Italian Lesson

Taking his cues from classic Italian gardens, a landscape designer uses local materials and lush plantings to create his own interpretation

Children who visit Michael Schoeller’s Putnam County garden “get it instantly,” he says. “They immediately run up and down all the paths and the steps — and that’s exactly the point. It’s laid out to explore, so you’ll think, ‘Oh, what’s that over there?’ ”

Grown-ups moving at a more sedate pace would surely get it, too — although they might respond to the many seats and benches (as well as one rustic daybed) that suggest sitting down for a minute to admire the surroundings. Although the garden is only six years old, its structures, terraces, and walkways make it feel almost as well-settled into the gentle countryside as the 1825 Federal-style farmhouse it surrounds. And although its layout is formal, geometric, and very neat, the effect is soft and natural because Schoeller lets the plants have their way. “I prefer it when they get a little jungly — too big for their space, trees hanging over more than you thought, so you have to duck. I love all that,” he says.

Italian garden

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Honeysuckle grows up the pergola between the garden’s middle and upper levels. The rustic day bed (right), made from leftover cedar posts, sits amid year-old shrubs that bloom in hot colors. When they mature, it will create the ultimate outdoor bed, the designer says

Italian garden

Schoeller, a landscape designer, and his partner, Gary Holder, an architect, moved into the house in 2000. The two-acre property, once part of a large farm, was mostly brush, Schoeller says. “The previous owners weren’t much for gardening. There was evidence of a few old gardens, probably vegetable gardens, taken over by weeds and vines. It was pretty much a mess.”

Italian garden

The main terrace, with its handmade bricks, has a simple outdoor kitchen with a bluestone sink at one end. It overlooks the sunken garden, where flowers in blues and lavenders surround a fountain in a decorative pot. Beyond is the dining terrace. Boxwoods in containers (below, at the entrance to the peony garden) are a recurring theme

Italian garden

Although the couple cleared the brush and rescued some sugar maples from strangulation, it was three years before they started work on the garden. “We had a ton of renovation to do in the house,” Schoeller says. “But it was me, I was holding everything up. It’s a lot easier to make decisions for clients. I drew a batch of plans. That took almost a year. I don’t mind winging it here and there, but I like it when things are well thought out.”

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The garden is well-thought-out indeed, with an emphasis on symmetry, and discrete areas defined by terraces, pergolas, hedges, and walls in the classic Italian style. Schoeller admits there are “faint references to Italian gardens. I like clear shapes, squares, ovals, circles. And I don’t like little stabs at things. But I definitely wanted it to fit in with our area.”

Schoeller brought in heavy machinery to dig foundations for stone walls and to regrade the land, which slopes gently toward the road. “We honored the land, but we terraced it a little bit to create three levels,” he says. The hardscaping took about a year and a half to complete. “I loved seeing it come together,” says Schoeller, who staved off what he calls “renovation fatigue” by planting hedges.

Two of the terraces are made of handmade bricks. “New bricks look too perfect, and I wanted it to feel old,” he says. Handmade bricks don’t come cheap, but there was a major saving on stone. “It was estimated that we needed 70 tons, and we didn’t end up buying any,” he says. “It was all gathered from the property, either from stone walls that had fallen down or that we uncovered as we excavated — nice-sized stones, perfect for walls. There are rocks everywhere in the Hudson Valley.”

The more formal pergola, paddock-style fences, and gates near the house are painted white. Luke Barrow, a craftsman from North Carolina whom Schoeller found on-line, journeyed north to build the rustic cedar arbors and fences around the vegetable garden.


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Italian garden

The neat gravel parking courtyard is softened by a profusion of roses on the trellis — a mix that sums up Schoeller’s gardening style

For first-time visitors, a sense of what’s to come begins at the graveled driveway, where you pass between stone pillars and approach a low stone wall topped with white lattice that encloses a parking courtyard. (Roses scrambling over the lattice are a clue that the strict neatness rule doesn’t apply to plants.)

