One step at a time: An Albemarle County landscape takes shape in phases

Photo: Stephen Barling Photo: Stephen Barling

Time is always a key element in landscape: Plants grow and change, seasons come and go. In some cases, it takes time for a design to bloom, too. That was true at Shady Lawn, a Western Albemarle property where landscape architect Anna Boeschenstein, of Grounded, created a master plan five years ago. Her design is being implemented in stages, with time to let things percolate between each phase of construction.

The property centers on a house whose original portion dates to 1780. When the current owner bought it in 2010, one major plus was a distant view of a lake from the rear patio—but a minus was the crumbling pool in the foreground. A single long slope led from house to pool. In Phase I, Boeschenstein designed a series of terraces to transform that slope into two flat lawns, demarcated by stone walls.

These were carefully sized so that they wouldn’t require railings. “We wanted to keep the visual connection from the house, over the pool, to the lake,” says Boeschenstein.

The pool, meanwhile, got dressed up with new plaster in a darker color that helps the water reflect the sky. Its new deck is made of Nocé travertine, and a new pergola at one end mimics the traditional style of the pergola over the stone patio just off the house.

The second phase of the garden's design included a series of garden rooms tucked between the lawns and the guest cottage. Upslope, sandstone steps lead to a parterre herb garden edged in dwarf boxwoods. Photo: Stephen Barling
The second phase of the garden’s design included a series of garden rooms tucked between the lawns and the guest cottage. Upslope, sandstone steps lead to a parterre herb garden edged in dwarf boxwoods. Photo: Stephen Barling

While Boeschenstein attended to plenty of details in this phase—for example, the travertine forms one pattern (running bond) along the pool and a different one (herringbone) where the circular steps enter from the lawn—she was also keeping her eye on the big picture. “We figured out various connections in the master plan,” she says. The axis of a stone wall, for example, becomes a path leading into a garden planted in Phase II.

That second phase included a series of garden rooms tucked between the lawns and the guest cottage’s driveway. “I tried to tuck this in as a winding path, under the allée of Yoshino cherries,” says Boeschenstein, leading a visitor through beds of Lenten rose, hardy geranium and inkberry—a native plant that makes a good substitute for boxwood. “It’s keeping that formality, but softening and loosening it,” Boeschenstein says.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

Further upslope, a parterre herb garden is edged in dwarf boxwoods and anchored by Natchez crepe myrtles, the same variety already found near the pool.

Pink and white hues unify the various flowering plants—from Sheffield pink chrysanthemum, which blooms salmon in the fall, to rugosa rose and white fothergilla. They cover the seasons with blooms. “There’s always something my client can be cutting,” says Boeschenstein. Also repeated throughout the plan are sandstone steps, of a creamy color that ties in with the house.

At the top of this series of garden rooms is a third pergola that existed when Boeschenstein began designing. Formerly, it led to a set of “steps to nowhere”; now it’s a “peephole down the driveway.” Next to it is a trio of parterre gardens, with dwarf boxwood forming an “X” and oval patterns.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

Most recently, Phase III, just constructed this spring, tested Boeschenstein’s ability to create unity from a number of disparate elements. “Nothing quite lines up,” she says of the house’s front façade. “Nothing is symmetrical.” Reflecting the house’s long history, its form has quirks—like front steps that don’t align with the door, two side wings that are different sizes and shapes, and so on. Boxwoods formerly blocked archways into the English basement, keeping out daylight.

In reimagining the small front courtyard, Boeschenstein found ways to make axes align wherever she could. “We used the central volume as the organizing principle,” she says. Thus the new water feature—a rectangular pool with three tiny fountains—lines up with one of the archways, and the bluestone path leads directly to the front steps. “[The owner] wanted to direct people to the front door,” says Boeschenstein.

Photo: Stephen Barling
Photo: Stephen Barling

Bobo and Little Lime hydrangeas provide low-key color in this space, and American boxwoods will eventually grow to about five feet and downplay the house’s side wings. “We tried to keep it simple and not too flowery,” says Boeschenstein, who was inspired in part by a large, simple lawn at James Monroe’s Highland. “There are enough flowers going on elsewhere.”

A small cutting garden to one side received a Chippendale pattern gate, matching the new railings that bring solidity and interest to the brick front porch.

Shady Lawn’s owner spent many years living across the pond and nurtures a love for English gardens—hence the profusion of blooms tucked into beds throughout the property. Yet here, in the front courtyard, Boeschenstein sought to balance the abundance with tranquility. “Let’s just have a quiet moment,” she says. “Maybe we just need some lawn.”