The Landscape At Lee Hill Farm

Lee Hill FarmI have a very good friend, Susan Cohan, who also happens to be an extraordinarily talented landscape designer. Her firm, Susan Cohan Gardens, is based in Chatham, New Jersey. She is well educated in the arts and design. Her history is varied, and rich. Mind you, this previous bit does not in any way address the length and the breath of her experience and expertise. She has a keen eye, a well developed point of view, and a huge passion for the landscape. In my opinion, her passion for every aspect of the landscape is awesome. We met during her 2014 tenure as President of the APLD. The APLD is a national association of landscape designers that has members in almost every state. They work tirelessly to improve the quality of landscape design among their members, and they work to inform the public about landscape designers with experience and talent who would be worth consulting on a landscape project. From the beginning we were professionals and associates, with a relationship that grew to regularly debate the issues regarding landscape design.  Now we are friends. The result of that friendship – she got on a plane, and came out to visit me for 4 days this past February. Those days flew by.  She is delightfully interesting, serious, and genuine, not to mention fresh, direct, and personal.  How I love all these things about her!  I was so pleased to hear that she had won a Gold Medal award in the 2015 APLD competition for planting design. I want to share that award winning design and installation. I  greatly respect how she approached the work, and brought a project to bear fruit, from the ground up.

Susan Cohan DesignHer clients had purchased a beautiful old house and property.  Many of the structural elements of the garden – walls, and walkways – were in a considerable state of disrepair. In Susan’s estimation, a renovation of the property would have to begin with repairs. A good designer lays out the issues, and details the journey. Her client committed to this aspect of the restoration. Any successful project is a result of a rapport between a designer and a client. It was agreed that the old walkways, steps, and some walls would have to come out, and be redone. Another wall was slated to be built.

Lee Hill Farm
Repairs are not that much fun. Fixing what is broken does not necessarily result in something new and exciting. Just what was, before it was broken. But an old property with beautiful walls and walks may not need something new.  A repair and renovation that goes on to become a landscape better than her client thought she could have it-that’s very new and exciting! Repairs can be lengthy and tedious. These before pictures of Lee Farm which Susan sent me do not tell the tale of the days and weeks of work that would be involved to make the hard structures of this garden whole again.

vintage stairsEvery place has its own aura. A feeling. An atmosphere.  Recreating and restoring a sense of place relies on a sure hand. How Susan approached this project tells me she has a gift for the concept of the genius of the place. This property had a long history that deserved respect.  I am sure she steeped herself in the ruination, before she put a drawing, a hand, or a shovel, to the ground.

old gardenThe heaved and crumbling brickwork and the grass challenged stonework did not faze her.

Susan Cohan GardensThis view of a landscape long neglected makes clear that a lot of work needed to be done. Landscape projects that are really good address the land, the history, the client, the structures, the furnishings, and the plants. Like a play having six acts, this project would build on itself.

redoing the stoneworkThe restoration of the hard structures took lots of time.  Lots of hard work. Lots of supervision, and even more discussion. The pace of this work took so much more time than these pictures would indicate. This picture of a degraded walk, some hand tools, and a person tells a story. A beautiful project takes a vision, and work to follow that is skilled.

Lee HillOnce the hard structures were restored, the replanting of the landscape would involve an arrangement and plant list that would convince.  A beautifully planted garden is a joy.  But this garden had to be true to the history, the aura, and the meaning of this property of great age.  I think Susan did a great job of thinking through a plant list that was not limited to what perennials were available at the time the garden was built.  It was a plant list that served and recalled the original spirit of the garden.

the stoneworkThe fountain needed repair. The stone terrace was relaid, on level ground. The brick walks were redone. The millstone was level in the center of two brick walks, intersecting at right angles. The planting had begun.

Lee Hill Farm small fileYears later, this landscape evokes the spirit of the past, courtesy of lots of skilled design help from the present.  These pictures, which Susan submitted to the APLD competition, tell a certain story.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #4Her hand is a subtle one. It takes great experience, confidence and skill to plant a landscape that gives the land, the history and the plants center stage. I can see she is interested here in a landscape that seems natural and appropriate. Genuinely believable. Flowing.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2On one level, the planting design for this project was meant to evoke the spirit of the original garden. But that design goes on to other levels. More interesting and thoughtful placement. More variety, or better performing cultivars. Designed spaces. The plant choices and the colors echo the original garden, but have relevance in the present.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #5The original iris still have a place.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #8the sweep

Lee Hill Farm Photo #9a long line

Lee Hill Farm Photo #10the layered view

Lee Hill Farm Photo #7The matching hedges of the same cultivar of peony is a way of illustrating how the design is as important as the plant choices.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #6The peonies, arbor and fountain are the strong and simple organizing feature for a constellation of perennial borders.  In May, the peonies hold forth much more strongly than they would have, had they been planted singly in a number of different places. At this moment, this view is drenched in the history of the original landscape in a visually compelling way.  It is also a very strongly designed space.

Lee Hill Farm Photo #2This is an award winning project-as well it should be. This picture tells the tale-everything seems right and rings true to the setting.  As for Susan Cohan, should you have a great passion for the landscape, and live within 100 miles of her, contact her.  She is a landscape designer I greatly admire. Interested in reading further about her?

