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Cooking Up a Great Garden

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By Carolyn Ulrich

Photography By Russell Jenkins

When David Van Zelst comes home after a busy day running his landscaping business, he likes to cook. No surprise there, since the owner and principal designer at Van Zelst, Inc. in Wadsworth once considered becoming a chef, with architecture the other serious possibility. Both interests continue to play a commanding role in the life that he and his wife Cindy have built for themselves on the North Shore.

It was just four years ago that the pair designed the expansive Italian-style house and garden they now enjoy on their wooded 2-acre lot. “I’ve had the privilege of developing landscapes and gardens for world class homes since 1979,” Van Zelst says, “so all along I’ve collected ideas.” Those stored ideas came to the fore when it was time to design what he clearly sees as the family dream home.

The house and its garden were “designed for how we live,” he continues, which means lots of entertaining as well as regular family dinners with their four children. “We always have family dinner,” he adds. To that end, there is a large gracious kitchen, “since whenever there are guests, people always gather in the kitchen,” but there’s no separate dining room. “The great room is where the table is,” he says, and it’s large enough to accommodate those special meals with extended family and friends that can end up lasting as long as three hours.

The house presents a handsome façade to the street, but its life is focused inward with views of the garden carefully calibrated for maximum impact from each of the downstairs rooms. Sit at the desk in Van Zelst’s office, for example, and the eye is led straight out to a circular limestone fire pit at the far end of the lot. The view from the popular screened porch takes in the patio brimming with containers of colorful annuals, the swimming pool with its adjacent hot tub and a greenhouse, left by a previous owner and soon to be redesigned. A winter visit found the greenhouse harboring flowering orchids. By spring, it would be given over to newly sprouted seeds for the garden. As a matter of policy, Van Zelst, Inc. grows most of the plants that are used in its installations, and Dave is emphatic about using organic practices. He’s particularly enthusiastic about the benefits of vermicompost – a “wonder drug,” he calls it.

The comforting privacy of the house is enhanced by a perimeter of mature trees surrounding the lot – multiple types of maple and oak, white pines, ornamental pears, hackberries, ginkgoes – and Van Zelst refuses to pick favorites; he loves them all. A microburst felled 20 of the property’s trees eight years ago, but one would never know.

The approach to the front entry is also wooded, relatively simple, with oaks and hackberries thoughtfully placed to frame a “gate-like” opening to the central door, which is flanked by a stately pair of columnar English oaks and carefully clipped boxwood hedges. Nearby, hemlocks have been underplanted with ferns for a natural look, and western cedars, thus far untouched by deer, line the street side. A three-tiered fountain presides over a clearing, one of several on the property that echo the home’s Italian style and help to muffle the sounds of passing traffic. Masses of daffodils enliven this area in spring, but not tulips. “We tried them in front but they just became a high-priced salad for rabbits,” says Van Zelst.

The sunny center of the property is the rear yard where all the outdoor living takes place. An expansive bluestone patio with circular tables and comfortable upholstered furniture draws all and sundry to enjoy al fresco dining or loll away the hours. The patio then transitions into a less defined space underlaid with bluestone chips where additional conversational groupings can accommodate large crowds when necessary. A curving bed of colorful flowering shrubs and annuals, many in containers, outlines the area, accented by multiple giant puffs of miscanthus grass. Recently planted trees will one day turn this area shady.

Walk up close to the house’s gold stucco walls and you will see how the surface has been gently roughened in places to suggest age, a look surely inspired by a family trip to Tuscany where a day spent tooling around the countryside on rented Vespas was one of the highlights. “One of our goals was to give the house an aged character so it might looks old, as if it had been built in the 1920s,” Van Zelst comments. “So we gave it a mottled surface to catch the dust.” Climbing hydrangea vines still in the early stages of clambering up the wall will add to the ambience as they mature.

Another Italian influence can be seen in the nearby formal vegetable garden that is an exemplary demonstration of how beauty and utility can co-exist. As you enter the garden from the back gate, you find yourself flanked by two long narrow rectangular beds with a stone fountain at the far end. Within the beds are a mix of vegetables and flowers, notably kale, lettuce, many different herbs and tall towers of caged tomatoes. Within the bluestone paving are two long narrow beds, one planted exclusively with bright orange marigolds and the other filled with a red-tipped sedum ground cover. The colors relate to the overall color scheme of the property – a gold-colored house with coral-orange upholstery on all the outdoor furniture.

Designing and building a house that will meet the needs and wishes of a large family takes meticulous planning, and Van Zelst is pleased that it all seems to have worked out. While it’s the views from all over that he’s proudest of, he also acknowledges great pleasure in little plant details – the contrast of ostrich fern underplanted with pachysandra, for example, or the way ajuga and creeping thyme grow between stones in the patio. But above all, it’s a family-oriented home and after the day’s work is over, it always comes down to basics. “Cindy bakes, and I cook.”

Editor Carolyn Ulrich has written for Chicagoland Gardening since its inception. She is a former weekly garden columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and has received several awards for magazine writing from the Garden Writers Association. culrich@sbsmags.com


1. Share one of your big gardening mistakes.
I think the greatest mistake, and something that I would change, would be the timing of when we installed our first garden. The scenario of the cobbler’s children having no shoes certainly applied to our first home. My wife and I purchased and finished a home that had absolutely no landscaping. We initially put in only sod in the front and back yards to allow us to move in. Things got busy, and it was a good 2½ to 3 seasons before we installed the landscape. This was a great mistake since our family loves the outdoors, gardens, color and flowers and we simply did not make the time for the design and/or installation. We lost a lot of enjoyment during the time we were creating gardens for others and not our own.

2. What is your most beloved gardening book?
The best gardening book is an easy one for me: Crockett’s Victory Garden. It was published back in the early 80s and I still have my original copy. My interest in gardening began with my grandfather when I was a kid. He was always outside in the garden doing something: watering, raking or just enjoying the elements. I started growing vegetables and houseplants in my room. Then I had a small vegetable garden in our yard and I was given Crockett’s Victory Garden. My parents alerted me to James Crockett’s show on PBS, and I watched religiously every week. I continue to reference the book.

3. Is there a public garden that everyone should see if they can?
This is easy. With my Dutch heritage and interest in flowers and color, my first choice is Keukenhof, the bulb garden in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, I haven’t been there yet. It is on my list, but spring is our busiest season.

4. What do you dislike about gardening?
I don’t think there is much that I don’t like about gardening. I love being outside in heat, cold, rain or snow, whether in my garden or those of my clients. I don’t like not having enough time to stop and enjoy all the details within my home garden.

5. How has your gardening/design style evolved through the years?
My gardening and design skills have improved over the years by watching what works and what doesn’t. The more you see and the more time you spend in the garden, the more details and new ideas come about. When I first started working with perennials in my career, very few growers had quality selections. Now everybody is utilizing perennials. We have also become innovative in our approach to design, using more organic materials, looking to get away from pesticides and synthetic materials.

6. If you could invite one famous gardener (living or dead) to dinner, whom would you choose?
If I were to invite one famous gardener, it would be Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture. I would like to discuss how he designed, how he worked with clients and how he expressed his love and passion for landscape design. It is clear that his vision and influence continue to be enjoyed in many public and private spaces to this day.

7. If you were to write a gardening book, what would be your topic?
My book topic would be the natural landscape. It would include ideas that allow a home landscape to recreate what Mother Nature has provided – beauty, a place for family, privacy, habitat for wildlife and even food. It would also address the organic practices we use at our own home and those of as our clients.



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