Every garden has a story to tell, says landscape designer Jay Sifford. Opening his ears and heart, he cultivated beauty from desolation.
Jay Sifford stopped in front of a house that was built into a Charlotte, North Carolina, hillside and was for sale. It wasn't the style he wanted: It lacked a walk to the front door, a poison ivy-choked ravine ran alongside it, and rotten railroad ties held back the mud. So he did what any self-respecting visionary would do—he bought it.
"The site had a beautiful beech forest, a creek, and massive granite boulders that looked like what you'd see in the mountains," Sifford recalls. "I felt like the land was speaking to me, wanting help to reach its potential." Eighteen years later, it absolutely has.
Over that time, he sculpted the half-acre lot into a number of distinct gardens, each designed to conjure different memories and emotions.
First came a koi pond near the front steps, accompanied by a series of cascading ponds that helped solve the problem of an eroding slope.
Stop, Look, Listen
The Front Garden soon followed, replacing sparse turf with a wide gravel pathway edged by a seating wall, low conifers, and Japanese maples. It's the only spot in the garden with flowering plants.
All Decked Out
Next came the Fern Glen, which features an eye-catching red Japanese boardwalk. It rises above a small ravine softened by more than 1,200 ferns. Wind chimes hanging from the trees above enhance this peaceful retreat. "I really wanted to have a secluded destination that was frankly unlike anything else in Charlotte," he explains. "It's the lowest point in the garden. I like to sit there when I need to feel humble and creative."
Make an Entrance
Other gardens ensued. The Conifer Amphitheater got its name from the slopes that shape and surround it. You enter through a rebar arbor draped with a weeping bald cypress. "This tree receives more comments than any other one in the garden," notes Sifford. Drooping, contorted conifers spur the imagination, especially the weeping Norway spruces. "Because they are so bent over, I call them "The Elders," " he says. "They remind me of crotchety church elders looking down at me."
Incorporate the Arts
Beside the house, the wooded Sculpture Garden aligns with the windows. Strips and pools of plants with chartreuse foliage, like "Everillo" Japanese sedge and "Florida Sunshine" yellow anise, mimic shafts of sunlight that pierce a forest canopy. A life-size steel sculpture of a ballerina serves as a focal point.
Open for Reflection
A set of antique Chinese doors marks the entrance to the shady Upper Garden.
On axis with the doors sits a bright red Japanese bench. "I call it my "power spot" because it's the highest point in my garden," he says. After a bad day, he can retire here and regain control, the master of his domain.
Maintaining a multifaceted garden like this might seem like a job meant for Sisyphus. Yet Sifford claims that by planting densely and using selections that require little pruning, upkeep takes only about two hours a week. "People ask me how I water it all," he says. "I reply, "I have a hose in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. When I've had two glasses, the plants have had enough as well." "
Make it Personal
Sifford may have a relaxed approach to planting and upkeep, but that does not overshadow his deep belief that a garden should be a refuge that reflects both the personality of the owner and the essence of the site. "Everyone needs a special place that's set apart from the hectic world," he states. "This is mine. It's an enveloping space that's quite unlike anywhere else I've ever been. I wake up feeling grateful and end the day the same way. I believe I've helped it become what it wanted to be but couldn't quite become on its own. I've told its story, and every place has a story that wants to be told."
We asked Sifford to reflect on the lessons beginners can learn from his garden. Read on for his pearls of landscaping wisdom.
• Don't be afraid to fail. Mistakes are often doorways to success.
• Think outside the box. If you need an arbor over a garden gate, don't settle for the usual latticework covered by clematis or jasmine. Try something crazy. You won't be sorry.
• Plant for all seasons. Here, evergreen conifers provide winter structure.
• Look beyond a plant's color. Learn to appreciate the beauty of textures and forms. It will make your soul happy.
• Give your garden rhythm. Accomplish this through repetition. Plant multiples of the same plant rather than one of this and one of that.
• Bluf the boundaries. Let a branch lean over the pathway just enough to brush the shoulders of visitors, encouraging them to stop and notice something.
• Bring water into your garden. Whether it's a vessel filled with water or a pond with a cascade, the effect is magical.
• Listen to the land. Maybe you live in a tract development that was once a farm. Incorporate a millstone into your landscape. Small nods to the story of your land will set your garden apart.
Nine to Notice
Be on the lookout for some of Sifford's favorite plants.
1. "Carnival Watermelon" heuchera
2. "Abiqua Drinking Gourd" hosta
3. "Orange Rocket" Japanese barberry
4. "Golden Spirit" smoke tree
5. "Wedding Gown" French hydrangea
6. Columbine seedling
7. Verbena bonariensis
8. "Ruby Falls" Eastern redbud
9. "Shaina" Japanese maple