A Cool, Quiet Corner of the World
To create the sense of a secret outdoor room, partners Robert Khazzam and Kevin Treanor planted a woodland garden, complete with a “forest floor” and a canopy of trees that provide deep shades of green and dappled sunlight in their private oasis.
Once an uninviting stretch of underbrush littered with refuse from an adjoining lot, the potential for this Dix Hills, New York property lay hidden. Nearly 18 years ago, the only sign of shadows and shade came from a stand of seventeen Long Island pitch pines, several mature black cherry trees and a solitary oak. But owners Robert Khazzam and Kevin Treanor recognized the solitary specimens as the overstory to their woodland shade garden.
“Initially, we wished to both soften the appearance of the right angles of the fence that defined this space at the rear of the plot on three sides and create the sense of a deep forest glen or hollow,” says Khazzam. Guided by trial-and-error as much as by design, Khazzam and Treanor now find the corner of their garden beckons with cool shade, the smell of cool, moist earth, and the sounds of falling water and birdsong.
Beneath larger shade trees, this walkway meanders through assorted Japanese maples for outstanding fall color with spring blooming Eastern redbud, (Cercis canadensis) and flowering pear (Pyrus calleryana 'Cleveland Select'). Beneath these are assorted rhododendrons and showy ferns.
The “forest floor” or understory is planted with a variety of uniquely textured and colorful plants.
For the path, Khazzam and Treanor chose cement stepping-stones that had been dyed and cast to resemble the cross-sections of large tree trunks. “The resemblance is uncanny!” Khazzam explains. “We set them in an informal, meandering way that winds through the middle ground of the shade garden and invites you from one end of the garden to the other.”
Pictured left: Bold spring color pops with Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans' on the left and Rhododendron 'Nova Zembla' in red at right. In the foreground a blend of cranesbill geranium hybrids and swanky variegated hostas.
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Taking a cue from nature, the inspiration for the design of the garden came from the existing trees and paying attention to the degree of light dancing across the border fronting the woodland. Khazzam selected shade-loving plants combining flower color, leaf texture, and bloom time.
“The perennial borders were inspired by the designs of Gertrude Jekyll who emphasized short plants in the front, mid-sized plants in the middle and taller ones in the back,” Khazzam explains. “We arranged the understory specimens in a repetitive pattern facing the house in an arched border fronted by an area for a perennial border and a foreground of grass.” The alternating color was inspired by the pleasant effect and mood Khazzam felt the pastel colors created.
Pictured left: The border early in the season with both Rhododendron 'Roseum Elegans' and Rhododendron 'Nova Zembla' in full bloom. Later in the season the white flowered Doublefile Viburnum and Pieris japonica 'Mountain Fire' with its hot colored new growth adds zest followed by a huge show of feathery astilbe hybrids and creeping cranesbill geranium hybrids.
Some of the biggest challenges of this half acre property are in maintenance. Though Khazzam selected plant material for minimal maintenance, he did not shy away from choosing plants that required staking or frequent deadheading.
In addition, the garden requires regular attention to its changing needs and habits. “Since I allow self-seeding within the garden to create surprise drifts, I have to carefully hand remove the plant material—weeds—that I do not want, and shape the 'drifts' to my liking,” he explains. To accomplish this, Khazzam has learned over the years what each perennial looks like in the seedling stage to distinguish it from an unwanted weed. “It takes a steady and sure hand to 'shape' the 'naturalized' volunteers,” he quips.
Another challenge is the aging of the garden which increases the areas of shade. “I have to keep up with the rhythm by either moving things around or removing and adding appropriate plant material.”
Pictured left: This close up of detailed perennial plantings shows dainty Spanish bluebell and hostas with the foliage of astilbe rising in the foreground.
From mid-late spring to early-mid summer, the blooms of Khazzam and Treanor’s garden come in three major waves. “Each wave is as strong as the last,” says Khazzam, “and the last one is the most beautiful which is in mid-to-late July, early August.” One of Khazzam’s favorite moments is the spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips, pictured left.
Each season, Khazzam adds to the garden. “You can always see unplanted pots placed in my garden ready for planting throughout the season, but more so in spring and early summer.”
The woodland garden has several rooms and several seating areas to enjoy. “The garden has really become a place that gave me an opportunity to experiment with various perennial combinations and the surprise of working with nature as the plant material moves about in drifts. It’s really a trial garden,” Khazzam says.
With paths leading to large, inviting lawns, to secluded benches and tucked away seating areas, Khazzam and Treanor’s garden is a transporting experience. It’s the culmination of a passion for nature’s beauty and the gumption to create a place you may only, at first, see in your mind.
The transformation of a debris-filled plot to a quiet, slice of heaven is not an easy one. Quoting Jaqueline Heriteau in Glorious Gardens, Khazzam says, “I quickly learned ‘…to remember that, whatever I am doing in the garden, failure is information, not disaster’.” And trial-and-error are how some of the best gardens come about.
Pictured left: The border sings in summer with Asiatic lilies, prairie Liatris and annual cosmos.