It’s not always easy to marry a historic property with modern requirements for sustainability—especially when the landscape is a 16-acre waterfront estate in Easton, Maryland. McHale Landscape Design has worked on this property for almost 20 years, taking special care to preserve iconic trees and shrubs that distinguish the flat landscape as it rolls down to the Miles River—a majestic and expansive waterway which snakes out to the Chesapeake Bay.
Current owners Mike and Ginny Borner were on the lookout for a warmer climate when they decided to move to Easton from their Westchester County, New York, residence about 10 years ago. Little did they know back then that in 2018 Forbes would name Easton one of the top five “coolest towns” in which to have a vacation home in the U.S. The magazine cited its year-round culture combining history, excellent restaurants, galleries, boutiques —and relatively low property taxes to boot. “I didn’t know what the Eastern Shore was,” recalls Mike. “We stumbled upon it and still pinch ourselves every day because we could not be happier.”
The Borners settled on a classic, 200-year-old house overlooking the water that had been renovated from time to time over the years. It had everything they desired, including a swimming pool, a guest house and a long dock where they could keep their boat.
The previous owners tapped McHale to create a master plan for the property. The landscape firm had carved out a lovely drive, lined with a long allée of cherry trees, that curves around to the front of the house, where a charming water element features a sugar-kettle fountain. The landscape was dotted with loblolly pines, magnificent old oak trees and numerous willows—from which the property takes its name, The Willows.
“Willows were part of the original farm fields and farmhouse area, so we’ve added more over the years,” says McHale landscape architect Matt Rhoderick.
When they purchased the property, the Borners were so pleased with McHale’s work that they decided to hire the firm to maintain it and make a few upgrades. As Mike explains, “They knew the property and its history, and we were happy with the appearance.” To get the ball rolling, the couple met with McHale principal Steve McHale, who later brought in Rhoderick to collaborate on the project. Initially, changes in the landscape were left to the firm. “We didn’t have many desires in the way of additions or renovations,” says Mike. “All the ideas came from McHale.”
One of McHale’s main proposals was the construction of a stone parterre garden showcasing flowering perennials including Russian sage, coneflowers, daylily, herbs and catmint, flanked by evergreens including boxwood, cherry laurel and fragrant osmanthus. The garden creates a colorful focal point—a tableau that’s visible from the kitchen. McHale also re-installed a travertine patio around the pool after the former owner replaced a previous patio with lawn.
Eventually, the Borners developed a wish list of their own. Though the firm proposed a new fountain, Ginny asked for a gazebo instead. The couple also wanted a small, enclosed space where they could enjoy casual al fresco meals. This request ultimately led to the addition of a large screened porch on the residence. “McHale came by with drawings for an addition which blended right in with the house,” says Mike.
Rhoderick adds, “The nice thing about working on a property through iterations is that you have an idea of a master plan over phases.” It’s helpful when shaping the space for a new owner, he explains, because “you can pull from that original master plan.”
Since the Borners’ property extends along the water, the team faced environmental restrictions on construction and plantings. The existing lawn was grandfathered in, but to meet Talbot County requirements, new plantings were incorporated that mitigate runoff into the Miles River. Near the swimming pool and around the guest house, for example, McHale planted an array of native shrubs and perennials; today, switchgrass, hibiscus, Black-eyed Susans, viburnum, red-twig dogwood and inkberry holly impart year-round texture and color to the landscape.
When a vacant lot adjacent to their property became available, the Borners purchased it for additional privacy. McHale turned the area into a native meadow, which screens the owners from neighbors and also meets new regulations on sustainability that help protect the environment.
Indeed, the meadow has become a standout landscape element. As Rhoderick explains, “It’s a mixture of grasses, pollinators and native plants, and they provide a succession of flowers and color throughout the year.”
Landscape Architecture: Steve McHale, RLA, principal; Matthew Rhoderick, RLA, lead designer; McHale Landscape Design, Upper Marlboro, Maryland.