 

See more of Nevins’s work in our Architect/Design Directory on Remodelista. And if you’re lusting for a hornbeam hedge (who wouldn’t be at this point?), see Hornbeam: A Hedge for All Seasons.