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Keeping With Tradition

Elegant garden takes its cue from its spectacular surroundings
Before & After

Sometimes, “less is more,” specifically when it relates to the development of eco-friendly landscapes. “We wanted to create a central Virginia traditional landscape that is compatible to its surrounding native environment,” says Alice Siegel of the landscape grounds surrounding her home in the Lockgreen community near the James River.
While Alice and her husband, John’s, goal sounds reasonable, their site contained almost insurmountable obstacles. Faced with severely rocky terrain, landscape architect David C. Gerstenmaier, president of Richmond-based Higgins & Gerstenmaier devised a plan to create layers of sloping terrain to serve as hosts to garden features and sitting areas. Presented with many challenges, the plan separates the steep slope into three terraces: one for entertaining, one for dining and one for quiet reflection in the woodland. Working with Jonathan Cranshaw of Ground Effects Landscape Construction, the blue stone terraces, water feature, brick wall and steps were installed. Limestone treads mark the steps and crushed honeystone was put in place to prevent erosion. Water Shapes of Virginia, Inc. installed a pond.

A new design takes shape

“After hundreds of truckloads of rock were removed and almost equal loads of useable soil imported, we moved forward with the project,” says Alice. “I’m especially pleased with the water feature designed by Higgins & Gerstenmaier which includes a half-circle arbor. Half-circle arborDuring my travels to Florence, I acquired this feature’s statuary. I enjoy watching for and acquiring garden accent pieces but related to plant material, I prefer to acquire ideas and then, translate them into Virginia compatible plant material. When your goal is an eco-friendly site, you don’t risk the site’s environmental health by introducing foreign plant materials.”

David Seward, the Horticulture Program head for J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and owner of Garden Creations, recalls his involvement in the project that presented several challenges. “The property is very steeply sloped. Installation of plant material of a size that worked well was a challenge. For example, we had to position a crane to accommodate the planting of two very large Southern Magnolias, which were more than 20 feet tall, and a Deodar Cedar that was nearly 20 feet tall. These specimen sizes were necessary to keep the existing trees in proportion with the garden and the Siegels’ house.”

Stone pathway Equally challenging was the installation of pathways. To control water run-off and absorption, they used a tan colored crusher run stone, with steel edging on each side. To create the look and feel of stacked rock walls, they installed natural stone retaining walls.

As a focal point and to aid erosion control, a dry creek bed was installed. The use of stone for retention walls, steps and pathways also contributes to water movement control. Still, as Seward says, “One Japanese Snowbell died, and we went with a more wet soil tolerant plant, the Sweetbay Magnolia. It was helpful that Alice is a very experienced gardener and contributed input on plant selection and area development.”

Despite the rocky terrain, Alice’s goal was to create a traditional native Virginia landscape. She enlisted the help of Ian Robertson, a landscape architect recognized by astute Virginia gardeners for his design of a perennial garden located at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Guided by his philosophy, “I create designs that reveal and enrich the distinctive character inherent in existing landscape,” the project moved in the direction of Alice’s expectations.

Garden changes with the seasons

Robertson helped to design a garden for Alice that changes along with the seasons. The winter garden consists of plant material such as the Deodar Cedar which mimics the sharp angles of the house roofline. It is softened by ball-shaped Green Velvet and Green Mountain boxwoods and the half circle arbor at the base of the water feature. Against the vista backdrop, a river view and native woodland, the installed evergreens are accented with planter boxes filled with seasonal white pansies. Following on the heels of wintry weather, the landscape comes alive, says Seward, “with my favorite plant for erosion control, Winter Jasmine, which completely covered the area in one season.”

Daffodils Daffodil plantings frame evergreen plantings and are installed along descending pathways. As the soil warms, so does the landscape palette. Along with a design that consists primarily of a white and green color scheme, splashes of blue-tone blooms emerge. Blooming pink dogwoodDwarf lavender lilac frame the garden’s water feature, a blooming pink dogwood draws attention to the area’s outer boundaries and lavender blooming rhododendron contrast against white blooming azaleas.

A few of Alice’s favorites include the seasonal bloom of white roses recycled from her daughter’s wedding along with white blooming oak leaf hydrangea, peonies, lilies and planter boxes filled with white blooming annuals such as geraniums and petunias. Still, when the hint of frost occurs, the garden takes its cue from the colorful display of native Virginia trees and the spectacular view of the river.

A touch of whimsy

As guests wander through the garden they will also come across a few other friends peeking out through the plants and flowers. “Ian has been an excellent resource to identify Virginia traditional plants that work well in my region. Because I have memories of playing in my mother and grandmother’s gardens, I wanted to create for my grandchildren a garden of ‘secret garden’ like surprises, both in color and accent pieces,” Alice says, referring to the statuary of gargoyles, lizards, oversized ants and an alligator hidden throughout the garden.

Alice says that, while the garden is a never-ending project, she loves the outcome. “I wanted to achieve a space that softens the transition from the hardscapes to the surrounding native vista, a space that complements rather than distracts. Seasonally I work with David and Ian to renovate and renew the eco-compatibility of my garden and the results are very satisfying.”


Landscape architects: Higgins & Gerstenmaier; Ian Robertson, Ltd.; Landscape developers: Drew Miller, Higgins & Gerstenmaier; Ian Robertson; David Seward, Garden Creations; Plant installation: James River Nurseries; Garden Creations; Plant suppliers: James River Nurseries; Glen Allen Nursery & Garden Center; Colesville Nursery; Hardscapes: Ground Effects; Garden Creations; Pond installation: Water Shapes of Virginia, Inc.

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