Garden Photo of the Day

A Grotto Garden in Pennsylvania

Grotto garden at twilight
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo

I think Jay sifford’s successful last post has inspired a few more designers to send in photos of gardens they’ve designed for clients–I’m so glad! Especially when the gardens look like today’s. Mary Bowe, a landscape designer in Richboro, Pennsylvania, sent these pics of a project she and her associates (at Gasper Landscape Design & Construction) designed recently.

Mary says, “Our client came to us requesting a patio to extend their outdoor living space as well as a pathway and stairs to connect to a small patio on the side of the house for the in-law suite.

Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Mary Bowe

“The site is semi-wooded with a mature oaks and hickories around the perimeter. A substantial change in grade exists from an existing deck on the back of the house to the in-law patio on the side, as well as an abrupt change in grade from the deck to the back of the property.

Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Mary Bowe

“A retention basin which holds water through the entire year is located at the very bottom of the property. During early discussions we learned that this pond, although unseen from the house, was a favorite destination for the homeowners on their evening strolls.

Bluestone walkway from garages to deck; Buxus ‘Winter Gem’ & B. sempervirens ‘Variegata’, Prunus schipkaensis, Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’, Liriope ‘Big Blue’ & ‘Variegata’
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo

“We came back to the client with a design for the small curvilinear patio and woodland pathway they had requested but we also came to the meeting with a number of suggestions for taming some of the slopes which were becoming increasingly problematic and for creating and maximizing the unique views in the back yard.

Bluestone dining patio and deck with re-configured stairs
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo

“Although not a part of the initial project program, it was impossible to ignore the existing pond and we wanted to make the most of this feature in the back yard landscape. Our solution was to make the most of the abrupt slope which actually hides the pond from view. We proposed that while in the process of “taming” the erosion-prone slopes left behind by the home’s construction that we create a small “away room” for the garden visitor. This away room, or grotto as it came be known, is tucked in amongst boulder walls below the brow of the slope. Unseen from the house and patios, the grotto allows for a perfect view down into the pond and its new gazebo sitting area which floats above the water surface and is reached by a foot bridge.

Stone slab steps from dining patio to grotto area
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo

“Moss rock boulder walls were created along the slopes with pockets, shelves and crevices for planting. Plants installed in the crevices were selected for shade and drought tolerance, and were planted in a moisture retentive soil mix wrapped in an open weave landscape fabric. Over time many of the parent plants have seeded themselves into neighboring crevices or crept about by vines or stolon’s to establish small colonies.

Photo/Illustration: Courtesy of Mary Bowe

“The grotto has also proven itself to be the best place for the outdoor summering of houseplants. Several heirloom needle point ivy’s have rooted scions into the grotto where they have found a small micro-climate to keep their roots viable through the winter months.”

That grotto is pure enchantment, Mary! I want to BE there, like, right now!! Just dreamy. 

View from grotto garden to “floating” gazebo
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo
Grotto built into steep slope; Astilbe chinensis Pumila on left
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo
Grotto garden with deck in back ground: Galium odoratum at edge of paving
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo
Fern seedling in grotto walls
Photo/Illustration: Rob Cardillo

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View Comments


  1. Jay_Sifford 07/23/2012

    Mary, what a beautiful creative way of approaching a site with problematic terrain. I love sunken seating areas. They can be so cozy and somewhat mysterious. The color and pattern of the fabric cushion material goes so well with the feel of the grotto. The splashes of color and the lighting in the grotto walls keep the eye moving around, but in a good way that enhances the experience instead of detracting from it. The Japanese maple and hostas above the area lead your eye down right to the area... great job.
    I dug out a sunken seating area in my woodland garden, in my front yard. I have a very cool arisaema which has seeded itself into the stacked stone wall and in the gravel below. I can't wait to see how they do, as I never thought they would do in a stone wall... but who knows. I love these little shots of serendipity.
    I also love the walkway area from the garage to the deck. You have struck a great balance between hardscape and plants.
    Thanks for sharing, Mary. Again, great work.

