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Italian Lesson

Taking his cues from classic Italian gardens, a landscape designer uses local materials and lush plantings to create his own interpretation

The kitchen garden, on the upper tier, has a more rustic, casual look than gardens closer to the house, but is laid out symmetrically, with beds edged in box. Michael Schoeller grows the classics: tons of tomatoes, heirloom potatoes, herbs, Swiss chard, lemon grass, and things we can’t get at the local farmer’s stand. Yellow Tagetes marigolds, zinnias, gourds twining over arbors, and trumpet vine trained along the fence give the garden spice, he says

The kitchen garden, on the upper tier, has a more rustic, casual look than gardens closer to the house, but is laid out symmetrically, with beds edged in box. Michael Schoeller grows the classics: tons of tomatoes, heirloom potatoes, herbs, Swiss chard, lemon grass, and things we can’t get at the local farmer’s stand. Yellow Tagetes marigolds, zinnias, gourds twining over arbors, and trumpet vine trained along the fence give the garden spice, he says

Photographs by Philip Jensen-Carter

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Children who visit Michael Schoeller’s Putnam County garden “get it instantly,” he says. “They immediately run up and down all the paths and the steps — and that’s exactly the point. It’s laid out to explore, so you’ll think, ‘Oh, what’s that over there?’ ”

Grown-ups moving at a more sedate pace would surely get it, too — although they might respond to the many seats and benches (as well as one rustic daybed) that suggest sitting down for a minute to admire the surroundings. Although the garden is only six years old, its structures, terraces, and walkways make it feel almost as well-settled into the gentle countryside as the 1825 Federal-style farmhouse it surrounds. And although its layout is formal, geometric, and very neat, the effect is soft and natural because Schoeller lets the plants have their way. “I prefer it when they get a little jungly — too big for their space, trees hanging over more than you thought, so you have to duck. I love all that,” he says.

Italian garden

Honeysuckle grows up the pergola between the garden’s middle and upper levels. The rustic day bed (right), made from leftover cedar posts, sits amid year-old shrubs that bloom in hot colors. When they mature, it will create the ultimate outdoor bed, the designer says

Italian garden

Schoeller, a landscape designer, and his partner, Gary Holder, an architect, moved into the house in 2000. The two-acre property, once part of a large farm, was mostly brush, Schoeller says. “The previous owners weren’t much for gardening. There was evidence of a few old gardens, probably vegetable gardens, taken over by weeds and vines. It was pretty much a mess.”

Italian garden

The main terrace, with its handmade bricks, has a simple outdoor kitchen with a bluestone sink at one end. It overlooks the sunken garden, where flowers in blues and lavenders surround a fountain in a decorative pot. Beyond is the dining terrace. Boxwoods in containers (below, at the entrance to the peony garden) are a recurring theme

Italian garden

Although the couple cleared the brush and rescued some sugar maples from strangulation, it was three years before they started work on the garden. “We had a ton of renovation to do in the house,” Schoeller says. “But it was me, I was holding everything up. It’s a lot easier to make decisions for clients. I drew a batch of plans. That took almost a year. I don’t mind winging it here and there, but I like it when things are well thought out.”

The garden is well-thought-out indeed, with an emphasis on symmetry, and discrete areas defined by terraces, pergolas, hedges, and walls in the classic Italian style. Schoeller admits there are “faint references to Italian gardens. I like clear shapes, squares, ovals, circles. And I don’t like little stabs at things. But I definitely wanted it to fit in with our area.”

Schoeller brought in heavy machinery to dig foundations for stone walls and to regrade the land, which slopes gently toward the road. “We honored the land, but we terraced it a little bit to create three levels,” he says. The hardscaping took about a year and a half to complete. “I loved seeing it come together,” says Schoeller, who staved off what he calls “renovation fatigue” by planting hedges.

Two of the terraces are made of handmade bricks. “New bricks look too perfect, and I wanted it to feel old,” he says. Handmade bricks don’t come cheap, but there was a major saving on stone. “It was estimated that we needed 70 tons, and we didn’t end up buying any,” he says. “It was all gathered from the property, either from stone walls that had fallen down or that we uncovered as we excavated — nice-sized stones, perfect for walls. There are rocks everywhere in the Hudson Valley.”

The more formal pergola, paddock-style fences, and gates near the house are painted white. Luke Barrow, a craftsman from North Carolina whom Schoeller found on-line, journeyed north to build the rustic cedar arbors and fences around the vegetable garden.

 

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