Into the woods

A layered Fluvanna landscape smooths the way from house to forest

Virginia Hamrick

When you’re building a new house on a wooded hilltop—a house whose design prioritizes views of the outdoors—the landscape is a crucial piece of the puzzle. From within Ron Harris’ Fluvanna County house, the woodsy surroundings are a constant presence, especially through the south wall, which is made almost entirely of glass.

Finished in 2007, the house construction resulted in the clearing of the hilltop, leaving a barren swath of ground around the new home. Harris wanted to install a landscape right away, and hired designer Joan Albiston to help realize his vision of a lovely transition between the house and its setting.

“I said to Joan, ‘I want gardens, but I want them to feel rustic and natural, so that the house sits in a natural garden in the woods,’” says Harris.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

One key to making this happen was the installation of a deer fence, enclosing about three acres around the house. It’s set far enough back in the woods that it becomes invisible, but it allows the planting of many species that would otherwise suffer damage.

Albiston also designed simple hardscaping to create definition in key areas. On the east side of the house, for example, a slope is subtly terraced via the two bluestone walls that cut across its width. “Joan designed the retaining walls so that it looks like we meant it,” says Harris—avoiding, in other words, the harsh appearance of a steep, unbroken slope.

The walls have a utilitarian function too, optimizing drainage. Plantings in this area focus on perennials that shine in springtime.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Albiston planted a few trees around the edge of the lawn: rotundiloba sweetgum, black gum and fast-growing willow oak. Paperbark maple provides texture with its cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark.

Year-round color was a priority. Deciduous sparkleberry holly holds onto its bright red berries through the chilly months, the fiery color offset by darkened rudbeckia stems and ethereal puffs of tawny muhly grass (which, in summer, is a delicious pink). Winter-blooming jasmine cascades its tiny yellow blooms over a retaining wall.

Photo: Virginia Hamrick

Grasses, both native and nonnative, include Shenandoah switchgrass and Dallas blues panicum. Evergreen osmanthus, nandina and native itea shrubs help anchor planting beds, while color bursts from irises, rudbeckia and coneflower.

The landscape requires ongoing attention (and drip irrigation to keep plants happy into late summer). Some plants originally specified in Albiston’s design have been replaced as she, Harris and gardener Vicki Cordell have learned over time which species will thrive in particular spots.

For Harris, the landscape is a crucial piece that completes the design of the house itself. After all, he says, “Wherever you look, you’re looking at the gardens.”

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