In Perfect Harmony

A garden for all seasons strikes just the right balance

Text: Lucyann Boston
Photos: Greg Rannells
November/December 2011


Helen Ruppert’s Central West End garden has no season. The architectural lines she has drawn with plants are present 365 days a year, the harmony and balance as strong in December as in June.

As a talented interior designer, Helen views the landscape at the rear of her property as an extension of the perfectly proportioned Georgian facade of her home. When she began working with the garden 11 years ago, Helen set out to decorate the landscape in the same way she had decorated her home’s interior. She found inspiration in Charleston, South Carolina, a city famous for lush landscapes in confined urban spaces. It was when she returned from a trip to Charleston that Helen knew exactly how she wanted her garden to look: well-ordered, balanced and peaceful.

Achieving the tranquility she desired required taming the existing landscape and removing overgrown shrubs and trees to create a blank canvas, a job made vastly more difficult by the garden’s existing brick walls. “We couldn’t get any heavy machinery into the backyard,” recalls Helen. “We had to chop things up in small sections and carry them out.”

Helen then framed the perimeter of the yard with sculpted trees and shrubs. A regimental line of square-clipped hornbeams marches along the east side of the landscape. Evergreen southern magnolias line the rear. Redbuds soften the garden’s west wall and frame the garden gate.

On the lawn, more than 1,000 evergreen, perfectly clipped boxwoods create the parterres and geometric patterns that are a hallmark of the garden. They glow with the same rich green in winter as in summer, as does the dark green mondo grass that provides a feathery textural bridge between shrubs, lawn and hardscape.

In the garden’s center, a fountain that can spring anywhere from a few feet up to 18 feet, depending on the occasion, provides the perfect focal point and dramatic accent. Classical urns and statuary decorate the niches and garden rooms created by the shrubs. Often, Helen frames special pieces with vine-covered arches or trellises.

Two low-walled, container-filled terraces connect the garden with Helen’s two-story brick home and provide the perfect place to view the landscape and listen to the fountain’s cascading water. Even the two large oak trees that have remained on the property after Helen cleared the yard have become sculptural objects. To showcase the beginnings of the massive roots that tether the trees to the earth, Helen painstakingly removed 500 five-gallon buckets of earth to broaden the base of each tree.

Color in Helen’s garden is kept to a minimum. While containers of pink flowers decorate the terraces near the house, Helen uses only white flowering plants in the planters that are placed throughout the garden itself. The climbing hydrangeas that accent the brick walls and the azaleas at the base also bloom white. “I like the way white lights up the garden at night,” explains Helen.

Not only has Helen personally planted most of the trees and shrubs in her garden, she also meticulously maintains them. To keep the garden as perfectly trimmed as she likes, it requires “probably three days a week. I work on Saturdays and Sundays and then usually one other day each week,” she says. Even the vines that crawl up the side of the brick garage are carefully trimmed to frame the structure’s windows.

“If gardens are too messy, they make me nervous,” says Helen. “My garden is about harmony, tranquility and balance. I like the peace of everything being where it is supposed to be.”


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