"A house comes alive with a lot of people," says garden writer Jane Garmey, "but I think a garden is a much more private and personal experience. When you see a garden, you get to know the person whose garden it is."
Garmey's new book, "Private Gardens of Connecticut" [Monacelli Press, $65], which came out last week, has lush photographs by John Hall and features 28 gardens around the state, some grand, some tiny.
Several of the gardens are well-known through the national Garden Conservancy's Open Days program: Bunny Williams' garden in Falls Village, Lee Link's in Sharon, Nick Nickou's in Branford, Michael Trapp's in West Cornwall. Others are "deliciously private" sanctuaries and rarely seen, such as Oscar and Annette de la Renta's "mostly green" garden in Kent with a splendid allee of pear trees.
In an interview earlier this week, Garmey said she and Hall chose gardens for their geographic and thematic diversity, but another given was that "every owner, regardless of whether they had help in their garden or had no help, they had to be involved in the garden."
"One garden I was shown around by the designer," Garmey said. "It was a very nice garden. I asked, 'How did you work with the owner?' He looked at me like I was crazy. 'The owner? She just told me she wanted a garden within seven months.' … Right there, there was no way."
As it turned out, many of the gardens they did include in the book were the first and only garden of their owners, some of whom Garmey said had little or no knowledge about gardening when they first passionately embarked on their landscapes.
For example, she said, when Michael Rosenthal bought his home on Killam's Point in Branford in 1981, "he didn't know the first thing about gardening."
"Brush choked the wooded area around the house and covered the rock ledges on which the house was built," she writes, noting that Rosenthal kept tweezers in his office so he could pull out thorns. He told Garmey he had had no idea what he was getting into but tackled the Herculean task of carving out pathways and removing large amounts of poison ivy on his own. Today Rosenthal's garden boasts an extraordinary collection of rare trees and shrubs.
Garmey said she's always nervous about generalization — "as a friend says, the more you generalize, the more wrong you are" — but she finds that garden lovers tend to fall into two camps.
First, there are "madly, passionate plant people who, when you find a really, really rare plant, you go into ecstasies and you're very knowledgeable." Nickou, at nearly 90, is one of those, "a national treasure," she said. In the book she calls him "without a doubt Connecticut's preeminent plant collector."
Then there are gardeners who are more interested in the lines, textures and design of a garden.
"I fall into the second camp," said Garmey, who grew up in England and professes to have known virtually nothing about gardening before she and her husband, sculptor Stephen Garmey, bought a house in Connecticut in the 1970s. "I still find myself very ignorant compared with the first camp."
When it comes to design, Garmey said, "I love people who push the envelope. Lee Link, she does these things that you just wouldn't expect. She uses succulents a lot. … I'm just constantly surprised. She will plant lettuces next to snapdragons, and crisscross beds. … She's very inventive. That's something I love in a garden."
Garmey said she has incorporated certain ideas from the gardeners in her book in her own garden in West Cornwall. The De la Rentas, for example, have some garden furniture painted in Chatsworth blue, a color she never would have thought of using. "I took that color and painted two metal chairs."
Frederick Bland, an architect who is chairman of the board of trustees at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, describes his plot of less than 1 acre in Stony Creek as "a cottage garden with aspirations." Garmey said he uses a lot of persicaria polymorpha in his garden, and she since has planted a lot in her own. Interior designer Robert Couturier, whose garden in South Kent is very French, told her "you don't need to have anything in your boxwood squares," an idea she has adopted. And Ruud Bergmans of Old Lyme has painted the lower portions of several trees in his garden, "a very French thing to do," Garmey said, and something she also may try with four cherry trees she has.
One thing that virtually all the gardeners in her book have done is utilize natural stone in their gardens, a hallmark of Connecticut's landscape, she said. "They have not fought it, but embraced it and celebrated it."
The book has no captions. "We wanted to do a layout where your eye could move through the garden," Garmey said. "We didn't want to break it up. I find most captions so unrewarding."
And Hall's photographs do unfold in a way that one has a sense of strolling through each garden. Many are shot in a cool, misty light somewhat reminiscent of Garmey's native England.
Garmey explained that's a look that Hall likes. But, she added, "We did nine-tenths of the photography of the summer of 2009! … So there was a lot of mist. It was the rainiest summer on record!"
Jane Garmey will sign copies of her book Saturday, Oct. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Johnnycake Books, 12 Academy St., Salisbury; and Nov. 21 at The Hickory Stick Bookshop, 2 Green Hill Road, Washington Depot.
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