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Poolside Paradise

In New Canaan, landscape architect Janice Parker makes a splash with a pool plus dining on the side.

Janice Parker began her designer/client dialogue with a single question: “What was your best vacation?” She didn’t inquire into her client’s favorite color. She didn’t probe into past houses and their gardens. Instead, this landscape architect went straight for the smile factor: Where were they happiest? Her New Canaan clients didn’t have to think long or hard. A young family with very active twins, not surprisingly their most memorable moment in the sun occurred in Italy, where they cavorted in a vineyard, splashed around, and feasted on the local fare. Somewhere with plenty of space to go al fresco and the potential to deploy lots of kinetic energy was where they most wanted to be. That initial conversation was held in 2008 and what followed was a frenzy of earth-shuffling and garden juggling whereby Janice Parker brought their best vacation experience home. So how does Italy translate to 4.7 acres in New Canaan? Think a prominent pool plus a tennis court beside an adjacent dining/entertaining enclosure, catered for by a gourmet-caliber vegetable garden footsteps away, and you’ve got the picture.

Parker specializes in delivering the garden version of an exhale interlude. As she puts it, “All my clients work really hard. By the time they get home from their long day, they want to totally relax.” In other words, they need a vacation on a daily basis. For every family, the formula for decompressing is different, and getting there is certainly not common knowledge. “A lot has been studied about how people use public space,” Janice has found, “but how families use their exterior space is not so well documented.” She’s making her own informal probe into the subject and coming up with some interesting answers. “Many gardens look good on paper,” she discovered. But how do you make clean, modern and crisp feel cozy? Achieving that leap in the green realm is the crux of Parker’s profession.Comfort food was a good starting point, especially when the food-of-choice would be freshly picked and organically grown in a nearby garden. Putting food first—as the jewel in the landscape’s crown—was nothing less than genius. From there, creating a place to eat the goods nearby was the obvious next move, followed by recreational and relaxation venues—not necessarily in that order.

For continuity, the clients wanted to echo an addition to the house that architect Harry Elson created. So they requested a pavilion with strong lines and a commanding presence. Elson came up with a smart, lacquered mahogany structure with solid, squared-off dimensions and beam-like columns, topped by a metal roof that seems to take flight. “The pavilion is the linchpin, it’s really the bridge between the garden, the pool, and the tennis court,” Parker said. Not only does it sit on a terrace four-and-a-half feet higher than the tennis court, but its axis lines up perfectly with the pool’s center and the cat gate into the vegetable garden on the same plane. To further emphasize the symmetry, Parker stationed a pair of tall, thin beech trees and “Sky Pencil” hollies on either side of the vegetable garden gate to form exclamation points. A kick line of pink “Lady Elsie May” roses performs nonstop without fuss or bother.  For the ratios, Parker invoked the “three-times” formula—an outdoor kitchen needs to be three times the size of its indoor counterpart to give it breathing room in the panorama of open space. So the agreed-upon dimensions of the all-important dining pavilion footprint tallied up to thirty-by-eighteen feet. An oversized table stretches along the central axis and storage cupboards and drawers line the long, open air “walls.” But they aren’t the sole seating options by a long shot. Throughout the garden, on every terrace, chairs offer places to sit and enjoy the ambiance. If it seems like “time out,” that’s just the sort of feeling they were striving to capture.

With the great outdoors and its appreciation as the prevailing theme, Parker wanted the cozy feeling of rooms, but was constantly aware of the need to keep each area fluid. The spaces are broadly framed by shared fences or hedges, but that’s where the room analogy ends. Because, rather than closing the book between chapters, Parker created an itinerary that merges easily and seamlessly from one episode to the next. By dropping spaces within spaces, the family enjoys the full experience simultaneously. So there’s plenty of splashing and racquet action, with plants always in clear view. Many of the walls are composed of shrubs. But there were a couple of fences that needed to be of an absolutely secure material. Most especially, there could be no negotiating with the pool fence. By dropping the vegetable fence within it, Parker successfully avoided any feeling of confinement, even though the building code required something forty-eight inches high (with a fifty-two-inch high, alarmed lock on the self-closing gate). It could have felt like Alcatraz. Instead, Parker achieved the feeling of being an outsider by focusing attention on the shorter partition of the flower/vegetable garden with its eye-riveting colors and plump, juicy savories ripening just an arm’s-reach away. It’s all part of her fence philosophy, which is, in a nutshell, “love your fence.” In other words, since regulations require it, find a clever, beautiful way to meet building code. “It’s a challenge, but it’s one that should be embraced,” she insists.

So, family safety comes first, as it should. And the food supply is also guarded from predators, thanks to the aforementioned double-barrier. But not to take chances, Parker added a four-strand deer fence above the pool’s forty-eight-inch mandatory barrier. Other edibles are also part of the picture, and the blueberries were given an additional layer of protection by the berry cages that shield the fruit from birds and four-footed nibblers. To deliver the full culinary experience, fruit trees stand in the space that frames the vegetable garden further buffered by “Kwanzan” flowering cherries and “Adams” crabapples. They’re within plucking distance of the pool. And the tennis courts are just a few footsteps away, so that family members can work up a sweat before they plunge into the water. None of the fences stand naked. On the pool side, the vegetable garden is softened by the “Lady Elsie May” rose bushes; perennials screen it on the opposite face. To mask the pool fence, Parker turned to Viburnum plicatum tomentosum and her favorite Hydrangea “Limelight.” “They’re the golden retrievers of the plant world,” Parker explained, “They’re friendly, accommodating, and generous. All ‘Limelight’ asks is ‘What can I do for you?’ and then it delivers.” Does the family use the space? You bet. At any given moment, somebody is swimming, swinging or harvesting. Usually, when the temperatures rise, the pool tends to be the center of gravity for the kids. And where the kids go, their parents follow. Plus there’s a new member of the family who takes particular delight in that area of the layout. The family’s newly adopted Portuguese water dog does her fair share of belly flops to keep the kids amused. If anyone asked the new puppy on the block for her definition of the perfect vacation, she would go straight for the pool, paws down.                            

Janice Parker Landscape Design, 860-350-4497, janiceparker.com
Pavilion Architect: Harry Elson, 212-692-0606, harryelson.com
General Contractor: Joe Catalfamo, 203-972-0764
Site and Masonry Contractor: Pennella Site Development, 845-225-9212
Pool Contractor: Shoreline Pools, 203-967-1203, shorelinepools.com
Fence Contractor: Euro Fence, 845-279-1999, eurofenceinc.com
Landscape Contractor: Young’s Nurseries, 203-762-5511, youngsnurseries.com