Directing a winning arrangement
Harbinger of spring, the Maryland Home and Garden Show has once again taken over the Timonium Fairgrounds. A highlight of the show, for me, is always the group of live display gardens featuring flowering bulbs, perennials, and shrubs, stone patios and walkways, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, arbors, and water features.

Each year, I visit the show in advance of the opening to evaluate the gardens and to present a special Chesapeake Home + Living Landscape Award. Since the magazine has been presenting this award for 10 years, I know most of the landscapers who are competing, so I recuse myself from judging, and instead hit up a couple of local experts to pick our winner.

This year I tapped Jay Rhine, president of Rhine Landscaping, and Susan Reimer, Baltimore Sun columnist and garden blogger. They spent an afternoon touring the gardens, assessing them for quality of design, variety and selection of plant material, craftsmanship, overall beauty, and feasibility for reproduction outside in a typical mid-Atlantic back or front yard.

After a thorough walkthrough of this year's 16 gardens, Rhine and Reimer narrowed down the group to three finalists before ultimately selecting the small "townhouse" garden by Arbor Ridge Services as our winner.

As is typical for the magazine's winning landscape, the Arbor Ridge garden was masterfully designed with high quality construction and beautiful plant material. Perhaps atypical for the magazine's winner, though, was its adherence to the garden show theme, "Symphony of Spring."

To encourage creativity among the landscapers and ensure that visitors see something new each year, show organizers develop a theme each year. Usually my judges don't much consider the theme, because our focus tends toward quality of design, construction, and innovation.

But this year Travis Dietle, owner of Arbor Ridge, not only nailed the design and quality points, he also manipulated the theme in a very sophisticated and subtle way that appealed to the judges.

"I like the garden because it incorporates the theme well with the musical note and instrument inlays on the pathway and the stringed instrument sculpture/water feature — nothing was overstated," says Rhine.

Of the theme, Dietle offers, "I wanted to do something that was appropriate, but also in line with my interests in design." An avid kayaker and skier, Dietle initially was drawn to landscaping because the profession would allow him to replicate the mountain and stream environments he so loves, those he describes as "rugged and natural yet soothing and relaxing at the same time."

As the design for the landscape emerged, it grew to include a stone pathway featuring a musical strain, a rugged stone sofa sheltered by a timber pergola, a small mountain stream, naturalistic woodland plantings, and an elegant sculptural water feature.

Linking the garden to the show theme, Dietle's symphony venue became less concert hall, more Appalachian cabin porch.

"Folk or blue grass would be an appropriate style of music for my design," he says. "Like my design the music is rugged, yet natural and organic, something people want to sit by with a natural sound — like being out in the mountains by an amazing whitewater stream."

A more obvious gesture toward the show theme takes shape as a sculptural water feature.

"I wanted to be in line with the show theme, and since water is Arbor Ridge's main focus wanted to do something no one else would do," explains Dietle.

Using donated stringed instruments that could no longer carry a tune, he created a design in which water fills their hollow interiors and then spills out and over, cascading down their curved bodies. "By setting the instruments into hollow stumps, the sculptural fountain naturalizes with the woodland setting," says Dietle.

Both Rhine and Reimer were particulary impressed with the creativity and craftsmanship of the water feature.

"The small fountain built out of the string instruments was inspired," says Reimer. "And the stream, flowing under and around a moss-covered tree trunk and a fallen branch, had the feel of something that had been undiscovered in nature for a very, very long time."

Of course cultivating the look of undiscovered nature, of a mountain stream environment, is anything but effortless.

To create his natural, relaxing space, Dietle stuck with materials that would be found in a mountain setting, and reduced his plant palette to only a few selections. Autumn fern, Christmas fern, Canadian hemlock, red robin holly, paperbark maple, dogwood, hawthorn combine to simulate nature, resulting in a landscape Reimer praises for creating an atmosphere that's not just natural, but comforting, familiar, and warm.

"The intimacy of the design struck me immediately," says Reimer. "The stone sofa tucked into the embrace of the plants around it. The pergola, perfectly sized and the small stream close enough to feel the spray on your face."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at dhockman@chesapeakehome.com.