Entrusted by long-time clients to design the grounds surrounding their new custom home in McLean, Charles Owen faced a dilemma in the backyard. “We started with a 30-foot slope going straight down,” recalls the principal of Fine Landscapes, who had to figure out how to establish a pool and grand outdoor living spaces on what he dubbed “a perfect sledding hill.”
Ultimately, Owen developed a plan to create a series of terraces built by hauling in truckloads of compactable fill. This multi-level scheme detailed an upper terrace containing a covered cabana with an outdoor TV, grill, bar and dining area; an infinity-edge pool faced by a built-in stone banquette with a central fire pit; a private spa below the pool; and an expansive lawn where the owners’ grandchildren can frolic. Each level gently slopes down to the next via steps made of fieldstone boulders from western Pennsylvania. “We tried to make it relatively effortless to go from one area to the next without noticeable changes in grade,” Owen explains. At the lawn level, the pool and terraced gardens are buttressed by curved retaining walls.
A waterfall spills over the pool edge into a spa concealed behind a stone retaining wall. “The spa is tucked into the hillside to afford privacy from the neighbors and to create more of a vista as one looks out over the swimming pool,” says Owen. An underground space beneath the terrace stores cushions and garden tools.
Fine Landscapes installed the two-and-a-half-acre garden while construction of the home—designed by architects Bulent Baydar and Gregory Palmer of Harrison Design—was underway so that the entire project would be completed at once. In his landscape design, Owen took inspiration from the stately, French Country-style stone residence. On the lawn, he created a boxwood parterre surrounding an antique Provençal fountain that he and his clients purchased on a trip to Paris. “I designed the garden to be viewed from the top down so you get to see the classic Palladian pattern from above,” he says. Surrounded by Madagascar vinca, Miss Kim lilacs planted on the four corners of the parterre impart a wonderful fragrance.
Owen’s horticultural palette delivers not only fragrance but also bursts of color throughout the seasons. A dwarf R.J. Montgomery spruces accents one corner of the pool. Descending toward the lawn, guests traverse steps enveloped in Creeping Jenny, Japanese iris and Happy Returns daylilies. Mounds of Rozanne geraniums carpet beds in blue flowers all summer long. And evergreens and crape myrtles screen the lawn from neighboring homes. “Most of the garden, except for the potted plants, is hybrid perennials to reduce upkeep,” says Owen.
Wheat’s Landscape, which maintains the property, plants the annual beds and pots and visits every 10 to 12 days during the summer months. Recently, the company also upgraded the home’s irrigation system. “As the landscape grew in and the plants matured, they were blocking watering heads. And some areas didn’t need as much water as they once did,” says Wheat’s account manager Matthew Gryskevich. “So we changed the nozzles and watering zones. Irrigation technology has advanced so an overhaul makes sense because there are new controllers and a lot of them can even run on WiFi.”
The owners love their outdoor spaces, which blend beautifully with the architecture of their home. The French Country aesthetic resonates with Owen, who sells antique garden elements that he imports from France out of a warehouse in Sterling, Virginia. “I lived in Paris as a kid and have always been fascinated with these items,” he says. “I like to work ornamental pieces into my designs. Whether it’s an antique fountain or a gate from the 1700s, these pieces create a sense of individuality for the client.”
Photographer George Brown is based in Alexandria.
ARCHITECTURE: BULENT BAYDAR, AIA, NCARB, and GREGORY PALMER, AIA, NCARB, Harrison Design, Washington, DC. BUILDER: Artisan Builders, McLean, Virginia. LANDSCAPE DESIGN: CHARLES OWEN, Fine Landscapes, Sterling, Virginia. LANDSCAPE MAINTENANCE: MATTHEW GRYSKEVICH, Wheat’s Landscape,