Zen and the Zimbards

When an interior designer tackles her ho-hum Scarsdale property and lets the landscape percolate for a period of time, it goes from zero to Zen.

It’s not difficult for Fran Zimbard to describe the landscape that greeted her family when they first moved in nearly 30 years ago. “The perfect ball field,” she says. Asked to elaborate, she describes a vast stretch of “nothing”—the sum total of the perks on the one-acre property surrounding the Scarsdale house when the Zimbards arrived in 1980. Granted, a few nice trees were in residence, but that was about all. And yet, the yawning, pancake-flat expanse wasn’t such a bad state of affairs for a yard, given two growing children with a penchant for sports. But as the years marched on and the kids grew up, the Zimbards had better ideas.

Framing the scene was the first order of business. Back in the garden’s formative stages, the Zimbards, Fran and Alan, were busy bulking up their perimeter plantings. Not only did they leave intact the arboreal screen that came with the purchase, but they added to its density with tiers of trees and shrubs. Alan’s immediate goal was privacy, and Fran was just humoring her instincts as an interior designer to create walls, specify boundaries, and define space. But the end result was more than just a visually pleasing setting for mind and soul. The bushy barrier served the body as well. What the Zimbards established was an energy-smart natural windbreak that would buffer their house and their backyard-frolicking family from the brunt of prevailing gusts. While acting in response to their need for seclusion and beauty, they were raising the comfort level and cutting their heating bill as well.

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Meanwhile, the Zimbards were busy giving their family reasons to access the outdoors. The small, nondescript patio that came with the place was removed in favor of a sizable raised-brick courtyard in which generous dining tables and sprawling benches would lure anyone bound indoors to seek out leisurely pursuits alfresco. There again, they took the natural approach. Rather than blindly embracing dimensions based solely on figures jotted onto drafting paper, Fran consulted the way the light worked in the space. “I saw the way the house cast its shadows, and that influenced the shape of the courtyard.” The end result is a spacious 70-by-30-foot outdoor “room” with ample open space for milling around. Rather than let the footprint be dictated by the dogwoods that were the only strong vertical features in residence, Fran simply embraced them into the courtyard configuration. She designed the brick so it flowed around the majestic shade-lending trees, letting them emerge elegantly from pockets in the paving. So successful was this alliance between nature and renewal that another pocket was later excavated from the brick for a fern garden to dwell in the shade of the gently articulated tree branches.

The need for the outdoor-living courtyard was such high priority that the brick venue was installed one year after the Zimbards arrived. But the remainder of the plantings took a more leisurely time frame. After all, Fran was in no rush. Meanwhile, she took a hiatus to get up to speed on her gardening skills and decide on an overarching theme. “I’m not a garden designer—I learned from reading. And I always checked with the nursery to make sure plantings were appropriate.” Prior to the backyard planting, nothing in her life had been haphazard, and she saw no reason to break with that tradition when designing outdoor space. She waited patiently for an “aha! moment” to strike. And, sure enough, she found inspiration in the same Asian motifs that wove their thread throughout her own interior décor.

Still, the garden evolved incrementally and with substantial introspection before installation. “Composition is uppermost for me,” Fran says. So she resolved to compose each space attentively, “making sure it worked as a whole.” She embraced a format of floating island beds that allowed her to progress in a leisurely manner, but also gave her the latitude necessary to forge each space with its own persona.

The front yard was the first space to receive a facelift. In that case, the Zimbards simply exposed the inner beauty that lay just inches beneath the surface. With a ledge of bedrock at their beck and call, they opted to go with the flow rather than deny the space’s inherent qualities. No point in fighting a place’s natural qualities, they figured. The ledge gradually was transformed into a rock garden with walls and hedges corralling the plantings and a few meaningful, succinct pieces of carefully selected statuary welcoming family and guests alike.

Emboldened by that triumph, the Zimbards tackled the backyard as a hit team working in tandem. Fran envisioned the gracefully flowing curvaceous spaces, Alan did the “backbreaking” labor of planting, and then she followed through by finessing, pruning, and shaping. “I want the eye to be entertained as it moves through,” Fran says. Fond of multiples, everything is planted en masse forming a softly resonating undertone. “I don’t want anything to jump out at you.”
Not only does each bed exude its own mood, but the bold, bulky plantings go the gamut plant-wise, carpeting the landscape with muted but remarkable color in building blocks that rest rather than arrest the eye. Hostas are a recurring theme with ornamental grasses posing strong complementing swaying spikes. But perovskia, hydrangeas, heucheras, and boxwoods also form masses of shapes and shades. For the horticultural configuration, Fran wasn’t flying blind. She had the collaboration of Frank Chiera of Chiera Landscape Designs in Pawling, New York, who accompanied her to nurseries and helped her put vision into practice. As for the botanical roster, the qualifications for selection were simple: “When a plant is happy, I repeat it.”

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Her goal throughout was to counteract the flat scene she was given, lend it depth, and define areas with vertical elements. Among her most successful solutions are the repeating pergolas and arches that shoulder vines. An embowered walkway of trumpet vine and honeysuckle, under-planted in a series of boxwood orbs, runs along one side of the backyard. A waterfall trickles down not far beyond and a Chinese courting bench (gently bowed so anyone seated gravitates toward the center) is sequestered in a knoll of hostas. A keyhole-shaped pathway leads into a simple geometric circular statue upended on a rough-hewn log base. Similarly, a trio of tree stumps serves as a place to sit, look, and listen. And not far away, a series of visually overlapping archways festooned in climbing hydrangea frame a bird bath utilized as a plant urn. Hedges embrace three metal spheres while driftwood is enlisted as a planter elsewhere.

Not only are accents incorporated with refrain, but each was placed with insight. Actually, overview is a better description for the placement method. For each object, Fran checked its positioning from other sightlines. As a result, “most of the ornaments that we placed never needed to be moved—they were right and they are right,” she says.

Through this process, the Zimbards did more than just add highlights to enhance a barren field. They discovered their outdoors. And Fran found a new arena for her creative talent. “Working with space is something I love,” she says. Although she still focuses on interiors professionally, she’s forged ahead outdoors in her own venue. And admittedly, the Zimbards’ garden is such a successful extension of their home that there’s no keeping them inside during the growing season. “We’re always drawn out into the garden,” she says. However, once outdoors, neither Fran nor Alan is prone to lounge. “It’s rare that we sit still,” Fran confesses. Regardless, when the work is so Zen, the result is restive.

(The Zimbards’ garden will be open July 19 through the Garden Conservancy Open Days program. Visit garden conservancy.org for details.)

Prolific freelancer and author of the recently published The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2009) and several other garden books, Tovah Martin gardens fanatically both indoors and out in nearby Litchfield County, Connecticut. In 2008, Tovah was the recipient of The Garden Club of America’s Sarah Chapman Francis Medal for outstanding literary achievement.

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A sense of mystery is established by an alluring tunnel of honeysuckle and trumpet vine to entice family and visitors into the garden.

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