How Garden, House and I Finally Nestled in Together
by David Bender, 167 Richmond Avenue
David Bender

My garden is less what I did with the space than the result of a close collaboration between me, a fabulous plant guy, and a super architect.

It caused a kitchen renovation, evolved beyond anything I imagined, and improved my living enormously. For me, the lesson is - join hands with a professional; two can do better than either alone. I’ll sketch how the whole thing evolved, but keep in mind that nothing like it would ever have happened without all three of us playing our parts.

It all started in 1894

I moved to Buffalo in ’76, to an apartment next door. The next summer, 167 Richmond had an open house. I looked in, was smitten, and bought on the spot.(Me, a lifelong student, never lived in anything other than a 2-room apartment!) It was a gorgeous 1894 prosperous burgher’s home, all original never-painted woodwork, owned by only one family from the time it was built.

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The house sits on the west half of a 35’ x 200’ city lot. The east half was about 1/3 concrete parking space, a little grass, a few tired lilacs, and some recent volunteer maples in the southeast corner. To the north asphalt parking lot, to the south more asphalt and an ugly raw brick adjunct of a church (which at least had a handsome 3-story high copper-clad dome). The east end was bounded by someone else’s garage. Needless to say, the parking lots often hosted those urban activities one can do without.

Over the next 20 years, I tried to make something like a garden. Whiteflower farms, little border plantings, some fences, the occasional shrub. I even divided the concrete with a fence, leaving half for parking, half for patio (awful). Nothing but failure after failure. I knew what I wanted, but not how to do it. I needed help.

The garden trumps the house

Finally, in 1997 I met landscaper Ben Hirsch (Beautiful River Landscape Design, 244 Dewitt St, Buffalo 14213, 886-0641). He could help, but said if I did a garden I’d want access to it from the rear of the house and suggested a local architect, Max Willig (Max Willig Architect, 415 Amherst St, Buffalo 14207, 871-9412). It had never occurred to me that you could change your house for the sake of your garden. Now I know that garden trumps house.

So the garden-to-be went on hold for two years while Max and I fixed up the back of the house which, at the time, was a tiny Victorian kitchen with a 1950 stove and 1960 ice box. I knew what I wanted. Easy access to garden, a sense of security so I could wander from house to garden leaving doors open, a place to eat & chat outside, and garage so I didn’t have to chip ice from windshield anymore. I hadn’t a clue how to get it.

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The renovation was key since it determined the overall flow of the garden spaces. We redid the kitchen, added windows and a French door to the east wall, and a small room with many windows to the southeast corner. Together these provided a wonderful visual integration with what would become garden. To the east, the French door opens on a small sunken terrace for chatting and asmall flagstone terrace for eating. From there we ran a 20’-long pergola along the north side of the lot to a 1-car garage (15’x22’, too small ever to contain an SUV).

To make me feel secure, we bounded the whole space with a 7’-high fence that incorporates the pergola and the garage. (Me: “Will the fence make me safe?” Max: “Security is a state of mind”. That did it, although even the squirrels go right over the fence.) Finally, the flagstone terrace was set off from garden to the east with a low stone wall that doubles as bench.

Making the bad stuff go away

We finished the hardscape in fall of ’99. That left a narrow 15’ x 45’ corridor leading from terrace to a 48’ x 35’ wide area at the east end of the lot. Ben and I got together again. What did I want? Make the church, the houses, the awful asphalt go away, all around. I had been on several Garden Walks and seen ponds in small spaces; so I knew small was good, and I wanted pond. I hate removing green things (can’t even bear to cut flowers for kitchen), so the volunteer maples which by now were huge stayed in the southeast corner. There was no freedom left; the basic flow of space had been determined. I had no idea at the time but now I know.

For the 48 x 35 space, southeast would be shade garden, commandeered by the dense canopy of the maples. The northwest corner had to be pond, then a sunny terrace on which to watch pond, and some flowers in the remaining sun and a little grass. The 15 x 45 corridor would be a grassy path connecting terrace with main garden (but how that evolved!).

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Trees with a purpose

From the fall of ’99 through 2000, the major trees went in (it had never occurred to me that you could place trees for a purpose! I thought nature put trees where it wanted.) On the south side, Canadian hemlocks screened the eating terrace from the house next door, rose of sharon and columnar maples erased the church, and a pair of gorgeous Serbian spruces formed a gateway to the shade garden. European hornbeams and another spruce screened neighbors to the east. My favorite tree, false cypress, and a Japanese maple made focal points for the sunny terrace. Wisteria went on the pergola (I had had it on my childhood home and felt much attached). A skyline locust to shade the sunken patio and (almost) screen the neighbor to the north.

For the shade garden woodruff, viburnum, and rhododendrons. For the grassy corridor, a burning bush, hydrangeas, some perennials, and I thought we were done. Hah! Over the next 3 years plants matured, microclimates changed, “perennials” that once worked no longer did. We tried different things and let natural selection decide.

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Gaps and omissions made themselves felt.

In went a kwanzan cherry over the pond (whose umbrella now has a profound emotional effect on one). The northern neighbor wasn’t screened well enough by the locust; so we dug a hole in the sunken terrace and put in a glorious columnar pear (in the fall, squirrels fall from branch to branch, intoxicated by the fruit). Mistakes were fixed: I love bamboo so one had gone in between the garage and the pond. Wonderful, beautiful, but it was a running ‘boo. Three years later the root punctured the pond liner. So now a lovely Fargesia takes its place

Perhaps the largest mistake has led to the greatest pleasure. I had wanted the grassy corridor because I like to pad about in bare feet. But as the border plants grew up, it got shadier and never dried out. Being narrow, one walked in the same place, crushed the grass, and turned it all to mud. By 2005 we had to fix it.

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The winding path

I wanted a winding stone path with big stones at obvious viewing places where one could pause and look and think a little. The winding gave Ben many spaces for plants, and these one sees from many different perspectives. What once was just a grassy corridor now can take me 5-10 min to traverse. And there is nothing quite so nice as a still-warm stone under bare foot as the cool of evening falls.

It has been a 9 year adventure that has doubled my living space.

The garden is my summer home; then I retreat from the monochrome grays and whites of winter to the rich wood tones and colors of the 1890s interior. But none would have been possible without Max and then Ben. Why are we not taught in school that house and garden go together? The Persians knew, the Chinese, the Japanese. Why not us? Why is landscape treated as an afterthought, a few pasties around the corporate logo? There is something very wrong in our culture. I’m just so grateful that I eventually found out that garden and house together are the priority for living.