An Urban Garden in Massachusetts

How an avid gardener and her landscape designers reworked a streetside urban plot to create private “rooms” along with lawns and perennial beds—while honoring the scale of the big old house.

Photographs by Kindra Clineff

Heather Falcone was smitten by their new home when she moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband, attorney Steve Cherny, and their two young children. Designed by Boston architect S. Edwin Tobey for local real-estate magnate John Prescott Webber, the 1885 Queen Anne house was, according to contemporary accounts, built of “Roxbury stone with red granite trimmings” on the first floor, and “rough cast work” above. Featuring prominent gables, a large, open-roofed, stone porte-cochere, plinth-like stone porches, and an unusual corner entry tower, the house had enormous appeal for Falcone and her family. But she did not love the one-third-acre U-shaped lot, probably what was left after much larger grounds were subdivided and sold.

“We had a mulch and shrub garden, which I just hated,” says Falcone, who owns several home furnishings, clothing, and accessory boutiques in Brooklyn, New York.

A passionate gardener, she confesses that she felt overwhelmed by the barren lot bordered on two sides by streets and oriented toward a busy intersection. For help, the homeowner turned to A Blade of Grass, a landscape design and maintenance company located in nearby Wayland, Massachusetts.

“We found a big, gorgeous stone house, but not a lot of yard space,” says Jim Douthit, landscape designer and company principal. “It didn’t feel like a garden.
It felt like a blocky house surrounded by narrow strips of grass.”

He created a series of outdoor rooms that provide lawns for the children’s play, a private area for Cherny, and lots of garden beds where Falcone can indulge her passion for growing roses and other flowering perennials. The gardens now provide screening from the street while leading the eye to long, satisfying vistas punctuated by sculpture and outdoor seating.

Designer Jim Douthit outlined the driveway and lawns with bluestone and brownstone pavers chosen to coordinate with the stone of the house. He replaced old paving with Gravel-Lok, a modern material that resembles pea stone but is more stable—and yet permeable to rainwater.

Another outdoor room, designed as a walkway transition between the driveway and entries to the house, features a bluestone-bordered lawn and a mix of flowering shrubs, roses, and perenn-ials. The makeover is stunning.

Lawns are bordered with old-fashioned perennials including veronica and catmint; rosy-red Knockout roses steal the show. The flowers’ ever-changing display is heightened by a backdrop of the house’s granite on one side, dark foliage trees on the other. Traditional granite pavers demarcate areas in the Gravel-Lok surfaces.

The biggest design challenge, says Jim Douthit, was at the front corner. “There was a curved walk, which did not do justice to the ornate house or the florid gardens,” Douthit says. “We balanced the big steps coming down from the house with a circular focal point, which is flanked by stone and sod checkerboards. Together, they provide a place for circulation while they create new sightlines.”

Private, verdant, and filled with color and fragrance, the gardens now do the house justice. “I was looking for an artist,” explains Heather Falcone about her collaboration with Douthit. Heather Lashbrook Jones, Douthit’s co-worker at A Blade of Grass, sums it up: “Jim designed the structure, and she provided the plants. Together they made a garden.”

Jim Douthit designed a new approach that features two sod and stone checkerboard areas flanking a central, boxwood-planted round garden feature.

A stone and sod checkerboard can act as a walkway, a transition between lawn and paved areas, or simply a bit of whimsy in an unremarkable expanse of grass. In Heather Falcone’s Brookline garden, two pyramid-shaped checkerboard compositions flank a central round feature approaching the front steps. Both the checkerboard and the circle are laid in bluestone pavers.

To install a stone and sod checkerboard, the most important step is measuring before starting, says designer Heather Lashbrook Jones.

“After meticulously measuring, lay it all out and put down the stone pavers,” she says. “Then, it’s an easy matter to cut out rectangles of sod and fit them between
the pavers.”

Pip, Heather Falcone’s English bulldog, rests next to planters. Bourbon roses are a favorite of the owner. At the corner entry, wide granite steps descend to the front yard, where now a checkerboard enlivens a lawn; pavers are bluestone to coordinate with the house. Near the side door is a bluestone-bordered seating area, situated for privacy and shade.

Homeowner Heather Falcone swims against the tide of contemporary horticultural practice when she declares: “I hate mulch!”

She’s referring to the ubiquitous ground cover composed of dyed wood chips, spread over soil to dress beds, hold moisture, and keep down weeds. Wood mulch never made it into this garden. “In the first place, all the different kinds of commercial mulches stink,” points out the gardener who grows roses for their fragrance.

“Second, a layer of bark mulch doesn’t allow for self-seeding—and one of the great pleasures of growing flowers is that many plants will sow seeds for the following year.”

Commercial mulch colors look artificial, Falcone says. “It’s wonderful to get your hands in dirt, and I see nothing wrong with the soil showing.” It helps that this
garden combines dense planting with paved areas.

Behind the porte-cochere, a parterre of beds convenient to the kitchen door grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables. The willow edges are known as hurdles. The homeowners built a small greenhouse at the back of the house, its glazing composed of discarded windows.

Tags: Boston Brookline exteriors gardens Massachusetts OHJ August 2015 Queen Anne Queen Anne homes Queen Annes

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