  2. User avater
    meander_michaele 07/23/2012

    I love gardens that invite and encourage wandering about and following pathways that lead to delightful destinations.Instead of just having some property (which is certainly wonderful in itself) , your clients now have "grounds" that are a feast for the eyes. They must be so pleased. To have a floating gazebo is the ultimate destination feature and just looking at all that soothing greenery leading to it, I feel like I can almost hear it whispering alluringly, "just come a little further and then sit and relax. Your troubles will me...just come a little further."

  3. wittyone 07/23/2012

    What a beautiful little hidden gem. What are those little lights anyway----electric or candles? Votive candles would be beautiful with the light flickering among the nooks and crannies in the wall.

    Gorgeous! All your work transformed that backyard into something really special.

  4. GardenerGM 07/23/2012

    What a beautiful oasis you have created!

  5. User avater
    Tim_Zone_Denial_Vojt 07/23/2012

    Wow. Beautiful and inviting. I wonder if I could get several dump truck loads of dirt to make a big hill in my flat back yard, into which I could build a grotto like this..........

  6. wanderinggardener 07/23/2012

    This is a very inventive way of treating a sloping site, Mary. You have also created a lovely path from garage to deck, which takes care of the deck height and its appearance, readily seen by anyone walking back from the romantic gazebo and grotto. It will all continue to grow in beautifully, since you have also spaced the shrubs for future growth. Well done!

  7. woodlandgardener 07/23/2012

    Thanks very much for your comments. We're all thrilled to have one of our gardens included in GPOD - we're in some great company!
    The lights in the walls are tiny votives we created nooks for in the boulder wall. We've been experimanting with outdoor LED fixtures in similar situations the past year. They work well but minus the flicker.
    With the exception of the "before" images the garden is shown at about 10-11 years old. With the exception of a number of "deer resistant" plants which proved to be quite tasty to the local herd in the beginning, the garden has matured well. We love to see what is reproducing on its own - it makes us feel that the site is healing after the builder left.
    If you wanted to create a similar grotto on flat ground, think about building it in realtion to a structure - maybe it is tucked into a pine grove or rooted in adjacent to a potting shed. Sculpt the mound to disguise the hill suddenly cropping up in a flat landscape and plant it to add a sense of time and age. Make use of the back of the mound (soil is expensive!) Incorporate a small water feature which trickles through the boulders.
    Have fun!

  8. tractor1 07/23/2012

    My next door neighbor built a similar "grotto" himself near the rear of his house alongside a babbling brook. All refer to it as "The Pit". He ran electric to power lighting and most importantly a fridge. He also ran underground piping so there's fresh water for ice making, washing, and watering plants. I like those votives but there do exist LEDs that flicker. I don't think calling a fern a seedling is proper, ferns don't produce seeds, they reproduce from spores. I'm very impressed by the floating gazebo.

  9. pattyspencer 07/23/2012

    Very pretty - I'd love to sit there - it looks like a very inspirational place where I could let my mind just float away. Great job!!

    Tractor1 - glad you're back - missed you! BTW - your neighbor's "pit" sounds so like a man cave - lol

  10. Wife_Mother_Gardener 07/23/2012

    Beautiful! And I love that it came as way to solve a problem area. Very well done.

  11. tractor1 07/23/2012

    pattyspenser: Thank you for letting me know you missed me, it's nice to feel appreciated. I needed a couple of days to tend to a sick cat, Blackie is a severe diabetic, I need to inject him with insulin twice a day, but only if he eats and he stopped eating... he's doing much better now. Blackie is twelve and I've been injecting him for ten years, he's a very good little boy.

  12. rwotzak 07/24/2012

    A beautiful example of how you can't just plop a house onto a piece of property and expect it to fit...and of how a great designer can make anything look wonderful. I believe that it took a special person to start with that uninspiring and awkward space and turn it into the the wonderfully inviting place it's become. Well done!

  13. greenthumblonde 07/24/2012

    I really love seeing the mix of professionally designed gardens and the home spun gardens. The daily posts have had such a great variety of styles. I'm loving my morning dose of green.

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