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Landscape designer Hilarie Holdsworth creates charming gardens inspired by history

An old rutted lane in West Gloucester leads to what was once a pig farm. Sought-after landscape designer Hilarie Holdsworth, principal at Hilarie Holdsworth Design, lives at the end of this tree-lined road with her husband, Eric, in what can best be described as a mini-estate. The property consists of 3.5 acres of wooded and open landscape dominated by an 18th-century reclaimed Maine barn. In 1998, this fabulous old cowshed was dismantled and rebuilt for the Holdsworths by a company called Barnstormers Wood. Living in a renovated old barn fits the playful personality of Holdsworth, who truly values the history of her home and landscape.

Coming from a family of devoted gardeners, Holdsworth is continually inspired by the drama and lushness of Cape Ann. Her educational background, focusing on art and illustration, gives her an edge as a landscape designer. “You get a better idea of how to have a restrained palette, what colors work well together…and the importance of repeating elements in a landscape.” And her design philosophy is simple: Always have structure in a landscape project, but use whimsy to “tickle people’s fancy.”

For over twenty years Holdsworth has been growing her business while tending her own land with a cadre of helpers. The first landscape project was to create a “skirt of interest” around the perimeter of the home. On the east side is a 24-year-old espaliered dwarf pear tree growing against the former barn door (now painted a weathered robin’s-egg blue). Perennials arranged below the commanding tree include mounds of evening primrose, bleeding heart, anemone, and peonies—pinks, whites, and hints of yellows work well together.

Around the corner, in the front yard, the impressive Round Garden beckons. A circular parterre, it has an Italianate look due to the conical boxwoods that emerge out of granite-edged beds. Holdsworth has a “guy” who takes care of them. “They are pruned one to two times per year. Boxwoods are forgiving, though, and I like simple shapes.” Five balls of box are also strategically placed, one in each section of the parterre.

The pie-shaped beds include swathes of lady’s mantle and lamb’s ears. Blue forget-me-nots bubble over the granite—soft against hard. Holdsworth welcomes the wildness of these lacy cottage favorites, noting, “They are so intense and blue on a cloudy day.” Since they are a biennial, once the mother plant dies away (after the seeds have dropped in late May), she cuts the foliage back to its base to ensure next spring’s bloom. Often, she gives the seeds to her clients.

On a late spring day, the round parterre also shows off Holdsworth’s skill at effectively mixing different hardscape materials with myriad green foliage. For example, she has a real admiration for Cape Ann granite, which is incorporated into her landscape in creative ways. “I specify Cape Ann granite because it’s more beautiful than new granite in my opinion,” she says. In addition, the bones of the parterre are a mixture of cut slabs of the native rock and smaller round stones. Mellowed brick walkways lead to a stonework circle with a tall granite fountain that Eric made for Holdsworth a few years back as a birthday surprise.

Resourceful, Holdsworth is always on the lookout for reclaimed materials for use in her work. Old bricks, rusted sculptures, weather-beaten wood furniture—she is not satisfied with just a familiar border. In the last few years she has acquired timeworn cobblestones from construction sites in Gloucester. “Everyone wanted them; I bought some for my clients,” she boasts. Charles River “bridge block,” from the recently renovated Longfellow Bridge in Boston, was also scooped up. She has a knack for being at the right place at the right time, always finding new hardscape materials to integrate into her clients’ properties.

As impressive and Continental-inspired as the Round Garden is, the Pavilion Garden off to the left of the parterre is soothing and verdant—almost prehistoric. Holdsworth is drawn toward shade gardens. “I always want clients to see the value in their shade and not get rid of it. It’s just more luscious,” she says. A canopy of hardwoods protects waves of variegated hostas, toad lilies, ferns, birch, umbrella plants, Canadian ginger, creeping phlox—very effective. This amalgam of green foliage, with many flowering varieties, converges on a Japanese-style teahouse she designed herself.

The Holdsworths’ property is perhaps best appreciated while sipping some type of fun drink from the second-floor porch of their home. Looking south, one can enjoy the commanding view emanating from the natural axis of the Round Garden below. A lawn sweeps out toward mature hardwood trees. Midway, pergolas covered in native wisteria, honeysuckle, and clematis jut out into the field, offering yet another appealing focal point. Under the artistic direction of Hilarie Holdsworth, a former pig farm has been transformed, Pygmalion-style, into a stunner.

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