Outside Homes: Peak Garden Beauty In Middle Age

by Dara Klatt

Gail Jacobs, on a lily pond boulder.

Floral designer Gail Jacobs has exquisitely evolved her Bethesda woodland garden over four decades.

While it’s said that youth is a gift of nature, nature itself stuns by its knockout beauty in maturity.At age 40-something, the Bethesda garden of Gail Jacobs may well be drinking from the fountain of … age.The wrinkles ripple in the water of the lily pond. The white color isn’t in the roots, but in the subtle floral color scheme across the garden, ranging from off-white and creamy yellow blossoms to a “pop” of soft pinks, blues and purples.

Planted between the stepping stone path is Mazus and bordering them are azaleas, ground covers (Lamium, wild strawberry) and a stilbe. Jacobs plans to add annuals as the summer progresses “for a bit of color.” Photo by Tony Powell.

Beauty like this isn’t just born. It’s sculpted and pruned, trimmed and tucked, layered and filled over years and decades. And yes, there’s a bit of experimentation and risk-taking each new season with those in vogue plants. The result, at any time of year, is head turning.

“My garden is really my laboratory,” says Jacobs, a flower arranger who offers work shops and lectures on “bringing the natural beauty of field and garden into the home environment” from her on-site studio and showcases a gallery of her work—plucked from her garden, of course—on her website FlowerCraftByGail.com.Whether it’s a flower arrangement for the kitchen table, or a two-acre backyard garden, she says the design elements are the same: line, colors, form and texture.

Jacobs and her husband Ben Jacobs bought the property in 1976 after falling in love with its sloping woodlands lot. Landscape architect Lester Collins put the essential design elements into place, starting with carving the garden out of the woods and creating a natural backyard that wrapped around the colonial house. “We’ve never destroyed anything,” Jacobs reflects. “We started with the beauty that was surrounding us and we enhanced it.” Line, color, form, texture and all.

In the mid-1980s, Jacobs started working with Sandy Clinton at Oehme, van Sweden, who was instructed to put a new garden at the front entrance, carve deeper into the woods and create useful open spaces while maintaining the larger, mature trees.“Halfway through our design,” Clinton recalls,“Ben Jacobs called me and said,‘Hey, I would love to give Gail a gift. I’d like to give her a lily pond.’” Thus, a pond was born: 20 feet in diameter at the bottom and 16 feet at the top, with a running stream and boulders running out of the bottom.

“It’s a beautifully subtle piece,” says Clinton, who founded her own firm, Clinton & Associates Landscape Architects, in 1998 and has continued working with the Jacobs.“It’s viewed from every direction.You can hear it. It’s not ‘in your face’…You don’t even see it until you come upon it. Then it’s kind of show stopping.”

Rhododendron and allium. Photo by Tony Powell.

From the boulders in the lily pond and the wisteria and ivy over the pool to the weeping hemlock trees in the terrace and the azaleas, rhododendron and hydrangeas scattered throughout, the garden is ever maturing and evolving. Tulips and daffodils will be replaced as spring ends; pansies will be swapped when the heat rises.“I’m forever orchestrating the scene for each season,” says Jacobs, who insists that one of her greatest pleasures of daily refinement is sharing the garden with others,“people always learn when they come here.”

For a 40-something beauty of a garden, the wisdom it grants only seems to increase with age. (And they say you can’t have both …)

A faux bois table and chairs from a Paris flea market, Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, which has provided “many magical tea parties” for the Jacobs’ grandchildren. Photo by Tony Powell.

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