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Creative Contours
Barbara Tafel Thomas

A reoccurring challenge for architects, homeowners and designers is the creation of living spaces beyond the foundation of the home on a challenging terrain.  It is commendable when a designer is sensitive to not only these natural surroundings but also effectively interprets the needs and desires of the client.  Dramatic changes in elevation can be perceived by some as a negative which generally means that they are either too challenged or not interested in the project.  If viewed from a creative perspective, the contours become an asset.  Not to be dictated by these challenges, landscape designers have different approaches to the manner in which they creatively sculpt the ground much as an artist would view their canvas.  Many even relish the challenge of uneven ground because it provides not only drama but an opportunity to further define outdoor rooms.

In his book, Pioneers of American Landscape Design, Charles Birnbaum referrers to the “picturesque”  style that Frederick Law Olmsted applied to “the steep and broken terrain planted thickly with a variety of ground covers, shrubs, and vines in order to achieve an effect of bounteousness profusion and mystery”.  As the father of landscape architecture, Olmsted is recognized for his masterful ability to sculpt the ground as a means of creating vistas and outdoor living spaces.  When he was commissioned to design a park system in Louisville from 1891-1905 , Olmsted worked with the natural depressions in the Jefferson County terrain by planting grass in the interior of the low areas referred to as “dells” or “dimples” and strategically placed substantial native hardwood trees such as oaks and beech along the upper rim.  Each tree becomes a focal point with its pronounced roots and thick vertical trunks rising majestically from the ground.

Architects and designers today face these timeless challenges. The present Louisville home of Mona and Rick Powell is a case in point of an extreme terrain.  A 50 foot drop in elevation from the front to the rear of the two and a half acre suburban lot dictated limited options for the positioning of the home.  Neville Blakemore designed the house for his family and chose not to disturb the natural vegetation with the exception of a small formal terrace on the lower level with a pond surrounded by peonies.  The steep fall-away was not mowed and treated as a wildlife refuge with an abundance of ferns and wildflowers beneath a thick canopy of hardwood trees.

The house was sold to the Lerman family who commissioned landscape designer Bruce Carnahan with the challenge of transforming the unusable hillside into a more functional space.  Judy Miner (Lerman) rejected the idea of a deck and preferred that the new space be on ground level with perennials beds and pathways to accommodate entertaining areas as well as garden cart access. “Mrs. Blakemore’s formal peony garden and circular pond was a perfect launching point for the new project” says Judy.

Due to limited access,   pressure treated landscape timbers were chosen to construct the retaining walls necessary to carve level spaces into the hillside.  Carnahan, who has a strong presence with a 6’3” frame crowned with red hair, is quick to interject that “it took 450, 16 foot; 6X6 timbers pegged with rebar to hold the hillside.  We moved each and every one into place and excavated most of the dirt by hand.”

Five terraces, each with their own elevation, are large enough to accommodate a large table and chairs for entertaining.  Unique patterns of mitered brick laid in sand provide interest to each base.   The levels are transitioned with exceptionally broad 10 foot steps which gently lead visitors down the garden hillside.

Interspersed along the walkways are numerous flower beds which hold bountiful quantities of jonquils, iris, daylilies, perennials, and flowering shrubs.  Mona and Rick Powell, the present owners, have added interesting varieties of shrubs, herbs and ornamental grasses. A creek stone fish pond at the upper level spills into a narrowly channeled waterfall which drops approximately 25 feet into a much larger fish pond on the lowest elevation.  Carnahan was attentive to maintenance needs by incorporating a compost area as well as ramped, mulched paths for garden cart access.  Ah…, those practical details!!

The end result of the 10 month project was a pleasant experience and a delightful surprise.  Mona and Rick view the high maintenance yard as an attraction unlike others who question its overwhelming commitment. Because the grounds, gardens and ponds are so well maintained I asked Mona is she would share her resource for garden and pond maintenance.  “It is the best kept secret in town…” she apologized. “I will share it with you because he is not for hire; he is my husband!”


Approximately 20 years ago, I was faced with a similar hillside challenge just several miles.  Reclaiming the unused hillside was a common goal but a different approach should be noted.    Little did I know at the time that this project would become the distinguishing feature of our home and turn my passion for gardening into a profession as a landscape designer.

