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Small Is Beautiful


Susan Cohan, certified landscape designer with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, created small space gardens on two properties in New Jersey with very different needs, approaches and solutions: a 2-acre suburban Summit garden with small garden nooks and a ¼-acre urban lot in Bloomfield. Both are small space gardens.

Prepare for a trip down Luxury Landscape Lane. You have arrived. Through the trees you catch glimpses of an incredible home. You park on the street and find a stone path leading through the hemlock to an amazing view.

Across the great lawn the house looks straight from the French countryside or from a lovely dream. All appears quiet. With not an entrance to it in sight, the adventure has begun.

“I try to create an arrival experience,” says Cohan. She designed several small gardens on this 2 ½-acre property with its 1920s Tudor Norman-style house with round turrets in Summit, New Jersey. Here, every glance is a photograph.

Close to the house, the path comes to stone steps. Up a few to a garden where plants grow between pavement and apple trees (a cordon and a four-armed candelabra) bear fruit to add to the flush design. Dwarf mondo grass ‘Nana’ planted between bluestone stepping stones, garden areas abutting the house with hydrangea, flouncy roses, lamium, geraniums and planted pots all lead to a round turret. It looks like a French castle courtyard.

A ruined courtyard in the French tradition is exactly how Cohan designed it. “We want it to look like it’s always been here.”

The property sits on a triangular crossroad. On the point where the two streets meet, Cohan created a woodland garden that went from pachysandra, poison ivy and scrub brush to shady refuge with civilized plants. She left beech, oak, Solomon seal and lily-of-the-valley, and added dogwood and hemlock plus ferns, oakleaf hydrangea, more Solomon and transplanted rhododendron and azaleas. Once a month, the hemlocks are sprayed for wooly adelgid and the deer-desirable plants with Liquid Fence.

“Where we could, we kept as many of the older mature plants because it’s heavily shaded with upland oaks. It’s got a real woodland feel to it. We’re continuing to develop it every year.”

Around back, Cohan enlarged the deck and took down an old garden with several rhododendrons and made it narrower. She placed trellises over the electrical box and PVC exhaust pipes near the house. These garden nooks now bloom continuously from April, when the heated pool is opened, through October.

Beyond the pool, Cohan created a round space with pea gravel for a trampoline and surrounded it with boxwood, arborvitae and purple vinca. After the teens no longer want the trampoline, the space will become a formal garden.

Good design is not just about pretty plants. It’s also about challenges and Cohan had several. Her biggest: the required trampoline and courtyard walkway.

After recent construction left the courtyard a mess, Cohan had to get real creative because Summit placed restrictions on what she could do.

“Many people don’t understand that every town has restrictions on how much impervious paving you can have on a property,” she says. “When the renovation was done and the driveway was enlarged and the pool deck was enlarged and the walkways were put in, there was so little amount of square footage left with the ability to pave it – and this courtyard is the entrance to the front door – that we had to literally count inches to prove to Summit that we weren’t exceeding, not even by an inch, the amount of impervious coverage we were allowed to have.”

She had about 250 square feet to work with. Most was used to expand the deck that was previously unusable. She used less than 75 square feet of impervious surface in the courtyard.

“A lot of the things I do in my work, because I love older homes, is retro-fitting for contemporary life. It’s always a challenge.”

In Bloomfield, Cohan designed a ¼-acre lot as a cottage garden for retirees Louise and Noel Gurewtch. They moved from a much larger house to a smaller one so they wanted something intimate and manageable and that they could enjoy. This one, says Cohan, is a family backyard garden with a little eating area and a place for a chaise lounge.

On this urban street, houses share front yard garden views. At the Gurewtch home, plants flounce wildly over the embankment by the street. “Here is The Fairy at its best, spilling over a brick wall,” Cohan says. This polyantha rose blooms all summer to frost.

Round back, the yard is just 20 feet x 30 feet. Through the rose arbor, lacecap Hydrangea ‘Tokyo Delight’ blocks the rest of the view, giving a sense of mystery. A few more steps and a romantic cottage garden unveils under the shade of a 50-year old Japanese maple.

Cohan is a master. She is not afraid to use big plants in small places. Their broad surfaces smooth and sooth the eye. Nothing insipid exists here. As in any art, every plant counts.

Hydrangea ‘Annabelle’ complements smooth, giant chartreuse hosta leaves in front of delicate foliage of columnar evergreens. Yellow ‘Happy Returns’ daylily blooms all summer in view of great blue gobs of mahonia fruit. Cimicifuga ‘Black Negligee’ is another goodie floating around the flowing, organic beds on recycled brick.

“The plan was to make as little pavement as possible but still be usable, to have a place and just sit and read, eat and have a larger-than-it-is feeling,” Cohan says.

“It feels as if we’ve added a room on the house,” Louise adds. “Noel wanted no lawn and a place to put the barbeque. The garden has to be self-sustaining or I will kill it.” Cohan appears every 18 months to help divide plants and make things ship shape.

This garden was on an extremely tight budget but Cohan and client lived within it. For example, the black chain link fence remained because it is in good shape and disappears behind sweet autumn clematis anyway. Fence “replacement” money was spent elsewhere to get the most bang.

The biggest challenge, says Cohan, “was the town would not let us add another step to the slider that goes out to the backyard. He would only allow us to have one step. We couldn’t have two steps. It had something to do with Bloomfield zoning.

“The important thing for homeowners is to understand that they may want to have their dream project but they have to live within the law of whatever township they’re in. In some cases, even within a housing authority, they place certain restrictions on what you can and cannot do.”

Susan Cohan Gardens: www.susancohangardens.com

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