rhododendrons beneath the birches
The exquisite flowers of mountain laurel

Robert Gillmore’s Residential Landscapes

Robert Gillmore’s best-known garden is Evergreen, but his work also includes major residential landscapes in Bedford, Dublin, Fremont, Hillsborough, Manchester, and New Boston, New Hampshire, and Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

Two of his gardens—Water’s Edge, in Bedford, and the Nelson garden, in Manchester—are described below. Others will be described (and illustrated) later.

Consulting the Genius* of Water’s Edge

Named for its location on a pond in Bedford, Water’s Edge is one of the best designed residential gardens in New Hampshire, and it was once on the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program.**

Its success is mainly the result of four things:

One: Mature trees and shrubs—both single specimens and large, luxurious sweeps—form lush plant masses and create big bursts of both foliage and flower color automatically, with only minimal care.

Two: A large, natural-looking berm, planted with rhododendrons, blocks the sight and sound of traffic on Wallace Road, thus preserving the property’s estate-like privacy and tranquility.

Three: Groves of mountain laurel and massive white pines, already growing on the site, have been groomed—through a process I call gardening by subtraction—to create impressive woodland gardens, and:

Four: A wooden arched bridge, itself a charming bit of garden sculpture, links the shore of the pond to a tiny island, thereby incorporating the island into the garden. The island expands the garden’s views across the water.

All four features are described in detail below.

Water’s Edge was built in 1987 by Jim Hamm, a professional contractor and talented amateur landscaper who also designed the property’s first plantings.

In 1996 Jim Ham sold Water’s Edge to Jack and Carol Booher, who completed the landscape. Carol gave the property its name.

Water’s Edge demonstrates how you can create color and interest not only with the blossoms of annual and perennial flowers, which require considerable maintenance, but also with the flowers and especially the colorful foliage of trees and shrubs, which require little care.

The driveway at Water’s Edge descends to the house between slightly raised banks, making it an allée, or tunnel, of big, mature shrubs that rise above your head. These understandably popular plants—installed years ago by Jim Hamm—include:

  • Forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia), whose new leaves create huge displays of pure yellow for weeks in springtime;
  • Burning bushes (Euonymus alatus), *** named for their brilliant red fall foliage;
  • A row of purpleleaf sand cherries (Prunus x cistena), which sport dark purple leaves from spring through fall, and fragrant, tiny, pinkish white flowers in May;
  • Eight massed Japanese barberries (Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea),*** renowned for their intense dark red three-season foliage and red berries in autumn; and:
  • Golden Hinoki falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Aurea’), whose evergreen needles are a warm golden yellow when young and bright green when older.

The shrubs are powerfully offset by junipers (Juniperis spp.), which cover the ground in thick evergreen carpets.

Water’s Edge also demonstrates how gardens are most impressive when plants are arranged in large sweeps or drifts.

A thick sweep of junipers, for instance, overhangs the entire 30-foot-long fieldstone wall that runs along the parking area in front of the garage, below the steep slope near the bottom of the driveway.

Above the junipers is a smaller sweep of forsythia, another clump of burning bush, and a cluster of bearberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri). Like most cotoneasters, this species has little glossy leaves and red berries in the fall, and it’s known especially for its profusion of low branches that arch every which way. Unlike other cotoneasters, however, this one has a bonus: it’s evergreen, so its foliage can be enjoyed year round.

Still higher up the slope are two sweeps of spirea. One is Anthony Waterer (Spirea x bumalda ‘Anthony Waterer’), which produces carmine-pink flowers June through August as well as colorful deciduous foliage: reddish-purple, with pink highlights, when new; deep green when mature; and reddish-purple again in the fall. The other spirea is Goldmound (S. x b. ‘Goldmound’), which sports gold leaves from spring to fall and pink flowers in June and July.

Closer to the driveway is a Japanese tree lilac (Syringa reticulata), a splendid accent with fragrant, showy foot-long clusters of white flowers in June.

A birch (Betula), whose white bark provides year-round color, is another accent.

