Shaping the meadow: An 18th century house gets a modernized landscape

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At the back of the house, a series of plants, arranged more or less by height, makes a transition from the patio to the yard and meadow beyond: woolly thyme, catmint, lavender, fothergilla, mountain mint, and muhly grass. Photo: Stephen Barling At the back of the house, a series of plants, arranged more or less by height, makes a transition from the patio to the yard and meadow beyond: woolly thyme, catmint, lavender, fothergilla, mountain mint, and muhly grass. Photo: Stephen Barling

The house, dating all the way back to 1742, didn’t need much work. But the five-acre property surrounding it did. When Sarah Van Steenburg bought a historic house near Barboursville in 2015, she appreciated the renovation work already completed on the structure, and she was attracted to what she calls the “money shot”—the view from the upstairs front porch, with the Blue Ridge forming the backdrop to farm fields and woods.

The landscaping, though, wasn’t too inspired. A past owner had planted some nice trees, but the lawn was more like a place to mow than to hang out. “It was not very inviting,” says landscape architect Mary Wolf. “One goal was having nice outdoor spaces for people to gather.”

Wolf looked at the outdoor spaces as a system and tried to improve overall functionality of parking, circulation, and living spaces. An oddly small fenced-in area in the backyard would have to go. So would overgrown shrubs around the diminutive front steps. Van Steenburg would need better access to the back door and a more graceful, classic look for the rear deck.

Rather than utilizing retaining walls to cordon off separate zones through the yard, landscape architect Mary Wolf employed grass steps, their edges defined by stone, leading from one level to the next. Photo: Stephen Barling

While the backyard sloped down into the house, the front sloped away a little too quickly. Wolf planned for earth-moving that would make both these areas closer to level, with subtle terraces separating successive zones. Instead of retaining walls, Van Steenburg chose a more budget-friendly option: grass steps, their edges defined by stone, leading from one level to the next.

Another key decision was to convert much of the mown lawn on the property to meadow. With a grant from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, a large swath of the front lawn—there’s about an acre between the house and the road—became a wildflower meadow, as did smaller areas along the driveway and behind the house.

The meadow accomplishes several things. For one, it helps to buffer the house from traffic on the road, by providing a bit more height. It spares Van Steenburg the need to mow large areas. And it provides endlessly changing visual interest that also benefits wildlife. “It’s brought back the birds and butterflies,” says Van Steenburg. Key native species in the meadow are Echinacea, goldenrod, coreopsis, rudbeckia, eupatorium, and Joe Pye weed.

Wolf kept some of the plantings that were already here, selectively removing others. In the front meadow, existing redbud, dogwood, apple, and maple trees stayed, while ailanthus and Leland cypress came down. The new, wider front steps are now flanked with boxwood and catmint, while autumn bride and oakleaf hydrangea line the façade and lead to large hollies on the house corners that Van Steenburg inherited from a previous owner. Walkways are more like stepping-stones than paths. “We didn’t want the pavement to show too strongly,” says Wolf.

Two new elm trees just in front of the house will grow to anchor this whole front-yard scheme, where a grassy lawn inside the curving drive provides a place to sit and take in the view, from meadow to mountains.

With a grant from the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, a large swath of the front lawn became a wildflower meadow, as did smaller areas along the driveway and behind the house. Photo: Stephen Barling

The backyard was a more complex challenge. Wolf wanted to connect the side parking area more effectively to the back door, which meant shortening the deck and removing the odd little fence. Van Steenburg decided the diagonal decking didn’t fit the house and had it replaced with deck boards running parallel instead; Wolf added tall Joe Pye weed along the railing.

“We didn’t want to go crazy with hardscapes,” says Wolf. Steps lead from the parking up to a patio, made from salvaged fieldstone, with creeping thyme planted between the stones. Van Steenburg was able to handpick stones for the steps from the stash on mason Jon Heilbron’s property, along with a huge pocked chunk of rock that serves as a doorstep.

Two serviceberry trees flank the steps, and a series of plants, arranged more or less by height, makes a transition from the patio to the yard and meadow beyond: woolly thyme, catmint, lavender, fothergilla, mountain mint, and muhly grass.

The oval backyard is edged by switchgrass “to make a clean edge to the meadow world,” says Wolf, “but also to tie into it.”

While on the deck/parking side of the house a large existing redbud tree is the focal point, the opposite side features mature silver maples under which a shade garden, with ferns and mountain mint, is slowly taking root.

Van Steenburg, who moved from D.C. and still spends some time there, calls her Barboursville house “my sanctuary.” She’s enjoyed watching the meadow change season to season, and year to year. “I love the thoughtfulness of the lines,” she says. “The meadow gives it structure.”

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