Stroll the leafy terraces of Carol and Landon Butler's one-acre garden in the city, and you reach the inescapable conclusion that the sweetest landscapes are formed by the Muses.
Consider the converging forces in this woodland oasis in the Massachusetts Avenue Heights section of Northwest Washington: the presence of a rural setting in the city, the desire of the owners to bring out its character, and the arrival of landscape designer Jane MacLeish to help mold the space. And one more player: the late Henry Mitchell, The Post's garden writer and a friend of the Butlers', who gave them some of his favorite varieties of antique roses as housewarming gifts in 1992.
The Butler garden is measured in contrasts, including the dance of brick and stone that forms the upper terrace, and winding steps to the distant lawn. Azaleas line the paths.
In late spring, the back patio seems to elevate on a pink cloud, as a climbing rose below it erupts into a thousand blossoms. This ribbon stretches 20 feet or more and is actually two rose plants of the variety "Mrs. F.W. Flight." The rose is typical of the types of contradictions that Mitchell loved in certain plants. It is a monster in size and dainty in bloom. The semi-double flowers are shell pink; they are not as fragrant as they look, but they impart a rambunctious delicacy to the whole upper garden. Like a lot of old roses, this one flowers for several weeks in May and June but then recedes in a glossy texture of dark green leaves, and its ephemeral beauty makes it all the more precious. "A glorious bloomer," said Landon Butler, who is chairman of the Shakespeare Theatre's board of trustees. Mitchell gave it to the Butlers as the couple moved into a home they knew was special for its big old trees and banks of azaleas. They knew, too, that the landscape needed work to strengthen the connection between house and garden and to make a sloping property more usable and inviting.
MacLeish, in close collaboration with the Butlers over many years, gave structure to the property, laying down broad horizontal lines in walls and shrubbery and framing vistas to bring out its latent spirit without being heavy-handed. "I tried to pick up the architecture and the funkiness of it," she said. "The house has that Arts and Crafts feel, and I tried to get that in the garden."
MacLeish enlarged and redesigned the back patio and then turned its winding steps to the basement level of the house into a playful tango of brick and stone, past a stone wall that is softened by its sloping top and now luxuriant vegetation, including the roses and a climbing hydrangea. This leads to the most open area of the entire wooded property, a lawn that is airy and sunny but framed with hardwoods and azaleas. The previous owner had a mania for Washington's favorite spring shrubs, which were simply dug up and moved around like chests of drawers to bring better definition to spaces.
Carol Butler wanted a lawn big enough for a tent, which would create a space, she said, that gives you room to feel the woodland around it. "It gives you a sense of peace," she said.
Steppingstones lead to a hidden terrace below, which is narrow and wrapped in a bank of shrubs, including lace-cap hydrangeas and summersweet. Carol Butler and MacLeish refer to this secluded spot as Landon's Folly, a place where he comes to sit and observe the wooded stream valley that forms a seamless extension of the garden. Deer, birds, bats and other creatures have visited. The woodland floor is softened by evergreen ground covers, including sweetbox, and in spring the flamboyant, leafy May apples shoot up and change the texture.
More steppingstone paths lead through the other side of the property, until you climb a hill to another expanse of lawn, where trees and shrubs frame a vista of the house. The view is emblematic of the entire landscape, a place that is bright in the spring but soothing year-round in its leafy texture, dappled light and gentle order. In sum, it is a garden where the hard edges of the city have been erased.
"It's a country garden," said MacLeish. "A country garden in the city, and curves are soft in the country."
Adrian Higgins is The Post's garden editor.