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Layered look
Gardeners experiment with shape, color and pattern in Fox Point yard


August 2007

The climbing rose, William Baffin, frames this panoramic view of the backyard garden of Paul Mandracchia and Gary Hollander.

When Paul Mandracchia was a child growing up in the Southwest United States, he dreamed of owning a lush, green garden that would inspire and interest him through each season. Considered a work in progress, the landscape at his Fox Point home is a fulfillment of that childhood dream.

"When we first saw the house and yard, we thought it was cluttered, but had great bones," Mandracchia says of the 1950s ranch he shares with his partner, Gary Hollander. The back of the house has a whole wall of windows that looks over this private yard. We didnít even notice the windows inside because they were hidden with stuff, but we just saw a lot of potential in this home."

A sunny spot in the backyard features Lychnis, day lilies, Asian lilies, geraniums and roses.

Sixteen years later, they are still surprising friends and passers-by with what is to be found behind the unassuming house on Lake Drive.

"A garden can be a great ice breaker," Hollander says. "People stop and ask questions, people want to come back and see what weíve done. Even people who keep to themselves but have a gardening interest, will start up a conversation if they know you garden."

What visitors find when invited into the backyard is a lush landscape of greens, golds, yellows and whites. Many different sizes and textures overlap and complement each other. From sturdy evergreens to delicate roses, there is a lot going on here, but much like this home and its occupants, it is not flashy or exotic, but rather carefully constructed layers that balance different qualities and enhance existing features. Surprises are found within the layers that add to the special and unique qualities of the space.

The fiberglass sculpture in the garden is by Paul Mandracchia. At its foot is the violet astilbe Visions. On either side is the tall yellow ligularia, The Rocket. In the foreground a drift of pachysandra and hosta provide ground cover.

"I guess we started a hand-me-down garden with plantings from friends," Mandracchia says. "One of the things I enjoy about this space is so many things here were given to us by friends that when I look at it, Iím reminded of that person. With gardening, you have to be spontaneous and play off what is already there. We choose things that will do well in this climate, and there are plenty of choices. We tried a lot of different things, we made mistakes, and we move things. Just like anything else, you learn over time. Our yard gets a lot of shade and we choose things that do well in the shade so there is a lot of green, but we add interest with various leaf shapes, patterns and colors so it is never boring. We add a little shot of color throughout."

Shade-loving plantings in the backyard include evening primrose, Trollius, violet astilbe, hostas and hydrangeas.

If there is a philosophy that helps nourish the gardens of Mandracchia and Hollander it is this ó if it is too high maintenance, they donít want it. "When some people have a garden in mind, they want perfect rows of one color or very exotic plants that donít do well in the climate," Hollander says. "If you have to cover, spray or pamper it to live, it has no business being here. We spend time out here maintaining what weíve done, but there is nothing overly fussy here."

Although not fussy, the garden still holds some unusual surprises, such as the holly in one section or the less common varieties of hostas all around.

Golden barberry, blue iris and Korean lilacs are among the plantings in the front garden.

The garden provides a release from Hollanderís work as a psychologist. Mandracchia is an artist and a writer and finds the garden a place to express himself artistically. Mandracchia says that Hollander is the big-picture gardener, while he is the details guy. "I take care of the bulbs, Paul is the rosarian," Hollander says. "We are usually in agreement about what needs to be done or what we want to add."

"In Phoenix you donít have a lot of the lush greenery ó there is just not the same amount of rain," Mandracchia says, "but interestingly enough, the soil is similar here to what was there."