ISSUE 71  |  Kitchen Gardens

The Landscape Designer Is In: Playing Matchmaker Between a House and its Site

May 11, 2013 10:00 AM

BY Sarah Medford

Modern houses plunked down in dramatic, often inhospitable settings are the eye candy of countless architecture blogs and books. But all that craggy drama doesn’t leave much room for outdoor living–or gardening, for that matter. Is there a middle ground?

This week, Thomas Woltz of Nelson Byrd Woltz reveals how the landscape firm used native plants and some bold structural moves to make a contemporary Connecticut house feel asif it really belonged in its hillside surroundings. For the next 48 hours, Woltz will be available to answer questions. Take advantage in the comment section below:

“The client wanted the place to feel as if it were naturally part of the site,” says Woltz. “They were happy to embrace concepts that grounded the house into the larger native landscape between woodland edge and meadow.” How did Nelson Byrd Woltz pull it off?

Images by Eric Piasecki, courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz.

 Exposed granite bedrock is as strong of an architectural element as the house.

 

The landscape plan shows the house (white, at bottom center) nestled up near the massive rock ledges. Nelson Byrd Woltz (NBW) created low walls of concrete and stone that reach out like fingers to the hillside and woodland, defining terraces, a cutting garden and a pool.

 

“The most remarkable feature of the site when we first saw it were the massive faces of exposed bedrock,” Woltz says. Rather than sodding over the granite, he and his partners drew attention to it by driving low concrete walls right into the stone. A simple basin is used to water the vegetable garden nearby.

 

Drifts of purple coneflower and globe thistle thrive in less-than-perfect conditions. 

 

“Native warm-season grassland is one of the nation’s most rapidly disappearing habitats,” says Woltz. NBW domesticated the spaces around the house by echoing its geometric forms out into the landscape, but chose native plantings–like the switch grass, or Panicum virgatum “˜Haense Herms,’ in the driveway island–to keep things real.  The grasses, ferns and other “primary succession” choices, as Woltz calls them, used here are ones that would naturally arrive first to a newly cleared site.  Arriving second: the birds and insects that call such places home.  

 

 

 The vegetable garden is a semicircular amphitheater of produce near the house’s back door. 

 

 

 Cor-Ten steel forms the garden’s walls and stairs–and alludes to the iron-mining heritage of the surrounding land. Mint, chives, chard, and tomatoes fill discreet stepped beds. 

 

 

 After the blaze of pink coneflowers subsides, “the client leaves the perennials in place throughout the winter,” Woltz explains–”both for visual interest and in order for seed heads to provide food for birds throughout the winter months.”

 

On the hillside beyond the house, Meadow Rue, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Black-eyed Susan jostle for space.

 

“One year after planting, the meadow was flush with beautiful, fast-growing Rudbeckia,” says Woltz. “Year two and onward, other native grasses and wildflowers that invest first in developing strong root systems became more prevalent. These meadows can be managed by fire as well, which over time reduces maintenance costs, eliminates mowing and sustains the open space.” Which is exactly what the client was after. 

Are you planning a garden on a tricky site? Tell us about your dilemma in the comments section below.