Discovering great gardens is an adventure. Touring a garden with like-minded friends brings pleasure to the mind and five senses that is comparable to very few of life's other experiences. This was the case as a group of Fellows members of the Virginia Robinson Gardens spent three days touring nine world-class private gardens in the general vicinity of Litchfield, Connecticut.
The house and garden of renowned interior designer Bunny Williams was the start of our journey of learning. It was here that we truly viewed the garden as a highly individualized artistic expression. This very New England white clapboard house is surrounded by garden rooms, each with its distinct style and intended use. There is the elegant conservatory used as a party dining room and a place to showcase tender plants. A working barn and patterned vegetable garden, along with the octagonal chicken coop, added a beautifully executed, yet practical element to this exquisite garden built over 30 years.
Although Bunny Williams was away working in New York City, we had the pleasure of touring her new studio, visually digesting this intimate space, where she creates many of her celebrated interiors.
In 1740, King George II of England made a land grant to the original proprietor that eventually provided the birthplace for a great American garden by Douglas Thomas named Twin Maples. There is a formal garden designed around the house that gives homage to Russell Page. Beyond the house is a forty-acre wildflower meadow, which provides a kaleidoscope of color. Here we discovered a landscape created with great sensitivity and beauty.
The Garden of Lee Link is sited on a steep, rocky slope with stunning views to the surrounding hills. Over a tenure of 40 years, the owner has etched out a series of magical garden spaces. The garden is quite handsome and starkly simple, a lesson to us all in how to scale down with elegance and imagination. The greenhouse, filled with specimen plants, is displayed with an eye for both color and texture. It is a glorious space and the crown jewel of this garden.
Built in 1793, the first Methodist Church in New England was lovingly repurposed into a home and garden by Page Dickey and Bosco Schell. The majestic sugar maple, presumably planted by the churchgoers in the 1850s, adds a tangible "sense of place" to this historic property. The house is surrounded by sun-flooded fields, now threaded with walking paths through a variety of habitats. The vestiges of a narrow cottage garden along the front of the house is where Page can play with plant combinations that will tolerate the limey soil and bring birds to the windows. The Dickey garden was thoroughly enjoyed while sipping cocktails as the sunlight faded from brilliant orange to pale salmon. Precisely at dusk, we were called to a lovely dinner offered by our gracious hosts.
The garden at Robin Hill has been reimagined over 20 years by the English garden designer Dan Pearson. This completely naturalist garden evokes a feeling of calm, along with purpose and great resilience standing the test of time. The garden is lovingly tended by James McGrath who led the Fellows on an insightful tour explaining the features of the garden, including a verdant green moss garden and a stone cairn which is a surprise feature in the woods.
Clotsfoot Farm has been in the Hubbard family for over a century. It was Juliet and John Hubbard who decidedly spent the last 60 years giving the two-acre family property a makeover. John built the bones of the garden with fences, walls and a brick terrace. Currently, he is focused on the vegetable garden. Juliet focuses her talents on planting and honing the perennial garden. Both are enchanting! Juliet refers to her garden as "my sport, my quiet place, and my artistic endeavor. We don't maintain the garden, rather it maintains us."
Interior designer and antique dealer Michael Trapp provided us with a lively imaginative garden around a Victorianized Greek Revival house that serves as his antique store. The garden is brimming with repurposed stone and architectural fragments, including an eclectic collection of garden furniture, sculpture and ceramics, and a rich but intentionally simple plant palette. Built into a hillside with intermittent distant views of the Housatonic River, the garden exists on two terraces. The lower level offers a grotto carved into the hillside and serves as a pool house.
Influenced by classical Italian design, the perspective Michael has achieved gives the illusion of a greater scale than exists on this half acre property.
Garden designer Lynden Miller created her garden with the intent of incubating design ideas for the many public gardens she designs in New York City. Her garden featured a lavish mixed border backed by a curved yew hedge, a raised garden and a cottage garden. The plant combinations, with an expert eye for color, provided the visitor a sense of heaven, as it spoke to us in a soft, loving voice. A small pond at the back of the garden had a naturalistic recirculating stream. This feature provided great inspiration for the children's pond the Friends intend to install in the King Palm Forest at Virginia Robinson Gardens.
Hollister House Garden was by most people's standards, the best English garden west of the great pond. The plant palette spoke volumes of the garden maker’s understanding of plant groupings. The series of garden rooms, each unique and inspirational, reminded us of Hidcote in the Cotswolds of England. The garden maker George Schoellkopf took us around his garden and provided meaningful insight as to how this garden came to be. It was extraordinary, and the garden was defined on one edge by a lazy river -- clean, sparkling, and musical as it made its way to the sea.
The Fellows spent a mere three days, visiting, enjoying and reacting to the beauty of some of the best private gardens New England has to offer. On their free day, some members took the opportunity to visit The Mount – the extraordinary home and garden designed and built by the writer Edith Wharton in 1902. The camaraderie and the experience of seeing these exceptional gardens will last a lifetime.
The Friends of Robinson Gardens offers a membership level of exceptional value. Chaired by Jeanne Anderson, the Fellows level includes excursions to private gardens -- some just lasting a day, while other more distant excursions may be programmed to last several days to a week. In addition, there are exclusive private garden-related events. The season finale is a Thank You dinner held at the Robinson estate. This membership offers a unique experience to visit private gardens with like-minded friends.
Post by Timothy Lindsay
Superintendent of Virginia Robinson Gardens
Photos by Timothy Lindsay, Wendy Wintrob and Jeanne Anderson