Character Building

By: Rebecca Sams

Rebecca Sams and Buell Steelman met while both worked at Gardens in Austin, Texas. Now in Eugene, Oregon, they design…

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The Gregory home in Eugene, Oregon, seen from the community meadow across the street; three narrowly pendant Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’ add a vertical line to the left of the entry walk (without adding any shade), while the lower branches of a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) screen the recessed front door on the right; the garage is farther to the right; brightly variegated Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ and Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’ stand out against the deeper colors. Photographs by Buell Steelman

The Gregory home in Eugene, Oregon, seen from the community meadow across the street; three narrowly pendant Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’ add a vertical line to the left of the entry walk (without adding any shade), while the lower branches of a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) screen the recessed front door on the right; the garage is farther to the right; brightly variegated Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ and Iris foetidissima ‘Variegata’ stand out against the deeper colors. Photographs by Buell Steelman

When Buell Steelman and I first met Joy Gregory, her small suburban front yard was indistinguishable from her neighbors’ yards. It was tiny (about 900 square feet), overwhelmed by the garage and driveway on one side and the neighbor’s house on the other. The space consisted of little more than a scrappy lawn, a few foundation shrubs, and a quick concrete path from the driveway to the front door.

Joy is a redheaded graphic designer with a quick wit—an unexpected resident of this newly constructed development on the outskirts of Eugene, Oregon. She chose her new home with her young son in mind. The quiet neighborhood was filled with other young families, and Joy loved to imagine her son playing with his friends in the meadow across the street. She was pleased with the location, the house, and the community, but had no idea how to start on a garden.

As we talked at our first meeting, we all quickly realized that we were a good match. Our work resonated with Joy, and her buoyant and trusting nature allowed us to design freely. She set few parameters for the future garden, requesting only “fun” plantings and a distinctive space that would welcome visitors while providing a private “room” for her and her son. Given the size and setting of the existing yard, that was no small order. The trick of designing this space would be to use its apparent limitations as guidelines for our work, to create style and character in a small, suburban garden.

A simple sandstone bench sits against a six-foot-tall rusty steel screen that separates the Gregory garden from the too-close neighbors

A simple sandstone bench sits against a six-foot-tall rusty steel screen that separates the Gregory garden from the too-close neighbors

Bold, Playful, and Balanced

The size, nondescript layout, and lack of hardscape access made the original yard an unused and barely noticed footnote to the property. In our design, we hoped to engage everyone from Joy to passersby. In order to draw attention into the space, while standing up to the scale of the house and driveway, we installed ample sandstone paving, with a large Vietnamese urn at the heart of the garden. These broad stone pathways provide visual and physical access to the garden, while clearly separating it from the concrete and asphalt of the sidewalk, driveway, and street. The urn attracts notice, both from within and outside the space, and anchors the intersection of the paths.

Bold, playful plantings in shades of burgundy, silver, cream, and bronze underscore the effect of the “hard” elements. As with the hardscape, the scale of the plantings was dictated by the size of the house and surroundings, rather than the diminutive dimensions of the garden. Specimen trees and tall ornamental grasses add depth and privacy, while providing a foil for the color and complexity of the lower plantings.

In the builder’s design, a concrete slab that skirted the walls of the garage and house had been the only access to the deeply recessed front door. Our wide path leads from the street, through lush plantings, around the urn, and to the entryway. Three stone steps above the sidewalk emphasize a slight change in grade and enhance the sense of the garden as a distinct space. In creating an entryway through the garden, with multiple layers of engagement and separation from the street, we sought to involve visitors in a defined, welcoming landscape on their trip to the front door.

A quick and convenient driveway entrance remains, but now it, too is part of the garden. The change in materials from the driveway concrete to sandstone alters the texture underfoot, while the wine-red leaves of a New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Dusky Chief’) frame the view of the urn and seating niche beyond. Joy and her son frequently use the driveway entrance, and we wanted to be sure that, even on busy or rainy days, they could enjoy their garden for at least a few moments.