The concrete foundation of the house at Water’s Edge is nicely hidden year-round by these evergreen shrubs:

  • Meserve holly (Ilex x meserveae), valued for its lustrous, leathery, spiny, dark blue-green leaves.
  • Chinese junipers (Juniperus chinensis), whose sprightly arching branches make this species taller than creeping junipers.
  • P.J.M. rhododendrons (Rhododendron ‘P. J. M.’), which produce profuse lavender-pink flowers in April and evergreen leaves that turn mahogany in cold weather.
  • Emerald Gaiety euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’), which sports variegated white-and-green foliage. Shade-tolerant evergreens, variegated euonymus cultivars are especially valuable because they create color—white or yellow—in the landscape automatically, year round, even in dim light. And because it’s a vine, euonymus can climb, bringing its color off the floor and onto the walls of outdoor rooms. The Emerald Gaiety at Water’s Edge spreads exuberantly around a lantern post and climbs up the brick wall of the attached two-car garage.

Opposite the house, on the edge of an evergreen woods, are wonderfully imposing sweeps of Catawba rhododendrons (Rhododendron catawbiense), some 12 feet high. Catawba rhodies have long, leathery evergreen leaves and big trusses of flowers in late May.

A Berm Creates Privacy and Tranquility

When I first saw Water’s Edge, its estate-like privacy and tranquility were both caused and compromised by its location. Most of the property is surrounded by either mature woods or a placid pond after which the little estate is named. But both the pond and the house—including two spacious elevated decks overlooking the pond—are barely 60 feet from Wallace Road, a busy traffic artery running north-south through Bedford.

Much of the road was partly screened by a belt of big white pines and Canadian hemlocks, but some of it—especially the section nearest the pond—was fully exposed. The sight and sound of cars, roaring by at 35 to 50 miles per hour, ruined the view and wrecked the otherwise placid mood of Water’s Edge. The noise actually made conversation difficult.

The solution was clear: Build a berm along Wallace Road.

Berms are ridges, made of sand-clay fill, gravel, sand, or similar inorganic material. They’re covered with loam and planted with trees or shrubs.

Berms are excellent sight and sound barriers, for many reasons:

  • They’re dense, so they block sound better than hedges and fences.
  • They’re opaque, so they block views completely.
  • They’re much cheaper to build than walls, and, unlike walls or fences, they cost nothing to maintain. (They can’t wear out—they’re dirt!)
  • Unlike fences, walls, and hedges, berms can be made any height and still be attractive.
  • Berms are also more neighborly than walls, fences, and hedges, because walls, fences, and hedges all look like privacy barriers. Berms don’t. Properly shaped and planted, they’re interesting land forms.
  • Berms are excellent platforms for plants, because the slope of a berm gives plants extra height and ensures that plants in the rear of a grouping are not hidden by plants in front.

Plants on berms, however, are not merely ornamental. They’re also like a hedge: they create even more screening on top of the berm and make it an even higher privacy barrier. Ten-foot-high shrubs atop a ten-foot-high berm, for instance, create a 20-foot-high barrier. Twenty-foot-tall trees on the same berm make a 30-foot barrier. And if the trees and shrubs are evergreen, the screening is effective year round.

Part of the berm at Water’s Edge is in heavy shade, so I planted it with rosebay rhododendrons (Rhododendron maximum).  Rhody maxies (as they’re often dubbed) are not as colorful as most other rhodies, mainly because their flower trusses aren’t as large or profuse. But they’re terrific screening plants, mainly because they grow big—more than 12 feet tall in cold climates. They’re also one of the few broadleafed evergreens that: (1) are hardy to Zone 3;  (2) bloom in July, when many shrubs have already finished flowering, and (3) blossom even in serious shade. Actually maxies abhor direct sunlight and are happiest in medium shade.

I planted a row of four-foot-tall maxies along the crest, or highest part, of the berm. The combined height of the berm and the shrubs on top of it provides almost eight feet of screening in the lowest section of the berm and more than 12 feet in the highest part. As the maxies grow, they’ll provide ever higher and thicker screening.

