August 5, 2021

Rocky Road


Award-winning designer John Wyer of Bowles & Wyer was charged with creating a garden in sympathy with the landscape and architecture of an avant-garde Rocky Mountain retreat.

The initial contact from the clients came in an email message in June 2009: “We are in desperate need of landscaping advice… landscaping is an overwhelming blank slate… HELP!”

The site was a 4.5ha plot on the western slopes of the Rockies near Spokane, Washington State, in the north-western United States. It was overwhelmingly populated by ponderosa pine, with little else other than granite boulders. With an average annual precipitation of around 30cm (much of it falling as snow), summer temperatures of 30°C and winter temperatures of -20°C, this could reasonably be described as a difficult environment in which to establish a garden.

An additional problem was the distance. The clients wanted to carry out as much of the installation of the garden as they could themselves, with help from local craftsmen. Other than that, the brief was actually pretty open. It had to include a vegetable garden, and be easily looked after by one person. Water was from a 300m deep borehole, but in limited supply.

I spent five days in the area in September 2009, initially on site, then walking/cycling around the local landscape, visiting stone and plant suppliers and talking to nurserymen. I photographed the site at all times of day. By the end of the five days I had sketched my preliminary ideas for the front area for the clients. The proposals were hardened up in the UK, where I made the back garden designs too.

Project description

The front garden takes its cues from the architecture – the house is very unusual with a combination of obtuse angles and planes, combined with different coloured claddings that take their cue from the surrounding landscape. I designed an approach path of huge asymmetric slabs of in-situ concrete with small gaps in between. The angles of these slabs are carried through to lines of rock-filled gabions (using local basalt). These run at angles in both the horizontal and vertical plane with a deliberately slightly disconcerting effect. Large granite boulders taken from on-site complete the hard landscape. The planting is made up of four elements: aspen trees (native to the Rockies), dwarf pines, grasses and carpet forming herbs (such as thymus).

The rear garden is on a larger scale, merging into the surrounding landscape. It includes at its focal point a sculpture by clients in the form of three carved poles set at slight angles to one another. Sweeps of herbaceous planting such as penstemons, grasses and herbs with a belt of shrubs beyond were planted using a high proportion of native material. The planting was based on xeriscape principles so as to be compatible with the local climate. Nearer the house, rough rock and herbaceous planting took up the changes in level around the building.

Unique issues and problems

There are always problems working remotely, particularly if the climate and terrain at either end are very different. The design has to be clear and robust enough so that any problems that occur can largely be sorted out without having to jump on a plane at every turn. There was an additional complication (or opportunity?) in that the clients wished to carry out much of the construction themselves.

The clients made up an interesting couple, one half paediatrician and one half ex-cattle rancher and community activist. Denise (the latter) was pretty handy and able to drive machinery and understand levels, but even she probably underestimated what was involved. However, with the help of some specialist contractors and suppliers, the scheme was executed. Exact costs are difficult to calculate, but an approximate equivalent might be around AED 580,000 (USD 150,000).

The garden as planned is yet to be completed, with the timber land art and sculpture along with some of the shrub planting remaining to be done as the clients decided to move back to Tennessee for professional reasons.

What makes this project unique is the fusion of the natural and designed landscapes, along with the uncompromising nature of the forms, drawing inspiration from the building and surrounding landscape. What interests me is that instead of imposing our own house style on a foreign site, the design draws deeply on the local culture and landscape, resulting in something fresh, but clearly grounded.

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