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Natural Instinct

Renowned landscape designer Richard Hartlage transformed a rocky Redding property into an oasis for entertaining and a serene landscape of sculpture, meadows and gardens

When asked to describe his dream client, Richard Hartlage sums up the quality in just one word: courage. Gumption was the prerequisite that permitted him to play his full hand of cards at Michael Marocco’s Redding property. Close collaboration with an open-minded client was the critical factor that led to a landscape that redefines the field. When Marocco first called Hartlage in to see his property, he had in mind just a few tweaks to the area immediately adjacent to his house. Six intensive years later, Hartlage and Marocco have tackled the entire eight acres, creating a world-class statement where rubble once reigned.

Inspiration for the project was first sparked when Mike Marocco visited the home of his friend Silas Mountsier in New Jersey. At Mountsier’s home, he found himself dazzled by the flowing landscape that spread around the suburban home. Far more extensive than your typical pedestrian plantings, the Mountsier garden had soul, depth, spark, rhythm, and humor—all qualities that Marocco was seeking in his landscape. Although his sprawling and heavily wooded Redding property adjacent to preserved open land was the alter ego of Mountsier’s succinct suburban lot, Marocco felt certain that his property had potential. So he rang up Richard Hartlage, who had been designing Silas Mountsier’s garden for years.

One possible hitch: Richard Hartlage is currently based in Seattle working with AHBL, a company that tackles everything from community planning to civil engineering as well as landscape architecture. Although Hartlage was definitely not in the neighborhood, he made frequent trips to the East Coast. When he walked on to the Marocco property, he saw several snafus that needed immediate addressing. For one, there was no segue between the parking area and the garden. “The land just fell down,” says Hartlage. Another concern: The dwarf conifer collection was nudging into the giant conifer category. Still, Hartlage felt the distinct pull of potential and shared a loud-and-clear wavelength with Marocco from the start.

It began innocently enough with extended walls, an added entryway arbor, and building materials that echoed the old barnwood used in the construction of the house. But even early in the game, the garden was garnering a sense of flow. Richard Hartlage was looking outward with an ill-concealed sense of yearning.

The rest of the progression could be described as a roller-coaster, except that no high-speed ride was ever driven by such an insightful pair. After Hartlage tackled the immediate issues, he inevitably began moving outward. As Hartlage had the woods cleared, he discovered a sensuous drape of land and wanted to run his hands over that contour. He and Marocco would hatch an idea for a seating area, a pool, a waterfall, a Jacuzzi, and a water feature or bocce court, and they’d lay it out on the site–scribbling on a cocktail napkin (“it’s so clichéd, I know,” admits Hartlage, “but it’s how we worked”). Local hardware stores were stripped of their entire inventory of brightly colored spray paint as the two forged ahead and mapped out their plans. Hartlage rushed home with nothing more concrete than his dinner-napkin sketches to commit into site plans. The project was forever ballooning as others added genius to the brew. The mason contractors, Pilato Brothers, Inc., would meet on Sunday over a glass of wine to get their week’s assignment and scurry to make those ideas into realities by the following weekend. As Mike Pilato, a third-generation Italian stonemason based in Redding says, “Everyone had ideas, and we put them together. We’re very proud of this accomplishment.”

So the collaboration forged ahead to move boulders and dig quantities of stone in order to create a sunken garden with intrigue throughout the growing season. Overlooking that garden is an entertaining patio with a pizza oven and a fireplace. The team added water features that lend water music to the ambience, a pool with a pavilion, a moongate (flanked by Hartlage’s signature hanging terra cotta vessels), a stepping-stone pond with Stonehenge-like accents, and numerous sculpture parks with places to sit and contemplate the strength of the displayed art. It has flow. It has depth. Every path and all the features are softened by segue plants. As Hartlage explains, “There’s a sense of change but a feeling of continuity as you move through space. You transition through shade and sun, and you’re made aware of the sensuality of each ecosystem. Always, everything keeps referring back to a strong vision of the whole landscape.”

Adds Marocco, who had the foresight to see the land’s potential and throw caution to the wind, “I’m invested in the concept,” he said, “and every year, my commitment gets stronger and stronger.” Outward-living and outward-bound (at one point, Marocco had built a treehouse on the property with his children), he looks to the land for solutions and listens to the answers.

There are no templates for Hartlage’s design—he forged his own territory. On the other hand, having studied with the greats of horticulture, Hartlage has a firm foundation as a plantsman. The property is dotted with rarities (including a Calycanthus ‘Hartlage Wine’ named in his honor). That encyclopedic knowledge proved essential because all his best-laid plans could easily have fallen flat without the right plant selections to ascend the hills and accentuate the land’s curves in a dicey terrain. For example, when Hartlage called for Geranium ‘Rozanne’ in a mass planting, it was with the sure confidence that the groundcover was capable of doing the job.

The result is a landscape that bears its soul. You could easily sink into the cushy chairs beside the outdoor fireplace or laze by the pool for countless hours, but that would mean missing the landscape’s soft, billowy expression, like feather dusters fanning the earth in homage. Plantings respectfully adorn the property, but the garden design is also about negative space. The peaceful landscape profiles sculpture, but it also allows each piece of artwork to interact with its outdoor audience. The Marocco landscape puts nature on another plateau—and that takes courage. As for Richard Hartlage, he’s not sure he can ever work with anyone who isn’t brave again.   

Richard Hartlage, Landscape Designer, ahbl.com
Robert Orr & Associates LLC, 203-777-3387; robertorr.com