Michael Leva doesn’t do foofoo. He avoids prissy like the plague. Although his 1765 Rox bury home could easily have gone the other way, he steadfastly keeps the interior sparse but comfy, in a very deliberate sort of way.
Not surprisingly, the fashion designer has se lected a diverse array of sublime fabrics for the interior of the house that come together like soul sisters. His muse is classic opulence—but in very small doses.
Outside, he’s also all about texture and its interplay. It’s all sharp, it’s all carefully wrought, and there isn’t a foofoo element anywhere on the premises. But he does do blowsy, and he does it well.
If it weren’t for Hollis ter House’s upcoming Garden Study Weekend (more about that in a minute), Mr. Leva would probably not put his garden on tour, as he’s notoriously humble about his landscape. Fortunately, George Schoellkopf of Hollister House can charm anyone into opening their heart to the world for a good cause. After all, what gardener wouldn’t bare their soul for The Garden Conservancy?
In Mr. Leva’s case, there’s plenty to boast about on his 4.25 Roxbury acres. He’s been working on the landscape for seven years, and his devotion shows. The fact that he hasn’t gone it alone is also evident. This garden is really an ode to the collaboration of two great minds. Early in the game, Dave Bergman of DWB Botanical Design in Southbury came into the picture, and the two have been perfecting the outdoors ever since.
In fact, Mr. Leva was Mr. Bergman’s first client in his new career after 20 years in the restaurant industry. He graduated with a degree from the New York Botanical Garden’s landscape design program, did his internship at Kent Greenhouse & Gardens, and found Mr. Leva from there. Fittingly, the two sat down at The Mayflower Inn & Spa and worked out their initial plan of action.
The result is a synthesis between two designers. As Mr. Leva puts it, “I rely on Dave for the plant selection; he knows the Latin.” Additionally, Mr. Bergman keeps Mr. Leva’s sophisticated plant palette current. Go to Michael Leva’s garden and you won’t be bored by the same selection of obvious suspects that are found at Home Depot. You’re going to be asking for identifications of rarely seen plants right and left.
What you won’t be asking about are the roses. And for the same reason, you won’t be encountering a whole lot of peonies loitering around Mr. Leva’s premises. In his opinion, peonies and roses cross the line into that distasteful domain fraught with frilly.
Granted, he does grow the species Rosa glau ca, but its strong suit is not overpumped flow ers. Instead, R. glauca entertains with peach-colored foliage that remains unmarred even after the Japanese beetles strike (has anyone else noticed that the beetle invasion this year is verging on epidemic proportions?).
A possible exception to the strict anti-foofoo policy would be a weakness for hydrangeas, but Mr. Leva couldn’t resist. Except that one allowance, the parameters are rigidly held. “I want understated, but powerful,” he proclaims. And he can find plenty of plants that will do his bidding.
So the border that stretches behind the house is filled with a carefully prescribed color palette of blue, white, purple and silver plants. We’re not necessarily talking only about flower color here—foliar hues often make the statement—and that’s where Mr. Bergman’s expertise is particularly critical.
Although color plays a role in the picture, the interaction of shapes, profiles and textures is equally key. “With a border that’s 25 feet deep, you can play with heights,” Mr. Bergman explained. It’s a puzzle, but Mr. Bergman works the interaction with astonishing dexterity. As a result, the border is the same quality you’d find at a botanical garden, right here in little ole Litchfield County.
The border is great, but the pool is even better. Who doesn’t love a secret garden? And the vision for the pool area was to sequester that water feature behind a peekaboo rustic arbor completely encased with vines. As if that weren’t romantic enough, the vines are trained to form windows looking in. It’s brilliant!
Mr. Bergman harnesses the power of grapevines, clematis and other ener getic travelers, which are whipped into shape on a regular basis. (At one point, Mr. Leva tried his hand at pruning.
Now, the disciplining is done professionally after Mr. Leva fell off a ladder and into the pool, with the ladder crashing down on top of him. Fortunately, it didn’t knock him un conscious. That should be a lesson for any do-it-yourselfer.)
The fantasy doesn’t end with the wall of vines. Walking through the pool gate is like going through the looking glass. Inside is the long, svelte lap pool with plantings right up to the water’s edge. For this venue, the selection was self-seeders and naturalistic plantings.
Throughout the grounds, Mr. Leva plays order against disorder, and the pool garden is an eloquent example of freedom from constraints. “I like weedy plants,” Mr. Leva insists, “and the garden suits the house. A very formal garden would look ridiculous here.”
So, Mr. Bergman came up with a pool palette that he describes as “wispy,” including thalictrum and that sort of player.
On the shallow end of the pool, an arbor shades some wonderful Space Age furniture now planted to succulents. It’s whacky, for sure. But you’ll undoubtedly come home with the overwhelming desire to copy the look.
The property also boasts the second oldest tree in town, as well as a dining patio surrounded by an immaculately pruned hedge (in this case, Mr. Leva had a caterpillar in mind for his muse, and his rendition is wonderful). A vegetable garden is probably in the property’s future, which should come as no surprise, given the fact that Michael Leva is the co-author of “Recipe for Parties” (2010, Rizzoli).
So go see Michael Leva’s garden for yourself. It will be open on Sunday, Aug. 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through The Garden Conservancy Open Days Program.
It’s also one of the many highlights of the Hollister House Garden Study Weekend happening Aug. 24 to 26. The weekend kicks off with a Friday evening cocktail party at the Washington Montessori School.
Then, on Saturday, the festivities rev up for a day of lectures also at the Washington Montessori School, the theme being “Gardening Anew: Fresh Perspectives on the Gar den,” with Edwina von Gal as the keynote speaker and Stephen Orr as the moderator.
Other lecturers include the impressive line-up of William Cullina, Eric T. Fleisher, and Bill Thomas; you’ll be transfixed and your garden will be transformed.
There will be plant sales happening during the breaks between speakers, with merchants from afar including Rocky Dale Nursery (all the way from Bristol, VT), Avant Gardens (Dartmouth, Mass.), Opus (Little Compton, R.I.), and the Umbrella Factory (Charlestown, R.I.).
As if that line-up wasn’t enough, Hollister House asked Page Dickey, Marco Polo Stufano and Adam Wheeler to do show-and-tells to describe their favorite botanicals. A buffet luncheon will keep you from swooning from all the amassed talent. And then, if you survive all those palpitations, there are several gardens open for tours on Sunday through The Garden Conservancy Open Days Program (no prior sign up necessary).
Three new gardens are part of that all-star roster, including Michael Leva’s masterpiece.
For more information and to register (warning: the Garden Study Week end sells out), go to www.hollisterhousegarden.org or call 860-868-2200. The Garden Conservancy’s Web site is www.garden conservancy.org. ■