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Look into the gardens of Baltimore's landscape architects

For The Baltimore Sun

When it comes to landscape architects’ own gardens, some are like shoemakers’ shoes -- untended. Their owners are too busy making other spaces beautiful. Not so with Catherine Mahan, founding partner of Mahan Rykiel; Stuart Ortel, principal and founder of Stone Hill Design; and Carol Macht, principal and founding partner of Hord Coplan Macht.

These well-respected Baltimore landscape architects have created gorgeous home gardens. Each is an extension of the house and in keeping with its architecture. Mahan’s jewel-box garden is in Stoneleigh, Ortel’s wraparound garden is in Roland Park, and Macht’s rolling landscape garden is in Ruxton.

Wrap Around Garden

Like the wraparound front porch of Stuart Ortel’s classic Roland Park shingle-and-clapboard home, his gardens wrap the property. Built in 1900, the Victorian has steep gables and pointed arches in a style known as carpenter-Gothic. Curvilinear gardens on the ¾-acre lot soften and encircle the house he and his partner, Scott Marker, an insurance executive, purchased in 2009.

“I wanted to create a relaxed and casual garden, nothing formal,” Ortel says. “The house is not formal; I wanted to respond to its architecture.”

In a series of defined spaces, he has created casual and relaxed, but tidy and cohesive, gardens. Clean bed-lines lead from one area to another in a sequence of gardens and lawns to make four outdoor rooms.
Stuart Ortel on the bluestone patio he added to foster the sense of relaxation in the garden. Photo by Karl Merton Ferron

Stuart Ortel on the bluestone patio he added to foster the sense of relaxation in the garden. Photo by Karl Merton Ferron

The front gate, installed within a tall, sculpted privet hedge, opens onto a wide lawn and welcoming perennial border. This deep and varied border of bulbs, perennials and small shrubs gives ongoing color and a warm westerly view, with the hedge as both green backdrop and screen from busy Roland Avenue.

The lawn leads around the south side of the house via massive old flagstones through a deeply shaded garden filled with hostas, hellebores, liriope and ferns. A hallway of grass and another gate connect to an intimate patio tucked off a rear sunroom.

Along the south side of the wide back lawn, holly and maple trees form a southerly wall, with a corner stand of viburnums and laurels. A broad lawn, open space Ortel cleared for two romping dogs, sweeps across the back of the house to a north wall of five pleached European hornbeams.

Around the north side of the house, a mossy path, bordered by leatherleaf viburnums and variegated hostas, leads back to the front lawn. Front and back, lawns are used, with no island beds, to create a calm spaciousness for viewing the gardens and for maximum entertaining area.

“I’ve used old favorites,” Ortel says of his plant selection. “Roland Park is very different from Homeland or Guilford; there’s more woodland.” Under a canopy of old oaks, Norway maples and spruces, he added American hollies, Southern magnolias, European hornbeams and a native serviceberry tree.

In the gardens he planted tea roses, hydrangeas, hostas and coral bells. He also kept many existing plants: peonies, Japanese anemones, hellebores and a white camellia. There’s even a leftover Spanish bayonet, a hardy yucca found in many old Roland Park gardens.

“I like having plants I can cut and bring inside,” he says. Hydrangeas, roses, peonies and holly are among his favorites.

For winter interest, he added evergreen cherry laurels, leatherleaf viburnums and winterberry bushes. Garden sculpture and furniture -- assorted benches, birdhouses, stone sculpture and even a whimsical wooden goose -- give year-round garden punctuation.

And to further the relaxed atmosphere, seating stations ring the house: a bench and grouping of furniture on the porch, all-weather cushioned chairs and footstools plus a café table with chairs on the patio, a metal twig bench against the clapboard garage, two Adirondack chairs in the picturesque viburnum corner.

“The materials used in the garden echo the period, architecture and setting,” says Ortel, adding that while he has fun fulfilling more complex landscape ideas at clients’ houses, for himself he keeps it simple. “When I get home,” he says, “I want to relax.”
For 24 years, Catherine Mahan has been tending gardens she designed and planted behind her house in Stoneleigh. Photo by Karl Merton Ferron

For 24 years, Catherine Mahan has been tending gardens she designed and planted behind her house in Stoneleigh. Photo by Karl Merton Ferron

Horticultural Jewel Box

Twenty-four years ago, Catherine Mahan and her architect husband, John Hill, selected their 1930s Stoneleigh house for its southern exposure. Because of a garage behind it, the house had no first-floor view of the backyard, but the couple knew they would take down that garage and build a sunny addition overlooking a south-facing garden.

Today the garden is a seamless extension of a charming, timber-frame master suite on the second floor and family room/kitchen on the first. From a pair of French doors and four large windows with transoms at the back of the first floor, the garden spills out on terraced levels created as soon as their children’s jungle gym came down.

In spite of its diminutive size (1,776 square feet), the garden is so well designed that it feels much larger with its well-integrated, miniature rooms. “I’ve always felt that a garden is a series of deliberately designed outdoor spaces,” says Mahan, now retired. “It’s not a collection of plants, although it does use plants and other features to achieve its design object.”