The variegated foliage of Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ contrasts with the rich colors of orange-leafed Libertia perigrinans ‘Bronze Sword’, plum-colored Heuchera ‘Obsidian’, and the orange-sherbet flowers of Kniphofia ‘Shining Sceptre’

The variegated foliage of Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ contrasts with the rich colors of orange-leafed Libertia perigrinans ‘Bronze Sword’, plum-colored Heuchera ‘Obsidian’, and the orange-sherbet flowers of Kniphofia ‘Shining Sceptre’

One of our key challenges was to strike a balance between an open, inviting entrance and a private room for Joy and her son. Finding the right nook for a seating area would be difficult in many front gardens. In this tiny space, surrounded by neighbors and divided by a frequently used public sidewalk, it seemed almost impossible. The only area not huddled against an entry path, driveway, or sidewalk was inconveniently located a few feet from the end of the neighbors’ front porch.

Our solution was to install a striking, six-foot-tall by nine-foot-wide rusting steel screen along the property line. The screen provides the necessary privacy, while allowing an interplay of light and air at the edge of the garden. Plants define and soften the remaining boundaries, creating a sense of openness that makes the garden feel a bit larger.

Bold foliage contrasts from Kniphofia northiae and English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

Bold foliage contrasts from Kniphofia northiae and English lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)

To furnish the seating area, we placed a simple bench, made from the same sandstone used for the pathways, in front of the metal screen. The contrast between the earthy, pale color of the bench and the rich, rusted screen provides a strong focal point beyond the central urn, adding spatial and aesthetic depth to the garden.

Throughout the design phase, the size of the garden weighed heavily in each of our decisions. In the end, this apparent limitation was our greatest asset. It gave the space definition, which we used to create a powerful, simple hardscape design, and it allowed us to distribute our efforts and resources equally. We were able to consider every element, from pathway layout to plant selection, thoroughly, with an eye towards building a simple space that would reflect the client’s aesthetic, and, we hoped, enhance the lives of Joy and her son.

Large sandstone paving blocks establish a welcoming pathway to the front door, to the right of the arched windows; tossled heads of Carex testacea in the foreground; tall feather reed grass (Calamagrostis 5 acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) screens the sitting area, behind Kniphofia ‘Shining Sceptre’; deep wine red leaves of Phormium ‘Dusky Chief’ rise to the right of the urn; dwarf spruces add blue (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’) and gray green (P. sitchensis ‘Papoose’) foliar colors to the mix - See more at: http://www.pacifichorticulture.org/articles/character-building/#sthash.ZE1Zi9TG.dpuf

Large sandstone paving blocks establish a welcoming pathway to the front door, to the right of the arched windows; tossled heads of Carex testacea in the foreground; tall feather reed grass (Calamagrostis 5 acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) screens the sitting area, behind Kniphofia ‘Shining Sceptre’; deep wine red leaves of Phormium ‘Dusky Chief’ rise to the right of the urn; dwarf spruces add blue (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’) and gray green (P. sitchensis ‘Papoose’) foliar colors to the mix

Three Years Later

Since we installed the garden in the fall of 2005, it has exploded with growth. At first, we visited monthly to guide and manage the plantings, and the space was a beautiful and much appreciated place for the family to sit. Gradually, Joy started to clip here, stake there. As she spent more time working in her garden, our visits became shorter. Now, we only visit to provide occasional advice and to appreciate the intricate character that a garden can only gain through careful nurturing by its owner.

The garden today is filled with life. The local kids love to hide among the gigantic feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), and neighbors often stop by to relax and chat for a moment. Despite her schedule as a busy young mother, Joy delights in working in her garden, often with help from her son, who notices the tiniest changes in “his” garden and loves to transport weeds and debris in the bucket of his bright yellow mini-backhoe. This dynamic duo adds just the right amount of input to the controlled chaos of the plantings, and the little suburban garden thrives under their watch.