Photo by Allison M. Fleetwood Jr., www.amfjphotography.com

This garden was carved out of a hillside and “set” in amazing stonework.

By Lisa Truesdale

Photos by Allison M. Fleetwood Jr., www.amfjphotography.com

To a kid, a steeply sloped yard is a dream come true—for rolling down in the summer or sledding down in the snow. But for a gardener, it poses numerous problems and rarely succeeds without some help.

George Emmons is the founder and owner of Boulder’s popular Into the Wind kite store, and an architect by trade. In 1990, he designed his home in west Boulder that he shares with Scott Shevlin. To make the most of the terrain, the house is cut right into the hillside.

Working with “artscaper” Marco Viera, George Emmons and Scott Shevlin made their steep, rocky lot into a perfect place to garden, relax and entertain. The imposing stone arch—the focal point of the front yard—was added after a huge cottonwood fell and crushed its metal predecessor.
Working with “artscaper” Marco Viera, George Emmons and Scott Shevlin made their steep, rocky lot into a perfect place to garden, relax and entertain. The imposing stone arch—the focal point of the front yard—was added after a huge cottonwood fell and crushed its metal predecessor.

But when it came time to landscape, Emmons recalls being a little frustrated with the wildly steep, 5,532-square-foot rocky acreage that’s crammed against the foothills and shares space with an irrigation ditch.

At first, he planted minimally, sticking with natives that he was sure would thrive. And they would have made it, he says, had they not kept washing away down the hillside.

Then, about 10 years ago, Emmons decided to install a hot tub, but it required a sturdy rock base behind the house to put it on. So he enlisted the help of Marco Viera, who owns an “artscaping” company in Boulder called Handy Latin.

Viera made a stone base that was both decorative and functional and then, borrowing techniques learned in his native Ecuador, he completely terraced the yard, creating breathtaking stonework planting beds and meandering pathways that perfectly blend with the rocky terrain. He also created an elevated stone patio on the west side, snugged against the hillside with water from the ditch streaming peacefully by.

“We call it our ‘balcony,’” Emmons says of the patio, “because we have a great people-watching view of the street down below us.”

The Cottonwood Incident

But Viera’s work wasn’t over. Emmons clearly remembers the morning about five years ago when he heard an earth-shattering boom outside the front door. A massive cottonwood had plunged off the steep hillside abutting his lot and crashed into the front yard. Miraculously, it missed the power lines and the house, but it “beheaded” the chair he usually sat in on the patio.

The next day, city workers removed the tree, which they estimated weighed a whopping 27,000 pounds. They used a huge chain saw to chop it into big sections and a crane to remove them.

“When they cut it up, thousands of gallons of water came gushing out of the trunk,” Emmons says.

Once the cottonwood was gone, the couple discovered there was much more damage to repair than just Emmons’ favorite chair. They called in Viera to completely rebuild the patio, which ended up being slightly larger than before. He also redesigned and repaired several terraced sections below it, and then crafted a gorgeous stone archway—now the focal point in the front yard—to replace a metal one that was crushed under the tree’s massive weight.

Like before, Emmons says, “I would say what I wanted, and Marco would do it. Sometimes he wouldn’t do it quite the way I thought, but I would end up liking it even more.”

“It’s a great collaboration,” Viera agrees. “We both have an open mind and we’ve learned how to make our separate ideas come together into one.”

The couple used to spend every free minute maintaining the garden that wraps around their house. Nowadays they’ve scaled back a bit, but George (in blue) still does much of the planting, while Scott (in orange) does the weeding and trains the clematis vines.
The couple used to spend every free minute maintaining the garden that wraps around their house. Nowadays they’ve scaled back a bit, but George (in blue) still does much of the planting, while Scott (in orange) does the weeding and trains the clematis vines.

For several years, Emmons and Shevlin spent every minute of their free time maintaining the expansive garden that wraps in a U-shape all the way around their house. When Shevlin retired a few years ago, he took over the seasonal gardening chores, which opened up the couple’s weekends for soaking in the scenery, relaxing by the water, walking the stone paths and hosting parties up on the “balcony.”

Shevlin does all of the weeding and also likes to train clematis vines up the wooden trellises. Emmons still does much of the planting, like the stunning impatiens he starts from seed under grow lights every spring.

The garden also features a variety of other plants, like cyclamen, kinnikinnick, hepatica, penstemon and primroses. Japanese painted ferns—“the secret fern that people in Colorado don’t know about,” Emmons says—peek out here and there, while trunks of different sizes stand upright to create unique fencing and secluded sitting areas along the pathway. “I think of the wet, muddy hillside as our giant evaporative cooler,” says Emmons, noting it allows him to grow thirstier plants and keeps the garden lush and green throughout the growing season.

For his part, Viera is proud he helped the couple create a space they enjoy: “My goal in life is to make people happy with what they have.”