Inside Out Alexander Baer applied the principles of interior design to his yard, and came up with a series of successful gardens


Interior designer Alexander Baer doesn't have a green thumb. When he plants flowers, they sometimes don't flourish. Take the roses, for instance.

Deciding he wanted a rose garden, Baer planted, watered, sprayed and generally babied a few select rose bushes in a flower bed near his swimming pool. The roses weren't happy. Instead of growing strong and healthy, they turned spindly and forlorn, trying only half-heartedly to climb a nearby trellis.

"Then a few weeks ago, I was riding downtown and there, growing on this broken-down fence near the University of Baltimore, were these absolutely beautiful roses," he recalls with a laugh. "I couldn't believe it. Here were these roses with absolutely no one to care for them, and they were incredibly gorgeous. I decided right then that my roses had to go."

While he doesn't have the instincts of a horticulturist, Baer, well-known for the residential interiors he creates for clients in Baltimore, does have an experienced eye for design. He put this talent to good use four years ago when he bought a house in Baltimore and turned his attention not just to the interiors but also to the landscape design of the property.

"When I bought this house, the building pretty much retained its 1929 integrity, but the grounds were deplorable," he says, "Renters had lived here, and they had done nothing with the property. Everything was completely overgrown, an ugly chain-link fence wrapped around the yard, the stone patio was broken into pieces."

Deciding where to begin was no problem. Baer simply called on the techniques he uses with his interior-design clients and adapted them to his own exterior situation. "I always ask people how they live and how they entertain," he explains.

Because he entertains frequently and often is host of charity functions for crowds of as many as 250 people, he knew he needed ways to extend the interior of the house to the outside.

But, with homes in Florida and on Fire Island off the coast of Long Island, he also knew he didn't have time for extensive flower gardens that needed year-round care.

"Cutting gardens are wonderful, but I knew they weren't for me," he adds. "I decided it is easier to buy flowers than to grow them."

Working with the lot plat and tracing paper, he created an outdoor design scheme that includes a bluestone terrace off a series of dining room doors at the side of the house, an enclosed garden retreat just off the French doors that lead from the kitchen, a narrow entrance garden near the front door and a secret garden tucked alongside the garage.

The secret garden is a pleasant little surprise, a shady, cool space lined with beds of ivy and hostas.

Recycled sample

At the end of the path is an 18th-century statue backed by classically inspired lattice screening. The screen had been made as a sample for a client and stored away; Baer is an avid collector of all types of decorative objects.

While one of the wrought-iron gates to the enclosed garden was in place when the house was bought, a second one -- a close match to the original -- was discovered in Baer's collection.

The terraced garden off the kitchen is a private oasis, complete with a small, 12-by-20-foot swimming pool. A brick garage wall, a custom-designed, classically styled brick and wood fence and about a dozen 30-foot-tall Leyland cypress trees buffer the garden from neighbors and a nearby busy street. Baer personally chose the cypress after careful research. He wanted trees that would grow fast to hide a chain fence required by Baltimore City code for his pool.

"When the first group of trees arrived about three years ago, they were 5 feet high, and the landscaper was planting them 10 feet apart," he recalls, smiling as he relates the story. "I asked him -- he was just a young kid really -- how old he was, and he said 21. Well, I said, I am 44, I have only half the time you do to wait for these trees to grow."

The 5-foot trees went, replaced by 12-foot cypress trees planted 3 feet apart. Today, the trees form a dense barrier on the north side of the garden. "That experience taught me a lesson," he continues. "If you are a visual person like I am, you really need to see the plant material before you buy it."

Changed direction

With this in mind, Baer teamed up with landscaper Mike McWilliams, whose family owns Maxalea Nurseries in Towson. "Now when I want to add a tree or plant, I go out to Maxalea and see it," he adds. Since engaging McWilliams, he has changed direction somewhat in the plantings around the terrace. Although the predominant color is still green with large clumps of maintenance-free ivy and liriope, dashes of pinks, purples and whites have been added with azaleas, lilacs, rhododendrons and Zumi crab-apple trees.

Color is also present in the flowers -- pale pink geraniums, deep purple lantana and bright yellow marigolds -- that bloom profusely in classical stone urns dotted around the bluestone terrace. One -- salvaged from the Baer inventory -- dresses up the window of the brick-walled garage and overflows with summer plants, creating a vignette reminiscent of elaborate window boxes in Europe.

Besides exuding a wonderful English city-garden charm, Baer's enclosed garden has become an outdoor dining space used for casual entertaining and large formal gatherings. The double kitchen doors are often opened during parties, and guests flow easily in and out of the house. Tables are set up around the pool as well as on the terrace near the dining room.

Believing that gardens should be as beautiful at night as in the daytime, Baer worked with his friend and lighting expert Bob Jones to create a lighting plan for his gardens. There are uplights on trees, back lights in corners, ladle lights edging the walkways -- all hidden from view. "The terrace sparkles at night," he adds.

Alex Baer's landscape design for his home is not complete. He likes to work in stages, whether he is creating a dining room in Green Spring Valley or planning flower beds for his own back yard.

"Planning a garden is very much like planning an interior of a house," he says. "Don't plan for an instant garden. Start with a few things -- what I call the 'creating the background' when I design a room -- and then every year, you add a little bit more to the design."

Landscaping tips

Decide how you want your garden to work for you and your family. How will you use it?

Create an overall landscape scheme, but implement the design in stages. This helps with expenses and gives you time to live with your garden to see if you want to make changes.

Gardens should be as beautiful at night as in the day. Plan on lighting the area.

Consider how your garden will look from the windows of your house, not just how it will look from the road. Curb appeal is important, but you should get the best view.

Swimming pools are beautiful in the summer, but do you want to view a covered pool for nine months? Consider pool placement carefully.

Visit nurseries and see the plants, flowers and trees you want to put into your garden. Do some research on plants and flowers before you buy them.

Create a sense of privacy in your garden by using barriers like fences, trees and hedges.

Plan the essentials first -- terraces, fences, walkways, privacy screens -- then add plantings, furniture and accessories.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad