by Liza Roberts
photographs by Annie Cockrill
On a balmy summer evening, guests invited to a dinner for the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation followed directions to a “top secret” location in suburban Cary, where an unremarkable street led them to a magical landscape. Among 30 acres of hay fields, gardens, woods, and farmland, guests discovered a tented patio and airy building lit with candles and adorned with wildflowers.
Their hosts, English and Will Sall, welcomed them to the beguiling spot, tucked into the edge of a mature hardwood forest planted with more than 10,000 ferns. With a tennis court on one side and a meadow on the other, the setting appeared tailor-made for a party. It was.
“We use it for big events, cookouts, family dinners,” says Virginia Sall, Will’s mother and the owner, with her husband John (co-founder of software giant SAS), of the building and its surrounding acres. The couple’s house stands above the fern-filled glade, a discreet distance from the hubbub below.
This lush, party-perfect setting is one small piece of a sprawling sustainable landscape that features woods and streams, four acres of organic farmland that grows vegetables for nonprofits and restaurants, and about 15 acres of open fields, all maintained with minimal irrigation and without the use of chemicals.
It got its start, as so many home-improvement projects do, with something much smaller in mind. “The impetus for it all began as a drainage project,” says Kurt Bland of Bland Landscaping, who helped put it all together. “That turned into a shade garden, that became a master planned landscape, which has now spawned a philanthropic teaching farm to cultivate awareness over the importance of healthy, local food systems.
Bland’s colleague, Daniel Whatley, says the intent is “to create a natural landscape and not a manufactured one.” To accomplish that, “one must not fight nature, because nature will always win.” Instead, the Bland team essentially figured out what already thrived on the land and grew more of it. “A big part of this is allowing the landscape to change and evolve on its own. If a particular species is more successful than another, that is O.K.”
That live-and-let-live philosophy extends to the local deer population, which is numerous. The Salls fenced their vegetable garden and farmland (and a 10-chicken coop, a gift from their friend, N.C. Senator Josh Stein, currently running for Attorney General), but have planted the rest of the property with deer-hardy vegetation. As a result, every evening, when herds emerge from surrounding woods for a stroll in the meadows, they cause no damage.
It makes for a bucolic tableau from the eco-friendly carbarn, where the family regularly holds gatherings and fundraisers for local nonprofits (which have also recently included the Institute for Nonprofits at N.C. State). “We love being able to do it, and don’t have to disrupt ourselves, don’t have to move the furniture out of the house, to do it,” Virginia Sall says. “It really dresses up or down, and it’s so cool for the kids.” Those kids – all now grown – also use it for potluck dinners with friends and movies on the lawn, projected onto a portable movie screen.
Will Alphin of Alphin Design Build, who has renovated the house and completed several projects on the property, created the carbarn out of what used to be an extra garage. It now incorporates a large event space, a kitchen, bathrooms (with sinks that elegantly channel waste water into toilet cisterns), and hidden storage, in addition to spacious patios on all sides. When not needed for a party, it can also revert back to its earlier incarnation. “We still park in it,” Virginia Sall says.
An honest practicality and lack of pretense is one of the landscape’s defining characteristics. So is a commitment to the future. “This is not a project where we are designing for next season,” Bland says, “as much as we are thinking about the next 50 to 100 years.”