A single role of shrubs, however, looks stilted and very unnatural in a naturalistic garden; so I added more maxies below the crest. Now a pleasantly irregular grouping of shrubs swags gracefully up and down the upper slope of the berm. As the shrubs grow and mass in, they’ll look more impressive with every passing year.

The crest and upper slope of the berm near the pond is somewhat sunny, so I planted it with Catawba rhododendrons. The lower slope of the inside, or pond side, of the berm is shaded, so Carol Booher added colorful shade-tolerant evergreen ground covers: Vinca minor and Moonshadow euonymus (Euonymus fortunei ‘Moonshadow’), which has lemon yellow splotches in the center of its variegated leaves. In time the plants will cover the slope, and the euonymus will light up the entire space year- round.

The Catawba rhododendrons on the road side of the berm have massed in, and they look like a very tall, very wide rhododendron hedge. To the enjoyment of anyone driving by, they create a stunning 700-square-foot sweep of pink flowers every spring.

The Pine Grove

Nature has endowed Water’s Edge with many gifts. One of them is a grove of mature white pine trees and smaller Canadian hemlocks beside the pond after which the property is named.

The coarse trunks of the pines—some more than eight feet around and at last three feet wide near the base—are stunning natural sculpture, immense pillars of a great natural cathedral.

Together the pines create a canopy so thick that you can barely see the sky, and the grove has a hallowed dimness on even the brightest day.

When these giant trees shed their foliage, a blizzard of slender needles rains down and covers the floor of this space with a thick, soft, light brown carpet. The grove is so dark and the carpet so deep that nothing but the trees grows here.

This grove is an astonishingly simple composition consisting of its light brown needle carpet, gray-brown tree pillars, and a green wall of young pines and hemlocks in the background.

The grove is that rare and wonderful place where nature has not only created a garden all by itself, but, ironically, a garden more sublime than many human-made gardens.

When I first entered the grove with Carol Booher, I was awestruck.

“My God,” I exclaimed. “Look at what you have here!”

Carol didn’t share my emotion at first, partly because she saw not only the huge trees but also a jumble of fallen limbs littering the needle carpet, as well as more bare dead branches sticking out of the big, beautiful trunks of the pines, and a few small, scrawny deciduous trees cluttering the otherwise powerful simplicity of the grove.

I explained to Carol that I was looking past the clutter. I paraphrased Michelangelo’s famous comment that a sculpture already exists in the stone and that the sculptor merely reveals it by chipping away the stone around it.  Similarly—in fact, even more so, I said—this magnificent pine grove is already here. We simply have to reveal it by getting rid of the clutter.

What it needed, I said, was gardening by subtraction, a grooming process that, like Caesar’s Gaul, I divide into three parts:

  • Cleaning Up is removing all dead wood, standing and fallen, and any other debris or rubbish from the site. An exception can be made for a truly picturesque rotting log, one covered with moss or other attractive plants. But virtually all other dead wood is just litter that only detracts from, never enhances the composition, and should be carried away.
  • Weeding is removing any live plants that detract from the composition, and
  • Pruning is removing any parts of plants (usually branches) that detract from the site.

Gardening by subtraction is wonderfully economical landscaping. It requires the purchase of no plants or anything else. Nothing, after all, is added to the site; things are only subtracted. The garden is enhanced by labor alone.

Carol and her husband Jack pruned the dead limbs and weeded out the small trees, and Carol hired a high school student across the street to help her carry away the debris.

Carol then planted large sweeps of pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). This reliable, shade-loving evergreen ground cover added welcome splotches of color to the brown needle carpet.

More important, the edges of the pachysandra beds define the paths through the grove and invite one to walk through it. One path runs beside the pond, providing continuous views of the water.

The Pine Grove, as it was soon christened, has reached its potential. Thanks only to gardening by subtraction, and a bit of careful planting, it’s now an extraordinary little woodland garden.

The Laurel Woods

Another of nature’s great gifts to Water’s Edge are large patches of native mountain laurel. At least 60 different shrubs —some as high as six feet; many grouped in large, impressive sweeps—are scattered throughout the woods.

