Writted and photographed by Tovah Martin
It should come as no surprise to learn that the Millbrook Garden Club is planning to infiltrate Connecticut for this year’s garden tour. After all, the garden club of that nearby New York town often partners with its eastern neighbors for programs, support, and conviviality. The members are frequent admirers of the gardens in Litchfield County and vice versa. And that explains why the tour committee of this nearby chapter of the Garden Club of America is hosting A Connecticut Ramble from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Friday, June 24, with tickets available to the general public. For their Nutmeg State jaunt, the tour committee came up with five landscapes that represent some of our finest and most astute gardeners.
Take Juniper Ledge, for example. Many new homeowners purchase property, take the landscaping under their wing, but toss out what they’ve been given. When George Mason and Pamela Wilson bought their 1958 Lakeville Cape Cod cottage in 1992, it was adorable but a little too snug for comfort. Not only was it begging for expansion, but it lacked the sort of gardens that would make the country experience meaningful for the new homeowners. It possessed a few old-fashioned trees and shrubs, it had some venerable maples and cedars, but otherwise, it was landscape-less. What was in situ at the time was a litany of invasives with an emphasis on noxious multiflora roses and Japanese honeysuckle. The homeowners had something much more palatable in mind for their country house, and they took action.
Rather than tossing out what they were given, they redistributed the wealth. Traditional farmstead standbys such as the Korean spice, Viburnum carlesii, lilacs, and herbaceous peonies that came with the package were moved into the farther reaches of the acreage because they found themselves looking outward at the potentially breathtaking view of Indian Mountain. Stands of grey dogwood were left in place because they felt right. “I guess the word is serendipity,” says Mason. Although they wanted to anchor the house with plantings, they also planned to incorporate all of their acreage into the dialogue. Considering the fact that there was no real landscape initially, it was a foreword thinking initiative.
In addition to the lack of scenery, there was another issue standing between Mason and Wilson and the country experience of their dreams — an eyesore house that warranted screening was smack dab in their view line. One of the early projects on the agenda was planting an evergreen screen. Eventually, they bought that property and created a rental that complemented the scene. But even so, the house remains virtually screened from view.
Meanwhile, Mason was making a garden. After accomplishing a 2004 addition to the house, he began sculpting gardens in earnest, working his way down the slope, framing further vistas. Starting at the house, he accomplished one of his most brilliant maneuvers. In addition to forging gardens swarming around the house’s foundation, he also put in a berm garden and granite steps on the far side of the driveway to block the road but also to offer something to admire from the front door. In addition, Judy Murphy (one of several adept local consultants who came onto the property and added input) insightfully recommended pushing back the hill that abutted the house, installing a handsome retaining wall, and thus increasing parking space convenient to the house. Given a couple of lanterns, the wall serves as an accent to the curvaceous beds that undulate down the hill.
Each meticulously edged and mulched bed has its own unique personality expressed in a combination of graceful trees, shrubs, and groundcovers. Benches and accent stone garden ornaments tastefully peppered in. Native trees such as amelanchier or shadbush, and a grove of river birches, recommended by landscape designer Debbie Munson, grow not far from fastigiate hawthorns. You duck beneath a wisteria/clematis arbor, you can tarry in a custom crafted gazebo/tennis house patterned after the version in Hill-Stead Museum’s sunken garden designed by Beatrix Farrand. The tennis court looks out on a larger-than-life-size statue from RT Facts.
Every tree has a story and Mason loves to stand beside each and every lilac, crabapple and tulip tree, and tell its tale. Even the wild cherry has history, “It was planted by God,” explains Mason. That said, he lavishes it with the same royal treatment as the purchased inventory in residence. This property shows great sensitivity and dedication to working in tandem with nature. Below the house, in a difficult-to-maintain slope, the homeowners allow a wildflower meadow to flourish.
Some truly savvy fancy footwork is on site. For example, when Mason craved a woodland garden behind the house and wanted to harness the shade of a maple tree, he installed metal tanks below ground and filled them with soil to eliminate root competition for the epimediums, actaea, rodgersia, and other plants that now dwell in peaceful harmony below the tree. He even has a wonderful little device that has successfully dissuaded rabbits from chomping on what could be perceived by a bunny as a botanical buffet.
Juniper Ledge is a truly inspirational property that will make you want to run home and polish up your own acreage. It displays devotion as well as environmental sensitivity. But it is just one stop on a tour that includes four other equally smart destinations. The Millbrook Garden Club Connecticut Ramble will visit a Cornwall property that has been tended by the same family for nearly one hundred years and planted formally with casual accents. The tour includes a visit to a garden writer’s own landscape accented by artful moments achieved by sculpting trees and hedges. The tour’s West Cornwall destination is a classical experience with a heavy dose of Gothic-style adventure. Also open to ticket holders is an interior designer’s sumptuous Falls Village spread of formal plantings juxtaposed against natural pathways.
The Millbrook Garden Club’s Connecticut Ramble garden tour will be held Friday June 24, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., with tickets available for $60 per attendee. In addition to the tours, a buffet luncheon will be served at the Sharon Country Club from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Luncheon reservations are $40 each. Also at the Sharon Country Club, boutiques will be open on the tour day for shopping between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.. Go to www.millbrookgardenclub.com for more information and to purchase tickets.