A Thought-Provoking Garden
A family makes their Newbury property meaningful
“I listen to people for a living,” says psychiatrist-author Keith Ablow. And sure enough, when it came to planning his own backyard, the garden has spaces for everyone in the family of this best-selling author, television personality, psychiatric expert witness, Good Housekeeping contributing editor, and Fox News psychiatric expert. “My creative son laid claim to the forest, and the secret garden house belongs to my imaginative daughter,” Ablow says. As for his wife, Deborah Small, the pathways between her children’s venues might best represent her inner being, but she also gravitates toward the stone patio that draws the entire family together. “A landscape needs to have an intent,” he declares. “It’s not just who we are spiritually, it’s who we want to become.”
Expressing your psyche and where it is going might seem like a major responsibility for a little piece of land, but that is exactly why Keith Ablow hired Verne Fisher of Visionary Landscapes when he moved from Plum Island to an acre in Newbury, Massachusetts. The change of scenery was a deeply contemplated decision—nothing in Keith Ablow’s life is happenstance. Life on the beach left some members of his family feeling exposed to the storms that buffeted the house. He loved the crashing waves but wanted everyone to feel comfortable. So in 2010, he decided to take his family and move inland. The Newbury property is just five minutes from the ocean, but it allows family members to express themselves, with a little help from a very evocative place.
It was not a clean break from Plum Island. According to the psychiatrist, we never totally leave our past behind. The family lived by the water for six formative years, and they needed to bring that place into their current dialogue. Ablow had the solution—he transferred a few particularly personal architectural elements from the Plum Island home to Newbury. “Houses are never just houses,” he says. Then he began thinking about what the new landscape could do for his family.
When given land rather than a beach, the challenge lay in harnessing potential gardens to speak to the needs of the family. He knew that each family member needed to forge a personal relationship with the outdoors. Making that happen required sensitivity and creativity, plus a deep understanding of the place. Farmington, New Hampshire-based landscape designer Verne Fisher had exhibited those talents while working on a landscape for Ablow’s Newburyport office. They already had a warm comfort level when Fisher was called to see the Newbury home. “I wasn’t sure what his vision would be, but I knew it would be spectacular,” Ablow says. As with all of Visionary Landscapes’ designs, Mara Robinson, who is part of Fisher’s creative design team, also worked on conceptualizing the project.
The place was not a completely blank slate, and the intent was definitely not to wipe it clean from its past. Both Fisher and Ablow have too much respect for the land’s heritage to erase gifts from previous owners. Instead, they approached the landscape as stewards. Although a very old garden still existed on the land, everything needed editing, cleaning up, and redefining. The azaleas, yews, and hydrangeas were harnessed for their maturity and whipped into shape. That part of the landscape would become daughter Devin’s space.
Then, Fisher began pondering how he could best serve young Cole Ablow’s creative spirit. He decided to key into the adventuresome child’s wanderlust. His goal was to craft a wilderness journey that felt like a solo odyssey, but the experience is actually only footsteps from the home’s back door. Fisher wanted it to be primordial; he wanted it to feel strong. So he did it with rock.
Initially, Ablow could not easily envision exactly what Fisher was crafting in his backyard, especially when truckload after truckload of boulders began arriving. He trusted Fisher; still, he was slightly uneasy when confronted by what seemed like a quarry-load of huge stone blocks. “What are we building, a cemetery?” he finally ventured to ask. But he let Fisher begin the building process. And as the labyrinthine walkways were laid and the Stonehenge-like monoliths were placed, he began to realize that Fisher was accurately capturing the essence of his son, translated into hardscape.
Two entrances beckon into Cole’s space, both guarded by massive stones. One is a portal that requires climbing through the donut of a negative-space circular stone. Another is created by slipping through two plinths nested together. Once inside the forest of 80-year-old pines underplanted with hosta, heuchera, astilbe, lily-of-the-valley, columbine, and similar shade-loving woodland plants, a maze of pathways escorts the seeker to a fire pit in the midst of the very New England “jungle.” Concentric circles of vertically placed monoliths signal the rite of passage like a secret handshake. Four noteworthy rocks are chiseled with the compass points. It feels mysterious, primeval, artistic, and totally cool. That is where Cole and his buddies hang out.
As for Devin, she gravitated toward the historic segment of the property as Fisher nurtured and groomed it back into a proud presence, keeping its “secret garden” magic intact. Respectfully cleared and pruned, the restored garden features big old shrubs with interesting sculptural shapes; it is a young girl’s fantasy expressed in greenery. Within this grove of andromeda, mountain laurel, azalea, and rhododendron stands a hidden pavilion. Fisher added a table and chandelier to the building, intensifying the aura of enchantment. Like Cole’s garden, the secret garden is a place that will grow and evolve with Devin.
More grown-up activities happen on the property as well. Deborah’s back patio was the project tackled five years into residence, after Cole got his maze and Devin’s secret garden was renovated. Walled in with stone and fitted with all the accoutrements that an outdoor chef could request, it is also a gathering place for the clan and friends. But it is not the only grown-up venue. Two years later, the pool went in, and it became Verne Fisher’s triumphant finale.
Everyone agreed that the pool needed to be easily accessible to the house, but there was also a unanimous feeling that each space needed to retain its seclusion. A massive copper beech stands in the backyard, and Fisher felt that it should frame the pool area. Laine M. Jones was hired to design a pool cabana, and he advocated for pulling it toward the farthest boundary of the one-acre property (“like bookends,” says Keith Ablow) with architectural elements that echo the estate-like house. The structure is only eight feet deep inside, and yet it efficiently houses a kitchenette with counter space and a changing room and toilet. “The interior is all mahogany, including the walls and ceiling,” Jones says. Between the two doors to the interior rooms, a massive stone fireplace faces the patio for long evening soirees. To create a sense of privacy, a pergola supported by wide columns shelters the patio. “The pergola gives the pool house depth and a feeling of protection,” according to Jones. The pool house takes the grandeur of the house and distills it into smart, sleek lines.
Meanwhile, the rectangular pool and its lounging deck are sequestered by an undulating stone wall with plenty of personality. In keeping with Verne Fisher’s goal for privacy and seclusion, he strove to partition the pool area from Cole’s labyrinth alongside. The tall, totally idiosyncratic wall of varying heights and angles performs that task to perfection, with a peephole inset and massive monoliths laid into its facing. A medieval-style grill forms a gate leading to Cole’s labyrinth and a more formal double gate opens up to the lawn and a view of the house axis. The pool is yet another chapter in the ongoing fantasy.
All the components of the garden oasis are now in place. Of course, tweaking is continually underway, but the Ablows have the outdoor venues their family needs in order to grow with nature. What now? “The family is becoming integrated with the land,” Ablow says.
And what about the psychiatrist-in-residence, where does he fit in? “My first priority is to make my family feel comfortable,” says the doctor. “In doing so, the land speaks to me.” Granted, it is a major mission. But the family and the designers pull from their personal depths to generate ideas for the landscape. As a result, the finished garden can guide the Ablow family into the closest possible dialogue between humans and space.