Gardening: Rustic Red Cedar Enlivens a Garden

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Eastern red cedar is a handsome native evergreen but apt to become a bit weedy if left to its own devices. A meadow can change over 20 years from an open field to a thicket of cedars reaching 15 to 20 feet. Enter Pierre Moitrier.

Moitrier, who runs a landscape design and gardening firm with his wife, Nancy, is always looking for surplus trees to cull. He gets them from countryside clients or developers about to clear land for building. The trunks and larger branches are harvested to become a lumber of rustic charm. Spared the mill saw, the wood is round and still clothed in its stringy bark even as it is used to make fences, trellising and railing for the couple's jewel of a garden in a suburb of Annapolis. The structures form a skilled puzzle of branches and boughs, assembled to suggest Gothic arches and chevrons or Chinese Chippendale motifs.

The cedar-branch masterpiece is the enclosure for the vegetable garden, 25 feet by 25 feet, and eight feet high. Built to keep out deer, it may be the prettiest critter fence in the parish. The cedar (botanically a juniper) yields two basic shapes, the straight tapered trunk and curving, twisting branches. The fence consists of straight posts and rails that frame the organic lines of the branches.

The garden is open to the public on Saturday as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days program.

Pierre Moitrier grew up in central France, so the notion of a traditional rustic craft is in the blood. It is labor-intensive nonetheless. Each tree takes time to dismember, and a high fence consumes a lot of wood. He used about 100 trees for the vegetable garden enclosure.

He built it in 2004, two years after the couple moved in to their rambler on a corner lot, and the rot-resistant cedar has held up well. Some of the bark has been stolen. "Squirrels strip the bark to line their nest," Moitrier said. He is intent on showing me the nest, a journey that first involves climbing an orchard ladder. The ladder leads to another striking feature in, or rather, above, the landscape.

High in a sweet gum tree, Moitrier has constructed an enchanting treehouse. From the outside, the siding retains the red stain of its original incarnation, as a tobacco barn on terra firma. It is capped with a cedar shake roof with four dormers. Inside is a cozy perch from which to view the garden, or to sit and dream of one's childhood.

The dominant feature is the blocklike bark of the tree trunk, actually two trunks that have melded where they cross, and on one is the vestige of a squirrel nest.

For the Moitriers, the treehouse is a piece of whimsy, a folly that gives additional character to the garden, but it is also a neighborhood landmark. "So many people get a kick out of it," said Pierre Moitrier. "We had a lady who would set up an easel across the street and painted the treehouse." He enjoys its Tolkienesque feel and loves to be in it when the wind is blowing. "It sounds like a boat, creaking," said Nancy Moitrier. "It's quite wonderful."

All this talk of Pierre Moitrier's handiwork may suggest a landscape defined mainly by cute structures, but this is foremost a garden of plants. He works with stone and wood, and Nancy Moitrier is a garden designer and horticulturist. (Their company is called Designs for Greener Gardens.) They met 10 years ago in London. She was studying English gardens; he was working in a restaurant.

In their seven years at the house, they have transformed an ordinary corner lot into a garden of memorable charm and inspiration. Originally, the edge of the property was flat and featured a stand of dying trees. They brought in a double truckload of soil, created an elevated area, retained with a stone-seat wall and proceeded to plant unusual trees and shrubs that have grown into a layered screen from the street. A path is lined with Japanese plum yew underplanted with the orange leafed heuchera Caramel.

The gardener stops to point out betony, a relative of lamb's ears with rich green leaves and showy flower spikes that bloom from now through June. Four large decorative shrubs from China named heptacodium have been shaped into small trees, and on the other side of the path, a prairie garden features baptisias, poppies, amsonia, prairie dock and groundsel bush, whose white blossoms appear in the fall.

One of the most uplifting plants is comfrey, now flourishing after a wet season. Its gray-green leaves are smothered in bluebell-like flowers, a perfect choice for heavy soil that stays moist. It is bordered by a path of 40 huge landscape stones, some weighing as much as 600 pounds. They are essentially steppingstones through a low-lying wet area. The edge of the adjoining bed has been graded to steer rainwater around the house, and the stones keep the feet high and dry.

It must be the French influence: The vegetable garden is especially charming, and not just for its cedar fence. It is framed with masses of strawberry plants beginning to fruit. Inside the garden, the heirloom tomatoes are safely in, the salad greens are colorful and the fence is draped with two classy rose climbers. The later-to-flower is the workhorse New Dawn, the other a distinctly underused climber named Dortmund. It is smothered in large, single crimson blooms and looks fabulous. "It doesn't need to be sprayed; it blooms all summer long, and the leaves are really glossy," Nancy Moitrier said. "I have used it in a number of my garden plans, and it performs well."

The Glory of the Garden

The Garden Conservancy's Open Days program allows visits to some of America's most interesting private gardens normally not open to the public. The owners of the selected gardens donate the proceeds to the Cold Spring, N.Y.-based conservancy, which was established to protect, restore and preserve gardens of historic value.

The location and descriptions of the gardens are available online at Admission is typically $5, and the gardens are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine.

May 30: Two gardens in Maryland: The garden of Pierre and Nancy Moitrier at Carrollton and Old Bay Ridge roads in Annapolis Roads; the Mewshaw Lindstrom garden, developed over 25 years on a former tobacco farm, features a large pond, mixed borders and a large collection of shrubs and trees. The address is 2005 Hideout Lane, Mitchellville.

June 6: Six gardens in Potomac, Great Falls and McLean.

June 13: Ten gardens in the District, Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

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