Garden Variety



Built in 1939 for French antiques collectors by well-known architect and Greenfield Hill resident Cameron Clark, this French-style petit manor house was purchased by its current owners, John and Elizabeth Fath, ten years ago. The couple quickly set to work finding the just right landscape architect to refine the home’s sixty-year-old garden. “I didn’t want anything formulaic:  I needed someone with a vision. Someone who fully appreciated the existing structure,” Elizabeth explains. She found just what they were looking for in Rob Wilber, of Wilber & King Nurseries in Guilford. “To me, there’s nothing more satisfying than a garden restoration —or a good collaboration,” he says. “With this project, which took over six years to complete, I was lucky enough to have both.”

However, every property has its challenges. “The problem with this property, which is longer than it is wide, was to make the space feel intimate,” Wilber says. While the garden’s three distinct levels, two lawn panels surrounded by boxwood hedge and the pool area, were part of the decades-old landscape design, Wilber accentuated the changes with subtle alterations in the grade of the property to create intimate garden spaces. Where once the view from the back terrace included all three areas of the property, Wilber raised the grade of the first lawn panel by just over a foot so that the view of the middle ground was completely eliminated. It’s only after you have walked halfway across the first lawn panel that you are surprised by the middle lawn area, accessible by stone steps, a simple perennial border and a garden sculpture of a boy and dolphin. “A garden should delight its owners from every vantage point,” Elizabeth notes. “The views from inside the house are as important as those from outside.”

While Wilber was busy building the garden rooms, Elizabeth was just as busy decorating them, using what she calls her “Rule of Seven.” “I use fewer things in abundance because I want to emphasize structure and form over variety of plant material. I planted a few, simple favorites,  such as Solomon’s Seal and Lady’s Mantle, and never more than seven different species at a time.” 

She also used this approach with the garden’s color scheme: pink and green. In the gardens, there are masses of yellow-green lady’s mantle and Salvia lyrata, pink astilbe and lilies that pop against aubergine hollyhock and coleus. Around the pool, huge stone urns are filled with plants, such as fuchsias, viburnum, begonias, Cypress aurea, caladium, burro’s tail and agava, that were chosen for their unusual foliage or texture, and limited to a scheme of fuchsia and magenta with black and burgundy accents. “I desire order and structure in a garden,” Elizabeth explains. “Two things that are not a part of my everyday life!”

Though you can reach the pool by walking through the two more formal garden rooms, there is also a shady, Japanese-inspired moss path that begins at the front drive, bypasses the house and ends right at the lower level. Planted with ferns, trillium, a Silver Cloud Forest Pansy tree (Cercis canadensis), Primula japonica, the “Spotty Dotty” variety of Podophyllum “May Apple,” Helleboros arquitifolius and Sanbucus “Sutherland Gold” — and graced by a whimsical stone fountain of  “Pete the Dragon” — this shady bower is a cool walk on hot summer days.

“There were three large evergreens that originally surrounded the pool,” Wilber says. “They were probably only fifteen to eighteen-feet tall when the garden was originally designed, but over the years they grew to a towering height that was completely out of proportion to the space. They were blocking what were once open views of sky.” Call it serendipity, but the owners, who didn’t want to cut down the mature trees, found that their removal was necessary after a fierce storm brought down two of three. In their place, Wilber planted trees with a more human scale, such as Hinoki cypress, blue spruce, Korean dogwood, weeping birch and cherry and Japanese maples.

The pool house, at the base of the three levels, is as kitted out as any summer cottage with its plush changing room, flat-screen TV, full kitchen, outdoor bar and pergola covered in honeysuckle and lime green and white clematis. Oversize planters are filled with exotics such as banana leaves, elephant’s ear, canna and palms. The foliage on the embankment along one side of the pool has been trimmed and planted with masses of creeping jenny and rock cap moss to suggest a wave with fish leaping from it. “My girls are involved in music and sports, leaving us little time to go away during the summer,” explains this mother of three. “This garden — and the pool — are our Nantucket, our St. Bart’s.”

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