Old House, New Garden: Tips For Successful Design

“There is no way to recreate the past,” says Robert Bell, whose eponymous landscape architecture firm is based in Washington, DC, Southampton, New York and Palm Beach, Florida. “But you can reinterpret historic gardens if you research what was there, while looking at the practicalities of today.”

Just as houses have historic architectural styles, so do gardens reflect the aesthetics, trends and requirements of their time. But these can differ vastly from the aesthetics, trends and requirements of today, Bell points out.

“Historically, gardens had to be functional: there were outhouses, wash lines, wells, coal chutes, trash pits – mostly those have been eliminated as technology replaced them with indoor toilets, washers and dryers and so forth. There used to be carriage houses, which became garages. And, in the early gardens, plants were usually grown less for beauty than for use. The gardens of the East Coast during the 17th century, for example, produced herbs, fruit and vegetables, not perennial borders.”

Today’s garden designs grapple with new kinds of challenges. Bell mentions pests unknown in the past, blights that attack and destroy old varieties of plants, the prevalence of deer in many parts of the United States.

“And, in much of the country, flooding is becoming a problem and old drain pipes are no longer adequate. Too small for today’s big storms, they need to be upgraded.”

Then there are the modern functional elements that have replaced the outhouses and wash lines of the past: outdoor kitchens, firepits, driveways, grassy play areas, patios and conversation seating.

“You can fit modern things into a historic landscape,” Bell says. “One way to begin is to take an existing historic element and incorporate it into the site. For example, if the house is brick, build the firepit out of brick and make brick the backbone of the outdoor kitchen. You will probably still have a stainless steel grill, but it doesn’t have to fight with everything around it.”

When it comes to historic garden design, there are two kinds, Bell says. “Formal or natural. A formal garden is harder to maintain; stay away from symmetrical gardens.”

He points out that Victorian gardens were designed around ever-changing bedding plants, brightly-colored annuals replaced every few weeks.

“It’s not a look we love today, and that’s not mentioning how much work it takes to dig up everything in a bed and put in something else, repeatedly. You want to design a landscape that will function without requiring too much maintenance.”

To choose plants for a new garden surrounding an old house, he suggests a walk in the neighborhood.

“Look around for plants that are well-established and that thrive. Pick a few that you like, and, if you are creating a period garden, start small.”

He recommends using new, improved varieties of old plants, like a recently-developed boxwood that is resistant to the blight that has decimated so much of this beloved shrub. The venerable American chestnut, once the backbone of the eastern American forest, was decimated by a fungal blight, but now is seeing a resurgence as the result of genetic tinkering.

“It’s always good to use classic plants, like New Dawn roses, which are tough and will grow anywhere. When a plant has been grown for a long time and in a lot of places, there’s usually a good reason.”

In gardens with historic style, Bell counsels against using trendy, newer plants like the popular Stella D’Oro daylily or Knockout roses. “The colors are too garish, they don’t blend well with more traditional plants.”

Look beyond the flowers at a plant’s other attributes, he adds. “Think of the berries, the bark, the color of the foliage and all the other things that make plants interesting and beautiful. And remember: if you like something, grow it. Gardening is for your enjoyment. There’s no wrong way of doing it.”

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