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Colorful Terraced Garden in Pennsylvania

When even pros couldn’t salvage a dismal yard, a Pennsylvania couple created a glorious garden oasis

Written by Tovah Martin
  • Rob Cardillo

    Their lot was worthless. At least that was the prevailing opinion around the neighborhood about the precariously inclined parcel that came with Liz and Ralph Schumacher’s newly purchased starter home in Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania. “It was the lot nobody wanted, but we weren’t planning to stay here anyway,” Liz says of the precipitous property they purchased in 1967 to bridge the gap while Ralph, a newly minted academic rheumatologist, was becoming established. But then the basement flooded, a victim of the steep, erosion-prone hill of a backyard. The couple knew they had to address the problem immediately, so with sheer determination they tackled the acre from hell. Over time, they created a lush, showstopping landscape, and 48 years later, it’s the envy of everyone around.

    At first, it seemed rather hopeless. Any plantings on the incline eventually ended up at the bottom. The Schumachers consulted numerous landscapers, but only one even bothered to reconnect with them. He advised planting tiers of ground cover. So, following his recommendations, Liz and Ralph chose juniper for the house level, Rosa wichuraiana on the mezzanine, and crown vetch on the upper strata. It was a noble start—but the crown vetch became invasive, the rose was a thorny mess, and only the juniper still remains. Plus, the end product certainly wasn’t a point of pride for the property. Nonetheless, terracing was a step in the right direction.

    By that time, the Schumachers were in battle mode, so they went scouting for answers. Ralph realized that only strong roots could fully stave off erosion on the slope. They tried planting five Himalayan pines, but decided that was overkill. It taught Liz a critical lesson, though—she needed to get up to speed about trees and shrubs. She enrolled in horticulture courses at the nearby Barnes Foundation. “And that’s when she became a real problem,” Ralph jokes, “because she only wanted trees with pedigree.” 

    Photography: Rob Cardillo

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    Redbud Blossoms

    Suddenly, it wasn’t enough that a tree had a gripping root system. Liz sought other traits as well. In particular, she demanded beauty. She chose trees and shrubs that would make a statement throughout the seasons, starting with the unfolding of the redbuds in spring, moving into early summer with the maples’ wispy, winged samaras (kids know them as “helicopters”), gaining fury with radiant fall foliage, and ending with a display of interesting bark in the winter. Shrubs were also on her radar, especially azaleas and rhododendrons, which now create a retinal riot in spring.   

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    Stone Terraces

    The beauty of those flowers inspired Liz to play with her perennial palette, and the terraces became her canvas as well as her leisure-time pursuit. She planted heucheras, tiarellas, and a full assortment of low-growing connoisseur perennials.

    The stonework that divides the terraces and the steps between played a major role in the design and encouraged Liz to add scenic side detours. As a result, the meager acre feels as if it goes on for miles with hidden nooks to explore. Every year, Liz adds deftly selected bulbs to pick up and play off the colors in the trees, shrubs, and other perennials. Rather than try to echo a particular hue, she works with the entire color spectrum to contrast or highlight shades. The result is brave—but totally tasteful, and it’s all framed within the clipped hedges, topiaries, and undulating beds.

    Originally available in Liz Schumacher’s garden shop, the carved brick of The Lily Pillar by Vicki Fox adds to the rainbow on the lower level where tulips bedded with blue pansies unfold.  

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    Orange Tulips

    Color rules are meant to be broken in glorious spring, so tulip ‘Ballerina’ dances with narcissus ‘Suzy’ and ‘Geranium’ beside pink-flowering, golden-leaf bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis ‘Gold Heart’.

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    Garden Gate

    The iron garden gate is shrouded by greenery.

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    Carved Lion

    Beyond botanicals, the Schumachers collected treasures to elevate their landscape on a cultural level. A carved lion they spied in a Mexico City pawn shop was a $100 steal they couldn’t pass up (although getting him home was not so economical). The carved lion now lolls in a bed of juniper.

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    Garden Accent

    Once in place, that carved lion inspired Liz to start Garden Accents, her garden ornament business—with the Schumachers’ own garden occasionally becoming the beneficiary. 

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    Mirthful Statue 

    Hidden among twists and turns, pagodas and curvaceous, mirthful ladies sparingly tuck into the terraces, providing wandering guests with delightful discoveries.

    Allegra by Barbara Chen was made substantially larger-than-life at Liz’s request so that the statue could easily be seen from a distance. 

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    Terrace Path

    So Liz and Ralph obviously never left their starter home and that troublesome lot. What began as a burden blossomed into a full-blown love affair. When it became clear they were staying, the Schumachers added upper floors to the house—providing proud, elevated views of their terraced triumph. They wouldn’t trade their lofty landscape for the world.

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    Pink Rhododendron

    Vigorous Rhododendron ‘Pioneer Silvery Pink’ triumphs in the challenging growing conditions. 

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    Cool Paver

    To make the transition between the brick patio and the bluestone steps, Ralph and Liz Schumacher came up with a stepping stone of both materials. 

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    Sculpted Hedges

    Bluestone steps make their way up the hill, flanked by deftly clipped privet topiaries. In the nearby bed, weeping redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis ‘Traveller’) provides a spark of color. 

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    Green Walkway

    Even before the white crape myrtle leafs out, its bark stands out along the terrace.

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    Bluebells

    Spanish bluebells brighten flower beds in May.

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    Purple Bloom

    The Schumachers’ amazing rhododendron collection includes ‘Blue Peter’. 

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    Rhododendron

    Even before a truss of ‘Scintillation’ opens, this robust, readily available rhododendron pops with color.

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    Rhododendron

    Deciduous azalea ‘Tri-Lights’ competes favorably with the tulips for vibrancy. 

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    Tea House

    Liz lived in Japan for five years as a child, gaining an affection for the details and traditions of Japanese culture—hence the tea house with a moon window and curved roof. 

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    Portrait

    Proud owners Liz and Ralph Schumacher pause in the garden paradise they created from a dismal lot.  

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  • Matthew Benson