If the affable Schoeller leads a tour, it will probably begin at the small garden between the courtyard and the side entrance to the house. It’s one of his favorites, with white or silvery plants and a few blue hostas creating a calm feel. Stone steps (“on the central axis of the side porch,” he points out) lead to a garden full of late-summer bloomers in reds and oranges, then to the main terrace, which overlooks the square sunken garden, devoted to plants that are blue or lavender. A fountain burbles in a decorative pot in the middle.

The designer relaxes on steps built with stone collected on the propertySchoeller

Italian garden

 A white paddock-style fence sets off the 1825 farmhouse

 Next comes the dining terrace (“exactly the same size as the main terrace,” he notes), and then, through a gate, the peony garden, whose “big to-do in May and June” gets a boost the rest of the year from yarrow, Jerusalem sage, nepeta, and an assortment of annuals. Although Schoeller has added to the peony collection, he found as many as a hundred smothered in forsythia along an old stone wall when he was clearing the property. “The stone wall went in 20,000 directions,” he says, so he had it rebuilt, but left it in its original position, out of square — something you’d notice if you saw it from the air, he mentions. So, you might ask, is he a slightly obsessive person? “Of course not,” he replies, merrily. “Although you have to go over the top before you realize you’re over the top.”

Back to the tour. In the shrub border, ivy is rapidly making its way up an iron gazebo-like structure. “If you stand there and look across the border you see the rustic daybed in the other shrubbery — and it’s a straight line,” says Schoeller, with glee. “What else would it be?” Young lilacs, hydrangeas, and viburnums will grow big enough to create the feeling of a shrubby tunnel, he hopes.

Italian garden Italian garden

Clockwise, from top left: Adirondack chairs overlook the lower levels of the garden and the dining terrace

In the Chanel garden, a big Chinese limestone pot had to be lifted into position by machine — and is never coming out, Schoeller says

The square lattice gate at the side entrance of the house matches the lattice around the courtyard

Italian garden

Further up, a lawn leads past a shady area to the Chanel garden, so-called because all the flowers and foliage are pink, black, and white, an “interesting challenge” that Schoeller set for himself. A seriously hefty Chinese pot carved from a single piece of limestone sits in the middle.

More steps lead to the vegetable and cutting garden on the upper level. The fenced vegetable garden is like a classic foursquare French potager, complete with pyramid tuteurs to train vining plants upwards, beds edged in box, and gravel paths. Schoeller agrees that the idea was to make something beautiful as well as functional. “But I call it the kitchen garden, so nobody will think I’m being pretentious…. I don’t really like naming the garden areas,” he goes on. “But they get named by default, otherwise you can’t tell your gardener where you want work done.” Directing the gardener may sound grand, but Schoeller has help only one day a week. “And Gary deadheads and does other nitpicky jobs I don’t have the patience for. And he helps pay for it,” Schoeller adds.

Potted boxwoods clipped into mounds are everywhere, used to mark entrances or add height. (The biggest ones spend the winter wrapped in burlap, with their pots insulated in plastic. The smaller ones are planted in a nursery and protected with burlap windblocks.) Even though there are flowers in the garden, the overall effect is one of soothing, calm greenery.

Schoeller took up landscape design 10 years ago, after many years as a menswear designer, most recently for Emanuel Ungaro. In 2003, he formed a partnership with Sandra Ruzicka, who is a painter as well as a garden designer, so each brings a different creative discipline to their landscaping projects. “Garden design is much more satisfying than fashion design,” Schoeller says. “Somebody said it’s the slowest of the performing arts. You don’t see the results of what you’ve done for at least two or three years. I like the idea of letting something creative develop.”

Even though Schoeller’s garden may appear finished to an observer, another terrace is in the works. “There’s always a project,” he says, listing several more that he’s already thought of. “I hope I get it done before I’m done.”


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