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A Prairie Grows in Bronxville

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Photo by Karen Bussolini

When the prairie is in high prime, blossoms spill into the walkway that Welsch created to let visitors become submerged in color.

Nobody knew how the neighborhood would react when a prairie began sprouting in Bronxville. But the feedback came the instant the mini-meadow started strutting its blossoms: the block is green with envy.

Garden design takes true grit. Everyone knows that gardening requires a heaping dose of plant savvy and ample experience jiving the weather with the terrain and coming out on top. But Robert Welsch of Westover Landscape Design has learned that creative gardening also requires moxie.

For example, he could have taken the well-trod path when he was called in to reconfigure a very suburban Bronxville property. But instead, he came up with a smart and sharp front entry display, several terraced areas surrounded by shrubs for seclusion, and—here’s the tightrope walk—a no-holds-barred prairie to jazz up the steeply sloped “hell strip” leading down to the street.

Actually, he didn’t go it alone. The homeowner provided ample input into the process. Some garden designers prefer minimal client intervention when they’re hired to handle the horticultural end of a property. But Welsch didn’t flinch when the homeowner handed him notebooks bulging with magazine clippings of plants that tugged at her family’s heartstrings. Not only did Welsch welcome the collaboration, but he keyed into the list of preferences for clues to solving the site’s problems with a heavy dose of individuality in what has become known affectionately as Shanti (“peace” in Sanskrit) Garden.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

With grasses swaying, water lilies unfolding and water tripping down the seemingly natural waterfall beside the back patio, Shanti Garden is a peaceful oasis that piques all the senses.

Plus, another facet of their initial dialogue helped him to create the garden of his clients’ dreams while also achieving the cohesion Welsch craves as a designer. The homeowner requested a variety of entertaining areas capable of hosting family and friends who come to visit from India during their sticky monsoon season. His clients needed an outdoor kitchen, lounging areas, and space for company to mill around or find a shaded, contemplative nook. Those diverse but versatile areas had to be tucked into one suburban acre. As an added challenge, the property was sharply sloped (the aforementioned “hell strip”). The puzzle pieces fell into place when Welsch decided to create a series of garden rooms.

He segmented the landscape into sections and tackled each space individually. That would have been “end of story” for most garden designers. They would’ve done the predictable and gone home smiling. But there was another tricky element that pushed the envelope over the edge. Although they would love some spring interest as well as early-summer zing, the homeowner absolutely needed the garden to be in full regalia from mid to late summer when most landscapes sputter into a stalled halt. That request pushed Welsch into prairie mode.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

Welsch kept his color palate white and green with a lawn surrounded by an elegant string of liriopes. To create a sense of privacy on the terrace, hemmed by a natural stone promenade, a screen of silver blue evergreens were planted behind the hydrangeas and lilies.

A prairie could handle the more flamboyantly hued plants from the homeowner’s hanker-list (and their notebook was filled with flowers sporting daring shades of color). Plus, the prairie’s primetime synchronizes with the influx of visitors from afar. And the plants that take guerilla tactics to survive the hot/dry cycle in the prairie would find the daunting slope a piece of cake. In the back of his mind, Welsch may have wondered whether the sweeps of cheerful color might shake up the neighborhood. If so, he certainly didn’t pause for a moment.

Although the prairie is definitely the property’s head-turning feature, it’s only part of the picture. Shanti Garden begins with a nod toward formality —and tradition—for the front entryway. Given an imposing stone-and-brick Tudor house and a ferocious lion statue standing guard, grand seemed the obvious way to go when greeting visitors. The scene is softened by the late-blooming oak-leaf hydrangea. But it’s also edged neatly with a tidy, white variegated, grass-like liriope providing what Welsch likes to call “a string of pearls.” He echoed that motif elsewhere in the landscape to unify the theme and bring the entire picture—including the prairie with its larger-scale grasses—into the dialogue.

 

 

Photo by Karen Bussolini

What was once the property’s embarrassment became its proudest moment, a formerly intractable slope transformed into an exuberant prairie filled with coneflowers, catmint, coreopsis, and Verbena bonariensis.

Meanwhile, already on the property was a previously constructed stone patio with its mahogany pergola and bake oven/grill area behind the house. To lure the family outside, that area was fitted with a waterfall, statuary, container pockets, window boxes, and a breakfast nook where they might be prone to sit, sip tea, and read the morning paper. Fragrant plants—like the tender jasmine—take up residence in summer and tantalize the senses, wafting their suffused scents. Does the family use the garden? “In spring, summer, and autumn, we treat it like our family room,” the homeowner, who prefers to remain anonymous, says. “From the time we get up in the morning throughout the day, we’re outside. The trees offer so much shade, it allows us to comfortably utilize the space.”

Photo by Karen Bussolini

A screen of evergreens stands behind the hydrangeas and lilies.

From the upper patio, two leveled terraces serve as places to promenade or escape for a little introspective personal time. For the upper terrace, Welsch took his cue from the dimensions of the kitchen area’s shadow and laid those measurements down on a horizontal plane.

It’s a simple, park-like space—the homeowner has come to perceive it as a pool of lawn—surrounded by flowering shrubs such as lilacs and perennials like ‘Casablanca’ lilies. In keeping with the pool imagery, it’s hemmed in stone. Every once in a while, his clients consider adding a sculpture or fountain on that lawn terrace, but they always circle back to leaving it be. “The integrity of the simple lawn always prevails,” Welsch says. Clearly, it works.

What also works is the solution to the unmovable eyesore slope beside the garage. From the street, that banking is what the neighbors see as they round the corner. “It was a sun-blasted dust bowl,” says Welsch when he came aboard. He transformed it into a celebration rather than an apology. This is where blossoming prairie perennials come into play such as Joe Pye weed (he used the downsized ‘Little Joe’ to keep the height in check), coreopsis, daylilies, kniphofia, scabiosa, echinops, and meadowsweet, to mention only a few. Indeed, 350 plants or more were destined to populate this area with pizzazz. For continuity, nepeta (catmint) serves as a recurring theme to give the scene punctuation and act as a chaos-buster. Ornamental grasses also echo the shapes of grasses elsewhere in the landscape and quiet down the color volume.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

The textural complements of leathery rhododendron beside arching grasses give the garden dimension.

The prairie was a double dare. It tames a daunting venue and does it with panache, while also serving as a magnet for nature to flock in. “The garden has brought a lot of birds and butterflies,” the homeowner says. “You feel as if you’re part of nature, although it’s very suburban. It’s almost a retreat for us.” Although late summer is when the prairie explodes with color, it works up to that crescendo with a series of spring bulbs (1,500 daffodils are naturalized in its expanse) moving into June-blooming alliums. Annuals such as salvias, agastache, and Verbena bonariensis are also “stitched in” (to use Welsch’s expression) for early summer action. Asters, sedums, and the ornamental grasses that hopscotch throughout continue long after the normal growing season. And the last vestiges of those performers are left intact throughout the winter—much to the delight of wintering birds who perch on the grasses and dine on the seeds. It’s a triumph. And in the final analysis, the prairie is the space that made the neighborhood sit up, take notice, and applaud.

A stone bench and edging play counterpoint to provide a quiet moment beside salvias, verbenas, and nepetas.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

 

Tovah Martin is a freelance garden writer and author of many books, including The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter, 2009). An honorary member of the Garden Club of America, she lectures on gardening and leads terrarium workshops throughout the country. Inspired by Shanti, she’s replacing her front lawn with sweeps of blossoms and ornamental grasses.

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