Look Inside this Merion Station Home’s Garden Oasis

All Photos By Stephen Grovel

Ensconced in a leafy enclave near the Barnes Arboretum is a stately stone manor home deeply rooted in tradition. It lives harmoniously with properties in the surrounding Merion Station neighborhoods.

Just a few years ago, the estate was a blank canvas. The old house that once stood on the plot had been razed to make way for a larger, grander stucture. The tennis courts were all that remained. “It was bare earth,” says Charles Hess Jr. of Hess Landscape Architects in Lansdale.

Long before even a spade of soil was turned, Hess sat down with the owners to determine how they’d like to use their outdoor spaces. Wide-scale entertaining was a priority, so the design would include spacious terraces with room for multiple tables and group seating. An expansive lawn had to accommodate a large tent for special events. “Establishing plans for outdoor entertaining also gives us insights on how best to design and set up the driveway circulation and parking,” says Hess.

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Taking Cues

Hess was tasked with designing and implementing mature landscaping, creating a series of outdoor spaces that look and feel as if they’ve evolved over time. Archer & Buchanan of West Chester designed a home that would stand for a century—one with the aura of a house built 100 years ago.

To match the exterior, Doylestown’s Joanne Bateman created an opulent and timeless tableau inside the house. “There was a lot of collaboration between us, the architect and the interior designer,” says Hess. “We wanted to achieve a home that is truly seamless.”

A vibrant example of flourishing interplay between a home and its surroundings, the landscape won the 2018 Gold Award from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. A blue slate roof on the house and the limestone details on the façade inspired the paving that leads to the front of house and the terraces. Massive wrought-iron gates were crafted by Red Pepper Forge in North East, Md. They’re reminiscent of the work of Samuel Yellin, the foremost metalworker in Philadelphia in the first half of the 20th century. “It’s gorgeous, old-school, very ornate and forged by hand,” Hess says.

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The grand entrance continues with a cobblestone and flagstone circular drive that flows around a large granite fountain. Classical leitmotifs—limestone quoins, caps on columns, and balustrades—enhance the connection between the house and the landscape. A stone garden wall accented with red bricks and an arched wooden doorway ensures privacy. The steel and fretwork on the small window in the door echoes the windows on the house. “The door is an invitation to the backyard that also says it’s private—a secret garden of sorts,” Hess says.

Pops of Color

In spring, the secret garden is in full bloom with bursts of yellow daffodils that pull double duty. “Daffodils and narcissus work well because deer don’t like them,” says Hess.

Hydrangeas and hostas, favorites with deer, are planted behind the wall where they can’t be reached. Throughout the garden, texture is an essential element. Giant allium look like purple pompoms. “They add a late spring pop,” Hess says.

A blend of annuals and perennials ensures vibrant color long after the bulbs have faded. Calibrachoa (also called million bells) is a trailing perennial that brings shades of violet, blue, pink, red, magenta, yellow, bronze and white to window boxes, urns and other containers. “Where we can, we like to use Angelonia, which comes in an array of colors,” says Hess. “We also like to use petunias, verbena, geraniums and zinnias.”

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Adding more texture, a living carpet of chocolate-chip abjuga, a low-growing ground cover, was planted between the stepping stones leading to the door in the garden wall. Coral bells provide tall stalks of blossoms in the spring and striking foliage through to fall.

Native Flora

Locally, there’s a growing trend toward landscaping with native plants, which thrive in our soil and climate and require less care. “People are becoming more aware of how we all impact the environment, and as they make little changes on the home front, it hopefully can help everyone,” says Hess.

He likes ferns for shade plants, since there are so many varieties. The hay-scented kind blankets the ground in dense areas with little water and light, while cinnamon ferns provide beautiful seedpods and rust-colored foliage. Ostrich ferns sprout oversized majestic fronds. “Best thing of all, deer tend to leave the ferns alone,” Hess says. “They sleep in ferns and can mash them down, but at least they don’t eat them.”

To further add texture, exuberant blends of blooms, spikes and trailing vines are artfully arranged in massive planters, rather than in beds against the house. The designers bought limestone urns, along with custom-made rectangular lead planters specifically for the home.

Aging Gracefully

Growing trees from small seedlings wouldn’t have achieved the mature landscape the owners envisioned. Instead, the plan called for larger trees, including a pair of oaks in front of the house and a saucer magnolia in the side garden. By the entry to the garages, a river birch shades plantings of yellow yarrow and boxwoods. “The price grows exponentially with the size of the trees, plus the cost of heavy equipment to plant them, so it’s an expensive proposition,” Hess says. “The upside is you put yourself years ahead in terms of establishing
the landscape.”

A woodburning firepit surrounded by a quartet of Adirondack chairs is tucked into a private nook on the property. A blend of red and green Japanese maples surrounding the enclave creates a serene woodland vibe. “It’s an intimate space in a very grand setting,” Hess says. “We all need a peaceful place to relax and enjoy nature.”

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