From the June/July 2021 Issue  

Alfresco Fairytale

Writer Marirose Krall  |  Photographer Craig Mierop  |  Location Montclair, NJ  |  Landscape and Pool Design Lisa Mierop, FAPLD

A garden worthy of happy-ever-after grows in Montclair

Lisa Mierop describes the landscape layout as “a romantic sequence of small rooms.” Those entering the property from the motor court pass through what is believed to be the original 1920s brownstone wall into the “room” that has come to be known as “Jeh’s garden.” Shrub roses peek over the wall, which is bordered by American boxwoods. Oakleaf hydrangeas ‘Snow Queen’ are planted in the background.


Lisa Mierop calls the style of Jeh Johnson and Susan DiMarco’s Montclair, New Jersey, home “fairytale Tudor.” Indeed, the 1920s-era residence features a charming blend of stucco and shingles that would seem perfectly at home in a bedtime story. Mierop, of Montclair-based landscape design/build firm Mierop Design, complemented the architecture with garden spaces that are just as enchanting.

The slate roof shingles, stucco walls and whimsically shaped wings lend a fairytale aura. The house and patio are bordered by ilex Gem Box® shrubs. Globes of purple allium ‘Gladiator’ pop up amid the shrubs between two hydrangeas next to the house. A buxus Green Tower® stands tall on the patio, and a nandina domestica sits beneath the patio window.


Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security for the Obama Administration, is an attorney and much-in-demand political analyst. DiMarco is a retired dentist turned volunteer in civic and arts-related activities. The couple’s landscaping choices were influenced by a sojourn in Italy, where they were inspired by continental gardens.

This property is unique in that most of the land available for a yard is located at the side of the house. To ensure privacy on the corner lot, Mierop planted yews to create an evergreen “wall” bordering the property. Hydrangea ‘Limelight’ shrubs alongside the yews provide a profusion of white blossoms during blooming season. “Susan prefers neutrals and soft colors,” Mierop notes. Johnson, however, has a different perspective. “Jeh loves strong color in bold combinations and favors his roses above all.” To accommodate that preference, Mierop planted shrub roses in the area of the property now known as “Jeh’s garden.” Roses also make an appearance on the opposite side of the yard, where the lively pink Apricot Drift® variety spills over a new, dry-laid fieldstone wall.

The hand-tinted pergola was preweathered to look as if it were original to the home. The terrace features container displays of annuals and tropical plants.

The stone wall is just one of the hardscape elements that contributes to the whimsical quality of this garden. The terrace is accessorized by a hand-tinted pergola, which proved to be a challenge to install. “The various and competing descending rooflines made it difficult to build anything against the house,” says Mierop, a fellow of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. The solution involved attaching the pergola’s rafters beneath one roofline and allowing them to float freely above the multilevel roofline on the adjacent wall.

From the terrace, a stone ­path leads to the pool — a feature that, much like the blend of neutrals and colors — involved a compromise. DiMarco had always wanted a pool, but her husband was resistant. “He didn’t want to give up the lawn space,” Mierop explains. Johnson conceded, with the caveat that the pool be scaled so it could be considered a water feature. Mierop obliged with a conservatively sized design. “The pool is deliberately small so as to avoid being a winter eyesore while preserving maximum lawn space.”

“The pool wall is a strong, sculptural feature that creates interest any time of the year,” Mierop says. The bowls on the pillars hold assorted sedum and succulents. The large urns on each side of the fountain are filled with hardy banana, croton and yellow Creeping Jenny. Plantings behind the wall include hedges of ilex Gem Box®, hydrangea ‘Limelight’ and yew ‘Hicksii.’


The resulting structure doesn’t read like a standard swimming pool, but can be used like one. At 8 feet wide and 27 feet long, with a depth of 4½ feet, “it’s enough water to take a few strokes and more than enough to cool off,” Mierop says. The focal point of the pool area is a classically inspired wall with a lion-head fountain, a reproduction of a Donatello sculpture. The stately piece is more than just a beautiful garden folly; Mierop notes that it also serves the practical purpose of hiding the pool equipment.

Mierop will return to renovate another segment of the landscape, and she’s looking forward to it. “They’re such great clients. They’re both huge garden lovers, and it is always a pleasure to work with them.”

The entry to the driveway is bordered by pennisetum ‘Hameln’, spiraea ‘Gold Mound’, rhododendron ‘Yaku Prince’, buxus ‘Dee Runk’ and a helleborus hybrid.


Apricot Drift® roses spill over the new dry-laid fieldstone wall.

“There are little things to discover in every corner,” Mierop says of the Montclair property. In this corner, climbing roses and clematis ‘Jackmanii’ gracefully ascend a trellis.