Written by Blair Farris
Photography by Ira Montgomery
Landscape Architect: Paul Fields, Lambert’s Landscape Company
On a tree lined street in Highland Park, quiet elegance is found behind the layers of clipped hedges of Nellie R. Stevens holly and Little Gem magnolias. The quiet is punctuated by grandchildren’s laughter and joy, spouting fountains and lush annuals and perennials. But the garden wasn’t always this way.
In 1999, when Marcy and Steve Sands were well into the third design of the garden, they felt it just wasn’t right. After several recommendations they called landscape architect Paul Fields, Director of Design for Lambert’s Landscape Company in Dallas, TX.
Their first meeting began with a lively discussion and then a rough sketch to generate conversation about the redesign. At first sight, Fields realized the English garden didn’t fit because it was not cohesive with the Italian Renaissance style of the home. The Sands loved the new ideas Fields offered from the start and the team set about to create a garden centered on the Italian style architecture of the home, but using the plants and materials that thrive in Texas. What ensued is a verdant garden encompassing a series of outdoor rooms with incredible attention to detail creating a secret garden that is not completely revealed at first sight, but must be explored.
The project from start to finish only took about 18 months. Fields felt the motor court needed to be in scale with the front of the limestone house. They pulled up the antique cobble stones and reset them in sand with dichondra—a tiny, but tough evergreen ground cover—planted in between to give the driveway a feeling of age. The parking court was enlarged and a carved limestone bench added that also serves as a retaining wall. Large rectangular lead planters with clipped boxwoods were placed at the front of the house to transition the scale of the house down to the garden.
Entering the garden on the west side from the driveway through a beautiful wrought iron gate, one arrives in the first garden room with espaliered pear trees and a giant antique olive jar that is used as a rain barrel. Continuing on to the planked limestone dining terrace, a wrought iron pergola with Confederate jasmine was designed to shade the area from the hot Texas sun. A cooling wall fountain of five lion heads creates an intimate spot for dining and is always enjoyed from the family room.
Walking along a crushed stone path to the main garden one passes a fabulous carved stone bench before entering a formal garden of clipped boxwoods, five terra cotta urns with bay laurel topiaries and seasonal color of blue pansies in the winter and red winged begonias in the summer.
The most extraordinary part of the design is the axis that was created. “The main axis, which runs north and south through the central hall of the house and the leaded glass loggia, visually connects the front and rear gardens with an incredible vista through the glass doorways. The axis is determined by two cut stone elements, a carved stone radius bench in the front motor court and a monumental grotto fountain with cherubs beyond the elegant pool, marking the furthest perimeter of the rear garden,” commented Prissy Gravely in her submission of the garden for the Smithsonian Archive of American Gardens.
Using a virtually flat site, Fields ingeniously created garden rooms that mimicked the topography naturally existing in Italy. There are three levels to the garden rooms, with the house and the pool the highest level. The Pennsylvania bluestone walkway under the allée of Natchez crepe myrtle is the mid-level, with limestone and grass steps down to the verdant lawn panels creating the lower level. Devising the different levels to the garden adds interest to the garden rooms, but is also reminiscent of the formal Italian gardens that many times have multiple grade changes.
A crucial part of the design was finding the carved Vichenza stone statues that anchor the four corners of the garden. The female statues, draped in the climbing rose Buff Beauty, represent the four seasons holding wheat sheaves, spring roses, grape clusters, and acorns. The statues sit atop exquisitely crafted low limestone walls with clipped boxwood hedges, azaleas, and roses softening the edges.
“The boxwood hedges are the thread that holds the garden together. It reinforces the structure of the garden. The allée of crepe myrtles, and the pleached magnolia trees provide structure as well as create walls and a ceiling that give the garden rooms a human scale,” says Fields.
The pleached Hasse magnolias form a clean architectural wall between the yard and the pool area inviting a sense of mystery and exploration. The east side of the property holds an extended allée of East Palatka hollies that are underplanted with ophiopogon. The allée runs from the front of the house back to the pool area. Two painted blue benches placed at each end anchor the space and draw the eye out, while large terra cotta olive jars punctuate the walk and iron chairs provide a wonderful place to relax and view the garden from under the canopy of the hollies. “The many antique garden ornaments that we found for the garden makes it quite special,” says Fields.
Looking from the house out the main axis to the focal point of the grotto across the pool, one sees the beautiful stone draped in climbing ivy and flanked with lead cherubs. In the hot summers of Texas the sparkling waters of pool and fountain are a welcome respite.
Surrounding the pool terrace is plenty of room for the lounge chairs, classic terra cotta pots with standard roses, climbing Henryi clematis vines intertwined with climbing New Dawn roses and clipped hedges, while still providing ample space for the grandchildren to play.
The potager or kitchen garden was recently transformed into a cutting, herb, and rose garden. “It is our absolute favorite space at the moment,” says Marcy Sands. “We adore seeing it grow and change. The flowers are much more satisfying to us.” The new garden spills over with roses, sage, verbena, day lilies, and herbs with the architectural folly offering a dramatic backdrop to the garden while the simple fountain in the middle anchors the entire space.
“Paul Fields is creative, talented, and so easy to work with,” says Marcy Sands. “He listens and can see your vision, or present you with one that ties all of your ideas together in a thoughtful, beautiful way.”
In a fantastic collaboration to create a timeless garden, Paul Fields’ vision and attention to detail in every part of the garden and Marcy and Steve Sands’ love of beauty made it possible to create a breathtakingly beautiful and exquisite Italian garden in the middle of Highland Park.