Dappled with Japanese maples and scented by white mollis azaleas, the Mackler family garden sits on three-quarters of an acre in Takoma Park, Maryland. The terrain is diverse and romantic but also has an incredible unity of effect — thanks to robust collections (of plants like crepe myrtles, hydrangeas, and Acer of course) and the vision of its chief cultivator, Steven Mackler.
Steven has lived here with his wife Marie since 1980, and has been a landscape designer and builder for 40 years. He’s also the principal of The Landscape Group (TLG Design), which has won awards for gardens up and down the East Coast. Raised in Millburn, New Jersey, Steve was first inspired to design for the outdoors during the 1970s, when he went to the Loire Valley to make wine in Sancerre. “I realized I wanted to work outside,” Steve says. “That changed my life — it gave me a love of the land.”
The first time I ever visited the Mackler garden, I was 15, maybe 16 years old, then high school friends (and now lifelong friends) with mega-photographer Julian Mackler — and even as a Claire’s-wearing teenage baby, I was moved. Seeing this radiant, nurturing space first-hand is in itself a Life Event.
Steve and Marie are Julian’s parents, and Anna and Camille are Julian’s sisters. When Camille Mackler and Chris Stevens were figuring out where to get married, guess where they landed? The garden Camille grew up in, just outside Washington, DC.
“Our biggest goal for our wedding was to have it look and feel like ‘us,’ ” Camille says. “I didn’t want to feel like a guest on my wedding day, I wanted to feel at home. It was also important for us to have fun! We didn’t want to get bogged down or stressed out by little details. People kept asking me what my ‘wedding colors’ were, and I truthfully had no answer. Green is my favorite color and I knew we’d be surrounded by that in the garden, so that was good enough for me!”
Last May, Camille and Chris got married in a flower-filled, woodsy landscape backed by so much care. There were Norway spruce photo ops and a crepe myrtle chuppah, and even the faded tulips made a cameo in an ingenious way. Below, we chat with Steve about what went into making a great garden even greater for a late-spring wedding.
Photos by Mackler Studios (unless otherwise noted).
Steve, we love your garden. The alliums were blaring on Camille and Chris’s wedding day! What did you plant for the occasion, and how did the timing work?
For Camille and Chris’s wedding [in May], after they decided to rent out Republic for the reception, they said, “We can have the ceremony at the house and a parade in the center of town.” They wanted this really relaxed organic outdoor wedding. Being four hours away in Durham, Camille and Chris had to yield a bit of carte blanche, but still we ran everything by them.
[Last] November, I planted a lot of tulips. I had a lot of tulips left over from clients, so a thousand-plus tulips went into the garden all over. But when March rolled around, I realized the tulips would have bloomed much earlier, and not be blooming on May 17. So fortunately, there were 100 Allium giganteum ‘Gladiator,’ and we planted them hoping they would bloom, and the weather would cooperate. As it turned out, they did.
We had a blaze of tulips early on. I was worried about what we were going to do with the tulips that were fading — if we left them in the ground, the leaves would become wilty and brown. I thought, We need to replace them in the planting bed with summer flowers. We had to get the tulips out, which there were so many of them, and plan the coordination with the rest of the flowers to get in.
Coupled with my other time-sensitive garden projects, it was a constant juggle as to who got what when. We won.
So what flowers went in?
Lantana (in tangerine orange), purple everblooming Supertunias®; New Guinea impatiens; Little Miss Muffet caladiums, Twist and Shout hydrangeas (which weren’t blooming at the time of the wedding); Calibrachoa ‘Aloha® Kona Pineapple’; yellow Carolina jasmine in full bloom climbing up the chuppah; coleus mixed in; Surprise Grape petunia; Lucky Lavender lantana; Sunrise Rose lantana; Blazin Rose iresine; Kong Jr. Green Halo coleus.
For the ceremony, guests sat on benches supported by bales of hay. Where did you get the idea for them?
In February, I thought, What did I get myself into? How can I do this to my garden? I really felt the pressure of wanting everything to be perfect. April was the longest, wettest April in a long time — mud everywhere. Puddles everywhere. I got panicked. What are we going to do if it’s raining? With chairs and a tent on a wet lawn, people are going to sink into the wet lawn. We needed benches.
So you went to a friend who knew a guy who had a sawmill…
…and asked if he could mill me some benches with bark still on the planks. He said, “Sure.” So he sliced up two trees, one oak, one white ash, into 2-inch-thick, 8-foot-long benches with wild and curvy edges. They had to be at least 2 inches thick to span a greater distance. That’s where the bales of hay came into play.
For the ceremony, there were 20 benches and 40 bales of hay (a bale of hay on either side of each bench) that came from a farmer we befriended at Takoma Park farmer’s market; she surprised us by graciously offering them to us — her daughter having also gotten married only months before.
And then after the wedding we had her and her husband over for a wine dinner to thank her for literally going beyond the call of duty, and to show her how she played such an important role. I remember how she delivered the 40 bales of hay by herself on a Friday afternoon, and then taking them away on Monday morning, as I passed up those oversized bales to her, as she stood on top of one bale after another and methodically stacked those bales way higher than I thought legal on the back of her pickup truck.
This was a very organic wedding — it’s very serendipitous how it happened. Everything started to fall into place.
How did the crepe myrtle chuppah come to be?
Last fall a client bought a beautiful home in Bethesda and gutted the entire house. The garden had these five magnificent crepe myrtles, but they were taking up too much space.
They were smooth multi-trunk pink-flowering Sioux crepe myrtles; the bark was beautiful. We cut them down — it was the only thing to do. We couldn’t move them because the root balls would be too large and it was a walled garden.
