Calm and Collected
Gardeners like to wax poetic about the language of flowers, that leafy vocabulary that gives a romantic tongue to the petals of red roses and dainty daisies. So is the case with landscape architect Susan Cohen, who designed her Greenwich garden to speak with her own, distinct dialect. The garden’s story began more than three decades ago when Susan, her husband, real estate lawyer Bruce Cohen, and their two young sons moved into the 1929 half-timbered Tudor on a tidal inlet in Riverside with views of Long Island.
“The property was totally overgrown, and the house was gloomy,” Susan says. “It was the landscape that spoke to me, telling me that the setting should set the tone for the garden, so I designed it to suit the style of the house and the marshes. I think of the garden as the whole property; it’s a flowing landscape with a lot of planting.”
The front yard’s street-hugging cottage garden, which may be seen from the private lane that dead-ends at the dock, speaks softly. The white blooms of the Cloud 9 dogwood, the large leaves of big, boxy native rhododendron maximum, the red berries of the evergreen skimmia and the white flowers of the cherry laurel lead to a perennial garden of astrantia and lady’s mantle. It is an annual that has the most noticeable accent: The little lime green bell-shaped blooms of the long-stemmed Nicotiana langsdorfii, or flowering tobacco, bob in the breeze.
This whisper of a garden, planned and planted to complement the shape and scale of the house, leads to two significant sweeping beds inspired by the border gardens at England’s Sissinghurst Castle and Tintinhull—one yellow and cream, the other blue and purple —that frame the grotto at the top of the sloped lawn and set the conversational tone for the property. “They face each other and talk across the lawn,” Susan explains. “They talk to each other, in the sense that they relate to one another across the space of the lawn, and their shapes and color schemes complement each other. Their flowers and plants were chosen because they move in the breeze.”
Hakonechloa, a Cohen favorite, forms a soft, grassy waterfall in front of the yellow border, which gets its color from early-blooming yellow narcissus and fritillaria, daylilies like the cherry yellow “Happy Returns,” the white-blooming shrub kerria and the annual grass Phygelius “Moonraker.” Allium, iris, Russian sage, balloon flower, asters, salvia and clematis define the purple border.
A pair of stone statues, Korean welcoming figures, stand sentinel in the yellow border. “They, too, are part of the flow,” Susan says. “I arranged them asymmetrically, and I placed them where my eye told me.”
By the dock, in four square, raised beds, Shasta daisies and blue salvia frame golden hops as they climb wooden trellises awaiting ripening tomatoes, zucchini, kale and eggplant.
But Cohen’s garden also is about water, and to reflect the mirror-silver of the inlet, she added two fountains. One, planted on the foundation of a boathouse that rose long before the half-dozen houses in the area became landmarks in the pristine landscape, features an antique stone face whose spouting splashes among ferns, myrtle and a pair of oak-leaf hydrangea. “It is supposed to look like the remnant from an old, long-forgotten garden,” she says.
The other fountain, whose stream springs from a stone frog, is the focal point of the tiny, two-person terrace, one of Cohen’s favorite spots. “My husband and I like to sit here, under the shade of an umbrella, and read books, have lunch and just sit and sip iced tea,” she says. “Every time I see the frog, it makes me smile.”
Even the garden that’s farthest from the house manages to be heard. A continuation of the border of bright creamy whites and yellows, “it’s very quiet because some of the color disappears in the distance,” Susan says.
Each plant in Susan’s garden is placed not only to take in the water views but also to attract the native creatures that inhabit the land. Ospreys, egrets, and occasionally a Great Blue Heron, make a stop on the marsh, where swans and their snowy cygnets have set up house. Hummingbirds, attracted by the red and purple flowers, flitter by and deer have been known to sleep in the grass.
Through the decades, Susan has refined and simplified her garden to suit her taste and lifestyle. Between designing gardens for private clients and teaching at The New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, where she designed “Momijigari: The Japanese Autumn Garden” and “Sculpture from the Museum of Modern Art,” two exhibition gardens installed in the courtyard of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, she doesn’t get much time to dig in the dirt. “I walk around, and if I see a weed, I pull it,” she says. What she’s more likely to be doing is watching her five grandchildren playing in the garden than she is to be planting it. “Years ago, I planted a styrax Japonica, and it was a tall, scrawny stick,” she says. “Now, it is a beautiful tree that my grandchildren climb.”
The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York, 718-817-8700; nybg.org
Susan Cohen Landscape Architect, Riverside, 203-637-4225; susancohenla.com