Many fine gardens are candidates for visiting and enjoying, but only one garden matters and that's your own.
Yours may amount to a narrow urban yard or just a few containers on a patio. It's not the space you have, it's how you shape it to love it that counts.
To me there isn't much difference between an empty yard, where the owner grudgingly mows a weedy lawn, and a six-figure landscaped lot featuring acres of modular pavers, water features and supersize trees and shrubs in irrigated and manicured beds. Both require minimal contact with the owner and pretty much lack the soul of a real garden.
If you want a garden rather than a yard, you have to invest yourself in it. It's fine (and usually necessary) to enlist the help of pros, but it's your long-term cultivation of plants and the knowledge that grows with them that are the hallmarks of an authentic place.
One of the best examples of this I know is the Annapolis, Maryland, home of Nancy and Pierre Moitrier.
Their ranch house sits on a flat, one-third-acre lot bounded on two sides by neighborhood roads. The property is lifted out of any ordinariness by the development of an encircling series of garden rooms, shaped, variously, by trees and shrubs, fences, the house itself and modest stone walls. These spaces vary in size and character while creating part of a cohesive whole.
The Moitriers are landscape professionals, designing, installing and maintaining gardens. (Their firm is called Designs for Greener Gardens.) Clearly, the development of their garden, since 2002, is shaped by their skills and experience, but you don't have to be a pro to embrace their underlying idea that a garden evolves from its site; it's not imposed upon it.
I was last at the Moitriers' in 2009 when I was focused on two features driven by Pierre's sense of garden artistry (being French helps with the aestheticism). The first is a meticulously crafted treehouse, high in a sweet gum tree in the rear of the lot. With its wooden siding and cedar shake dormer roof, the folly in the sky has a fairy-tale quality about it. It is so handsomely detailed inside that once you are in it, you might forget you're sharing the space with a tree but for the presence of its old boughs.
The other great element is a decorative vegetable garden, 25 feet square, and framed in a high fence fashioned from harvested trunks and branches of Eastern red cedar. None of it is milled to have edges, and Pierre put it together as a puzzle, a tracery of poles of sculptural and rustic enchantment. Deceptively, the garden fence consumed about 100 trees. (Cedars grow like weeds in woodlands, ditches and meadows, and he usually harvests them in advance of their planned destruction.)
Anyway, these two delights stood in the way of my soaking up the whole garden, a situation corrected with a recent return visit.
We sat on a patio positioned in a shady and secluded spot at the rear of the house. It's a great place to gather and chat but, from a design point, emblematic of how gardens are assembled as a collection of subdivided spaces with their own character.
Pierre uses a lot of large landscape stones but in a way that feels organic and natural. That same unintrusiveness applies to the cedar woodwork as well. These "hard" elements work with the maturing trees and shrubs to frame spaces, and the plantings are rich in their layering and planting density, but not fussy with flowers. If you are like me, you want this serenity in the garden -- there's enough excitement in the rest of the world.
Much of the planning of the garden has been in taming the stormwater that afflicts the site, achieved by developing and planting drainage swales, the berms that channel them and rain gardens that collect and hold precipitation.
One side of the house is given to an intimate outdoor room where a low stone wall invites sitting and repose. Two upright stones sit at one end of the space, soon to receive a low gate that will reinforce the sense of compartmentalization. This tweaking is essential to the evolution of the garden.
Recently, they moved a path that had been in a swale to the berm beside it. "The view of the garden from above the swale is far more appealing," Nancy said.
Nancy wrote to me later sharing some thoughts on gardenmaking. Like any successful design, most of the effort is not apparent. It requires "consistency of care," she said, and a sense of anticipation that comes with experience. "The cultivation of a garden is not about tending to what has happened, but it is about having the ability to tend to what will happen or may happen." She added, "Procrastinators do not make good gardeners."
When I asked for her sources of inspiration, she mentioned the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. "He talked about how you would go from room to room almost like a tunnel, squeeze and release. When you design a garden you're thinking the same way," she said.
Pierre said he is inspired more by places than individual designers, and he is struck by a garden in central France that is now at a destination restaurant but originally at a 12th-century priory. Named Prieure Notre Dame d'Orsan, the property and its gardens have that matchless French quality of pairing formality with utility, as seen in a vineyard, orchard and kitchen garden. I wish he hadn't told me about this place, because now I have to go.