Thursday, March 28, 2013

Thoughtfully Landscaping your Historic Home

Plymouth Antiquarian Society's 1809 Hedge House Museum
Photo courtesy of Great Hill Horticultural Services

I had the privilege of sitting down with Bob Hoxie, owner of Great Hill Horticultural Services in Sandwich, MA to discuss landscaping historic properties and his recent work on the Plymouth Antiquarian Society's Hedge House garden restoration project.  Bob is a Massachusetts certified horticulturist with a wealth of knowledge and experience about historic landscapes.  In addition to serving for 17 years as the horticulturalist for a large estate, Bob was Associate Director of Historic Landscapes for Plimoth Plantation and former chairman of the Town of Sandwich's Conservation Commission.

Have you ever wished that you could just put on a pair of special glasses that would show you what your home and the surrounding landscape looked like in its hey day?  A historic home often bears traces of its history.  Sometimes the remnants are obvious, as is the case with a meandering stone wall.  But sometimes the historic landscape is hidden beneath layers of soil.  In the past two historic homes that I have had, we have discovered dry wells covered only by a few rotted boards and a thin layer of top soil.  Yikes!

Like interior restoration projects, bringing the exterior landscape back to life is best approached with careful planning.  Bob recommends assessing where you are in your life and what your goals are for the landscape.  Do you want a faithful period restoration or a period appropriate recreation that nods to the past?  How much time do you want to invest in the upkeep and maintenance of the garden?  Do you want to reflect the home's original construction date in the landscape or perhaps another significant time in the property's history?  Are there issues that you want to address, like highlighting a feature in the garden, or screening an undesirable view?  Once you begin to tackle these questions, you can formulate a plan and prioritize your goals.

Careful research and planning will result in a beautiful landscape that matches your lifestyle.
Photo courtesy of Great Hill Horticultural Services

Bob uses a variety of sources to research the home's historic role, including the county's registry of deeds, old newspaper articles and historic photos.  In addition, he explains that clues can be found by careful observation of the existing landscape.  A few stocks of a culinary herb may signal the historic presence of a kitchen garden.  Sometimes an archeologist will be brought in to do a test pit and provide additional information about the history of the site.

In tackling the landscape, Bob cautions owners to "do no harm" - a saying that is common in interior restoration as well.  Don't destroy original features that make the property unique and help to tell the story.  100 year old lilacs or remnants of a stone foundation can help root the landscape to the past.  There is a benefit in moving slowly.  He advises to think how you want the landscape to appear today as well as to plan for when the plants are mature.  Good planning and communication will lead to a successful design.

Work in progress at the Hedge House
Photo courtesy of Great Hill Horticultural Services

Another recommendation that Bob makes is to incorporate native plants into the design as part of the planting palette.  In this area, plants like mountain laurel or holly will require less maintenance.  However, these native species should be used in context.  We've all seen native shrubs used as foundation plants and sheared like giant meatballs!  When incorporating heirloom plants, don't forget to consider their historic purpose, whether that be aesthetic, culinary or medicinal.

One last suggestion - Bob advises to install plants that have room to grow.  If plants are too large, they give an "instant look", that will look crowded in a few short years.  And likewise, don't overpower a landscape with too many plantings.  Sometimes one or two feature plants are just what is needed.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Book "The Evolution of the Cape Cod House, An Architectural History", Arthur Richmond

I purchased this book for the Sturgis Public Charter School's annual silent auction and now I am compelled to go buy another for myself!  This book chronicles the history of the Cape Cod style home from its origins in England to the shores of southern New England.  It is crammed with information, plans of original layouts, architectural drawings of facades, early photographs as well as recent photos.  

I particularly enjoyed the detail drawings of architectural features like exterior doorways and windows. The photos are remarkable and the research is detailed.  I have many books on Cape Cod style architecture and this is my new favorite!