A Garden Evolution
One couple’s garden unfolds room by room
Some country gardens bring to mind a vision of cheery flowers in bountiful beds or borders, but Jill and Dan Sczepanski’s one-acre garden in Rowley, Massachusetts, unveils its style and beauty room by room. The progression through these spaces is so structured and so unexpected that you have to move slowly to absorb the full impact of what you see.
“Things are there to be discovered,” Jill says about the garden’s design. “You don’t want to show a garden off all at once. It’s your experience in the garden that counts.”
For 30 years, the Sczepanskis have nurtured their garden, expanding and transforming a barren yard into a showpiece of connecting, formal and informal outdoor rooms, each with a different function in the landscape. Spaces include a stunning formal entry, pool, patio, fountain area, teahouse, woodland memorial garden, English garden folly, and seating areas set in borders and beds filled with shrubs and flowers. They design, hardscape, and maintain the garden themselves.
Dan is a banker and Jill recently retired from a career in clinical laboratory sales to paint, create ceramics, and offer garden coaching and design services. “My husband and I are creative, and we’ve worked in jobs that box us in,” she says. “The garden was necessary for us, like air to breathe.” Dan’s particular strength and passion is hardscaping—he is a carpenter and craftsman, using skills he learned from his father. “Dan knows how to connect the inside of a structure with the outside. Whenever he builds something, he believes it’s important to build something that will last beyond our lifetimes. The sense of creating a garden to last is important to us. We’re visitors here for a while, but the structure of the landscape will be here for a long time.”
The couple moved to Rowley when Jill was expecting the first of their two daughters, Sarah and Anna. “The garden ebbs and flows like our lives,” Jill says. “Some of it was planned, some was intuitive.” The house, built in 1900, had been vacant for a year and the old landscape could not be salvaged. The couple’s first garden room was a patio outside the back door with gravel floor, peaked white lattice arbor leading to the main lawn, and stone walls made of rocks saved from an abandoned fishpond on the property. A small boxwood-enclosed parterre followed the patio, then a swimming pool screened from the rest of the yard. Brick pavers surround the pool, forming discreet sitting areas that alternate with beds of shrubs and small flowering trees. An orchard and shade, woodland, and formal gardens came later, along with a teahouse and an English storybook cottage, each in a distinctive landscape. A new vegetable garden is on its way.
Dan built the picturesque cottage as a playhouse for the girls when Sarah was five and Anna, three. He had a pile of lumber delivered to the main house and started building with no plans to guide him. “Early on we were influenced by visits to Old Town and ’Sconset on Nantucket, as well as ‘visits’ we made to English and French gardens via coffee table books,” Dan says. The cottage door opens into a small but comfortable living room; up a tiny flight of stairs is a bedroom with a balcony offering stunning views of the surrounding landscape, including a tiered fountain, a woodland garden, and the central lawn, all connected to the cottage by various paths.
“I remember reading that a garden isn’t a garden without a path. That comment stayed with me,” says Dan, who did landscape construction and maintenance jobs in college. “A path takes you on a journey through the garden; it pulls you through the different rooms and spaces, winding and twisting and making you wonder what’s around the next turn. We most definitely needed a path.” The Sczepanski’s paths vary from straight and wide to narrow and curving. Each has a focal point at the end to entice you forward—a fountain, a glimpse of sculpture, a planted urn, or a structure through which you can see another garden room.
Over time, the couple acquired land abutting their house. They purchased a lot behind their property on which they intended to install an informal woodland garden. The stones Dan ordered for this shady area were delivered September 11, 2001, transforming this informal space into a memorial for the victims of 9/11, a deceased uncle, and their dogs Booka and Dahlia. Next to the house, they bought a second lot where a lavish formal entry garden now flourishes.
As in any formal layout, design elements are identical on either side of an imaginary line drawn down the plan’s center from a particular point of view. Symmetry creates a feeling of stability in a garden plan. In the Sczepanski’s entry, matching black urns on pedestals flank low black gates. Just beyond the gates in the center of the garden is a circular bed with a similarly symmetrical design, composed of a tall central urn ringed by roses and enclosed by a short boxwood hedge.
But that is where symmetry ends. The plantings display Jill’s delight in color and texture. Massed arborvitaes on either side of the gates provide a solid green backdrop for the urns, beyond which the foliage of trees and shrubs in tints of green, gold, and purple interweaves.
The circular path in the center branches off to a dark green teahouse decorated with comfortable wicker furniture. The teahouse overlooks a large, open lawn. In high school, their daughters’ friends would come over for band rehearsals on the lawn, and the family still enjoys clambakes and summer parties there. The teahouse, built from leftover wainscoting Dan had used on a kitchen project, has a window on the back wall. Even in that detail, the couple kept the design in mind. Instead of installing glass in the window, they used mirrored panes to reflect the colorful mixed border across the lawn.
The garden develops successive waves of color from spring to fall. In spring, the front of the house shines with masses of blooming tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and Siberian and bearded irises. By summer, hot-hued daylilies and other perennials flower in sunny borders and in beds near trees and shrubs. Fall transforms the leaves of deciduous trees to shades of red, yellow, orange, and purple. To keep the beauty of autumn fresh in her mind, Jill collects fallen leaves, which inspire her ceramic designs.
In winter, the garden’s structured, connected plan keeps the landscape alive. Abundant evergreen shrubs and trees accent beds, borders, and paths. Many of these woody plants are topiaries pruned into neat cones, mounds, and hedges, lending vertical interest to the garden even under a thick layer of snow. Jill uses some of the prunings for Christmas decorations and collects seedpods and dried grasses from the beds to include in her arrangements.
Jill, a founder of the Great Marsh Garden Club of Rowley, studied design with the Garden Club Federation of America and is a landscape design consultant with the Massachusetts council. She says the courses she took helped her refine her own garden’s design. Time spent in both her garden and several civic gardens also gave her valuable knowledge that she has applied to her own property. She and Dan are generous with their time and knowledge and like others to enjoy what they create. “The garden is not a possession; it’s an expression, and one of our joys is sharing it,” says Jill, who offers aspiring gardeners three tips for an effective landscape design:
• When designing a new garden, install the hardscape, trees, and shrubs before the flowers.
• Before you buy a plant, always research its height and width at maturity so you can visualize its effect in the garden.
• When placing garden sculptures and ornaments, look at possible locations from different points of view to ensure the best position.