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At the Malm home at Herring Creek Farm, the view from the garage balcony shows the dining room patio below and Edgartown Great Pond beyond.

Nina Bramhall

3.30.10

Harmony on the Plains

Professional gardener Peggy Schwier addresses the challenges of designing a property responsibly within the Vineyard landscape.

If you were in a kayak on Edgartown Great Pond, you’d notice the roof line of this house but have no idea that surrounding it are numerous sitting and eating areas, various gardens, a myriad of planted pots, as well as a pool. That was the idea, that the house should not announce itself. Here are seven acres on Katama’s Herring Creek Farm, facing southwest toward the barrier beach, where the owner’s objective was to maximize the privacy of the site and to respect the rugged beauty of the Island and the sand plain.

David and Alison Malm’s house was designed by Sam Sherman Associates, and the construction was finished in 2001 with a very basic planting scheme in place. I came onto the property during the latter part of 2002. I am frequently called in to repair the landscape after a house is finished, to make it right for the site and the owners. On a job site the landscaping is generally the last to go in, and often everything has gone over budget, leaving the landscape looking rather sparse right off the drawing board, and not terribly unifying. That’s where I come in.

Going Native

Come spring of 2003, my crew and I decided what to use from the existing inventory around the house, and spent a great deal of time gathering like-things together and limiting the plants in certain areas. We brought in additional material, both woody and perennial. All this was to make for some clarity of theme – the result was a house embraced by its landscape.

We pulled the wild back into some cleared spaces and planted native material. If a large enough grouping of Viburnum trilobum ‘Alfredo’ (American cranberry bush) is planted then you can appreciate its leaf and berry from afar. We used enough bayberry, Itea virginica (sweetspire), Aronia arbutifolia (red chokeberry), viburnum, and Comptonia drifting through the area that one can note the character of each as it transitions from one to the other. The whole area is now layered in different textures and leaf color.

The owner was committed to having the construction on his property have very little impact on its surroundings. He put a conservation restriction on five of the seven acres and brought in Sylvia Tree and Land of West Tisbury to execute the Nature Conservancy’s and Conservation Commission’s requests, which involved removing several invasive exotics. In so many places around the country, introduced foreign species have taken over and native plants cannot compete with their growth rates; it is necessary to initiate an eradication plan, a considerably painstaking process, but worthwhile to keep the integrity of the area.

The Malms have now all but eradicated the wildly invasive Phragmites (common reed), a delicate process in the wetlands in which it thrives – and part of a larger phragmites suppression program on Edgartown Great Pond.

I find that clients also appreciate any education about their site and about the Vineyard. It only deepens their connection to the place. Many years ago, a client was fanatical about his lawn. I told him that in fact he should boast about any dandelions in his lawn at his next cocktail party, as it proved he didn’t use harmful pesticides, and he cared for the environment and the bare feet of his grandchildren scampering around the lawn.

Water Lovers

One of the many challenges on the Malms’ property was drainage: When it rained, there were areas that did not drain well. In a section by the entrance to the property, we decided to plow in some sand with added topsoil to sustain the plantings and allow for drainage. We moved the Clethra alnifolia and high-bush blueberries into the poorly drained areas closer to the pond zone. These plants can literally sit in water, so we took advantage by pairing the space and the inventory to go into it.

The property is just as likely to be hot and sunny as cool and foggy. There’s also the potential for high winds coming off the pond and ocean beyond. The pool was built about four years ago, and Sam Sherman was again brought in to design a pool house/office, to harmoniously coexist between the house and garage. The pool itself was designed to take as little space as possible, set in next to the pool house, with a bluestone patio on two sides, and beds of grasses and perennials flanking the other two sides to make it feel relaxed, cool, and comforting. The required fence is dripping with clematis, so it is a green backdrop to the beds, with a privet hedge on the outside of fence against the adjoining patio outside the dining area. This more-cultivated side of the house transitions to a banking smothered in bayberry, viburnum, and beach plum on the pond side to conceal the entire pool area from that vantage point.

Low Maintenance

The dining room patio is surrounded by ‘Fairy’ roses, which bloom constantly. Other than the early spring pruning and deadheading once a summer for the second round of bloom, they are maintenance and disease free. In general I use these roses – ‘New Dawn’ climber (light pink), ‘Sea Foam’ (a sprawling blush white), ‘The Fairy’ (clustered pink) shrub roses, and Rosa rugosa’s ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’ (a wonderful double white) – because they are most successful. I refuse to be enslaved by rose maintenance and the chemicals involved to keep them healthy, and these are disease-resistant and basically trouble-free. Thankfully there are more and more resistant roses and it’s worth choosing them above all others.

The circular stone patio at the far end of the house is embraced by grasses that enclose a perennial garden of simply Shasta ‘Becky’ (daisy cultivar), dwarf Filipendula ‘Kahome’, Veronica ‘Sunny Border Blue’, and Japanese iris, with two large swales of ‘Sea Foam’ roses. The tall grasses and Eupatorium around the outer limits give ample protection from the wind and salt in this select spot. Initially, the bare patio was quite awkward as it didn’t make sense to interrupt the amazing natural vista with a cluster of furniture or anything too vertical. When I first spotted the beautiful, massive, lichen-covered, Maine granite well-cover at MMStone Antiques in West Tisbury, I knew we had found the perfect solution. Set on cobblestones and raised just high enough for sitting, it’s the ideal place for morning tea. We removed nearly all of the bluestone surrounding it and planted it with thyme, creeping Veronica, and golden oregano. It’s now a calm, usable spot and simply stated.

We thickly planted and underplanted so that the beds didn’t need mulch once established. I prefer living mulch, that is plants that offer the benefit of keeping down weeds, having some bloom, retaining moisture, shading the roots of the larger companions, and being much more interesting than pine-bark mulch.

To Prune or Not to Prune

Every spring I climb into the whole landscape and systematically go over every inch of it. It’s like getting reacquainted with an old friend and allows me the time to have it tell me how it withstood the winter. I get a feel for the property for the coming year. Spring is the time to cut out dead wood and limbs that are rubbing against others, check for unwanted volunteers, and prune carefully for maintaining a healthy, stout collection of plants. Doing this just before the plants emerge allows me not only to see their individual habits, but to prune as I’d like. I even shear some things at this time of year so they will look natural once they leaf out. This is more fitting than coming in later, when leafed out, to shear the living material, which would look unnatural and very lollypop-like.

I think of a property as a series of concentric circles, the closer ones more controlled, and the outer ones looser and wilder. It pays to be realistic as to what you can control, and paying attention keeps you connected and makes sure the landscape doesn’t need a serious rehab five or ten years down the line, when you realize you haven’t noticed all the maple seedlings that have swallowed up the clethra bed.

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