Creating an Award-Winning Sustainable Landscape

Most people, when they think “New Jersey,” think of traffic on the turnpike, the ups and downs of the football Giants and Jets, salt water taffy on beach boardwalks, and casino action in Atlantic City.

What doesn’t get associated with New Jersey is the notion of an idyllic lakeside getaway in the splendor of nature. Yet springfed Lake Hopatcong, tucked in the state’s northwest corner an hour’s drive from Manhattan, has long been a haven for fishing, boating, and all-around relaxing. Movie stars and Wall Streeters made its hotels and bungalows a summer haven in the Roaring Twenties.

The hotels are now defunct, as highways and cheap air travel made other destinations attractive, but bungalows continued to be built. One of them—an unheated, two-bedroom, one bathroom, six-hundred square foot frame structure on a deadend street near the water—belongs to Debbie Cianfrone, fiancée of Bergenfield, New Jersey landscape contractor Pieter van Westervelt. Van Westervelt operates Premium Landscape Services.

Until 2011, van Westervelt and Cianfrone would sit on the patio and look at a mostly barren yard. Measuring 80' x 75' with an eastern exposure, it sloped down for eight boring feet from a concrete retaining wall to a dead-end street.

“There were a couple of small maple trees, some scrubby bushes, whatever plants could take hold there—and that was it,” van Westervelt recalls. “The only interesting feature on the property was a classic wooden gazebo.”

Van Westervelt, who has been in the landscape business for years, finally decided that it was time to take a busman’s holiday and make the yard as beautiful as the lakeshore… and do it with a focus on sustainability, minimum care, and harmony with the natural environment.

By any measure, van Westervelt reached his goal. In 2011, the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association awarded the project its prestigious Award of excellence in Residential Design/Build for Sustainable Landscapes.

There are certain advantages to doing a project on your girlfriend’s property. Some designers use elaborate design software to create and then present their plans to their customers. Others make full-color drawings, with everything to scale. For this project, all the client required was a simple sketch on a sheet of notebook paper.

“Of course,” van Westervelt said, “if I messed it up, I’d hear it from her for the rest of my life.”

He sketched out his grand vision: a tranquil pond of harvested rainwater that could be used for irrigation, a babbling waterfall that slid down past the gazebo. Water-conserving, low-maintenance native trees and plants, and a reworking of the slope to make it visually more interesting.

His guiding principle was to extend the natural environment onto the property. “The goal was to make the parcel look as natural as possible. An ornamental garden would have just looked silly,” van Westervelt declares.

The project was green from the beginning. Rather than use spray paint to mark ground and rocks during the planning stages, van Westervelt planted flags, since flags are both more sustainable and more visual. “It’s easier to step back and imagine the property as a whole when flags are placed where your major features will be. You don’t have to turn over painted rocks, either.”

The actual work started with the terrain. The subsoil was a mixture of sand, clay, and what’s affectionately called “New York limestone” – a mix of sedimentary and fossil rock of all shapes and sizes, including some massive boulders. Van Westervelt leveled the land near the bungalow so he could both extend the entertainment patio and install his rainwater harvesting system, which he calls the lower pond. Then, he terraced the gentle slope, both to make it visually more interesting and so it could support the native species he wanted to plant. At the southwest end of the property, near the gazebo, he prepped the slope for the waterfall and small upper pond he planned to construct. Then he dug out the lower pond.

Not a shovelful of dirt, nor a pebble, was carted away off-site. “That was part of our sustainable plan,” the contractor reports. His crew did the work with a Bobcat 341 excavator and smaller Bobcat equipment; 32 tons of earth and rock were moved in the course of the project. “We discovered old flagstones up by the retaining wall, and used them as part of the terracing, and in the steps up to the gazebo.”

With the ground “canvas” prepared, he could move on to the “painting” itself.

Since water is so integral to the lake environment, van Westervelt wanted to include it in the design. Fortunately, he has special expertise in the area, having created more than 150 ponds and waterfalls for his customers over the past decade alone.

He recalls his decision-making process for deciding on the pond’s size. “We thought about our watering needs, and what other purposes we might have for captured rainwater. We knew we’d be planting low-maintenance trees and plants, with modest water requirements. But there’s also a vegetable garden, and we wanted to use the pond to irrigate that as well. The rooftop from which rainwater would be gathered isn’t all that big. We settled on a 1000-gallon pond, using Aquascape’s RainXchange system to harvest the rainwater.”

To make the pond look natural, van Westervelt left the edges irregular, submerged a tree stump near one end, and chose low-care aquatic plants like lizard tail, parrot’s feather, tropical cannas, and floating hyacinths.

The pond opened the door to one sustainable water-use wrinkle that always gets attention. Van Westervelt took the bungalow toilet off the potable water grid. “We use pond water to flush the toilet,” he reports. “I installed a one-inch line from the pond to the house, and attached it to a booster pump that’s always primed. The next thing I want to do is feed our graywater from the sink and shower—we’ll go to biodegradable soaps—into a separate pond.”

Next was the waterfall. Both aesthetically and aurally pleasing—van Westervelt loves the sound of the running water—the falls were constructed from rocks and boulders found onsite. At the base of the falls is the upper koi pond. There’s an under-the-rocks cove, hidden by boulders and tree roots, so the fish can hide if raccoons get too close or hawks circle overhead. The falls are powered by a 10,000-gallon/hour pump; a three-inch line carries water from the upper pond to the top of the falls. A small stream carries overflow from the upper pond to the rainwater pond.

With water and irrigation in place, van Westervelt turned his attention to planting.

For privacy, he planted a row of seven-foot-high Norway spruces near the retaining wall; he expects them to grow at a foot a year. Along the north side boundary, in front of several forsythia bushes, they installed seven cherry laurels. They can grow to 15 feet high, are shade tolerant, and provide ideal nesting and resting space for the property’s abundant bird life. Between the cherry laurels are Montauk daisies, black-eyed Susans, and echinacea.

Moving across the property toward the south, van Westervelt planted a triple stalk clump of white birches, and a large Hinoki cypress. Along the south edge, between the gazebo and the property line, you’ll now find dogwood trees, along with fast-growing Nellie Stevens holly. On the gazebo itself, van Westervelt is circling the railing with Clematis vines, while climbing hydrangeas will grow up and over the gazebo itself.

Groundcover is largely blue rug juniper.

The bungalow isn’t much,” van Westervelt admits. “But it’s a wonderful getaway. The project took nine days, with a 10-person crew. Our materials cost was $42,000. Now, the yard is as beautiful as the lakeside.”

Eco-green. Sustainable. Beautiful. Van Westervelt’s award-winning project might not change public perceptions of New Jersey, but it sure changes perception from the bungalow patio. That should be good enough for anyone.