Trade Secrets 2018: The Garden at Middlefield
The garden at Gil Schafer’s house in the Hudson Valley, aptly named Middlefield for its siting in the midst of an old farm field, was a personal project for Gil—and one of his early collaborations with long-time friend and landscape designer Deborah Nevins. The nearly 45-acre property is composed mostly of wooded hillside, but at its base, nestled in a hollow of land overlooking a stream, sits a 6-acre field which forms the setting for the house and its surrounding garden. While the design of the house is inspired by the 1840’s Greek Revival architecture commonly found in vernacular farmhouses in the region, the design of the garden is an exploration of both traditional and contemporary design ideas.
Visitors to Middlefield approach up a long drive that winds its way across a small stone bridge and up a gentle slope before offering an initial glimpse of the house atop a meadow. From there, the drive turns back into the woods and continues to climb up to the house, approaching from the side into a small gravel courtyard. The house is not set on the highest point on the property, but instead sits nestled in among new and old trees on a small knoll with the natural topography undulating all around it.
Working in close collaboration on the design of the garden, Gil and Debby Nevins wanted to create a sense of place for this new farmhouse in an otherwise undefined stretch of land. Using hedges, retaining walls made of old Pennsylvania fieldstone, large trees brought into the site, a gravel courtyard, and small panels of tailored lawns, the two sought to make garden rooms which would establish a “precinct” around the house. These rooms shaped by the clipped hedges of yew, hornbeam, and boxwood act as an intermediary space between the implied classical formality of the house and the rustic wild of the fields and woodland which surround it. Paired with details like stepping stones set intermittently into the grass, garden steps made of grass with fieldstone risers, as well as more vernacular architectural details like arbors and latticed enclosures for espaliered trees underscore that tension between formality and a relaxed, low-key comfort and charm.
The design of the garden’s hedges also allowed Gil and Debby to subtly explore a more contemporary vocabulary, bringing to the garden an abstract sculptural linearity that interacts with the rolling landscape of the fields around the house in interesting and unexpected ways. Reinforcing this idea, the tops of hedges align perfectly with adjacent stone walls extending the lines begun by one material into another.
An important aspect of Middlefield’s design is the house’s strong connection between the interior and the garden. By aligning interior axes with elements in the garden, the interior rooms become linked to garden rooms on the exterior. The much-loved screen porch on the house’s west side, for example, seems as much a part of the garden as it does of the house. The hedged room of 12’ tall hornbeam carved into the far end of that garden creates a view on the central axis of the house’s west façade, but it also extends the spatial experience of the house out into the land.
Debby Nevins has always described one of the goals of good landscape design as the “definition of territory.” Here at Middlefield, she and Gil used a relatively simple palette of garden elements—hedges, walls, trees—to give a new house a sense of place that ultimately makes it feel as if it has always been there. Without the support of these fundamental landscape gestures, the house would never possess the feeling of inevitability on the land that it has.
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