From the June/July 2022 Issue  

Self-Tending Terrain

Writer Marirose Krall  |  Photographer Patricia Burke  |  Landscape Design Susan Cohan, FAPLD  |  Location Mendham, NJ

A Mendham landscape takes care of itself — and any wildlife that stops by.

Stone walls create a border between two pools. The multistemmed tree on the slope in the foreground is serviceberry, a native plant that is deer resistant.

The landscape at this Mendham, New Jersey, home was in need of repair, and the problems were more than horticultural. “There were issues with mechanicals, pedestrian access, grades, drainage and the health of existing trees,” says Susan Cohan, a fellow of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and owner of Susan Cohan Gardens in Boonton. “I was brought onto the project to tie together what had become disparate objects in the landscape.”

Clusters of Alpine betony stand at attention next to the upper pool.

The technical issues needed to be dealt with before any planting could begin. “Our first step,” Cohan says, “was to design a new grading and drainage plan that would accommodate our vision for the surrounding landscape.” She established five grade levels on the property — sauna (in a green cabin), dock, upper pool, lower pool and pool works — and created drainage channels to direct water away.

For the hardscaping, Cohan worked with the two existing BioNova® pools installed by Rin Robyn Pools® and selected materials and finishes that would blend as seamlessly as possible with the natural environment. The design included strategically placed boulders and a stone wall, which serves two functions — one aesthetic and one technical. “The boulder wall separates the pool levels and also retains landscape surrounding the upper pool,” Cohan says. The sauna was stained green and its foundation was clad in stone veneer to harmonize with the surroundings. Both pools feature bluestone coping that defines their borders while enhancing the landscape with the look of a rustic garden path.

Adirondack chairs form a conversation area on the cedar deck. Adjacent to the deck is the sauna, which was stained green to blend with the natural landscape.

When it came time for selecting plants, the clients had lofty goals. Cohan explains their three-point request. “They wanted a naturalistic setting, four seasons of interest and as little maintenance as possible beyond spring weeding.”

To ensure a natural look, Cohan selected plants that are ideally suited to flourish in the Garden State. “Whenever possible and practical, native plants and their cultivars were selected.” She started with a lawn of white clover, chosen specifically for its invasive nature. “It will ultimately blur with the edges of the beds, giving the landscape a more organic look.” Decorative plantings include ‘Northwind’ grasses, which appear in clusters on each level of the property, their leggy shoots providing color from olive green in the summer to brilliant gold in the fall.

On the deck, three baskets hold ‘Northwind’ grasses surrounded by Carex.

The grasses, which can grow to an average of 4 feet high, work well as a midheight addition to the landscape. Closer to the ground, Cohan planted native garden phlox for interest. Loftier contributions include a serviceberry tree, which is situated at the top of a gentle slope above the lower pool. In the spring, it produces white flowers that mature into edible berries.

During the project, the boulder “seat” was jokingly referred to as “Angel the Mason’s chair,” for a member of the landscape team who liked to sit there. “It ended up staying because everyone loved it,” Cohan says.

Purple Alpine betony and yellow ‘Moonshine’ yarrow bloom along the rim of the upper pool.

A frog takes a rest in the midst of the tall grasses.

Those berries, though, are not attractive to deer, Cohan explains. “The plant list was highly edited because of the area’s extreme deer pressure,” she says. “Every single plant here is deer resistant. There were deer when we were building; we knew they weren’t going to go away.” Along with the serviceberry tree, other deer-resistant plants include yellow ‘Moonshine’ yarrow and purple Alpine betony, which bloom alongside both pools.

The yarrow and betony, like most plantings on the property, are perennials, selected to meet the clients’ request for a low-maintenance landscape. “This landscape fends for itself much the way a wild landscape would, with no supplemental water beyond the first season,” Cohan says.

A water lily floats in the lower pool.

While the homeowners’ dreams of a beautiful garden with minimal upkeep were fulfilled, the landscape has benefits for the wider world as well. “One of the best results of the project, other than the clients’ delight, has been the return of wildlife to the pools,” Cohan says. “It used to be nothing but lawn; now it’s a sanctuary for pollinators and small animals. Butterflies, birds, dragonflies, frogs and fish have made it their home.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Susan Cohan won The Association of Professional Landscape Designers 2021 Landscape Designer of the Year award for this project.