Perfect Harmony: Inventive Landscape Design in Vermont

October 24, 2013

Text by Megan Fulweiler     Photography by Jim Westphalen

Frank Sinatra crooned the 1940s jazz standard best, but no matter who sings it, “Moonlight in Vermont” is always a crowd pleaser. Those imaginative lyrics—pennies in a stream, falling leaves, a sycamore—form an image that zooms straight to the heart. Beautiful Vermont. The state is so lovely that it takes a great degree of skill to create a garden whose beauty doesn’t pale in comparison with the work of Mother Nature—unless, of course, your creation highlights her attributes. Then, it’s a match made in heaven.

Landscape architect Cynthia Knauf, whose firm is headquartered in Burlington, is quite familiar with the challenge. Her glorious projects bloom all over the state, which made her the ideal choice to create Maureen and Ed Labenski’s garden. The couple’s stunning home (designed by North Carolina architect Sarah Susanka, author of The Not So Big House series of books) is perched in the middle of a west-facing field in the town of Elmore. The landscape and the house, with its covered terraces that frame the views, demanded a connection, but not flower-filled beds and borders. The Prairie-style architecture seemed more in harmony with a Japanese aesthetic.

Calm and restful, Japanese gardens incorporate any number of natural elements, always in an orderly manner. “One of our goals was to achieve a blurring of the line between outside and inside that’s typical of Japanese houses,” Maureen explains.

Knauf, who says she worked closely with Susanka, made certain their goal was achieved, from the water basin by the front door (a hollowed-out fieldstone found on site) to the stepping-stones that form the transition from porch to gardens.

In addition, Knauf’s deft mix of a variety of stone and plant materials enhances the architecture at every turn while providing year-round interest, another of the owners’ priorities. “Winters are long,” Knauf says with a laugh. To that end, she limited the number of ornamentals and looked to native plants that are found in Japanese gardens but also speak to the flora of north central Vermont.

Many existing paper birches and red maples were incorporated into the overall design as part of the backdrop, while new, eye-catching specimens were moved closer to the house. Among the latter, a Korean purple-leaf maple, Amur maples, native viburnum, native winterberry, dwarf hemlocks, and Russian cypress. The colors and textures of these plants reflect similar textures found in the surrounding landscape, Knauf points out. Both deciduous and evergreen, the plants also provide interesting fall foliage and look magical in snow. A good number supply food for the birds.

Varieties of native trees, such as white pine, that would eventually have loomed too large and blocked the magnificent mountain vistas were bypassed for dwarf cultivars that grow only about a yard high. A cultivar of weeping larch, for example, makes a graceful statement at a terrace’s edge just beyond the screened porch.

A host of perennial and woody-stemmed plants turns the ground plane into what Knauf describes as “a tapestry of patterns, textures, and colors.” Hardy troupers like bearberry, lowbush blueberry, ginger, creeping thyme, and vibrant sedum Rosy Glow weave their way in and out as natural as you please, further smudging the demarcation between manmade landscape and Mother Nature.

The owners claim their favorite garden locale depends on the season. In spring comes the blossoming of the mountain ash and fragrant shadblow trees outside their bedroom. Rhododendrons, azaleas, and sheep laurel follow. In midsummer, the star is the butterfly-rich perennial garden best observed from the screened porch. And when temperatures dip and sweaters are donned, the garden on the south side of the house lights up. “The profusion of color combined with crisp autumn air and warm afternoon sun makes it a perfect place to linger over a cup of tea,” Maureen says. The view from here, in accordance with Knauf’s thoughtful composition, rolls across the pond and off to the mountains. It’s all just as romantic as, well, “Moonlight in Vermont.” •

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