by Roberta T. Vowell
photography by Eric Lusher
Ann Stokes begins planning her gardens far from the ground itself.
At least, in her own mind.
“I start as though I’m 10,000 feet up,” says Stokes, a landscape architect who heads her own firm in Norfolk. “Like Google Earth. And I think about what they want to do, how to direct people through the garden.’’
She points down a rectangular garden she created for a family at Virginia Beach’s North End. “They wanted people to park their cars there,” she says, gesturing toward the street, “and walk the length of the garden, and to their door. So we have the bluestone path to lead them.’’
Stokes smiles slightly, watching a bed of coral flowers bobbing on their long stems in the summer breeze, then continues her outline of the creative process.
“Then I draw,” she says. “Drawing is a way of thinking. Sometimes, I’ll have an idea in my head, about the way I want the garden laid out, for instance, but I maybe can’t articulate it. The idea emerges through drawing. Drawing will tell you what the garden wants to be.’’
After that, the chopping and digging commences, and the concrete pouring and the stone slabs dropping and the plants nestling into place.
“I like the creative part,” she says. “I like imagining something in my head. I like drawing it, figuring it out, and I like seeing it become real.”
Stokes, who grew up in Norfolk’s leafy Larchmont neighborhood, has created garden spaces in Japan, Europe and California.
“I designed an estate in Montecito,” she says, “and I studied pictures of it, aerial views, topographical maps. I spent months in AutoCAD,” the specialized design software. “By the time I got to California, I was walking around and I knew all the slopes, I knew the land.
“I strive for an intimate knowledge of a place.”
That mix of high-flying design and grounded realism has made Stokes the go-to garden guru in coastal Virginia. Her creations dot public spaces and private homes throughout the area.
Stokes is 50, a blonde so fair that during an informal tour of gardens on a sunny afternoon, her face changes from pink to blush to red, a time-lapse sunburn developing right before your eyes. She declines an offer of sunscreen.
“I’m used to it,” she says. “I’d always rather be outside.”
This was not her original career path. She graduated from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1984 with an English degree and no great plans. She worked at Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, and with her mother, a garden designer whose firm was called MarLane Gardens, a combination of her parents’ names, Martha and Lane.
“Like Marvin Gardens, in Monopoly – ?” Stokes says.
Her parents were deeply involved in a renovation at the Chrysler Museum of Art at the time – her father, a surgeon, served on the museum board. Since their daughter shared their interest in garden history and design, they introduced her to Peter Rolland, the landscape architect working on the museum project. His firm had just designed the grounds for the 80-acre Parliament House site in Canberra, Australia. In turn, Rolland gently pushed her toward a summer career discovery program at Harvard University in his specialty.
The blooms beat the books. She returned to school, at the University of Virginia, and earned her graduate degree in landscape architecture in 1993. She was hired by noted architect Robert A.M. Stern in New York City, where she oversaw the landscaping department. Her projects included work on several college campuses; a $230 million ski resort in Colorado; the Disney Ambassador Hotel near Tokyo; master planning for a new resort town in Heiligendamm, Germany; that estate in Montecito; and residences in Beverly Hills, Napa County, Dallas and Kiawah Island – and Seoul.
After five years, Stokes came home to open her own shop, Ann P. Stokes Landscape Architects, in 1998.
Her firm has created major landscapes, particularly at campuses – at her alma maters in Chapel Hill and Charlottesville, at William and Mary’s Mason School of Business and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Campus projects are a favorite. “I find them fun to work on, because they are little cities,” Stokes says. “There are interesting people on campuses, and they appreciate working on innovative techniques, especially green concepts.’’
Stokes shares her own garden, in Norfolk’s Edgewater, with her 15-year-old twins, a son and a daughter. “Very highly structured,’’ she explains of her family’s outdoor space, “definite rooms, but not fussy.”
Much like the trademark style that sparked her firm’s growth. Her gardens may be nearly riotous with blooms but are indeed structured.