Susan Cohan Gardens




  1. Most admirable work! Genius loci brilliance. Wonderful and inspirational share. Thank you. It is storytelling at the heart – past, present and stewarding future stories and memories to be made.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Annie, Genius loci-that idea is a key concept in this landscape design. Storytelling at the heart-I love this idea of yours. best, Deborah

  2. Christine says

    Deborah, thank you for sharing this information about your good friend and colleague, Susan. I loved seeing the transformation of Lee Hill Farm. Now I read that she teaches at a local community college in our New Jersey county. I will continue to read her blog, too.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Christine, I read her blog too. So pleased to know her. And even more pleased to be exposed to her level of design work. best, Deborah

  3. Exquisite.

  4. Deb Canine says

    Exquisite – and – it looks like real people designed and enjoy it.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Deb, Susan is a real person! You make a very important point. This project is not about the nightly news. It is about an old house, an old property, a real relationship between a designer and a client. No fireworks. Just work that is real. best, Deborah

  5. Just beautiful!! My kind of landscaping.

  6. Ruth Wolery says

    This home and landscape design is certainly a dream setting. It will be admired, of course, is award winning…

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Ruth, a good landscape designer can interpret, and make what seems pedestrian dreamy. Not everyone has an old property on the east coast. None of my clients do. But dreamy is a place every gardener can go. They just need to want to go there. All of us gardeners go there a different way. A great designer is one way to go. all the best, Deborah

  7. I wanted to be the first to comment and let you know I am astounded by your generosity both in reality and in spirit. I am proud to call you my friend.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Susan, this project of yours is truly beautiful-in the most thoughtful and measured way. The finished project looks so serene and graceful. I know the process was probably everything but! I greatly admire your work, my friend. all my best, Deborah

  8. Jo Turner says

    Thanks for sharing this subtle and sensitively executed garden renovation. I always enjoy your posts, and am very inspired, not only by your actual work, but also your generosity in sharing details of the actual design process…

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jo, sharing the details of the design process helps everyone who has a passion for the landscape. That said, I would say that my association with gifted landscape design professionals has made me a better designer. It also makes it easy for me to say that consulting a good landscape designer is worth the time and trouble. all the best, Deborah

  9. debra phillips says

    susan crafted a ‘sense of place’ with a strong nod to the history of the site, beautifully

  10. Love the color of the peonies. Do you know what the name of them are?

  11. Susan Hauser says

    The beauty of it all! It brought tears to my eyes. How lovely and thoughtful, bringing that old property back to life again. It looks as though it had always been there, just like that. Simply breathtaking.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Susan, the beauty of it all, as if it had always been there – my sentiments exactly. Susan has a light and deft hand. I truly admire how she never imposes anything on a project, or a client. She has the ability to create from what emerges from the relationships she takes so much time and effort to establish.. I cannot explain this very well. Her design work is never an imposition. It is a gifted reading. best, Deborah

  12. Such a welcome & fitting story to read on this early March day. The good bones of the garden were there, uncovered by Ms. Cohen’s vision and talent. How wonderful and inspirational to read how this lovely garden was brought back to life. Thank you for sharing this story as only you can. And thanks to Ms. Cohen for adding a bit more beauty to all our lives.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Diane, “the bones uncovered”-well said. She is gifted. good to hear from you, Deborah

  13. I am not very enthusiastic about the peony hedges. Those may look good 2-3 weeks per year. For the rest of year you’d be looking at the randomness of leaves or even worse. I wish she had used something more permanent and more architectural in that space. Sorry!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Antoine, do not be sorry! You are entitled to your opinion. I like the peony hedges. Peonies are wonderfully old fashioned and when they bloom it is a happening. I find them much harder to integrate into a perennial border, as they are so bulky. At my old house, I grew them in rows, like crops! regards, Deborah

  14. The property is beautiful. Does the fountain look somewhat clunky? That heavy concrete (?) or stone fountain seems wrong for the home’s architecture and her landscape design. Perhaps a lovely antique fountain from DGW in its place. Or a good cast aluminum reproduction, painted black. Agree with the peony comment- one good Spring rain and those blooms are gone. Perhaps the client requested them. Why not a hydrangea hedge?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Silvia, you and Antoine are of course entitled to your opinions. But a project like this is a very personal process between a designer and a client. We don’t get a say in that process, nor should we. I like the peony hedge. Peony foliage is very good looking, and the big texture of the leaves is a nice contrast-even a welcome relief-from yews or boxwood. Peonies have a certain old fashioned aura that seems appropriate here. The blooms are just a little icing on the cake. Perhaps the fountain is original to the property. It is there, so it has some meaning to the client. I love the heft of it! This is not to say that alternate choices wouldn’t work. Lots of things work in a garden. What people choose is what makes a project interesting-even if it is different than what I would do for myself. Good to hear from you! all the best, Deborah

  15. This post reads like the cutting and polishing of a diamond in the rough.
    The photos are gorgeous.

    Some years ago, two pals of mine got married in Ohio and timed their wedding to coincide with the blooming period of the bride’s favorite flower — the peony. Despite their ephemeral quality, there simply is no other bloom to my eye that is as graceful or beautiful.

  16. Lovely, thoughtful, enduring….it reflects my sense of place. Thank you for sharing as you so generously do.

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