The seamless integration of house and garden with the landscape is the ideal, even the Holy Grail, of garden and landscape design. Here on the East End a few jewels meet the challenge.
Recently, I was introduced to a place on the bay in Springs that meets that ideal. Thanks to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, one of a series of garden dialogues throughout the country was held at the home of Bob and Margo Alexander in which Thomas Balsley, a prominent landscape architect who helped create the Alexanders’ garden, spoke about the process.
The couple began planning their house and thinking about the grounds 23 years ago and met Mr. Balsley early on. The landscape-garden is celebrating its 20th anniversary, and appears as fresh and inspirational today as it must have 20 years ago. Or perhaps the world is only now catching up.
East Hampton Town zoning restrictions were a blessing in disguise. The house could not be built on the crest of the dunes overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. Rather, it is nestled down into the rear of the dunes. The land slopes away from the house with the natural landscape dovetailing with the man-made, as Mr. Balsley described it.
The impact and power of an abandoned hay field overgrown with Virginia cedars to the south was quickly seized upon. Today the field is a meadow that shimmers with rippling grasses almost as far as the eye can see, the edges softened and surrounded by woodland. To the uninitiated the expanse looks untouched by human hands. The reality is that almost as much was spent restoring the field as was invested in the rest of the landscape. Thousands of cedars were hand dug for removal and native grasses were sown.
On a sunny day in June, alternating waves of amber and yellow grasses transform the space to a higher realm. A few native trees remain as solitary architectural shapes or clusters in strategic areas. The result is one that nature itself would be pleased to claim. The meadow is mowed once a year in autumn and it is given a good weeding in early spring. Michael Blake, who has gardened there since the beginning, is in charge.
The transitional area between house and meadow is given to sweeps of smoky blue and purple perennials that resist deer predation. Close to the house, a large area is planted with a variety of lavenders, and across a grass path, two forms of catmint are in bloom, to be followed by Russian sage. The catmint vignette is worthy of emulation: It combines masses of the dwarf Nepeta x faassenii Blue Wonder with the taller N. Walker’s Low. They sway in the breezes, echoing the grasses in the meadow beyond.
The area is overrun by deer. The Alexanders’ philosophy is if the deer eat it, try something else. In this environment, the visitor is totally unaware of compromises, however.
The house’s long, rectangular, glass-walled living and dining space floats on a steel bridge above the ground. It appears nearly transparent and is connected by three supporting structures, or towers. Inside the largest one, to the north, you see the water view, and turning south, the meadow. Looking back toward the house from the meadow you see the dunes through the space beneath the living area. From the dunes through a transitional mass of bayberries and rugosa roses, you can look back at the swimming pool and the meadow.
The Alexanders did not want a fence around the swimming pool to interfere with the integrated landscape or the views. The solution to the south was fairly easy: The house is built on a platform, or terrace, running perpendicular to it with a swimming pool in the center. The grade was manipulated so the terrace is edged with a fieldstone sitting wall, the required four feet above the ground level and the pool.
At the north end of the terrace, under the bridge, a sinuous lily pond, which may resonant as a moat, was dug at the base of the dunes. The distance from the bottom of the pond to the terrace is the necessary four feet.
A narrow planting bed runs nearly the length of the eastern wall of the terrace. This year it is given to a variety of salad greens, ruby chard, and colorful annuals. Herbs grow in containers in another sunny area on the terrace. Nothing can or ought even to try to compete with the drama of the meadow, so a few simple containers are clustered in the southwest by the pool house.
This is a family with children and grandchildren so a circular area of lawn was located to the east of the house. Not taking themselves too seriously, a light touch was added on the far side of the lawn, a folly of a stone ruin, echoing a stone pool house tower. The arched doorway of the wisteria-covered folly frames views of the blue nepeta and grasses in one direction, and in the other of a partially shaded, deep border of purple salvias and angelonias with golden Hakkone grass to the rear. You also can look through the arch toward the meadow.
In our highly urbanized society and in a highly developed community where only vestiges remain of East Hampton’s rural landscape, the Alexanders and Thomas Balsley have indeed created a vision of paradise by walking lightly on the land.
Abby Jane Brody