At a grand estate in Greenwich, Phillip Watson turns out a majestic landscape while turning on his Southern charm
Photograph by Stacy Bass
In a former life, Phillip Watson must have been a nobleman in the court of Louis XIV, tasked with designing gardens that would titillate the king. That’s the thought that strikes you, at least, when you process through the gates of this expansive estate in Greenwich, not far from the Armonk border.
“I said to my clients, ‘We have the opportunity here to put in parterres like the ones at Versailles,’” Watson recalls, after explaining that his clients had flown him up from Atlanta to survey the property before they purchased it.
Two months later, they called again to tell him they had just returned from the château, just half an hour southwest of Paris, that had served as the seat of the French monarchy for more than 100 years beginning in the late 17th century, and where the pleasure-driven, aesthetically oriented sovereign assigned landscape architect André Le Nôtre to beautify the grounds.
“They turned me loose,” he says.
An affable Mississippian who now makes his home in Atlanta, Watson had designed two previous gardens for these clients, whom he met years ago at a party on the Greenwich holiday circuit, where he is a regular.
“The house is beautifully situated,” he says. “Just as it would have been in the 1800s when they paid attention to where the sun rose and set. That’s what I liked so much about the property.”
It was the symmetry of the house, originally designed as a spec home for a builder by Greenwich architect Paul Marchese and later customized for the client, that brought to mind for Watson the Palladian architecture he admires so much.
“It demanded balanced parterres,” he says.
In the center of the drive, where a fountain had been, Watson envisioned a principal parterre that would consist of an elaborate configuration of scrolled anchors joined end to end and sculpted from winter gem boxwood trimmed to a diminutive, shin-rubbing height. The footpaths that wind through the hedges are carpeted in crushed oyster and clam shells, an occasional fish spine, and other forms of calcified sea life.
“My clients love the water; they have a house in Palm Beach where they have a boat and since we already had the shells, I thought ‘Why not do something nautical?’” he says.
Forming an axis with the front entry of the house, the large anchor parterre is flanked on either side by a parterre consisting of winter gem boxwoods planted on diagonals that radiate from a nexus punctuated by a pencil point juniper. Taller green mountain boxwoods, which will eventually be molded into flat-topped pyramidal shapes, enclose each one. The sweeping drive is lined in linden trees that predate Watson’s arrival on site.
“I like my gardens to be a balance of whimsy and discipline,” says the trained horticulturist, who has been designing gardens since the 1970s, when he was still in college. He had always wanted to be an architect, he says, but his dyslexia made the mathematical components—the “black and white,” he notes—of both architecture and landscape architecture nearly impossible.
“I knew I wanted to build things, and I always knew when something looked great,” he says. “So I had to establish a career in the gray areas.”
Garden design, firmly rooted in a knowledge of plants, became that gray area. His first book, Pleasure Gardens, will be released in July. Forty-five programming hours a year, when he’s not onsite in a client’s courtyard or summoning forth the amusing aspects of his Southern heritage for inclusion in his book, Watson can be found on QVC as the guest host of “Gardens Made Easy by Cottage Farms.” In hour-long segments that air between January and April, he sells millions of dollars worth of live plants–and gardening advice by the bushel.
Because his feet measure exactly 12 inches, he is able to get “a really good feel in the field” when, after preparing sketches, he measures out his designs with his footsteps, using string, flags, and paint.
“I want my designs to be driven by unusual plants, not unusual paving patterns,” he says. “So that’s why I use a lot of clipped forms. They’re like architecture.”
It was the architecture of this house, specifically the cupolas, that became the inspiration for the pool house, which is separated from the main house by a 44-foot square pool Watson designed. He opted to locate the deep end of the pool near the main house so that at night, when it is illuminated, one sees the light shimmering in the water but not the source of the illumination.
Arbors adorned in pink, blue, and white wisteria extend from either side of the pool house, and the perimeters of the patio are densely planted with creeping verbena and hibiscus-like parlor maple. The interiors of the pool house, as well as those of the main house, were designed by Richard Keith Langham.
As you stroll around the grounds, your eye wanders beyond where you are, to the towering deciduous trees, underpinned by woody shrubs that trace the property’s perimeter, to the Norway spruce that mingles in the foreground, to the spray of peonies that hems in the stairs on either end of the house, to the haphazard remains of the old apple orchard that Watson left intact, and to the vista of brambled woods in the distance.
Out back, where the property drops away into the woods, Watson planned a tiered perennial garden—gaillardia, Joe Pye weed, solidago fireworks, Siberian irises—that blurs the boundary rather than defining it, and leads the eye into the distance beyond. (Hidden in the brush is a deer fence that allows the flowers to thrive without threat.)
“The conservancy land [that abuts the property] gives it these borrowed views that make it seem like 50 acres rather than eight,” says Watson.
To bring his vision to life, Watson worked with Tony Fulton whose Greenwich- and Stamford-based company, Fulton Landscape Design, completed the elaborate installation with a team of 15 workers in a mere six months, beginning in November 2006.
“I shop for trees the way women shop for shoes,” says Fulton, recounting the 7,000 yards of soil, the 6,500 boxwoods, the 4,500 rhododendron maxis, and the two tri-axle tractor trailers full of seashells from Florida, among other trees, plants, and materials he shipped in for the job. As he speaks, he is simultaneously summoning an image, for visual aid, of a 30-foot arborvitae on his BlackBerry.
“It’s all about the gradation,” says Fulton, referring to Watson’s layering of deciduous and coniferous trees, leggy rhododrendrons, and flowering perennials that have the cumulative effect of providing sweeping views in all directions.
Once you’ve taken in all the topography, you can’t help but gaze skyward, imagining what is surely the money shot Watson had in mind when he climbed up to the roof to get an aerial fix on his plan.
As you do, a single thought crosses your mind: Did Louis XIV have a helicopter?
- Phillip Watson, 404-502-2246
- Richard Keith Langham, 212-759-1212
- Fulton Landscape Design, 203-328-1383