INTERVIEW WITH ROBIN KRAMER, ROBIN KRAMER GARDEN DESIGN
What is the story behind this home? It was a spec house in Manchester-by-the-Sea that was almost completed when I found it. The builder was particularly interested in light, and that made the house very special. The main living space was on the second floor, where there was a double-story, barn-type great room, and the house was built into the hillside with a lot of rock outcropping. The property had what I would call “highway planting”—some juniper, some rhododendrons—like a Home Depot mishmash.
What other challenges did you have to contend with? When you have property well off the road, parking is definitely an issue. I created a massive courtyard as well as a gravel area in the front that functioned as a turnaround. There was very little flat land, which was a problem for everything, and although it was a big site, there was very little usable space.
How did the design of the home factor into the design of the landscape? The great room has several sets of French doors on either side, so the concept was very much about what you would want to see when you looked outside. Areas close to the house were very manicured, and then you moved into a more woodland landscape. It’s a Shingle-style house in a town known for its pretty beach, so the idea was to have a simple summery feel with a lot of structure for the winter months—the repetition of the hornbeams and boxwood provides a really beautiful landscape even when it isn’t green outside.
What were some additions you made? In order for the design to make sense with the home’s architecture, I started working off of the lines of the house itself, which is T-shaped. And because the house was so large, the proportions needed to be bold. When clearing land like this, which happens a lot when building new homes, there weren’t any large trees near the house. So, in the front, I put in pear trees very close to the house, and that helped the house sit down again in the landscape. On the upper lawn, the level of the hornbeams relates really well to the scale of the roofline, which was important as well.
How did you create year-round interest? My objective is always to have a design that feels fresh and that you can maintain in a way that, when you have the time to spend outdoors, it’s ready to go. It’s not about English border gardens; it’s about having something happening all the time. The beds worked overtime because there were a lot of succession blooms. It started in the spring with tulips and allium, then it went to peonies and irises, then the hydrangeas came, and at the end, there were anemone. You had these explosions of different things right through November. I use spring bulbs heavily, and I think it’s an easy way to get a lot of flowers without a lot of effort. Winter can feel so harsh, and these little bulbs pushing up is your first sign that you made it through the winter. I love spring for that reason—it’s so hopeful.
Did you keep any existing elements? Some of the steps in the back were already there, so I was married to the stacked stone, but I was fine with that because I love it and use it a lot. I built a lot of walls, and that was my first way to understand the spaces and get a handle on the various grades of the terrain.
The approach to the home looks so inviting! It started at the bottom of the hill with a fairly tight privet hedge, and as you pulled in, the woods were behind that. As you traveled farther up the driveway, the hedge stopped, and then there were masses of hydrangeas on either side. As you came around the corner, you got this peek of the house, and I put two trees on each side to give some height to the front of the house. The land then flattens out through the porte-cochère, and as you enter the gravel driveway, you’re like, “What is this place?” That was always the fun part— the gardens were a bit fancier than the town was used to, so it was a nice surprise. I think it’s important for a garden to have spaces that unfold because the idea is that you’re trying to deliver an experience at each and every turn, and it’s that sense of surprise that I like as well. It’s fun to play around with that.
Why is that important to you? My first career was illustrating children’s books, so when going to a site, dreaming up a garden, and getting to know the family that lives there, I’m also thinking of how the children will experience the space. Everyone loves a landscape, and so much of that comes from experiences you might have had as a child. I have strong memories of what my parents’ garden was like, and it wasn’t that it was such a garden; it was about being proud of your home. Those associations really stick with people, and that’s what I’m trying to do—lure you back to that basic feeling. Maybe there’s fragrance, maybe there are birds chirping. This garden was amazing for that reason—it was really set in nature, so you never knew what you were going to find.
The upper lawn is beautiful—how did you design that? We needed some flat land, so we built that wall, backfilled it and put those steps in. We used really generous proportions because even though the lawn wasn’t large, those wide steps made it feel grander and more special. The hornbeams were a way to create an enveloping feeling while you sat there, especially with the woods around you. The geometry of the upper lawn is based on the center of that bridge of the home, and by building the upper lawn so tall, you couldn’t see cars parked in the courtyard. You looked back to the house and then to the woods; you didn’t see any driveway. It was fun to play with those levels and see how you could create longer views in a short space.
Was the rear terrace existing? There was an idea for a small terrace off of the master bedroom, but I broke it down and then took away a bit of a retaining wall that was there. I built new walls, backed the plantings into those walls and added steps so you could travel up. On top of that rock, even farther up into the woods, my kids built a fire pit, which was great.
Tell me about the palette you used. It was an all-white garden, and that was something I was mindful of. We had just moved back from Germany, and I had recently lost a friend. It was a really sad time for our family, and building this garden was a lot of grit and a lot of healing. Looking back I think the white was a soothing palette.
What do you look back on fondly with this property? I actually don’t live there anymore, but what I’m most proud of is that the garden gave a heart to the landscape that the builder had given to the house. During the first two months after I moved there, he was there every day and told me the story of how he built the house, and it was such a labor of love for him. One day, he was supposed to come over and do some work, but he didn’t show up—he had had a heart attack. I went to the service and introduced myself to his family, and they all came over to see what we had done. It was one of those meant-to-be houses for me. I think that the combination of the dramatics of the house—sitting high on the hill, the double-height proportions—with the garden was very successful. Taking simple statements and making them big and bold was a risk, but it paid off here.
Landscape designer: Robin Kramer Garden Design, New York City; 978-526-4221; robinkramergardendesign.com
Landscape contractor: Corliss Landscape & Irrigation, Ipswich, MA; 978-356-4224; corlisslandscaping.com
Outdoor pillows: BOYWONDER, Reading, MA; 781-872-1315; boywonderdesign.com