In 1991, when Martine and Yves Naar moved their family into a home on Forest Lake, the backyard was nothing but a long, narrow stretch of grass from the house to the water’s edge. They were not really sure what to do with it.
“Then I was in the South of France with my parents,” says Martine, “and we went to visit the house of Ephrussi de Rothschild. When I saw her garden, I knew it was exactly what we needed to do because it was long and narrow.” Back in Columbia, where French natives Martine and Yves have lived since 1980 when they moved from Paris to open a subsidiary of a French company, she enlisted Duffy Simpson to design a French formal garden inspired by the landscape masterpiece that Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild commissioned in the early 20th century.
Duffy, who worked for Green Earth Services at the time, is now the design and bidding manager for Heritage Landscape Services. Though Martine and Yves’ vision for the property could have been overwhelming, Duffy enjoyed the process of transforming the backyard.
“Honestly, when we first started talking about this, I didn’t think it would ever come to fruition. I just thought it was kind of a pipe dream,” Duffy says. Martine and Yves wanted to wait until all three of their children — Alex, now 37; Nick, 35; and Celia, 33 — had gone away to school. These days, their sons live in North Carolina and their daughter in New Mexico, and Martine and Yves share their home with two cats, Simba and Diego, from the City of Columbia’s animal shelter. Their extended family traditionally celebrates Thanksgiving together in Columbia.
From the gated entrance to the stone-paved driveway leading to the Naars’ home, visitors are greeted by a bronze statue of Diana the Huntress, drawing her bow. Many other statues dot the entryway, including several from Bali that Martine and Yves collected while traveling. Near the house, the driveway winds around a hedge of pittosporum encircling an elegant, bronze mermaid with a sea turtle and some fish. A rectangular boxwood hedge in front of the home’s entrance frames a mass planting of seasonal flowers; in summer, fuchsia-colored vinca grows skyward, blooming profusely.
“When we bought the property in ’91, nearly 30 years ago now, some statues were already in the yard,” Martine says. “The brick wall in the front was already up, so we added some plants and some statues. The front has improved but has not changed much. The back is a different story.”
“We completely demolished the backyard, took it all back to bare soil, then started excavation for the pools,” Duffy says. In the front yard, Martine and Yves merely added some personal touches.
An existing lily pond near the entrance is embellished with hosta, cast iron plants, ferns, azaleas, and wisteria, tamed by a trellis. A small turtle sculpture shares the inviting space with real turtles on occasion. One of area sculptor Bob Doster’s steel palmetto trees is tucked into a perennial bed. A large urn contains annuals; this past summer it displayed begonias.
Jeffrey Hall and Robert Jennings of The Swept Yard replace the annual plants seasonally. Their company maintains all the perennials and the fountains on the expansive property as well. As the weather turns cooler, Jeffrey says, “The informal shade gardens in the front will be a combination of fall annuals, hellebores, and euphorbia.”
The complexity of the gardens necessitates hiring professional landscapers. “We try to do it,” says Martine, “but, first of all, both my husband and I come from Paris, so we didn’t have a garden. This is not something that comes naturally to us, and it was a lot of work and never to our satisfaction, so we decided to let professionals do it.”
Antique European cast-iron lampposts, purchased in Rhode Island, flank the entrance to Martine and Yves’ home. Their provenance could be French or British, Martine says. Regardless, the formality of the fixtures hints at the grandeur of the gardens on the other side of the Naar family’s home.
Like the gardens at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild — and, Martine points out, Louis XIV’s gardens at Versailles — the landscape architecture of the backyard is meticulously organized, divided into specific gardens with paths of pea gravel around a long lily pond with fountains.
“The gardens à la française are very intellectual,” she says. “The symmetry and the perspective are key elements. Also the majesty of gardens reflects the king’s presence. Either from the castle or from the end of the garden, one must realize the power of the king, from earth to heavens.”
Ethereal lilies, pink and yellow and purple and white, rise up from bright green lily pads, and goldfish hide beneath them. A bronze heron perches alongside the lily pond, and Martine shares that at any given time, a live one could be right by it. The real herons tend to eat the fish.
“The plan first started with the pool in the backyard being a lap pool, not what it is today,” Duffy recalls. “After looking at continual maintenance costs of that and other things, and how often they’d really use that pool, we decided to change it to a lily pond. I’m glad we did.”
Columbia’s 1,000-year flood in October 2015 damaged the lily pond and the garden. Martine and Yves installed a plaque on the wall of their garage to mark the water line and the date. Although the house is located at the top of a very steep hill on Forest Lake, the water still came nearly 4 feet up in the lower level.
“We used to have big fish, Japanese koi, in the pond,” Martine says, “then along came the flood. It ruined the pond but none of the plants.” The water also damaged furniture, family keepsakes, and construction materials that were being stored on the ground level during an upstairs renovation project. One bittersweet reminder of the flood sits on the shore of Forest Lake: a boat that washed up into the Naars’ yard. After none of their neighbors claimed the damaged vessel, they filled it with a stand of canna lilies.
In contrast to the formality of the rest of the property, the shoreline was kept natural. Duffy says Martine and Yves wanted the property’s lake view not to stand out too much compared to neighboring yards. Ornamental grasses share the space with fragrant French lavender.
“Lavender is very much a struggle here in Columbia, but we amended the soil as much as we could and had a lot of prayers over that stuff just to make sure because it was a little touch and go with some of that,” Duffy says. While working on a recent project at Forest Lake Club, Duffy could see the bank of the Naars’ property from across the lake, and he is pleased that the lavender continues to thrive.
The gardens were completed by the year 2000, almost a decade after Martine and Yves purchased the property. In 2004, they decided to raze the existing house and build their elegant French-style villa. Originally at the back of the house, the garage was moved to the side in favor of a grand, travertine terrace. Duffy brought landscape crews back to add plants in the entrance to the backyard. Japanese maple trees stand on carpets of ‘Emerald’ zoysia grass. Elm trees, crepe myrtles, and dozens of palmetto trees frame the scene. At the time, Martine says, Lowcountry palmettos were not as common in the Midlands as they are now.
“The best view is from the terrace,” Martine says, pointing to the meditation garden, which features a tower she and Yves found at Charlton Hall Galleries. “It was right there in the storage area, not even for sale, and we said, ‘We have to have that.’ It would have been outside a temple in China where they burn incense, and so it would have a double duty for us — it would provide warmth, and it would also bring the incense smell.”
Planted around the meditation garden are Leyland cypress trees, along with small-leaf azaleas and ‘Purple Diamond’ lorapetalum. Near the meditation garden sits an exquisite, antique marble bench, stately and intricately carved, that Martine found while traveling in India. Butterflies rally around lantana blooming next to it. Parallel to the Indian bench, on the other side of the yard, is a gazebo, sheltered by a pergola covered in wisteria.
Beyond the lily pond is a garden planted en masse with butter daisies, or melampodium. Jeffrey says, “Melampodium loves full sun and hot humid weather; it’s perfect for Columbia.” In cooler weather, he says, the formal gardens will have a combination of fall annuals and ornamental vegetables. “The plants will have a similar pattern used at the Château de Villandry in France.”
No matter which seasonal plants grace the garden beds, Martine and Yves’ vision for a French masterpiece on Forest Lake has come to a magnificent fruition.