Put another way, when the Boohers acquired Water’s Edge at least $10,000 worth of laurel (at retail prices) came with the property, and the shrubs were already planted, already acclimated to the site, and mostly flourishing.

Much of the laurel is in the relatively open woods opposite the front of the house. Here it was accompanied by still more gifts of nature, including wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), both native ground covers which produce thick mats of small, shiny evergreen leaves and red berries. There were also mosses and a patch of foxglove, a biennial that had apparently emigrated from elsewhere on the property

Like the Pine Grove, however, the Laurel Woods (as they were later christened) also contained unwanted sun-loving plants—tiny deciduous trees, little honeysuckles and other deciduous shrubs, as well as grasses and weeds—all growing scrawny in the shade, culturally and visually out of place in a shady woods whose essence is large gray-brown tree trunks and, especially, shiny, leathery, dark green evergreen foliage.

In the dim light, the impact of the dark and often low-growing evergreen foliage is easily compromised by anything that confuses the composition, or obscures or draws attention away from it. Any competing focal points must be subtracted.

Carol carefully weeded out the offending plants. A bit more light, water, and nutrients are now available for the evergreens. With less competition, the laurel is growing fuller and the evergreen ground covers are spreading.

In the empty spaces between the evergreens, Carol added small accents: shade-loving perennials such as variegated hosta, bleeding hearts, and brunnera.

Through only the wonderful, paradoxical economy of gardening by subtraction (plus a few more plants), Carol transformed a messy woods into a lovely woodland garden. She made the Laurel Woods the best that it could be.

Bridging the Island

Water’s Edge includes an especially fetching feature: a little roundish island, about 20 feet across, tucked into a small semicircular cove at the western end of its pond.

The curving edge of the islet roughly parallels the curve of the shore, just two or three yards away. The water between the shore and the island is a picturesque little channel edged with big rocks, which, thanks to shade and moisture, are partly covered with a thin coat of colorful lichen.

The nearly flat, mostly mossy surface of the island sits just two or three feet above the water, and when I first saw it, it was largely unplanted except for two hemlocks.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I asked Carol, if we could make the island part of the garden? People don’t want to just look at an island, I said. They want to walk to it, check it out, and savor its views across the water.

And wouldn’t an arched bridge, linking the island to the shore, also be a handsome piece of sculpture? I asked.

Carol thought it would, and I started to look into styles, manufacturers, prices, etc. An attractive, sturdy structure, I learned, would cost at least $1,000 and closer to $2,000.

When I returned barely two weeks later I had a delightful surprise: There, in place, was an attractive low arched bridge. Carol and Jack had made it themselves. And their design was ingenious.

At a lumberyard they had bought two pressure-treated planks, each 16 feet long, 12 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. They laid the planks on their sides at the end of the parking area in front of their garage, carefully placing them parallel to the edge of the asphalt.

Then, according to Jack, they took out “a big orange extension cord.” Carol held one end of the 25-foot cord at the edge of the parking area opposite the planks; Jack held the other end beside the boards. Then he used the cord like a giant drafting compass to draw an arc, with a Magic Marker, on each board. His arc began on the lower edge of each plank, two feet from the lower left corner; it rose to about eight inches high at the mid-point, and ended two feet from the lower right corner.

Then Jack used a jigsaw to saw along the arc. When he was done, he had cut out a 12-foot-long half moon—actually half of an ellipse—eight inches at its highest point. He fastened it, with glue and screws, to the opposite edge of the plank. When he was done, the top edge of each plank rose in a long, low, semi-elliptical arch—that’s the cut piece—and the bottom edge of each plank rose in an identically-shaped arch where the cut piece used to be. Both arches, of course, parallel each other.

The arched beams became the base of the bridge. Jack and Carol set them in place: parallel to each other, four feet apart, and reaching from the edge of the shore to the edge of the island.

Then they laid 24 2-by-6-inch boards, each four feet long, on top of the beams; each board ran from one beam to the other, overhanging each beam by an inch. Then they screwed the boards into the beams. The cross boards do double duty: they join the beams together, and they provide the decking, or walking surface, of the bridge.

Finally, Carol stained the entire structure.

