First, a confession. I am addicted to gardens. I love being in my own, but I also get enormous pleasure from going to other people’s, talking to them, smelling their roses, and listening to their plans. It’s a pleasure I didn’t know I was missing until I caught the gardening bug. That happened in the 1970s when my husband and I became the owners of a dilapidated eighteenth-century saltbox in northwest Connecticut. It came with a lot of untended grass and little else in the way of landscaping. Since my husband was preoccupied with the structure of the house, it seemed logical that the out-of-doors should be my responsibility.
Knowing almost nothing about even the most basic principles of horticulture, I was hardly a willing recruit. I am English and grew up in England and, to my astonishment, I found my American friends assumed, that the English are born with a grasp of the subtleties of successful composting, knew how to prune, and could, of course, tell the difference between a rugosa rose and a hybrid tea. My pleas of ignorance were interpreted as false modesty and there was general disbelief when I tried to explain that neither of my parents were the least bit interested in anything to do with gardens. The only formative experience in horticulture I can remember was going with one of my aunts—a passionate rosarian—on a trip to Whipsnade Zoo to collect buckets of elephant dung with which to cover her roses.
But back to my garden. It suffered not only from my lack of experience but also from the rigors of Connecticut’s harsh winters and sweltering summers, and even the occasional hurricane. While my neighbors took these conditions in stride, my English friends were incredulous when I told them of dawn raids by hungry deer, surprise incursions by egg-laying snapping turtles, temperatures that dropped well below minus 10 in the winter, snow in April, and once even frost during the last week of May. But, somehow as I began to learn some of the complexities of gardening in a country with ten different hardiness zones, I got hooked and soon there was nothing I liked better than going to see gardens and learning from their owners how to work around the limitations of this unforgiving climate. So, when many years later the chance arose to do a book with my friend photographer John Hall about private gardens of Connecticut, I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Connecticut is the third smallest state in America (ninety-five miles by sixty-five miles at its widest point), but its topography is surprisingly varied, stretching from the shoreline of Long Island Sound to the Litchfield Hills and from the suburbs of New York to well north of Hartford. Home of patriot Nathan Hale, actress Katharine Hepburn, writer Mark Twain, and composer Charles Ives, Connecticut is known for its insurance industry and its state flower (mountain laurel) but not particularly for its gardens, in spite of a rich garden history.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Greenwich emerged as a fashionable suburb of New York, and Connecticut’s coastline began to attract a succession of summer visitors, including New Yorkers with power and money such as William Rockefeller (John D.’s brother), Lewis Lapham, one of the founders of Texaco Oil Company, and Edmund Converse, the inventor and founder of U.S. Steel. These industrialists created vast estates with palatial European-inspired gardens, or chose American landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Gillette, Fletcher Steele, Warren Manning, Beatrix Farrand, and Ellen Biddle Shipman to design their gardens. The gardens of one estate in Greenwich were so vast that more than fifteen gardeners were required to maintain them. Morton Plant’s Branford House near Groton boasted an astonishing sunken water garden with a circular fountain and mounded beds designed by landscape architect Guy Lowell. Eolia, the elegant summer mansion of the Harkness family, set on over 230 seaside acres of sweeping lawns at Goshen Point, a little south of New London, started out as an Italianate garden with colonnaded loggias but was later redesigned by Beatrix Farrand in the style of an English Edwardian garden.
Sadly, most of these gardens have not survived, and many of the grand ones were turned into tennis courts or swimming pools in the 1950s. One of Beatrix Farrand’s gardens was replaced with sod in order to make an outdoor seating area, while that of Standard Oil heiress Annie Burr Jennings ended up as a residential subdivision. Others literally went to seed after years of neglect as the expense of maintaining their labor intensive outdoor rooms became too great. There are some exceptions, the two most notable being Eolia, now Harkness State Park, and Hill-Stead House in Farmington, both of which are open to the public today and give a sense of what that grand and lost tradition was all about.
For this book, we were not, however, searching so much for historical gardens as for twentieth-century work. Inevitably, we have seen more gardens than we could possibly include and inevitably there will be those who disagree with the choices we have made. But, here, another confession is in order. This book was never intended to be a comprehensive survey of private gardens in Connecticut, but is instead a personal and often idiosyncratic selection. Our criteria were simple. We wanted to include gardens from as many parts of the state as possible and to focus on the wide diversity of styles from formal to small, contemporary, wild, and old-fashioned. Some of those we selected had never been professionally photographed while others had been published, and in some cases frequently. Some are open to visitors a few times a year through the Garden Conservancy’s popular Open Day Program; others do not participate. Some are grand in scale, others exceedingly modest but all have been cared for and tended with great love. None of these gardens was made overnight and many have taken years to come to fruition. The garden of the Greek god Adonis may have “one day blossomed and fruitful were the next” but not any of the gardens featured in this book.
As I crisscrossed the state searching out gardens, I was struck again and again by how essentially rural Connecticut still is. Even Hartford, its capital and second largest city with a population of 124,512, is tiny by today’s standards. In spite of its small size, Connecticut’s climate is tremendously variable, incorporating three different plant hardiness zones. Its landscape too is surprisingly varied, encompassing 618 miles of magnificent coastline, untold acres of glorious open farmland, and steep wooded hills. The one connecting thread to be found in every part of the state is, however, stone.
Connecticut once had hundreds of quarries, although not many survive today. The stone from each was unique, a testament to the state’s complex geology. Granite from Stony Creek in Eastern Connecticut became the base of the Statue of Liberty and was used in building New York’s Grand Central Terminal, while rich chocolate-colored sandstone from Portland near Middletown was the most common building material of the nineteenth century and gave its name to many thousands of New York townhouses. Today, what we most notice are the miles and miles of long winding iconic stone walls that traverse the state and are such a poignant reminder of Connecticut farming. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these dry-stone walls were stacked and laid without the aid of any concrete mortar. Made to fence in animals, divide farming pastures, and delineate property lines, they were strictly utilitarian. Today they are one of the most distinctive features of the Connecticut landscape, their lyrical lines testimony to their mostly anonymous builders. Every garden in this book makes use of local stone in one way or another, be it for walls, pathways, or extending rock ledges, and whether intentionally or by happenstance, stone is incorporated into their overall design.
Writing tends to be a solitary occupation so I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to collaborate with a remarkably talented photographer. Seeing a garden through John’s eyes, discussing what makes it unique, and deciding how and what to focus on has been an eye-opening experience. In writing about gardens, the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell refers to their “delicious solitude.” That description holds true for all of the gardens in this book. They are personal and private in the best sense of the word, and to make each of them come alive to others, the camera must capture the garden’s personality and the text reveal it. I hope that we have succeeded.