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Natural Influences

With lots of inspiration, this Old Greenwich garden is flourishing.

In many ways, the Old Greenwich garden of John and Patricia Chadwick is the culmination of a series of experiments. Since 1978, when the pair of financial executives bought this two-acre property, they have made many changes both to the building and to the grounds, adding on rooms and gradually designating large areas of the vast lawn for the cultivation of flowers and shrubs.

A consummate do-it-yourselfer, John took the lead in the garden design process, requesting input from Patricia whenever necessary but acquiescent in the fact that in his view, she really had very little interest in putting trowel to soil. For inspiration he drew upon the tours they had taken of many of Europe’s most famous gardens—the small “rooms” designed in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson at Sissinghurst Castle; the fountains, grottoes, and ponds at Hever Castle where Anne Boleyn spent her childhood; and the mazes and flower beds of numerous chateaus in France.

On quadrille paper he sketched his concept for a perennial garden, a circle with a submerged triangle at each end that mimics a keyhole you could fold in half, based on one he found in Herb Garden Design by Faith H. Swanson and Virginia B. Rady. Then, using a dog-eared flower catalog for reference, he methodically chose the blooms that would thrive in the soil in his home’s microclimate. After an elaborate scheme of trial and error—flowers that didn’t take, shrubs and trees that were too tempting to squirrels and deer, ground cover whose roots were too invasive for his taste—he arrived at a final inventory that includes among others, aster, phlox, bleeding heart, monkshood, peonies, irises, salvia, hydrangea, boxwood, columbine, variegated iris, Russian sage and scabiosa.

“I wasn’t overly concerned about matching colors,” he says.

Among the many features of his garden are serpentine brick pathways, a border around the pool, a small garden centered on an armillary and surrounded with boxwood balls, and the large keyhole-like perennial garden hemmed in by a white picket fence and featuring raised interlocking flower beds connected by brick walks.

To add some depth—and plant volume—the Chadwicks tapped Phillip Watson, QVC’s live-plant pitchman and garden designer extraordinaire, for some advice.

“Phillip had the idea of these arches,” John says, gesturing toward a pair of half-shell arbors. “He said we needed a place for quiet contemplation.”

Outside a conservatory where John, an avid watercolorist, does his painting, Watson suggested a fabricated steel arbor festooned by wisteria, and out front, where a recently added circular drive demands some drama, Watson bordered a brick court with boxwoods that mimic the teeth of a castle top that he says allow for shadow play. The court connects to the perennial garden by way of a walk bordered with white hydrangea that in July is akin to walking through clouds.

“I’d say I added some adventure to the garden,” says the designer.

In addition to consulting, Watson sold the Chadwicks an estimated 150 trees and shrubs for which he’d already chosen locations, and landed the property on the Grandiflora “Glamour in the Garden” Tour put on by the Garden Education Center of Greenwich in 2012.

Along the way, many an idea has been tested. A windstorm uprooted an old chestnut tree and used it as a battering ram on an armillary before tossing it into the perennial garden. The cutting garden, a concept John had remembered fondly from his grandparents’ house, was determined too labor- and cost-intensive.

“It’s cheaper to buy flowers at the store,” he says.

He also eliminated the vegetable garden, because it required too much work, especially for a couple that spends much of the summer in Rhode Island. And the fruit trees that he believed would be a fragrant addition to the perennial garden in each of its corners proved difficult to maintain—and tempting to the squirrels.

As a complete package, the garden shows the verdant results of methodical planning combined with expert advice, under the steady hand of a gardener who’s very comfortable learning on the job.     

Phillip Watson, Phillip Watson Designs,