Total cost? I asked Carol.

“Under $200.”

Carol placed a two-person wooden swing between the hemlocks on the island. The pleasing Adirondack-style swing is made mostly of cylindrical pieces of wood that resemble very small smooth logs. The rustic, unpainted, unstained piece goes nicely with the rustic, naturalistic island—and it provides a fine view across the entire pond.

Carol completed the composition by planting purpleleaf winter creeper (Euonymus fortunei coloratus) around the rocks on the shore side of the channel. This evergreen ground cover, which turns deep purple in winter, is gradually softening the stones by slowly creeping over and around them.

* The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope urged gardeners to “Consult the Genius of the Place in All”; that is, to pay attention to and build upon the special characteristics of a site.

** Burning bushes and Japanese barberries are now considered invasive plants.

*** Regrettably, Jack and Carol Booher no longer own Water’s Edge, and the property is no longer opened to the public.

A Lush, Private, Suburban Garden . . . on a Small Manchester Lot

After Jean Nelson visited Evergreen, she told me she wanted me to make a garden “just like it” in her back yard.

I had to tell her that I was flattered by her request but that it would be impossible to fulfill it: Evergreen covers almost an acre, and it has dozens of huge pine trees and sweeps of hundreds of big rhododendrons. In contrast, her back yard, on north Elm Street in Manchester, New Hampshire, had only a couple of big trees, just a handful of large shrubs, and—more to the point—was only about 50 feet square and surrounded by houses.

Jean replied that she knew all that. Nevertheless, she told me, she wanted her new garden to be as private, as secluded, and as lush as I could possibly make it.

Plus, she added, she was getting too old to take care of a typical perennial flower garden; she needed a landscape that—like Evergreen—would largely take care of itself.

Iwasn’t dismayed by her request. On the contrary, I was delighted. I had been hoping for years for a chance to tackle one of the most intransigent problems of landscape design: how to create, on only a small, urban lot, the kind of estatelike landscaping usually possible only on much larger suburban or country properties.

The solution for Jean’s yard was one she had seen at Evergreen: a berm planted with flowering evergreen shrubs.

Berms are artificial ridges, usually made of fill. When used to create privacy, they’re built along the edges of a property, then covered with loam and planted (usually) with evergreen trees or shrubs. The combined height of a berm and its plantings hides neighboring houses and other development. It helps create the welcome illusion that a house is not on a small, half-acre lot surrounded by other houses, but is a much larger property luxuriously festooned with many trees and shrubs. A berm can make the property feel much larger than it really is.

This is important because your landscape isn’t only the land that you own. It’s everything you see from your land. If you can see other people’s houses (and cars and telephone poles) from your garden, then those things are as much a part of your garden as your flowers. To preserve the visual integrity of your garden—its unity and special character—you need to screen out anything that doesn’t relate to it.

Iinstalled a U-shaped berm, ranging from two to seven feet high, along three sides of Jean’s backyard.

I planted most of it with sweeps of flowering broadleaf evergreen shrubs. These not only help screen the property year round (because they don’t drop their leaves in the fall). They also provide flower color automatically, in a five-month-long sequence of bloom that lasts from late March to August. These colorful shrubs included:

  • 16 Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica) ‘Dorothy Wycoff,’ which produce bright red new leaves, red flower buds, and pink blossoms in late March or early April;
  • 6 P. J. M. rhododendrons, which display masses of pink-lavender flowers in April and rich dark burgundy foliage in the fall and winter;
  • 9 ‘Aglo’ rhododendrons, which produce bright pink flowers in mid-spring and bronze foliage in the winter;
  • 31 ‘Roseum Elegans’ rhododendrons, which sport red-pink flowers in late May;
  • 10 Rhododendron maximum ‘Roseum,’ which produce pink blossoms in early June;
  • 23 mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), which bear exquisite white flowers in June;
  • 8 Rhododendron maximum, a shade-loving species that displays white flower trusses in late June or early July.

