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Richmond Garden Filled with Charm

Charming small gardens encircle an architectural gem in Virginia

Written and produced by Marty Ross
  • Rob Cardillo

    Small gardens call for special attention to detail. When there’s not much room to work with, you have to get it right.

    Mary Bacon and John Crowder found intimate garden spaces with lots of potential surrounding the Richmond, Virginia, home they purchased 15 years ago. The house itself was a prize, one of four in the community designed in the 1920s by renowned architect Ernest Flagg, whose work includes the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. But the lovely stone home was almost lost behind overgrown boxwoods. “You couldn’t even see the house from the street,” Mary says. “The boxwoods had to go, and we didn’t know what to do.”

    Even though Mary grew up gardening with her mother a couple hours away in Norfolk, she knew the jumbled landscaping around their new home called for professional help. A friend introduced Mary and John to Meg Turner, a local landscape designer, and together they reclaimed the garden, step by step.

    Instead of removing the old boxwood obscuring part of the side entry, homeowner John Crowder, an expert gardener himself, decided to limb the 20-foot specimen up like a tree, exposing a surprisingly graceful structure of slender trunks hidden in the old overgrown shrub.  

    Photography: Rob Cardillo

    Landscape designer: Meg Turner, The Well-Dressed Garden, 307 Oak Lane, Richmond, VA 23226; 804/901-0165,  

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    Entrance Courtyard 

    They started in the front, where Turner designed a new entrance courtyard paved with slate, complementing the rough-hewn stone construction of the home. She and Mary chose a planting palette that, like the house itself, was understated. A pair of handsome ‘Natchez’ crape myrtles, which produce great clouds of white blossoms at midsummer, anchor the courtyard.  A couple of dramatic blue-glazed pots planted with neatly trimmed boxwoods stand on either side of the portico, which is covered with an evergreen akebia vine. In the spring, ivory-colored flowers blossom on the vine, and early-blooming white azaleas planted at the base of the crape myrtles add even more soft color.

    A crazy-quilt pattern of slate complements the house’s stonework and makes an intriguing contrast to the symmetry of the design and plantings. Three sides of the house wrap around the space.

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    Garden Window

    The couple’s one-story home is an example of Flagg’s abiding interest in small-scale residential architecture and energy efficiency. “We don’t care to have a big house,” Mary says, but she and John did decide to enlarge it somewhat, adding a family room on the north side that overlooks the garden and claiming a little more space for the kitchen.

    As welcome as the seamless stone-finished addition was, it ate up a bit of the garden. And a side door opening out of the new room “flummoxed” her at first, Turner says. “But sometimes your challenges become opportunities,” she adds. She realized the door could serve perfectly as the defining apex of a comfortable garden space that focused on a wide stone seat built into an arc of low stone wall. 

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    Stone Seat

    The wall strongly echoes the home’s architecture and formally embraces the intervening oasis of lawn. On the terrace along the top of the wall and in beds in front of it that circle the new garden room, trimmed boxwoods, billowing hydrangeas, and long-blooming perennial flowers add rich layers of texture and splashes of color.

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    Chaise Lounges

    The newest garden area encompasses a swath of lawn bordered by perennials and shrubs. The owners move the seating to take advantage of seasonal sun or shade.

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    Wildlife Welcome

    A birdbath tucked into a flower bed invites feathered friends for a sunny splash.

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    Steps to Patio 

    Turner worked with Mary and John on one section of the garden at a time. “Most properties are more clear-cut” and call for a master plan, she says, but here the garden plan evolved as the family reclaimed spaces around the house. For example, just outside the back door, the property extends only about 15 feet. There was little privacy, and drainage problems limited the area’s usefulness. Turner solved the drainage issue and turned the narrow strip into a cozy patio paved with slate.

    A graceful stone stairway topped with slate steps leads from the lawn and garden on the north side of the house to an intimate patio.

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    Striking notes of floral color enliven the deeper hues of foliage in the small gardens.

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    Back patio

    A table and chairs make the back patio a perfect place to dine or just linger. Slate paving stones are laid out in a formal pattern here. Tall hollies behind the patio provide privacy.

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    Patio Pathway

    Plantings of ferns, variegated hostas, and smooth hydrangeas line the slate path. In the shade of native eastern red cedar trees, these plantings emphasize the patio’s woodsy quietness and intimacy.

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    Flower Spikes

    In June, hostas bloom in a shady spot.

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    Official Greeter

    Sophie, the homeowner's happy pup, waits on the patio amid potted annuals.

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    Garden Bench

    As the garden developed, Mary and John contributed their own touches, adding favorite plants and working with Turner to fine-tune the spaces and link them together. “We’re constantly editing and adding and changing things here or there,” Mary says.

    Each space stands on its own, distinguished by changes of level from one garden area to the next and subtle differences in the style of patios and paths. On the other hand, repeated use of some plants and materials throughout the small gardens brings a sense of unity.

    A wooden garden bench offers a serene resting space.

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    In June, each blossom of a lace-cap hydrangea is a burst of blue. 

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    Pretty in Pink

    Butterfly-attracting pink Pentas provides a pop of color. 

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    Homeowner and Designer

    Mary Bacon (right) and garden designer Meg Turner with the family’s dog, Sophie. 

  • Matthew Benson