The rear of the house offered magnificent views of a deep, private, rolling terrain but a lack of access was a frustration and an inconvenience.  A wide screened porch rises approximately 15 feet above the rear foundation but its sense of height is accentuated by the grade changes throughout the property.  The far side of the house is anchored by a bowed bluestone terrace with wide, brick steps up to the screened porch on one end and down to yard on the other.  Connecting the ends of the house with a walkway was not only our challenge but a necessity for our large and active family.   The contour of the land and the fact that the elevation dropped suddenly from the foundation dictated that a retaining wall would be a necessary factor in creating a level area wide enough to accommodate a walkway which would serve as a connecter between the two given points.

We proceeded with enthusiasm rather than trepidation by viewing this challenge as an opportunity to bring the outdoors into the house by enhancing its views.  Creating the spatial concepts of the project ourselves was exciting due to the fact that my husband and I, along with our three children enjoy the outdoors and make it a high priority. Finding an excuse to get outside, whether it is sports activities or yard work seemed to be a common family interest and the commitment to this exterior improvement to our home took priority over all indoor projects.   I bought books, ripped magazine pages, questioned friends and interviewed professionals in order to develop a plan which encompassed most of our needs. Simplicity, low maintenance and an evergreen anchor became a mantra for the project!  It was at this point that I called on landscape designer Mary Webb who shared this design approach and confirmed that “because there were so many views from the house, the garden should have boxwoods as an evergreen anchor minimal flower beds.  The more beds that you design, the more maintenance you create!”

A fish pond was an element that my husband and I agreed would not only be a feature but reminiscent of our grandmothers, both who had incorporated ponds into their beautiful gardens.  Pulling the retaining wall further from the house opened views to the terraced area from the upper bedroom windows as well as the family room and screened porch and created a perfect location for a pond.  In retrospect, the pond has been one of the greatest joys of the project.  Its sights and sounds have interest 365 days a year. Fish spawn in the early spring and rise to the surface from their winter sleep to greet the warmth of the sun; the surprise of water lily blooms that skim the waters’ surface in the summer; majestic koi and fantails swarming with open mouths  in response to a finger or a morsel of food  ; a iron chandelier hanging over the pond adding a bit of drama at night combining the  elements of fire and water; and finally the incredible ice sculptures created from the spray of the fountain in the winter months. By simply cracking a window or opening the French doors across the back of the house, the sound of the fountain can be heard from the upper bedrooms as well as the family room, kitchen and porch.  The splashing sounds alone are a constant beckoning to come outside and experience the garden.

Centering of the pond across from an established dogwood provided an opportunity to design cross paths with steps into the yard on one side and benches on the other.  Extending the walk beyond the sides of the house enabled us to create  gated entrances on each end of house and lengthen the 4 quadrants of perennial beds created as a result of the cross walks.

My garden does not exist for its flowers.  They are welcome visitors and an infrequent adjunct to its beauty.  They are an aesthetic grace providing just another element to a seasonal effect. The more permanent elements are obtained from the boxwood anchored at the corners of the beds, the formal pond and lead fountain, the brick walks and iron benches, the two sets of wide steps down to an uninterrupted expanse of lawn and trees and the multi levels of terraced living spaces.  These areas are visually pleasant independent of the seasons.

Over the years, the bones of the garden have remained constant. I have found some perennials to be more successful than others and have tested many varieties of flowering shrubs along the side fence lines. Vegetables, annuals and a rose garden have been added to a lower terrace beneath the retaining wall due to the fact that they are not pleasant to view in the off season.

Not only has this garden project been my therapy throughout the years but piqued my interest in design and horticulture.  Formal classes on these subjects and accumulating hundreds of books have been beneficial but the most invaluable knowledge has occurred as a result of an eleven year association with Mary Webb, my mentor, landscape design partner and good friend.   Designing for others is now a passion as well as a profession.  As with art and music, there are certain axioms to follow but it is the different interpretations which make piece unique.  No two landscapes are the same and a designer has the challenge of deciphering the needs of the client, assessing the given elements and the contours of the land, and orchestrating the project.  To take a piece of unusable land and sculpt it into beautiful exterior rooms is a truly rewarding experience.