Garden of Planes

Garden of Planes in Richmond, Virginia by Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect

The appeal of Italy is undeniable, to those who live there, have visited, or even those that have only seen it in pictures. The intimate settings of places like Tuscany and Umbria and the rich tradition of man interacting with nature, be it at the scale of agriculture or a garden, leave impressions on the mind that stays with them long after returning home. These impressions might just be what led Charles and Carter McDowell to create their very own Italian terraced garden in a courtyard of their Richmond, Virginia home.

Landscape architect Gregg Bleam approached the project, based on the final product, with both a literal and an interpretive eye. In the former vein, grape vines climb a bronze scrim, serviceberry trees recall an olive grove, and the design includes a bocce lawn. In the latter vein, the design is clearly minimalist, with spaces defined by tall sandstone walls, partial height stone walls and a linear reflecting pool. The entry even uses a shoji-like screen that fits in regardless of its historical incompatibility with Italian gardens.

The simple plan understates the complexity of the spaces and movement. After entering through the shoji gate, one has three choices: walk left to the bocce court, walk forward along the linear pool and grape vines, or walk right to the grove and "secret garden" hidden behind one of the sandstone walls. But of course one is not limited to these movements once in the garden. The orthogonal nature of the plan appears to hide the free-flowing possibilities of movement in the garden, something that recalls Italian gardens with their formal considerations yet organic spatiality and movement.

Another minimal yet successful aspect of the design is its reduced material palette. In addition to the Tennessee sandstone walls and bronze gate and scrim, there are slate steps in the brass reflecting pool. Otherwise, everything else is plantings in one form or another. And these planting work well together: the vines defining an edge between path and bocce court, the olive grove balancing its space opposite the lawn, and the hornbeam at the rear creating a boundary behind the back wall. As the ASLA jury described when awarding it an honor award last year: "very familiar vocabulary of mid-century modernism, but is much richer."