Living with Ledge

A Front Yard in York Goes from Eyesore to Showstopper

Hugo-Glynn 8066aPhotographed by Rob Karosis

Not a day goes by at Cathy Glynn’s home in York, Maine, when someone does not stop to admire her front yard. The drama of her sunken ledge garden—filled with grasses and perennials nestled amid imposing rock formations—moves passersby to revel in the site’s natural beauty and creative style.

But this was not always the case.

When Tom and Cathy Glynn first built their house in 2005 at the back of their property, the front yard consisted of a giant hole, some trees, and ledge rock boulders. “We didn’t know what to do with it,” Cathy says. “All that rock was there. I couldn’t stand looking at it.” And that was in good weather. When it rained, the giant hole would fill up with water.

Hugo Before1aA before photo reveals the sunken hole and rocks that the homeowners called a front yard before the Hugo design team transformed the space.

All that changed with a combination of inspiration and perspiration. The inspiration came when the family was planning a wedding for their son. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could have the after-party here?” Cathy recalls. After studying magazines and pictures of other gardens, she started to have a sense of what she wanted for the space. Then, when she visited the 2010 Decorator Show House sponsored by the Museums of Old York, she saw the outdoor space created by Charles C. Hugo Landscape Design. “I had an idea of what I wanted. When I saw Chuck’s work, it was what I was looking for.”

Making Cathy’s vision a reality, however, would require moving vast quantities of dirt and uncovering the ledge underneath—in other words, lots of perspiration. The Hugo design team had worked with ledge before and had a sense of how to tackle the massive stone. “I wanted to chase the ledge down and see what was there,” Chuck Hugo says. “And it did exactly what I thought it would do.”

“We want to have a feel for the stone and a curiosity about how it is moving below the surface,” says Hugo’s design associate, Maya Travaglia. “Also, we need to be very careful not to scratch the stone with the equipment.” Though they were no strangers to the challenge of working with ledge, the amount of it in the Glynn’s front yard was still staggering. “We had exposed ledge before, but not to this extent. We hadn’t encountered this amount of digging down.”

Hugo-Glynn 8030a Fine-textured grasses delight the homeowners. Hugo chose hardy, low-maintenance plants that bring interest to the garden year-round. The wooden seating and fire pit add to the mix of elements, beckoning visitors to linger and relax.

The team started work at the Glynn’s in the fall of 2010. Although Hugo and Travaglia had a working knowledge of the many challenges they faced, there were still surprises. “We got to a point in construction where there was a big storm and the construction site filled up with water. We brought in more crushed stone and drainage,” Travaglia says. “The amount of crushed stone we used was amazing.”

The numbers tell you just how amazing. About 120 cubic yards worth of dirt and rock were taken away to reveal the ledge before a huge amount of fill and stone were then brought back in. The amounts make most landscaping projects look like sandbox play: 78 tons of crushed stone, 54 yards of fill, 60 yards of loam for beds and around the fire pit area, 5 tons of peastone (a type of small, smooth rock), and 60 yards of gravel were brought in. When they were done, they had exposed boulders six to eight feet high and had created a sunken garden that was five feet deep.

Their efforts resulted in a garden that makes you stop, stare, and definitely want to linger. The Glynns entertain frequently in that space—the number of people that fit comfortably in the two rooms, or defined circular spaces at the garden’s center, amazes them. “Over a hundred people can easily gather there,” says Cathy, who gave the post-wedding party in the garden as she had hoped.

Hugo Glynn 8042aContrasting textures and appealing details make this space inviting. Dividing the garden into two rooms creates a perfect entertaining area.

What makes her gardens so appealing are not only the dramatic ledge mounds but also the carefully chosen lighting enhancing the rocks. In the evening, the lighting, which accents different sections of plants and rock, creates a warm ambience. “We used lighting to create intimate areas, help define space, and to accent interesting nooks, crannies, stones, and plant materials, as well as to light the paths,” Travaglia says.

Selecting the lighting fixtures was a mixture of creativity and practicality. First, Hugo chose a few lights based on what he thought would look attractive in that space. Next, he staged them in the space, returning in the evening to study the overall lighting design in case it needed an adjustment. “Tweaking may mean adjusting the voltage higher or lower, or it may mean just turning it a bit to shine on a particular plant or stone,” Travaglia says. “It’s like the theater piece of the design.”

The Hugo design team uses CAST lighting, which they buy from BISCO in Portsmouth. The designers say that these products withstand New England’s variable weather and age beautifully. “It is a higher-end lighting made of solid bronze so it gets a nice patina,” Travaglia says. “It is not a cheap fixture, and it has some weight to it.” The lighting accentuates both the surface of the stones and the plant textures; a fire roaring in the fire pit creates visual movement that heightens the effect.

Hugo-Glynn 7943a

When selecting plants for the garden, the team had to consider two main factors: the front yard has full sun exposure  and the clients’ busy schedules. So sticking with hardy, low-maintenance, New England plants that would thrive in heat and full sun was essential. Baptisia, also known as wild indigo; Sedum; pink-flowered Echinacea; and Perovskia or Russian sage, a purple flowering plant, combine to create a lush look.

The design team also selected grasses that thrill client Cathy Glynn. “The grasses are so beautiful, and so is the lighting,” she says. “Chuck picked plants so that something is in bloom all the time.” The team used a sedge (Carex) and two types of maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and M. sinensis ‘Morning Light’ in the project. Cathy was pleased with the degree of privacy that Hugo’s landscaping gave them from neighbors. Tall trees that line the property include Blue Point juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Blue Point’), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), and balsam fir (Abies balsamea).

The drama of stone, plants, and lighting makes for a unique and attractive space that the Glynn family enjoys. A far cry from the rocky, barren front yard they once knew, their York retreat is now a striking oasis.

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