Among the non-plant features used to organize the space are a white lattice bench amid a back wall of mixed evergreen shrubs. “I didn’t want the garden to feel dark and hemmed in,” says Mahan, “so I used evergreen shrubs instead of evergreen trees to create privacy.” To the west are an intimate stone bench and fountain surrounded by more evergreen shrubs. To the east is a garage that Hill built to look like a garden cottage. At the center are a dry-laid stone terrace and dining area with stone paths curving out, east to west and north to south, through the gardens.

A visitor is met immediately out the back doors by containers of annuals and herbs on a sunny porch flanked by hydrangeas and David Austin roses. The next garden level features a perennial border bookended by sweet-smelling viburnums and another bank of roses. “I am not a plant snob,” Mahan says, motioning to pink and red Knock Out roses -- they create a continuously blooming north wall of the terrace, used for entertaining in spring and summer. A fine Japanese maple “Sango-kaku” sits at one end of the Knock Outs, a David Austin rose “Windermere” at the other.

South of the patio comes the fernery, filled with shade-loving plants, and an enchanting path that winds from a potting area behind the garden house to the fountain and then along the west side of the house to the hydrangea garden.

“I use blue as an accent color,” Mahan says of her blue lacecap hydrangeas, delphiniums, campanulas and water irises. She also has blue ceramic pots and a delphinium blue door on the garden house. With red being the complementary color of green, she explains, reds and deep pinks in the phlox, caladiums and lilies work well. “I use lime green as transition in sweet potato vines, hostas and creeping Jenny.”

As in all good gardens, Mahan’s has year-round interest that starts with the hellebores in spring and continues until the last white Japanese anemone fades in late fall. Red-twig dogwoods, as well as evergreen photinia, nandina and hollies with bird-attracting red berries, create winter interest.

Taking her favorite path down the west side of the house toward the fountain, Mahan looks into her garden: “It makes me feel a million miles away from Baltimore.”
Carol Macht sits on one of three sets of stone stairs leading down from the shade garden. Photo by Kenneth K. Lam

Carol Macht sits on one of three sets of stone stairs leading down from the shade garden. Photo by Kenneth K. Lam

Land Sculpting

At the home of Carol Macht and her surgeon husband, the land’s the thing. In 1981, when they moved to a spacious 1880s Victorian house in Ruxton, the acre around it had a small concrete pad for a patio, an old crabapple tree beside it, three black walnut trees and a steep slope.

Macht’s design concept has been simple: “Carving out levels from a slope to create spaces and to do it in a way that fit with the site and existing trees to look as if it had always been that way.”

Mission accomplished. Today her property includes two additional lower acres, acquired in 1987, with a 60-foot drop from front entrance to the lowest level. All three acres now are sculpted, terraced and filled as a sweeping series of six lush terraces.

Still organized around towering black walnuts, these are not a series of conventional rectangular terraces. Their geometry combines curved and rectilinear shapes. Together, they create the harmonious interplay of varying shapes, vistas and spaces in which to gather, play, sit and view the gardens and landscape.

The first terrace is a spacious brick patio and serpentine wall that holds a deep perennial border off the kitchen-family room addition Macht designed. A curved and sloping lawn begins beside it, shaded by a massive Yoshino cherry tree and bordered by hollies, spruce and white pine trees that continue around the perimeter as an evergreen backdrop.

Next, a redwood bench, long enough to function as a platform for containers, turns down into redwood stairs and a deck whose boards resonate well with the boards of the house. These stairs, like most others in the garden, are wide. “Generous steps with plants framing them help make the connections,” says this consummate designer. And instead of a plastic wading pool for her children, Macht built a 6-foot-by-6-foot wading pool that is now a lily pond with goldfish and water iris. In place of the dying crabapple tree, a red maple went in for more shade and autumn color.

Another perennial border grows below the deck to soften its edge. Another set of redwood steps leads to a magical, plant-filled shade garden beneath a black walnut and a spreading saucer magnolia Macht planted behind the kitchen addition. A winding path of original large flagstones across the back of the house is bordered by collections of hostas and hydrangeas, a signature plant repeated with different varieties throughout the gardens.

One narrow and two wide sets of stone stairs lead down from the shade garden and its stone retaining wall to a curved green terrace with two sets of Adirondack chairs and a magnificent view. The curve in this terrace is echoed by the curve of one side of an unusually shaped swimming pool. “The near side of the pool is straight and speaks to the stone walls and architecture of the house, while the far side addresses the landscape, ” says Macht.

The pool is minimal and modern, conforming to a simple shape, akin to the Victorian house above it. A Gunite bench runs the entire length inside the pool on the house side, with curved steps on the other wall. Again, the geometry is subtle and fits well into an overall sophisticated but unified design.

The lawn rolls down behind the pool to two final grassy levels, then to a restored board and batten barn in a landscape that could be English.

Together the six levels, with varied amounts of sun and shade, as well as plantings and purposes, play off each other and the house. As with the other architects’ designs, this is a stunning year-round garden.

Again, that is accomplished by sequentially blooming plants -- from witch hazel, hellebores and spring-blooming bulbs to colorful summer-blooming peonies, hydrangeas, astilbe, daylilies, black-eyed Susans, Japanese anemones and evergreen shrubs for punctuation, to the winter interest of evergreen trees and the elegant structure of deciduous maples, magnolia and cherry trees. None of these plantings flaunt or scream; rather, they thread through the landscape, stitching it together.

For Macht, “The calm interplay of the elements in this landscape bring us both inspiration and rejuvenation.”

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