An Asian-style garden provides serenity in a challenging space. See how this couple worked with a traditional style to create a modern-feeling outdoor space.

By Christine Froehlich
Updated: September 10, 2018

The heavily wooded lot in Honeoye Falls, New York, that Tom and Bev McInerny chose for their dream home wasn’t perfect—it was so steep there wasn’t even a practical place for a backyard. “Our builder thought we were crazy,” Bev says. The couple didn’t see it as a problem. Shade and steep terrain provided a perfect opportunity to develop their property with an aesthetic they had admired on travels to Japanese gardens. With patience and focus, they’ve turned 3 acres of inhospitable land into a tranquil paradise.

They worked their way down the hill in stages, pruning trees, clearing undergrowth, and incorporating basic Japanese elements— water, rocks, sand, plants, and paths—into their design. Modeled on a Japanese stroll garden, the landscape is intended for visitors to walk through and experience it as it’s revealed.

An elongated Japanese-style bell at the top of a conifer garden gives a hint of what’s coming. A stone path meanders through a small forest of specimen conifers and deciduous trees, lending subtle tones of color to the dappled shade. Carefully placed rocks accentuate a rich tapestry of groundcovers. Tucked into the center, a Japanese lantern and bench provide a tranquil spot to reflect.

An uphill stroll to a traditional Asian moon gate reveals a keyhole view of the centerpiece of the garden. Never mind about having no backyard; the steep slope behind the house is a dramatic paradise that holds pleasures only revealed as it is explored.

Beyond the gate, water saturates the senses. A series of waterfalls and ponds, although separately engineered, appear to tumble downhill continuously over moss-covered rocks through several levels of gardens. Each has an individual theme, yet they all flow together as one.

A bluestone path leads to a koi pond and through the “dry” or “Zen” garden—meticulously raked beds of granite chicken grit and sculptural rocks. Water from a reflecting pond cascades over the edge and seems to run underneath an expansive deck on the next level.

Each path invites exploration further downhill: through a stroll garden, forest fern garden, and toward a middle gate announcing a change. At the fork, head toward a secret garden, or to a pond at the bottom, laden with yellow flag iris.

Shade rules here; foliage plants are lush and bold. Crowned by a canopy of dogwood, redbud and Japanese maple trees, massive drifts of giant butterbur (Petasites japonicus ssp. giganteus), shieldleaf Rodgersia (Astilboides tabularis), ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), and a variety of hostas and astilbes secure the steep hillside, a sight that sings. Japanese forestgrass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), heucheras, Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’), and moss tucked between rocks, Japanese lanterns, and other Asian sculptures highlight more intimate areas.

A “mountain path” leads uphill to a circular lawn flanked by formal shrub and perennial borders—the only flat sunny spot. Bev had hoped to grow cutting flowers here, but a scant four hours of sun dictated more shade-tolerant plants. Japanese anemone, phlox, daylilies, sea kale (Crambe cordifolia), hydrangeas, and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) currently thrive here, although, as Bev notes, “it keeps getting shadier.”

No matter; the traditional aesthetic of Wabi-sabi—the acceptance of transience and imperfection—is their mantra. As Bev says, “We appreciate the garden for what is absent as well as for what is present.”

The gardens reflect Bev McInerny’s artistry and Tom McInerny’s hard work. “I take my working orders from her,” Tom says. A simple color palette in the plants and furnishings contributes to the feeling of serenity. A traditional bamboo water element and moss-covered bowl are placed on a path. The original purpose was to provide a place for tea ceremony guests to wash their hands.

The smooth waterfall reflects sunlight and creates a cooling sensation in the garden. The sound of running water is soothing and give the garden a relaxed feel. Much of the couple’s property is forest, so they designed a woodland garden with varied plantings to create an experience different from the rest of the garden.

Designed to announce that one is entering into a space of rebirth, the moon gate acts as a portal and sets the stage for what is to come as visitors enter. An ornamental wind bell, built by a local craftsman, welcomes visitors at the entrance to the conifer garden. Crowned by a stone lantern, a small rock island rests in the center of the largest, and last, of the hillside ponds. Bev and Tom call this the Apple Pond because of an old apple tree nearby.

The Indian temple doors represent the mystery of Bev’s Secret Garden, one of her favorite spots. Urns and a stone bench add to the vignette without taking attention away from the doors. Ponds appear at different levels down the sloped backyard, allowing visitors the chance to pause and explore each one as a unique experience as they stroll down the hill.

Asian Inspiration in the Garden

Lanterns: One of the main elements of a Japanese tea garden, stone lanterns were usually placed near water or along a path, where their light guided visitors to evening tea ceremonies. They have long been popular in garden decor all over the world, setting a tone of thoughtfulness and anticipation.

Gravel and rocks: In the dry garden, meant to be viewed from within the house, Tom rakes granite chicken grit in patterns around some carefully placed rocks. Zen gardens based on rocks and raked gravel can represent miniature versions of larger landscapes and are meant to encourage meditation.

Water: Water is a key element that symbolizes serenity and a connection to the hereafter. Ponds are central to Japanese gardens and are sometimes meant to represent lakes or the sea. Throughout this garden, trickling waterfalls and quiet ponds soothe the senses.

Paths: Paths are an integral part of a Japanese stroll garden. Winding paths serve to divide areas so they can be experienced individually rather than revealed all at once. Paths can be built with stones, gravel, or packed earth—the choice of material is also part of the overall design.

Stone: Stones are often used in Japanese gardens to define space. Bev was drawn to these small black stones. Thinking they would break up the flatness of the bluestones, she used them to give the area a unique sense of space.

Plants: Plants are arranged simply and strive to imitate nature. Here, a Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. ‘Pictum’) and Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) peek out over moss-covered rocks.

Garden At A Glance

  1. Temple Doors
  2. Secret Garden
  3. Apple Pond
  4. Woodland Garden
  5. Waterfall Pond
  6. Dry Garden
  7. Moon Gate
  8. Koi Pond
  9. Bluestone Path
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Comments (1)

charissero78796
March 11, 2019
Absolutely stunning! Your hired! Just looking at your pictures made me so calm and relaxed.