So that these evergreen shrubs could create the highest possible year-round privacy screen, they were planted on the crest and upper slopes of the berm,

The rhododendron maximum were installed on the shadiest parts of the berm. The P. J. M.’s and andromeda, which enjoy full sun, were used in the brightest areas. The other rhodies and the mountain laurel, both of which like dappled sunlight, were planted in medium shade.

Berms need to be at least two feet wide for every foot of height. In most of Jean’s yard there was enough space to make the berm six or seven feet high—tall enough so shrubs on the crest would provide enough additional screening to hide neighboring houses.

In some places—beside the patio next to the house, for example—there was enough space to build the berm only two or three feet high; this was so low that shrubs on top of it wouldn’t be tall enough to provide enough screening. Here I needed evergreen trees instead of shrubs.

I chose 34 Canadian hemlocks because they can grow in either sun or shade. The hemlocks were already taller than the shrubs when I installed them, and they would quickly grow much higher. In one sunny spot I transplanted three Hinoki falsecypresses (Chamaecyparis obtusa) that were already growing in the yard. Neither evergreen proffers colorful flowers or foliage, of course, but they did the job they needed to do.

When all the evergreen trees and shrubs were in place, the one-story ranch house to the rear of the property was nicely hidden, and the two-story houses to the north and south were mostly screened as well—and more of them would disappear each year as the plants grew.

Besides the evergreen plants on the crest and upper slopes of the berm, I added deciduous azaleas to the lower sections to expand the garden’s bloom period even further. Because they weren’t needed for screening—indeed, they were too low on the berm to provide any more screening than that created by the berm itself—they didn’t need to be evergreen.

The azaleas included 18 Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink,’ which unfurl their light pink flowers in late March, even before their leaves appear. They’re considered the first azaleas to bloom in the spring, and they rival the Japanese andromedas as the first shrubs to flower in Jean’s garden.

I also added eight plumleaf azaleas (Rhododendron prunifolium), which are one of the last azaleas to bloom: They blossom as early as mid-July and as late as August, and their large orange-red flowers can last until fall. They’re one of the last shrubs to bloom in Jean’s garden.

I also planted eight ‘Innocence’ azaleas, which are a variety of Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea). Their fragrant white blossoms appear in late June or July, and their leaves turn burgundy red in the fall.

When the berms were fully planted, the space became a lush cup garden, so-called because the viewer stands in the bottom of a cuplike space and is surrounded—almost embraced—by a wall of trees and shrubs that reaches higher than his or her head.

On the floor of the new garden I added sweeps of three shade-tolerant variegated white-and-green-leaf plants: ‘Emerald Gaiety’ Euonymus fortunei and ‘Silver Edge’ Pachysandra terminalis—both evergreen ground covers—and ‘Night Before Christmas’ hostas.

The plants bring bright white foliage color to the garden; and, unlike the flowering shrubs, which each blossom for only a few weeks at a time, the evergreen ground covers provide color all year long, and the hostas flourish from spring to frost.

I used all three plants to define a roughly circular path that allows the viewer to stroll along the bottom of the berm.

The white color of the plants is like a broad, low focal point, drawing the eye downward. This, in turn, makes the garden even more dramatic because, in the couple of seconds when the viewer raises his or her eyes from the ground and up to the top of the tallest trees and shrubs on the berm, the garden wall seems higher, and the garden seems larger than it would be if the viewer looked only at its trees and shrubs.

Jean’s new garden is rare: a lush, private suburban garden on a tiny lot in the middle of New Hampshire’s largest city. According to Jean’s daughter, the artist Judith Minzell, “it achieved what it intended.”

When people descend to the garden from Elm Street, turn the corner at the rear of the house, and suddenly see it, Judith told me, “eyes pop and jaws drop.” The garden is “absolutely mind-blowingly beautiful.”

Sadly, Jean enjoyed her new garden for only a few years before she had to sell her home and move to an assisted-living facility. 

Its new owners, Phil and Diane Martineau, kindly agreed to open the garden to the public as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Merrimack Valley Open Days Program in 2014

Arch bridge leading to the island at Water's Edge.

Photo by Eileen Oktavec

Arch bridge leading to the island at Water’s Edge.