Innovative Garden Design of a Small Property

Retirement coummunity plantings with pathway

The Challenge

What do you do when you move from a large beautifully landscaped property that is overflowing with texture and color, to a retirement community that is populated with yews and swaths of mint? Oh, and did I mention overrun with deer?

That was the tall order that I as the landscape designer had to deal with. My client was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardener so she wouldn’t be satisfied with ordinary plantings.  She wanted unique, colorful, and scaled down – but beautiful.   Also, she wanted a pathway to be able to walk around the entire property which was sloping, so that she could enjoy the plantings.

The unit was large but the limitation was we could only extend out from the walls six to eight feet around the perimeter! And the existing plantings were the usual suspects –  yews, hollies, runaway mint, and overgrown trees. Any plantings that were installed had to be small in stature in ultimate height and breadth, but also imposing enough to make a statement upon first installation. The drain pipe consisted of black corrugated above ground short lengths, that were visible and unsightly. Those were my challenges when I started to design a workable plan.

We started by tearing out most of the overgrown shrubs and trees and then we began the transformation.

The view out the back door with hollies blocking the sliding doors. I am painting the lines for the wall and pathway in white.
New wall with Green Velvet Boxwoods and Candytuft

Grading – The most important element

Because of the sloping site, a wall was required to level the grade around most of the unit. The finished height of the wall ultimately was only about 15 inches, but was mandatory so that my client could safely navigate the sloping terrain. With those features in mind, my stone mason came in and installed an 85 foot long dry stack wall of colonial bluestone around the unit until the grade leveled off towards the rear. The wall was needed so that we could install a 30 inch wide pathway winding pathway to circumnavigate the entire landscape.


The drains were replaced, extended, and buried, ending with a pop-up green cap.  The cap pops up when a downpour dumps rain and forces the top up to release the excess water. When installed, the only visible sign of the drain is the small green cap.

Drainage pop-up


A 30 inch wide pathway was dug out, edged with a very sturdy metal edging that had to be staked and hammered in.  No flimsy plastic edging would be adequate for the heavy-duty river jack that would be used for the pathway. Landscape cloth was pieced in on top of the soil so that the river jack would stay put and not be mixed into the underlying soil.  Soil pins fastened the cloth securely to the ground. Then the river jack was dumped in and raked about 2 inches thick.

Low wall surrounding the unit
Landscape cloth placed underneath the river rock with edging
Metal edging holding in the river rock


Outside of the sun room area, the client wanted a small sitting area to sit so that she could enjoy a nice summer day outside in the garden.  A small patio 8 feet x 8 feet was installed with irregular bluestone pieces in stone dust edged with cobblestones to give it definition.

Small bluestone patio edged with cobbles


The plantings were installed immediately next to the wall area bordered by the pathway and wall.  I had about 3 to 4 feet to plant things so each plant was carefully selected and placed. On a large south-facing wall that deer eaten yews had been removed earlier, we planted an espaliered magnolia flanked with fastigiate boxwoods, with an underplanting of apricot drift roses and Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’.  The Artemisia is a great little silver leaved creeping ground cover for hot and dry situations.

Mulching the espaliered Magnolia underplanted with ‘Silver Brocade’ Artemisia

The shady front was planted with ‘Girards Rainbow’ Leucothoe, Cephalotxus fastigiata, or upright plum yew, Japanese Forest grass Hakenochloa ‘Aurea’, Hosta ‘MouseEars’ and a Tassel Fern, Polystichum polyblepharum, a real mouth full! Smallish boulders were sited to give some contrast with the Leucothoe.  A small Acer ‘Butterflies was sited at the corner.

Shady front with boulders and plants
Acer ‘Butterflies’ underplanted with Pulmonaria and boulder

The rear was anchored with a tall 10 foot Cedrus deodor ‘Kashmir’, a very narrow upright variety. The tree was beautiful! I also included in the plan a miniature Crepe Myrtle ‘Cherry Dazzle’, a miniature Butterfly Bush ‘Blue Chip’, Nandina compactas, ‘Little Honey’ Oak Leaf Hydrangeas, ‘Centennial Spirit’ Hydrangea, and ‘Twist and Shout’ Hydrangea.  The perennials included ‘Eveline’ Salvia, one of the best Salvias on the market. Also, Anemone ‘Whirlwind’ , Heuchera ‘Dales Strain’, miniature Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’,  Geranium ‘Max Frei’, Ajuga ‘Caitlin’s Giant’, and Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’.

Eveline Salvia is a rebloomer reliable perennial that deer leave alone
Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’
‘Kashmir’ Cedrus flanked with a small ‘Green Velvet’ Boxwood

Along the wall in pockets, we planted Sedum ‘Angelina’ , and Sedum ‘Silver Stone to cascade.  Also, some creeping Phloxes were planted in the wall crevices to grow along with the Sedums.

Planting perennials after the shrubs and trees go in


After the plantings were installed, the next step was drip irrigation. The irrigation is laid down with brown rubber hoses along all the plantings so the water is applied precisely to each plant. It is all connected to the control box which we was located in a nearby utility shed for easy access.

Control box in nearby shed
Irrigation controls valves for three zones- This was enclosed in a unit that was buried level with the surrounding soil.

The property was divided into three distinct watering zones, a shady front, a hot south-facing area, and a partially shaded area in the rear.  Each zone could then be calibrated to deliver water to the plants that had different water requirements.

Drip irrigation hoses blend with the soil
Irrigation pipe moving the water line to the other end of the unit

Initially, we set the drip to go on twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.  This will be our base line and we will adjust as the conditions get hotter throughout the summer.

Icing on the Cake – Mulch

After the irrigation, the tan bark mulch was laid down to a depth of about 2 inches to cover up the brown irrigation pipes and to give it that finishing touch. Now the only thing left to do is to watch the irrigation and calibrate it to the correct times depending on the  water needs.

The entire job work time was only about 2 to 3 weeks in length.  The planning process was much longer, a couple of months to get everything drawn out and prepared. I will be posting pictures of the installation as the summer progresses with updates.

Retirement community collage
Retirement community collage

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