How Landscape Architect Jan Johnsen Transformed One Chappaqua Property's Steep Hill

A perilous slope left this Chappaqua property virtually inaccessible until a savvy landscape designer turned it from dysfunctional to dramatic.



Landscape designer Jan Johnsen

Most people see a slope and assume that it’s downhill all the way. But not Jan Johnsen. She sees slopes as totally upbeat.

The fact that grass steps are Jan Johnsen’s signature is telling. It says something about a landscape architect who strives to soften every element of a garden—cushioning access to the upwardly mobile aspects of a landscape. But the fact that Johnsen focuses on steps also implies that she’s dedicated to bringing every space in a yard into the dialogue. Show Johnsen a property with a breakneck hill that would give Jack and Jill the jitters, and she’ll see a way to utilize every square foot of space without worrying about taking a tumble. That’s exactly what she’s been doing for 18 years, working for a family in Chappaqua who came to her with the hill from hell. Not only did she transform it into herbaceous heaven, but she harnessed the uppermost areas to turn them into viewing platforms and utilized all the acreage in between.

Usable space was at a premium when the homeowners purchased their steep slope in Chappaqua 20 years ago. With a young family and a husband who is all about the outdoors the moment he gets home from the office, the owners originally asked for little more than an upper terrace where the kids could congregate without taking the fast lane into the pond 45 feet below. The dream team of Jan Johnsen and her husband, Rafael Algarin (co-principals of Johnsen Landscapes & Pools, johnsenlandscapes.com), went to work smoothing some land and building the sort of terrace that would pull family members of all ages out of doors. But that was just the first step in the uphill battle to utilize a property that “originally had no flat ground—none,” according to Johnsen.

Framed in conifers, one of the two waterfalls in the double cascade trips down the hill.

Did I say battle? Johnsen thinks of the slope as a blessing. Not only did it give her plenty of opportunity to unleash her complete arsenal of stair solutions, but it allowed her to craft a series of event-like venues throughout the two-and-a-half-acre property, which now seems vastly larger, thanks to savvy utilization of space. “We went looking for usable space,” the homeowner says. And they found it. When Johnsen was finished, there wasn’t a square foot that failed to fulfill its goal of bringing the family and nature together.

The solution is pure genius. Johnsen’s remedy entails a series of curvaceous tiers running around the landscape—forming a buttress to hold the soil firm above and allowing Johnsen to lay the land below flat for recreational purposes. The walls are a series of seductive curves following and enhancing the contours of the land. Everything on this property undulates, and every space is a hide-and-seek odyssey full of intrigue on all levels.

Harnessing the property’s view of a neighboring pond below, seating areas serve as observation decks focusing on the water feature at the land’s lowest elevation. Realizing that the pond was the scene-stealer, Johnsen worked it from all angles, framing the water in various shrubs, trees, perennial borders, and walls, depending upon which lookout point you happen to settle into.

Along the journey up and down the hillside, a Japanese-style footbridge traverses the pebble stream with juniper arching over its edges.

But views are generally appreciated with maturity, shall we say. The kids aren’t necessarily prone to lounge around, partaking of the ambience. No problem. Knowing that children need lawns for activities, Johnsen gave them ample flat greensward on which to run and play. Because her goal was to encourage interaction with nature (another hallmark that runs as a recurring theme throughout Johnsen’s design work), she added a series of rooms that lure the kids into exploration, starting with a convention-busting spiral and circular vegetable garden. (Johnsen asked herself at the onset, Why do vegetable gardens have to be straight rows? Her answer was to follow nature’s lead and planted in circles.) The result was an alcove dedicated to rainbow stripes of lettuce, eggplants, peas, snap beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and all things savory.

From there, the garden continues to deliver a series of happenings: winding paths lead comfortably from one area to the next, while lookout landings, with their restive enclaves, allow you to catch your breath. Along the way, the landscape features a fort, a horseshoe court, and even a sledding hill—all still on the property. One of the highlights was a rope swing from a tree that allowed the kids to glide over the spiral vegetable garden (“My daughter lived on that swing,” the homeowner says), but unfortunately, the tree that supported the high-flying activity fell as a victim to last year’s freak October snowstorm.

Petunia ‘Supertunia Citrus’ contrasts against angelonia to punctuate the grass steps.

Of course, it’s not only about the kids. Johnsen served up plenty of secluded spots for meditative moments, including a Japanese garden with a double, recirculating waterfall cascade emptying dramatically into a mutual pond. As with all the features, the waterfalls were placed with an eye toward practicality. They deliver any storm runoff into a pond and basin that can handle potential drainage issues with finesse. At the heel of the property, a rain garden filled with ornamental grasses, irises, and other moisture-loving plants tackles further excess water before it flows into the pond. It’s all part of the initiative to utilize the resources at hand in an ecologically conscientious manner.

So it’s not only about fun and games. Environmental awareness is a biggie in this landscape. In that spirit, Johnsen took a felled tree, cut it into sliced rounds, and laid them underfoot as a platform with tree-stump “chairs.” She harnessed native shrubs and trees such as witchhazel and fothergilla to use as screening or “green walls.” When she needed to cover ground, she avoided paving when possible and steered toward ferns, vinca, and pachysandra, rather than hardscape. She followed all the tenets of ecological land management, but masked them cunningly in destinations that would delight her clients and their kids.

Allium ‘Globemaster’ juts above a chamaecyparis hedge but wades in impatiens to hide the foliage after the bulbs finish performing.

The entire landscape is infinitely user-friendly. But, from all angles, everyone agrees that the garden’s success is due to dialogue. Input and partnership are everything, and they resonate in the results. For example, although most of the recreation and transition areas are carpeted with grass, the homeowner requested that the odd gravel passageway be softened with stepping flagstones. Why? Because they feel good underfoot. The result allows him to go barefoot in the park.

The culmination of all those years of planning and planting together is a place that beckons the entire family into the backyard. On one level, this Chappaqua property is thrilling to behold and filled with botanical diversity. But it also has activities built in. Multi-faceted, monumental, and moving—this collaboration between designer and client celebrates the Great Outdoors with all its ups and downs.

 

Seeking a rose that is a show-stealer but not a time thief, Johnsen went for Double Knock Out to bed at the bottom of a staircase draped in Dutchman’s pipe.

Overlooking the lower lawn and pool area, an Indonesian goddess holds a quartz crystal in her bowl nestled into an archway of ‘Yaku Prince’ Rhododendon.

To admire the view, two chairs hemmed in by impatiens sit at the top of the hill.

For an unusual but functional salad garden, Johnsen built a curvaceous stone wall to brace a raised bed holding lettuce, Swiss chard, arugula, and spinach.

The garden is a study in greens and white with hay-scented fern, foamflower, and oakleaf hydrangeas.

Red New Guinea impatiens flank a bench, raising the flowers to eye level for anyone enjoying the seating.

Tender tropical sword ferns are replanted annually beside the path leading to the Japanese footbridge.

The homeowner selected a deep rich blue for a gate leading into the vegetable garden with iris and golden spiraea playing off the color.

 

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