For John and Sue Manchester, it’s what’s on the outside that counts. It only makes sense that the professional landscape architect and his family, including daughters Erica and Hallie, were drawn to an expansive piece of bucolic property carved off for residential development by a nursery to build their home. Stewart Nursery, a full scale retail and wholesale nursery in Wakefield that has served southern New England homeowners, landscapers and garden centers since 1933, grows trees, shrubs and plants. At the helm of Manchester Landscaping for decades, it’s no surprise that when an acre and a quarter of the nursery’s land became available, John jumped at the chance to build his family home here. A gargantuan pair of 15-foot rhododendrons John admits he was drawn to also proved a good omen for the Manchesters. After all, he’s a member and past president of the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association. It was 1995 when they broke ground and John laughs that it’s been a “labor of love” ever since.
The Manchesters say they were drawn to this area of South Kingstown because it was quiet enough for peaceful, secluded living but equally convenient to town. John took on the role of general contractor for the substantial building project which was to include three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, an open floor plan and wraparound porch, and would offer a combined 2,300 square feet of living space. “I’m cheap, so I want a lot of bang for my buck,” concedes John, “so the bedrooms are smaller and space is focused on the living areas.” He designed the farmhouse-style home and built various components by hand, including the two-story floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and chimney and all of the tile work throughout the home, in addition to various other projects. But he’s also clear that he turned to professional local contractors for the bulk of the home’s labor including all of the carpentry work. “I wasn’t always swinging the hammer,” he jokes.
Unlike the old saying, “The cobbler’s children have no shoes,” John has made the grounds surrounding of the family’s charming home a testament to his passion for landscape design. Describing his outdoor space as “different and unique” since it encompasses gardens, a variety of horticultural elements, hardscapes, softscapes and woodlands, John says the overall design scheme ironically breaks his single most important rule regarding landscape design: he didn’t have a plan.
“I always tell my customers, ‘have a plan before you stick a shovel in the ground.’ I broke that ground off the bat. A stone garage I built took two years of my spare time. From there I created a walk out because the property slopes so much,” he reveals. “Then I built a partition and gardens off of that. Several years after that, I decided I wanted another project, so I built another garage for my equipment and faced that one in stone. It kind of created the bones of a walled-in backyard, so I connected it all, adding a sunken walled-in courtyard.” It’s been an evolution of 15 years, but despite not listening to his own advice, it all comes together cohesively for an enviable outdoor paradise that leaves no guesswork that this is the handiwork of a professional. “It all happened organically,” says the Rhode Island Certified Horticulturalist, who adds that some components were planned ahead of time but certainly not as much as might be expected. “It probably took about 1,500-2,000 hours of my time,” he estimates. “Who plans something that will take up 2,000 hours of their time? But over 15 years, if you take a little at a time it’s not so bad, but I never planned on doing so much!”
Do as I say, not as I do would likely be his advice to customers who aspire to have grounds like his own. “Plan it out. It doesn’t have to be a written plan, but know what you want to end up with before you start. It can be disheartening to start something and run out of steam, not making the finish line because you don’t know what the finish line is. It’s a lot easier to erase a pencil mark than move a plant.”
When homeowners simply can’t wrap their head around a new hardscape, garden plan or landscape redesign, John welcomes them to see his property to get a better sense of the completed look and feel. “It’s a great way to show clients the different paving and stonework that I do,” he explains. “People can come to my house and look at a lot of things within the landscape as opposed to in a nursery or garden center. They can see how they’re used. It points them in the right direction.”
Looking to make your yard garden club worthy? Some common mistakes John sees are elements planted too closely together and too closely to the foundation of the home. Envision how the plant will be in its full maturity, then dig the holes. Another common error: planting things that create more maintenance than homeowners are prepared to undertake. “Keep it simple, stupid.’ That’s my motto. Minimal, simple, clean design is pleasing to the eye because most people want little or no maintenance,” says John. No matter how good of a job he might do planning a landscape, if the homeowner isn’t going to properly care for the plantings, or hire someone who will, it’s a disservice to them both. Want to stand out? Look for lesser used plants and flowers. “There’s a lot of other stuff out there than hydrangea, forsythia and rhododendrons,” he adds. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.