But they bequeathed their beauty to us in another iteration. I instructed the men, ‘Don’t cut them to pieces.’ They were 10- to 12-foot-tall multitrunk trees that really start to branch out. So we trimmed them up. I kept them outside because they were way too big and wide to put into the shed. I thought I would use them as a covered arbor. As the wedding came around, I thought, Maybe I’ll use them in a chuppah.
In March or April, I looked at them. I thought I would have to set the trunks in concrete. Then I had a wild, crazy thought as I dragged them over on a Sunday afternoon by myself to the back of the garden where we thought the wedding would take place: Why don’t I turn them upside down, standing on their hands and feet? If I have to do that I would have to connect the trunks together. I took 3/4″ bamboo poles and screwed them together and it started to come together. It just evolved. Now it’s so cool I don’t want to get rid of it. It hasn’t taken long for the jasmine vines to have climbed all over it already.
Ironically, behind it there is a very mature crepe myrtle, so there’s a zen interplay of negative and positive. The live one that’s right side up and dead one that’s upside down. [The live crepe myrtle] blooms in medium pink in late July and August.
How would you describe your approach to landscape design?
What happens in my house is very different from what happens elsewhere. When with a client, a designer who has any value needs to make sure that they listen really well to the client, and understand the client’s needs. And then the next step in the game is to search within your encyclopedia of design ideas, of your experience, of your taste, and blend that, and pull that up and use everything you know to build a really good design.
You’ve heard the old architecture dilemma of form versus function? One is not good without the other. They have to exist symbiotically. They have to play off each other. If you have a yearning to try something but if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs, desires and tastes, you have to ask yourself, “Will this work in the long run?” And “Whose house is this anyway?’ ”
When I plant a garden, [first] I’ll design a hardscape that will be appreciated in many, many different contexts as the softscape grows. I look to blend the client’s tastes with who they are [while] respecting the architecture of the house.”
And what’s the aesthetic of your own garden?
In our house, those things [from work] play into it, dealing with things that are around. [I ask myself], Can I take this mishmash of different things, put them together and make them look good? Would the short answer be ‘eclectic’? Sort of like making a good soup or stew with leftovers you find in the fridge.
Who and what are your influences?
The first person who influenced me was Thomas Church, the father of modern landscape architecture. I was in Europe [in the 1970s] when I met [my wife] Marie — that’s when I got in landscape design.
On this side of the pond, after designing my own gardens for 25 years, I met and collaborated with Ron Herman, a noted landscape architect from San Francisco, and his creative and modernist work helped influence me in the way I look at design. And back in France years later, and Jardin de Berchigranges. We saw a spread [about Jardin de Berchigranges] in Gardens Illustrated; Marie and I were going to Belgium and we said, ‘Let’s go.’ Thierry the designer (and hands-on craftsman) and his wife Monique invited Marie and me to come. We had dinner and saw how they did things. Truly, it is one of the most beautiful gardens in the world and not to be missed. It’s an inspiration any designer should have a chance to experience.
People hire me because they want my kind of garden. That’s how I get most of my work; it’s been 25 years since [I put] an advertisement in a newspaper. My garden is very eclectic; 90, 95 percent of it is built with leftover things, plants, materials from jobs that I’ve been able to utilize and put together. Only a handful of plantings I bought with the intention of put in the garden.
How big is the garden, and what’s your lawn situation?
The house is on three-quarters of an acre. It used to take four hours to cut the lawn. Now I can cut it in 20 minutes; four years ago I pulled up the front lawn and created a rain garden with three different terraces and boulder rock steps.
[The rain garden] has a gradual slope with water running downhill onto three shallow terraces of made of natural mountain and lake rocks 4 to 5 inches thick. Each terrace is 8 feet deep and in 3 concentric arcs. [When it rains], the terraces slow the water down as it runs down the former front lawn, and directs towards other plantings.
The key thing about water runoff is it always takes the path of least resistance. In building your garden, you have to understand you have the ability to direct the water where you want it to go. How you do it can become a decorative, design-oriented thing.
What’s planted in the rain garden?
Acorus ‘Minimus Aureus’; hosta (which love the moisture); Monarda (aka bee balm); Eupatorium, Ajuga ‘Black Beauty,’ Japanese mondo grass, Nepeta, viburnums.
And some more plants that you grow?
I collect Japanese maples of all different kinds. My favorite is Acer japonica ‘Aurea,’ which has beautiful gold leaves, planted behind the waterfall; A. japonica ‘Sangu Kaku’; A. japonica ‘Acontifolium.’
[Also:] Chartreuse and blue carex varieties. I have a big collection of hydrangeas like ‘Twist and Shout,’ ‘Pia Dwarf,’ ‘Pistachio’ and ‘Lady in Red.’ Oakleaf hydrangeas. A number of witch hazel trees including ‘Jelena’, ‘Diane,’ and ‘Arnold’s Promise’ — I love witch hazel. Hellebores, which bloom in February. A number of dwarf hinoki cypress, including two gold ones, ‘Verdoni’ and ‘Nana Aurea.’ Four different kinds of crepe myrtle, ‘Biloxi,’ ‘Natchez,’ ‘Sioux,’ ‘Acoma’ and dwarf ‘Pocahontas.’ Vardar Valley boxwoods. Korean pines. Viburnums.
What are your weed nemeses?
Houttuynia — it’s sold as a perennial. It has beautiful foliage but once established, it’s terrible. Bishop’s weed, which has fibrous roots. Pennisetum ‘Moudry,’ a lovely ornamental grass with black flower seed heads that seed all too easily.
Best gardening advice you’ve ever gotten?
It’s the one I don’t take — that you’re in the business of selling plants and not holding onto them. Sometimes I buy things and I can’t let them go. They become part of the family.