Here Comes the Sun

After decades of shade gardening, a Shore couple leaped at a sun-splashed lot and saw the upside of a downtrodden house that needed everything.

When Jeff and Renée Cowenhoven sold the Bay Head
home they had lived in for decades, in 2003, they didn’t know how good their timing would prove to be in real estate terms, but they knew the timing was right on a personal level. With grown children living on their own, Jeff, now 57, and Renée, now 62, were ready to move to a home—and garden—that required less work.

The garden, in particular, would be wrenching to leave. Rising to the challenge of a property that got little direct sun, they had created a magnificent shade garden—complete with koi ponds and a Japanese bridge—that had become a perennial star attraction on local garden tours. But it was time to move on.

The first house they looked at was a century-old shingle-style cottage in nearby Point Pleasant that probably had scared off many buyers already. It needed a new roof, new windows, and new hardwood floors beneath its haggard orange shag carpeting. Outside, the 50-by-120-foot property, neglected for years, was riddled with bare patches, overgrown weeds, and broken fences. All in all, hardly the picture of low maintenance the Cowenhovens had in mind.

The dilapidated garage had a second-story loft. The realtor cautioned the couple to tread carefully as they ascended the rickety stairs. When they reached the upper level, Jeff and Renée got a splendid view of the garage through holes in the loft floor.

Yet somehow in that instant the deal was clinched. Madness? Method. Jeff renovates old houses for a living. Renée, who oversees the paperwork for the business, is a painter in addition to being a master gardener. This decrepit loft would become the artist’s studio she had secretly longed for.

They hadn’t set out to seek a property splashed with sun, but here it was. And with it came the opportunity to create their first sun garden—a project that Renée had been saving articles about for years. And what better amenity to put in a sunny backyard than a built-in swimming pool?

During late 2003 and early 2004, Jeff supervised the repair and renovation of the home. Renée pulled out her trove of clips and did additional research on sun-loving plants. By spring, she had sketched out her vision for the sun garden on a huge artist’s pad. The drawings pinpointed the locations of trees and shrubs, both the few that would be retained and the many they would bring in. The sketches coordinated existing elements, such as the garage, with new elements, such as the pool and planting beds.

Tucked into the rear of the property would be a small shade area that Renée called her secret garden. Her sketches gave it a patio and a wisteria-entwined pergola that Jeff would build based on designs Renée had held onto for years.

With the return of warm weather, Jeff turned to his next challenge—the pool. His research led him to order a fiberglass model that comes molded to shape. “It’s less expensive than concrete, requires less upkeep, and comes with a lifetime guarantee,” says Renée, who was amazed when Jeff ordered it from his computer. “Who knew you could order a pool online?”

On St. Patrick’s Day, a big flatbed truck delivered the pool. “It was a wonderful event for the whole neighborhood,” says Renée with a laugh. Within three days, the hole was dug and the pool installed. The Cowenhovens felt they had to get the pool in before they could figure out the rest of the yard—which they did, sketching in trees, grass, and gardens. They would need three dump trucks full of dirt.

Just one small problem. Now that the pool was installed, trucks could no longer drive into the backyard. So the dirt had to be dumped out front and schlepped to the backyard, one groaning wheelbarrow at a time. Jeff would rather not think about how many wheelbarrow trips it takes to move three dump-truck loads of dirt.

But finally the dirt was in place, and Jeff and Renée could move on to the much more pleasant task of laying out the planting beds and rock walls. She looked out the master- bedroom window on the second floor, giving him feedback and suggestions as he laid out the curving shapes on the ground.  

With the beds in place, Renée—who had already been scouting nurseries—began buying. She started with the biggest elements, the trees—Norfolk pines, redbuds, a weeping cherry, and a pear tree. Several had root balls so heavy that it took six people to drag them from the truck to the backyard. Next she bought shrubs—from hydrangeas to butterfly bushes.

With the major swaths filled, Renée turned her attention to the smaller spaces. She let herself improvise, going with her gut response to a plant’s color or pattern—a cluster of bright green here, a group of stripes there. Even with Jeff and his crew  helping, getting the hundreds of plants into the ground was backbreaking. But miraculously, by summer, everything was in place.

Neighbors went from peering over the fence to strolling by for a chat. Meanwhile, as summer reached full force, the plants and shrubs began to acclimate. A few things did not survive that first year, and a few details have since been tweaked. But the Cowenhoven’s house renovation and first sun garden is not a work in progress. It is a cohesive vision completed virtually in one fell swoop. In 2006, the couple hosted a one-time garden tour to wide acclaim.

In summer, Jeff and Renée enjoy dining in the shade of the pergola and swimming amid the privacy their maturing garden affords. After dinner, they like to repair to the small balcony of Renée’s studio. There, glasses of wine in hand, they watch the sun set over the serenity they’ve created.

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