First the Plans, Then the Plants;
When Designing a Garden, Start by Deciding Where You Want to Sit

Adrian Higgins

The Washington Post
Deb and Steven Zuckerman built an infill house. In deference to its far older neighboring properties on River Road in upper Northwest Washington, the Shingle-style home sits back and rises to only two floors. But modern homes are bigger than older ones, so it attains its 4,400 square feet of space deceptively by extending far back into the narrow lot. This left room for a garage off the rear alley and a few small, disjointed areas for a back yard.
Enter Cynthia Ferranto. The garden designer took one look at this awkward arrangement and suggested turning the garage 90 degrees. The house was newly finished, but the outbuilding was not yet built. That simple switch changed everything. The owners got a garden space and Ferranto the chance to flesh it out. Two years later, an area once destined as a leftover space has become the soul of the property: a garden terrace that is both attractive and useful and a joy to view from the house.

"The garden makes the house," said Steven Zuckerman, partner in a real estate development company, Zuckerman Brothers. From this small plot comes a gigantic lesson in landscape design: Before you can build a garden, you first must craft a space. Forget adornments like fountains, statues and pots; set aside the lists of flowers; the primary goal must be to create a setting, says Ferranto, who earned a degree in landscape architecture from Cornell University and owns a small design practice in Northwest Washington, Cynthia Ferranto Landscape Design.

You might not have the chance to reposition a garage, house or other structure for the sake of the garden, but you can build on existing features to manipulate desirable spaces, she says. Start by imagining a place to put patio furniture, and consider the views from there. "Where does it feel best in the space? Once I have that, I build things around that area." Trees, existing and new, can be used both to define spaces and to separate them.

In the Zuckerman garden, Ferranto created two main areas. An upper terrace of flagstone and plant beds is given form by the side of the reconfigured garage. The patio leads to the second main element of the garden, a sunken lawn bounded by flower beds. We asked Ferranto to explain the sequence of ideas that gave form to the Zuckerman garden. Turning the garage, which measures approximately 13 feet by 20 feet, created a solid rectangle of land between the back of the house and the rear property line on an alley.

Within this area, she looked for the likely location for the outdoor furniture. A table and four chairs needs about a 12-foot-square space to allow people to move freely around the furniture with space left over for plant containers.

Ferranto saw two candidates: an area close to the back door of the house and another in the distant corner. Walking the site as the house was being finished, she detected a slight slope away from the house.

By exaggerating the change of grade, she figured, she could create an elevated terrace for the furniture, in a space enclosed on two sides by the house and the garage. A fence would close in the third side, leaving the fourth open for a view down to the newly created lower garden. "I wanted to create a feeling that you have some view. I would rather be up high looking down, even if it's only a foot higher," she said. The reorientation of the garage reinforced the decision, not only by helping define the space but also by providing much of the structure needed to retain the soil in the upper level. The garage's new, prominent role lent even more importance to making it look good: It mimics the architectural details of the house (designed by architect Richard Speight of Silver Spring), including the green shakes, white trim, deep soffits and sash windows.

Ferranto likes to pay special attention to the entrance to the garden from the house. Masonry is the favored material. Its heft visually anchors the door, she says.

At the Zuckerman house, a plan for narrow wooden steps was changed to become a portal of two broad stairs, the top acting as a landing with space for pots. The treads are of thick slate, the risers of stone. The slate overhang is minimal, accentuating the feeling of solidity.

Two small trees -- a pink flowering dogwood and a stewartia - straddle the entrance, and a third, a hybrid dogwood, sits in the corner by the garage. This creates three points that subtly reinforce the terrace space in a way that two trees alone could not, she said. The Zuckermans enjoy the plants and the connection to nature, but they are not avid gardeners. The plantings are architectural -- evergreen and passive -- to take this into account and, again, to reinforce the fundamental design.

The beds framing the lawn are planted with ferns, perennial candytuft and boxwood. Ferranto positioned three purple leaf plum trees at the far end, as a stopping point for the eye from the upper terrace. As the trees age, they will be clipped into an elevated hedge, she said. Climbing roses soften the walls of fences. A serious gardener could do much more with the plant beds: Replace ground covers with a profusion of perennials and other flowering plants; change the low hedge of cherry-laurel at the garage with various shrub combinations; and smother the fences in a variety of climbing plants. But the point is, Ferranto says, the space is established successfully with or without that level of horticulture.

Of course, the capacity to envision a space before it is built comes with talent, training and experience, but one of the most important aspects is not so much in knowing where to start as when to stop. Build too freely on an idea, and "it takes away the clarity of the intent," she said. "So it's good to have some really clear bold lines. And then you wait for the garden to mature."

A plan remains just that if the owners don't share the designer's vision. With the exception of a proposed, small pond and an arbor along the garage and fence, Ferranto's plan was embraced heartily by the Zuckermans, who said they knew they wanted a nice space but didn't know how to create it themselves.
"It's very little space, but I think that's what makes it so nice," said Steven Zuckerman. "You buy the lot that's available, and you deal with what you have. But I really, really like the size and the way it is carved out like that."