For a sense of place this gardener designs with rocks
By: Penelope O’Sullivan
Date: Wednesday, Mar 13, 2013
Publication: Coastal Home Magazine
When Bob Scherer and Jeni Nunnally moved to coastal Maine from New Jersey in 1998, they wanted to live in the woods. “When we got there, we didn’t want to disturb anything living,” says Scherer, a former international services employee for AT&T in Manhattan turned antiques dealer. The Scherers found the perfect location—a house, built in the 1970s, on the Josias River with 16 acres of dense woods and ledge outcrops up to 50 feet high. You can see the river at the back door, and a vernal brook flows near one side of the house.
Over time, Scherer and Nunnally, who had been keen gardeners in New Jersey, began to cultivate their wooded site. At first, the garden was simple—a few perennials and dwarf conifers from their previous home. Gradually, developing the landscape became a priority. After they finished remodeling the house in 2007, a major rearrangement of the garden took place. Portsmouth architect Lisa DeStefano had developed for them a cottage-like design integrating the house into the wooded landscape. “Each room overlooks the gardens or feels like an extension of the exterior,” DeStefano says.
The site’s main challenge is drainage. “Rainwater flows toward the front of the house,” Scherer says. “The builders thought heavy rainwater would come into the house and wanted to make the entrance higher, but a step-down feeling into that area was an important part of Lisa’s design. She was adamant about not raising the entry.”
Scherer shared DeStefano’s point of view and came up with the perfect solution to the drainage issue. He created a front path that doubles as a dry streambed. “After heavy rains, a stream flows there, but the house and porch stay dry,” says Scherer, who did the grading and laid the stones himself. He hauled most of the rocks from the woods for the path, which took three weeks to build.
DeStefano describes the Scherers’ new landscape as an oasis from life’s hustle and bustle. “The challenge of the terrain is masked by carefully designed and implemented garden rooms, each with its own character and experience,” she says. “I am continually amazed at all Bob has done with stone and landscaping on his own. He is an artist for sure!”
Yet Scherer did not stop at the front path. One project led to another, and soon he was hauling all the stones he found to the house. Transporting them became a passion. “Moving rocks, especially heavy rocks, is a meditative experience,” he says. “It’s a challenge to move a 500-pound rock and get it where you want it.” He usually shifts boulders end over end, since they are too big for a cart.
“Sometimes I looked for a particular rock for a particular use, but more often than not, I just went out looking for good stones, and I waited to see where it should go,” he says. “Big, flat, rounded stones are the most useful. And you never know where you’re going to find them. Winters push rocks to the surface. Sometimes I’ll see a piece of stone in the ground with just a few inches showing. When you start digging around, you find that it’s a big, flat stone on edge. It’s like finding a hidden treasure.”
One outdoor room that Scherer built was against the side of the house, which now faces the Asian-influenced dwarf conifer garden. “I bought a pallet of river rock and used the flat pieces for a base in front of the seating,” says Scherer, who used a large granite stone to define the start of the path into the main garden. “We have a lot of fairly uniform-sized pea gravel around the house and not a lot of grass. I thought it would be a good idea to mix things up, since it looks more natural when you have a variety of sizes in the stone mix.”
Scherer and Nunnally brought the weathered, lichen-covered teak bench in this space from New Jersey. In front of the bench, Scherer laid two cast concrete stones inset with faces as footrests. The couple found the concrete urns and the kettle that forms the table base at yard sales. Nunnally already had the round glass tabletop from her antiques business in Ogunquit’s Blacksmiths Mall. “When you’re in the antiques business, you always have stuff,” Scherer says. “You repurpose things.”
Their repurposed garden furnishings, including a tabletop made from the flywheel on an old tractor, show their age, a characteristic that Scherer likes. “Age grounds everything,” he says. “Old objects have a look of solidity and substance.” Moreover, the mosses and lichens covering some of the rocks and benches “make a bridge between the earth and the stone.”
Flowers are not the point of Scherer’s garden. “My priorities in the garden are structure first, then texture, and then color. Jeni wants color, color, color. So we have my garden, her garden, and our garden,” he says. “If you equate it to art, you can’t have two people painting the same canvas.” While Nunnally’s garden focuses on perennials, Scherer’s leans toward trees, shrubs, and of course stone. The places that they landscape together are “elastic, with areas where neither she nor I feel strongly about the other encroaching.”
In addition to Nunnally’s perennials and the flower-filled containers she creates, the garden contains a collector’s assortment of woody plants. They grow several attractive Japanese maples and unusual rhododendrons, including narrow-leafed Rhododendron makinoi and the equally striking Rhododendron bureavii. The newer leaves and stems of both rhododendrons are heavily felted in shades of cream. Scherer also collects dwarf conifers, including pines such as Pinus thunbergii ‘Kotobuki’ and Pinus heldreichii ‘Indigo Eyes’; spruces—Picea sitchensis ‘Silberzwerg’, for example; false cypresses like Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Tsukumo’ and Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Leprechaun’; tamarack (Larix laricina ‘Deborah Waxman’); and Eastern hemlocks, such as Tsuga canadensis ‘Armistice’ and ‘Dwarf Upright’, to name a few.
But some of their most effective plants are native to the site. A few species popped up as a result of a recent landscape challenge, which came in 2008 when the septic system failed and the Scherers had to have another one installed. The resulting new system comprises concrete chambers on top of a large mound of sand, over which is a veneer of loam. “Most people seed the mound with grass and mow it, but that would have been pretty boring,” says Scherer, who wanted to cover their mound with an impermeable surface to keep trees from taking root. “What material is impervious? Stone. What can I do with stone? Make a labyrinth. So I looked online to see how to make one.”
Using bluestone and river rocks, he spent three weeks setting out the path of a 25-by-30-foot labyrinth. Smaller rounded rocks came from digging around the property and from the sand mix that came with the mound. “It was very tedious, not because of the physical work but because I had five pallets of stone to choose from,” Scherer says. “It wasn’t until I was two-thirds done that it became fun because fewer stones remained. Too many choices are difficult.”
The couple still likes living in the woods, but the woodland garden near the house became sunnier last year, when Scherer removed a few more trees. Native mosses and ferns now soften the stones along the labyrinth’s intricate course, while wild Bowman’s root (Gillenia trifoliata) grows nearby. Scherer has moved on to other spots in the landscape. “After a while, I don’t like to maintain things the way they are,” he says. “I keep adding to the garden and moving things around.”