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A landscaper’s touch Owen Wormser of Leverett makes connections with his designs



Last modified: Friday, September 18, 2015
For Owen Wormser, landscape design is about integration — integrating the indoors with the outdoors and integrating his clients with their surroundings.

“I want to connect people with the landscape,” said Wormser, who got his landscape architecture degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1998. He founded Treefrog Landscapes in Northampton in 2002, which he sold five years ago, and he now owns Abound Design in Leverett. He also recently founded a nonprofit organization called Local Harmony in Leverett, which he hopes will offer opportunities for volunteers to create public gardens with community funding.

“The design process is guiding and educating clients,” he said. “I try to collaborate. I’ll say, ‘Here are some possibilities.’ I educate clients and customize the garden specifically for them.”

Texture is critical in his designs, he said. Most perennials bloom for only a few weeks so their foliage is very important. Wormser likes to use ornamental grasses, bamboos and ferns to provide texture. He also believes in using native plants and low-maintenance varieties.

“Plants are the foundation of my designs,” Wormser said. “Plants create landscapes; they build soil. They present endless possibilities and they are unpredictable. They have personalities.”

Three years ago Naomi Miller of Florence hired him to revamp the garden behind her house. Miller’s gardener, Adam Barnard, recommended Wormser, with whom he had worked in the past.

“It was wonderful to have a recommendation from someone I know and trust,” Miller said, adding that the two men worked together to create her new garden. “We talked for about three hours; he wanted to see what I appreciated, what I cared about. I really was clear it was a garden I wanted to inhabit, whether to be able to sit and enjoy the garden or walk through it or even look down on it,” Miller said.

Dramatic view

The view from the deck is dramatic. A revamped dry stream bed that needed an overhaul winds down to a small pond with water lilies. At the top is a stunning sculptural fountain created by Louis Pomerantz of Chelsea, Vermont, who exhibits at the Paradise City Arts Festival. The fountain consists of several large beige and gray river stones with a basin carved out of the top, like a chalice.

Airy grasses are a backdrop for perennial flowers. A shady path leads down the slope and at the base is an inviting bench surrounded by shrubby leucothoe, which eventually will create a cozy nook. The stone walk is edged with lady’s mantle, American ginger, ferns, epimediums and astilbes as well as tiarellas. An accent plant is ligularia with its yellow, daisy-like flowers and huge leaves.

Near the bench are Eupatorium rugosum (chocolate snakeroot) and white wood asters, along with white fall anemones. Throughout the garden, great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) has been allowed to self-sow with its cobalt blue flowers in August and September.

Wormser’s garden design begins at the side of the house where he laid a Goshen stone walkway to the backyard. In addition to weeping evergreens marking the entrance to the walkway, there is a new grove of striped maple trees (Acer pennsylvanicum). The thin, striped trunks are currently supported by tall metal stakes, which Wormser said will be removed in another year. The striped maples, a native species, has enormous leaves, similar to a sycamore.

Wildlife attracted

Although part of the backyard is shady, there is lots of sun on the dry stream bed that now leads to a small lily pond. Frogs — 30 to 40 of them — love the area. “I love frogs,” Wormser said.

“This garden brings the wildlife in,” Wormser said. There have been coyotes and bears sighted, and once Miller was startled by a great blue heron that exploded out of the pond.

Along the edge of the property is an airy stand of bamboo to create privacy. Since this can be seriously aggressive, Wormser contained the roots with a thick black plastic edging material, which he said is impervious. It is angled underground to force the roots back into the plant instead of invading its neighbors.

Miller, who teaches English literature at Smith College in Northampton, said she is delighted with her backyard retreat and very impressed with Wormser’s design process. “It helped so much that he did sketches and he did overlays,” including alternative designs.

As she walks through the garden, Miller says she enjoys the colors that are constantly changing as the flowers bloom and fade. “With every footstep, I spend time appreciating the seasons,” Miller said. “There is always something different in the garden. It’s not just a onetime ‘Wow.’ ”

Cooper’ Corner

Wormser’s most public recent project is redoing the landscape in front of Cooper’s Corner in Florence.

He said he approached owner Rich Cooper, who said he had been mulling the idea for a while.

“The old landscape had outgrown its useful life,” Cooper said.

Wormser said that he was looking to establish a public presence for Abound Design.

“I wanted to do something very public that was beyond self-promotion,” he said. “I felt I could help out a local business, as well.”

Cooper’s Corner paid for the plants and other materials but Wormser didn’t charge for his services.

“It’s not insignificant to pay for all the materials,” Wormser said.

The project ended up costing $15,000.

“Owen was very up-front about the cost and gave me a firm number,” Cooper said. And though the expense was more than he expected, Cooper says, he was pleased, especially with the stonework and sculpture, which is also a fountain.

Rounding the rectangular

The fountain is the central focus of the new landscape at the corner of Main and Chestnut streets. Some people are calling it “The Egg” because of its oval shape. Cooper said it reminds him of the traditional Irish or Scottish stone cairns.

“I’ve been surprised by the birds perching on the sculpture or using the basin at the top as a bird bath, and dogs coming up and getting a drink,” Cooper said. One morning last week a flock of sparrows alighted on the top and jockeyed for position while honeybees delicately sipped along the base.

That base looks like a pizza with triangular, flat stones. Wormser said Bill and Jim Vieira of North Wind Stonework in Ashfield provided the stones and built the walls and fountain and laid the patio.

“I thought of having small river stones around the fountain but you can’t have loose objects because people might pick them up and throw them through the windows.”

The point of the cairn fountain, he added, is to bring a sense of the natural world into a public space.

“We are imposing something of beauty into the public realm.”

Wormser said the former landscape was all angular with rectangular beds. He introduced a rounded aspect to the area with the oval sculpture and a gently curving low stone wall delineating the patio where metal tables and chairs invite people to linger.

“I encourage people to just sit and enjoy it, Cooper said. “The stone wall is great seating to watch the Florence parade go by.”

Customer comments, he added, have all been positive.

Choosing plants

Wormser carefully selected perennials that are sun-loving, drought-tolerant and long-blooming. They include ornamental grasses that add substance even when other plants are out of season, coreopsis and veronica, geraniums, liatris, yarrow and black-eyed Susans. For fall color there are purple asters and chrysanthemums. To celebrate spring Wormser planted 850 bulbs, mostly daffodils but also crocuses, grape hyacinths and Fritillaria meleagris.

For the most part, the plantings have been successful, he said. However, astilbes need to be replaced because the site is just too hot for them. He left most of the original plantings at the corner under a Norway maple and he said he needs to redo that area completely. The soil there is “absolutely atrocious,” he said.

He kept some of the former shrubs in order to save money but added two disease-resistant American elm trees. “The elm is the most beautiful street tree ever,” he said. Eventually the trees will branch out over the sidewalk. “That’s part of my plan.”

Wormser is committed to designing more public plantings; he is awaiting approval of three projects in the area including an edible-medicinal garden in front of a business and a butterfly garden at a park. He plans to get community funding for the projects and then schedule work days during which volunteers can help with the installation so they get a sense of how a garden is built. He wants to facilitate the process of creating public gardens, he says, while promoting his love of native and low-maintenance plants.

Cheryl B. Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.