A Prairie Grows in Bronxville

A former eyesore is transformed into a celebration of color and texture.



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Photo by Karen Bussolini

What was once the property’s embarrassment became its proudest moment, a formerly intractable slope transformed into an exuberant prairie filled with coneflowers, catmint, coreopsis, and Verbena bonariensis.

Meanwhile, already on the property was a previously constructed stone patio with its mahogany pergola and bake oven/grill area behind the house. To lure the family outside, that area was fitted with a waterfall, statuary, container pockets, window boxes, and a breakfast nook where they might be prone to sit, sip tea, and read the morning paper. Fragrant plants—like the tender jasmine—take up residence in summer and tantalize the senses, wafting their suffused scents. Does the family use the garden? “In spring, summer, and autumn, we treat it like our family room,” the homeowner, who prefers to remain anonymous, says. “From the time we get up in the morning throughout the day, we’re outside. The trees offer so much shade, it allows us to comfortably utilize the space.”

Photo by Karen Bussolini

A screen of evergreens stands behind the hydrangeas and lilies.

From the upper patio, two leveled terraces serve as places to promenade or escape for a little introspective personal time. For the upper terrace, Welsch took his cue from the dimensions of the kitchen area’s shadow and laid those measurements down on a horizontal plane.

It’s a simple, park-like space—the homeowner has come to perceive it as a pool of lawn—surrounded by flowering shrubs such as lilacs and perennials like ‘Casablanca’ lilies. In keeping with the pool imagery, it’s hemmed in stone. Every once in a while, his clients consider adding a sculpture or fountain on that lawn terrace, but they always circle back to leaving it be. “The integrity of the simple lawn always prevails,” Welsch says. Clearly, it works.

What also works is the solution to the unmovable eyesore slope beside the garage. From the street, that banking is what the neighbors see as they round the corner. “It was a sun-blasted dust bowl,” says Welsch when he came aboard. He transformed it into a celebration rather than an apology. This is where blossoming prairie perennials come into play such as Joe Pye weed (he used the downsized ‘Little Joe’ to keep the height in check), coreopsis, daylilies, kniphofia, scabiosa, echinops, and meadowsweet, to mention only a few. Indeed, 350 plants or more were destined to populate this area with pizzazz. For continuity, nepeta (catmint) serves as a recurring theme to give the scene punctuation and act as a chaos-buster. Ornamental grasses also echo the shapes of grasses elsewhere in the landscape and quiet down the color volume.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

The textural complements of leathery rhododendron beside arching grasses give the garden dimension.

The prairie was a double dare. It tames a daunting venue and does it with panache, while also serving as a magnet for nature to flock in. “The garden has brought a lot of birds and butterflies,” the homeowner says. “You feel as if you’re part of nature, although it’s very suburban. It’s almost a retreat for us.” Although late summer is when the prairie explodes with color, it works up to that crescendo with a series of spring bulbs (1,500 daffodils are naturalized in its expanse) moving into June-blooming alliums. Annuals such as salvias, agastache, and Verbena bonariensis are also “stitched in” (to use Welsch’s expression) for early summer action. Asters, sedums, and the ornamental grasses that hopscotch throughout continue long after the normal growing season. And the last vestiges of those performers are left intact throughout the winter—much to the delight of wintering birds who perch on the grasses and dine on the seeds. It’s a triumph. And in the final analysis, the prairie is the space that made the neighborhood sit up, take notice, and applaud.

A stone bench and edging play counterpoint to provide a quiet moment beside salvias, verbenas, and nepetas.

Photo by Karen Bussolini

 

Tovah Martin is a freelance garden writer and author of many books, including The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter, 2009). An honorary member of the Garden Club of America, she lectures on gardening and leads terrarium workshops throughout the country. Inspired by Shanti, she’s replacing her front lawn with sweeps of blossoms and ornamental grasses.