Jerry Smith's garden space was designed with peacefulness in mind
Step inside Jerry Smith's German Village garden and it's easy to see why he schedules client meetings here. This landscape architect, who helped write the national guidelines for sustainable landscapes and designs greenspaces for health care facilities around the world, practices what he preaches in his own backyard.
“Healing gardens are designed to delight the senses—a bright spot of color to attract the eye, the sound of water or the smell of lavender,” says Smith who is a fellow in the American Society of Landscape Architects. “These elements offer positive distractions from an illness or a loss.”
Just outside the front of Smith's home, a wall of green shrubbery buffers the traffic noise. An iron gate opens to a patch of lavender and a charming brick path that leads to a raised terrace. Oakleaf hydrangeas that are heavy with blooms lean toward the path. Farther down, a large cherry tree veils an open gathering area around a fire pit. In the distance, a row of arborvitae catches the eye with its conical forms.
“We've always thought of our outdoor rooms as healing spaces,” says Smith. “That's our quiet meditation place, our connection to nature and positive distractions place, and our place of social interaction and connection to community.”
After working and living in downtown Boston for 10 years, Smith and his wife, Brooke Michl-Smith, also an architect and contributor in the garden's design, decided to return to her home state in 1995 to raise their daughter Ruby.
“German Village was the only place after living in downtown Boston,” says Smith. The couple found their diamond in the rough—an 1870s Italianate brick home just a half block from Schiller Park that was overdue for some updates.
On the exterior, the couple removed metal awnings over the windows, took down the metal louvered siding that wrapped around the front porch and eventually pulled off metal storm windows that surrounded a carport in the back. Inside, they renovated the kitchen and extended the space by knocking out a wall to an adjoining sun porch.
Next, they worked with Oakland Nursery, where Smith now works as a part-time consultant, to tackle the landscape, which he describes as “literally concrete and brick with no shrubs.”
Here, they wanted to create a respite from work, a gathering space for friends and family and a play space for their daughter.
Over time, they transformed the outdoor space into four living areas—an entry, an elevated middle terrace, a sunken garden room and an adjoining carport/event space.
“I think of it as rooms with segregations and connections,” says Smith as he points to a dividing wall of shrubs and a connecting path of bricks. “If you see the garden all at once, you have nothing to explore. So I like spaces to have a focal point to draw people in and give them surprises to find throughout.”
For the entry, they created an inviting front porch with a seating area, new railing and an antique newel post they found at a local antique mall. Nearby, they planted a Kousa dogwood with white blooms in spring and red fruits in fall.
From the porch, a brick path leads to an elevated dining terrace.
“Raising the plane [of the terrace] was key to creating a series of rooms,” says Smith. The raised terrace also reduced the number of steps from the kitchen door, making the space more accessible. A row of boxwood, an ivy-lined wall of the neighbor's home and a tall butterfly magnolia further define the intimate space. Here, they enjoy morning coffee and grow a collection of culinary herbs in pots.
From the terrace, the brick path steps down into a large garden room covered by the canopy of a mature cherry tree that blooms pink in spring. At the far end, the square space is separated from the alley with a brick wall and row of arborvitae. A seating area is surrounded by June-blooming Annabelle hydrangeas and August-blooming Tardiva hydrangeas, a Japanese maple, a Ruby Falls redbud and a collection of hostas and other perennials. In the middle, a vintage glider purchased at the German Village annual garage sale is the plumb seat by the fire pit. A water fountain finishes the space with a relaxing gurgle.
The final outdoor space is the carport. Smith connects the carport to the garden room via a tunnel of shrubs and an iron gate from his mother-in-law. He cleverly tucks this alleyway of viburnum and lilac shrubs beneath the kitchen window where their fragrance wafts into the house in spring. On most days, the carport provides off-street parking for the couple's vehicles and a workspace using a potting bench from the repurposed kitchen sink and cabinets. For special occasions, the couple parks the cars in the alley and transforms the carport into an alfresco dining room, complete with a pop-up dining table and hanging light fixture.
The backyard is not only a respite for the couple, but for urban wildlife. A robin keeps a nest atop a column on the front porch. Songbirds visit the bird bath. Occasionally, a falcon will appear as it passes from its Downtown nest to Schiller Park.
It's no wonder Smith meets with clients in the kitchen's sun porch, where they can enjoy the sounds of these songbirds, the warmth of the morning sunlight, the colors of the garden or the fragrance of lilac.
He knows a sensory garden's healing power firsthand. When he was laid off during the recent recession, he says he redesigned details in the garden a dozen times. Thankfully, the process and the outcomes kept him believing in himself.
“Nature is a mediator,” says Smith. “We can connect with nature and its cycles of life. When leaves fall in winter, we don't despair and have hope that things will come back in the spring.”