At the garden she’s touring, her bluestone pathways lead to a rounded bit of grass yard, ringed by layers of foliage and flowers, all right up against a secondary dune.
“The house has a lot of strong lines and angles, but it also has softening features, like the rounded porch,” Stokes says. “I wanted to do a curve, to echo the porch. Then it’s a matter of layering, with good, strong bones as anchor and rings of plants. Not marching in absolutely straight lines, but a little looser.”
Stokes is also known for delightful details and a touch of whimsy. At another North End home, a manicured lawn marches to the dunes, but tucked to the side, nearly invisible, is a child-sized path through ferns and small trees, leading over a wooden bridge – no ogres underneath. “One of the children calls it ‘the magic path,’” she says. For her brother’s garden in Norfolk’s Lochhaven neighborhood, she designed a wall with niches to display his collection of gargoyles.
She works with homeowners to create their perfect place. She catalogs their requirements, then adjusts for terrain, soil and surroundings. “Every place,” she says, “has a certain way it’s supposed to look.”
Creating a garden, on Stokes’ scale, is a long-term relationship.
“My mother and I worked on this garden in 1987,” she says, walking through the North End garden. “We planted these Little Gem magnolias.’’ It’s a full adjoining lot, with an archway leading visitors to a path – again of bluestone – past artfully placed benches, feathery masses of flowering plants, like a huge, happy stand of pink Sarah Bernhardt peonies, a pocket herb garden and even space for veggies – serious stuff, including potatoes, beets, eggplant and bush cucumber.
The space is divided, very gently, into three areas by spreading flower beds and small trees into the rectangular lot.
“I think of them as spaces with walls made of plants.”
Stokes has a decades-long relationship with the owner, who asked not to be named. “Ann really reflected our house, and us,” the homeowner says. Stokes took over the project in 2006.
“At first, we drew some very elaborate plans,” she says. “Raised platforms, mosaic, fountains, lighting, more patio and more hardscape.”
They originally executed a hurried version of that plan, putting in a temporary fountain in time for the home’s appearance on a garden tour.
But she later realized that the space was meant to be serene.
“This garden has always been about the plants,” she says. “And we designed to that. We used what was already growing here, not a scorched-earth policy.”
They are finally adding the fountain – a water feature, in garden speak. It’s a construction of yet more bluestone slabs bound by copper straps, water trickling down to a small pool. Strong, yet understated.
The very nature of gardening means that Stokes won’t immediately see her work in full flower. Patience is an essential tool.
“An architect wants to take pictures the day after construction ends,’’ she says, “and the landscape architect wants to take pictures five years later.”
Landscaping for her brother, Gordy, and his wife, Kerri, gave her free rein. Their riverfront house, near the Hermitage Museum & Gardens in Norfolk, flooded during Hurricane Isabel. The modest cottage had to be razed, and Gordy Stokes called in his sister to work with the architect.
First, they raised the house footprint by 5 feet. Lots of dirt, he says.
The new house is not only higher but also surrounded by gardens. There’s a shady woodland garden on a lower level, with towering trees and ferns. There’s a rectangular walled garden, echoing the strong lines of the house.
At the back deck, Stokes designed a water feature like no other. It runs the full length of the deck, but is only about a foot wide. The family did not want a deck railing intruding on their view of the river, and the water structure takes the place of a railing, under city code.
“Ann is very flexible and sees many options,” Kerri Stokes says. “What you learn from her is that there’s always another way of doing things.”
The long, skinny swath of water is broken up by a couple waterfalls, water lilies in full bloom and a school of koi who swim about, safe from marauding herons and egrets. “The secret is,” Ann Stokes says, “the water has to be at least 3 feet deep. That’s too deep for the birds.”
She sees her mission as creating gardens that are true to their environment and make their owners happy. But she always brings one last touch to each green space.
“I use my aesthetic on every project,” she says, “but not my style.”