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By Kymberly Taylor | Photography by Allen Russ
In the dark days of the pandemic, a French-inspired garden in Northwest Washington, D.C., grew slowly but surely toward the light. Finished just last year and composed of three tiers, the garden of Eric Michael and Craig Kruger is of singular beauty, each plant linked to travel, a moment in time, a special memory, a dream. One-hundred-fifty rose bushes on the property and over 70 different types of flowers blossom profusely, providing color and intrigue through their lifecycle, thanks to a collaboration between the homeowners and Jay Graham of Moody Graham Landscape Architecture.
Michael, a former catering magnate, and Kruger, a professional chef, had many gardening problems for Graham to tackle. Their new striking classic shingle-style home overlooking the Potomac in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, D.C. was designed by Barnes Vanze Architects. The stately residence, which replaced an old farmhouse, already had a mature woodland garden. Kruger and Michael created a Zen garden with a Koi pond. However, the backyard was another story. With a dead oak tree in the middle, tiki bar, kidney-shaped pool and bandstand, change was long overdue. As highly experienced gardeners, they knew exactly what to grow but needed a coherent design plan to support their ambitious vision.
“We collaborated. What you have is a true gardener’s garden,” explains Graham. “It’s highly unusual. Usually, we present a plan and propose all the plantings. Not in their case. They are adventurous. They love plants, and they love gardening and knew what they wanted. We created a framework; they chose the plants.”
To stroll through this garden built by Oldetowne Landscape Architects is to discover plants that only a master chef and caterer with an artistic eye would have. These plantings came, sometimes as cuttings, from all over the world, including their homes in the Virgin Islands and coastal Maine and a castle visited in France; very few were purchased in a commercial nursery.
Highlights include brilliant yellow oleander from their home in the Caribbean, raised from shoots braided by Michael to form a beautiful trunk. There is a myrtle-leaved orange tree, Citrus myrtifolia. The rind of this fruit flavors a soda by San Pellegrino called Chinotto, explains Kruger, who found the plant growing beside a castle in the South of France. Their citrus collection includes orange and lemon trees as well as the rare Australian Finger Lime. Called “citrus caviar,” its lime-flavored pulp pops on the tongue.
With the plantings taken care of, Graham put his design skills to work, siting the garden prominently on the central axis of the house. As the lines of the house extend into the garden, it becomes, in a sense, another living space with garden rooms offering respite and delight. From the outset, there were “design opportunities,” notes Graham politely. They included poor drainage, a deteriorating wood wall, inadequate access to the garage, no clear space for entertaining, and a lack of focus.
Inspired by the elaborate shingle-style architecture of the house, the garden’s vertical tiers provide focus. Each level has its own color scheme. “It is more saturated the higher you go. The lower level is white and chartreuse, the middle level has oranges and reds, and yellows and purples are on the top level,” explains Michael.
The hardscape is integral to the garden’s design, as carefully considered as the plants. The homeowners welcomed structure but did not want their garden to be overwhelmed by stone. “It’s formal, but it feels kind of organic; getting the right material was important,” notes Michael. “We didn’t want it to feel like a courthouse.”
In Graham’s design, the hardscape and granite steps are living forms that change with each season. Meticulously installed by Oldetowne, the steps are joyful movements in this garden’s choreography, with subtle planting pockets. “Pockets of soil are tucked into unlikely places to offer moments of joy, texture, and exploration,” says Graham. “The vertical layers of structure express themselves then disappear during the cycles of the seasons as spring bulbs appear, perennials rise, roses bloom, colors fade, and the evergreen backdrop resumes importance.”
The wall and generous steps define the garden and solve the drainage problem. The stone for the garden wall matches the stone found on the home’s facade and was quarried five miles from the project. A sculpture by New York artist Donald Baechler offers a focal point and is situated “to hold the middle distance and the strong east-west axis from the house to the upper garden greenhouse,” explains Graham.
There is splendor in the hardscape and throughout this garden. Kruger has almost every flower he ever wanted. “You ask which flowers we have to have… the question is, really, which ones can’t we have.” Michael cannot name a favorite flower but admits, “Roses and peonies, we had to have them.” Their answers reveal an insatiable thirst for beauty, a need to simply work the ground and watch things grow.
Clearly, for Michael and Kruger, gardens are essential to daily life. You might even say that the world is their garden and that their garden holds a world. To stroll its winding paths, abuzz with dragonflies and bees, is to stroll not only through their imagination but through a vigorous ecosystem with inhabitants of its own. Some are not exactly welcome. Michael recalls how he watched his small grapevine, planted in a pocket on the third tier, twine beautifully and thrive, producing succulent grape clusters. Just before harvest, disaster struck: “An animal attacked the grapes, ate the inside and spit the seeds out. I came out to skins and grape seeds scattered all over the place.”
There is never a dull moment in this garden. When he is not mourning his lost grapes or feeding the Koi in the adjacent Zen garden, Michael may be found tending to his orchids in his greenhouse equipped with a radiant heat floor. Covered in vines and flowers blooming overhead, it is just steps away from the main garden. Inside are fifteen types of Vanda orchids, many hanging from the ceiling in pots. Long stems and extravagant blossom clusters shoot out at the ceiling, walls, floors, and visitors—as if gesturing in heated conversations.
Graham thinks about gardens almost as if they are living friends, helpful friends. He shares a favorite quote by the seminal landscape architect Thomas Church, credited for breaking down visual and emotional barriers between home and garden, people and plants. “The new house with its small garden must go to work for us, solving our problems while it also pleases our eyes and emotional psychological needs.”
Graham calls his project “A Gardener’s Garden.” This large house garden, conceived by expert gardeners, is performing its Thomas Church-defined duties—if not exactly solving personal problems, it certainly pleases the eye and lifts the spirits. Well-fed and watered, with cycles of activity and rest, it seems to behave in an almost human fashion. Or is it the other way around? Perhaps the garden thinks its owners are functioning nicely, visiting often, and assisting with its problems. If this is the case, Graham may want to re-title his project “A Garden’s Personal Gardeners.”
Hellenium • Tuberos • Jasmine • Clematis • Climbing Roses • Mexican Torch Flower • Butterfly Weed • Plume Celocia
White Black-Eyed Susans • Sweet Pea • Dahlias • Rouge Royale Rose • Tithonia • Bergamot • Orange Tree • Australian Finger Lime
Verbena Bonariensis • Tobacco Flowers
LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: Jay Graham, Moody Graham Landscape Architects, moodygraham.com, Washington, D.C. | HARDSCAPE: Oldetowne Landscape Architects, otlainc.com, Frederick, Maryland | ARCHITECTURE: BarnesVanze Architects, barnesvanze.com, Washington, D.C.