A large serpentine bed of Knock Out roses causes cars almost to careen off the road when drivers first catch a glimpse of the stunning display that blooms all summer long in front of an old ship pilot’s house in Lewes, Delaware. It’s part of landscape designer Scott Brinitzer’s plan to give the front a “simple treatment” in keeping with the spirit of the architecture.
Despite its appearance, however, this landscape is anything but straightforward and uncomplicated. Site constraints made the project “beyond difficult,” says Brinitzer. Not only is the lot long and narrow, but it is angled, front to back, at 45 degrees and is also bisected by a road that runs in front of the house. Therefore, when the homeowners look out of the back of the house, their neighbor’s yard is directly in their line of sight, while their own property is to the right. Similarly, when they sit on the front porch and look toward the water, the neighbor’s lawn is in front of them, while their own dock and gardens are again to the right.
When Brinitzer first encountered the homeowners, they set the main parameters for designing their landscape, which until that point consisted of swathes of grass, tangled vines and a plastic in-ground pool. Having traveled extensively in Italy, the homeowners wanted a garden that reminded them of Tuscany, complete with a new swimming pool, a spa, an outdoor fireplace, a “summer house” addition that would double the size of the circa-1836 residence and plenty of space for entertaining. To make matters even more complicated, there was a 10-foot setback requirement on each side of the property, so the dimensions of the pool and the addition had to be exact. In the end, says Brinitzer, “we were within an inch of tolerance on every single structure.”
The shape of the property required an unusual layout for Brinitzer’s plan. Like a dance, each adjoining outdoor space moves forward and to the right from the last. The main design for the site is composed of views that are dictated by the 45-degree angles. Brinitzer located the fireplace and dining garden directly off the back of the main house and raised the area to meet the level of the kitchen floor and make a seamless transition between inside and out. The fireplace itself was faced with stucco to match the house, and seat walls of the same material were built alongside it to provide more space for visitors and to echo the architecture of the house. This area is now the garden’s main hub of activity, used as a breakfast room, by children for roasting marshmallows and by adults for after-dinner drinks and conversation.
From the dining garden, guests continue back into the herb garden, where a small circular pool is surrounded by boxwoods and purple and white petunias. Continuing along a pathway, guests walk under a pergola covered with roses and through a gate that takes them around to the home’s new addition, which houses a large great room on the main level and a bedroom upstairs.
Turning a corner around the addition, an entirely new landscape unfolds: a spa nestled among lush planting beds, a swimming pool and a “spring house.” This small structure with a water-trough fountain serves as a focal point and gate leading to the back garden. To the left, a neighbor’s garden with magnificent 150-year-old boxwoods comes into view.
Brinitzer contacted the neighbors, and convinced one of them that it made sense “to blend the properties.” To camouflage the fence that’s required around the pool, he planted fall-blooming camellias and boxwood on both sides of the property line. Each self-contained garden room in Brinitzer’s plan envelops guests completely; it’s impossible to survey the entire landscape from any given point. Upon arrival, says Brinitzer, “you don’t really understand it. You have no idea where you really are until you walk through the whole thing, and then it all makes sense.”
Because of the garden’s strong structural elements, Brinitzer introduced plantings to make the architecture less apparent over time. He introduced a number of “romantic” elements such as climbing Jackman clematis, New Dawn roses, lavender, catmint and hydrangeas with large blue flowers. Imported Italian containers overflow with colorful annuals. Many of the plants were selected by the clients, in consultation with Brinitzer, to determine what would work best in summer heat and humidity.
Three Italian cypresses were planted near the swimming pool, and three more in the contemplative garden, reached by walking through the spring house. That garden includes a bench, numerous shade plantings and a serene lawn that creates a park-like setting.
Across the street from the main house is the “canal garden” that takes guests down to the dock and the Rehoboth-Lewes Canal. The lawn serves as a spillover parking lot and as a big open area where a tent can be set up for large parties. It is flanked by perennial beds that cascade down to the water, each containing a specific plant: rugosa roses in one, Virginia sweetspire in the next, feather reed grass in another, and so on all the way down to the dock house and canal.
Brinitzer notes that the entire site is perfect for his clients’ many, many visitors. Between them, they have about 72 first cousins, so large family gatherings are a frequent occurrence.
Brinitzer says that guests usually spend the entire day at the pool and spa, then wander across the street and down through the canal garden to the water to watch the sunset over drinks and hors d’oeuvres before heading back to the dining terrace for dinner. “What we have here, really, is an all-inclusive resort,” he says. “It’s hard to get anyone to leave the compound.”
Washington, DC, landscape designer Jane Berger is publisher of GardenDesign Online.com. Photographer Roger Foley is based in Arlington, Virginia.