Painter’s Paradise

Combining a love of gardening and a talent for art, a New Jersey homeowner creates an oasis in her backyard. (Photos by Laura Moss)

Monica Bean approaches gardening much as she approaches the canvases she paints: as art projects bursting with color and texture. A full-time art student studying oil painting, she has found the time to create this retreat in her Princeton backyard, a space she often shares with family and friends.

Bean is quick to credit her mother for sparking her love of gardening. At her childhood home in South Brunswick, Bean explains, her mother created by herself a fabulous oasis on their 4-K-acre property. “Walking the grounds was something they did often,” she says. “People would visit and stroll around. I wanted to re-create just that. I want people to come over and grab a glass of wine and walk through my garden.”

That’s as easily said as done, given the picturesque and peaceful environment she’s fashioned over the last seven years. Bean downsized to this one-and-a-half acre property in the heart of Princeton in 2004, along with her now college-aged daughters. She was attracted to the house for its move-in condition and the property for its potential. “The grass came right up to the foundation of the house,” she says. “There was no definition of a garden, but it felt very park-like.” Set at the end of a cul-de-sac, it’s totally private. Faced with the huge task of transforming the property, Bean consulted landscaper Bill Kucas of Garden Makers in Trenton, who provided the basis for the backyard plan, a project nearly three years in the making. “The mature trees are remnants of an old estate,” says Kucas, “and the home is very architectural.  We knew we had to do something special, something that lent itself to the style of the house.”

Armed with the knowledge but not the muscle, Bean had Kucas and his crew handle the initial heavy lifting, she says, establishing the gardens. Together, they planted them. The idea was to have color nearly every month of the year. “The planting was done to extend the blooming season,” says Kucas, and includes Chinese witch hazel, which blooms in the winter months; daffodils, azaleas and rhododendrons in the spring; magnolias, roses, peonies and other flowering shrubs in the summer; maple and fothergilla in the fall. Kucas incorporated the mature trees, many of which he estimates were planted more than 100 years ago. “There are some very unusual trees here,” he says, “including a cork tree and a dove tree. Plus, several beautiful magnolias.”

Bean knew that, in addition to the beauty of the gardens, she wanted the practicality of significant outdoor living space. She and partner Bill O’Donnell entertain frequently, often just a casual backyard barbecue. They planned a large patio with ample space for several seating areas. It culminates in a massive fireplace crafted of native New Jersey bluestone, the same stone used throughout the patio. Bean and O’Donnell designed the working fireplace from ideas using magazine clippings, with input from Kucas. It was Kucas who found the vintage terra-cotta corbels and the antique andirons.

The most used space in the backyard is the porch, which has become a living room of sorts.  “We use it probably 10 months a year,” says O’Donnell, “and we’re out there every day in the summer, rain or shine.” A ceiling fan keeps heat and bugs at bay; furniture is indoor-outdoor and stays put year-round.

While the laborious planning, planting and building is done, the daily work of maintaining such a large property is Bean’s baby. “Monica is the artist,” says Kucas. “She takes care of all the finer details.” She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Landscaper: Bill Kucas, Garden Makers Landscaping; 609-989-9079.

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