I call myself a landscape architect but there is more to the story.
I often think about how I got here and what factors influenced my life. I grew up surrounded by elegant, sophisticated gardens and a tradition for gardening that created landscapes of simple beauty celebrating the flower garden along with the wild growth on the rocky shores of Rhode Island. It was a tradition where the rough rocky coastline served as a backdrop for formal English gardens, and I was made aware of the ways in which contrasts between the formal and the wild landscape produced a powerful setting with never ending movement and interest.
The natural forces of the local environment shaped my response to the landscape. Living next to the sea, we felt the full force of ocean storms and the constant moisture of the salt spray. I was able to observe over time which plants survived the salt and hurricanes. Fog was a given in the month of June, making our gardens all the more mysterious and the colors more softened and painterly. I still prefer muted tones, rarely using bright reds or oranges.
My first memories of gardens were two secret garden rooms. One at my grandmother’s house in Middletown, RI. It was at the end of a winding path through native overgrowth, a potato field that had been left to go natural for twenty-five years. A grass path lead to a circle of red cedars in which my grandmother had placed a wonderful blue canvas awning–covered daybed. It was the precursor to the modern glider. We used to go down there and take books, naps and have doll parties, and feel completely alone and at home in the wilderness. Sometimes we would have a formal tea with my grandmother who also loved going there to read or nap. The other place was an old crab apple tree at the end of the hay field at our summer house that had fallen over in a storm and continued to grow, forming looping branches that defined rooms within its leafy canopy. My sisters and I would play house within the branches of the tree here the dining room, there the kitchen. It was second nature for us to use the natural landscape as our playground. No one ever had a swing set or trampoline. We valued the opportunities for play that the natural landscape afforded us. And we have all grown to create gardens with a series of outdoor rooms.
My early perceptions of gardens as places or rooms is a concept that I still feel is the essence of the landscape. I design my gardens with defined spaces analogous to the rooms of a house. The floor is the base plane, lawn is carpet, hedges, shrubs, fences and stone walls or buildings are walls, allees are corridors, changes of grade are the stairs, framed views are windows, trees, trellises and umbrellas are the ceiling. Every garden or property has a formal foyer before coming to the front door. Furniture, sculpture and lighting are all included as the elements that give the space an animated use.
Middletown in the fifties was still largely agricultural land with potatoes, hay and corn. My grandmother owned several houses and large fields which were rented for a dollar a year to various farmers. We had a group of friends that lived in another family compound across the fields. We had well worn paths through the fields connecting the families and cousins together and we were free to roam the territory, as long as we were back in time for a bath before dinner. The families were close friends and everyone hot together for drinks on a regular basis. One of the favorite topics of discussion between the adults and the children was whether we had seen the leprechauns who lived in the corn fields between the houses. We were convinced of their existence and would leave treats under our favorite crabapple tree or brave an excursion into the corn stalks to deposit some cookie crumbs. We would lie awake at night talking about the little people and what they might be names, how many children they had, and what they would be wearing. I’m almost ashamed to admit it but I still believe that the fields were haunted by these happy folk, and they blessed our childhood with their promise of fantasy. I’m still conscious of the magic in the landscape and design in a way that allows the spirit a place to express itself and be felt by anyone receptive to its charm.
Since we were summer residents of Newport, our gardens were filled with annuals for cutting and all summer color. My grandmother would always make her trip to the garden center her first priority upon arriving from Washington. For our family, the gardens came first, then the house. It seems natural to me now to have that very approach to design and construction. So often the buildings are designed and then made to fit onto the land, instead of growing out of the site.
My first landscaping job was as my grandmother’s gardener. I was sixteen and despite the pressures to meet my friends at Bailey’s Beach, I really loved spending the mornings weeding her perennial garden and rose bed.
She used to come out and tell me the names of the flowers and point out which was a weed if I was unsure. She would wear a long faded denim skirt and white keds, always a hat and usually a sleeveless oxford shirt. If it was really sunny, she would add a parasol for shade. We would break for iced tea on the terrace which was covered with a grape vine and relax for a bit together talking about things. We weren’t friends in the way today’s generations have lost their hierarchical distinctions, but there was love and adoration flowing in both directions.
What I learned from my grandmother and from her gardener, Frank Mendonca, was to be meticulous about weeds, and to keep the soil light and loose around the plants. I learned that the more thorough I was with the cultivator in ridding the soil of weeds and weed roots, the less time it took in the long run to maintain the garden beds. I learned a lot about perennials and roses. Those flowers that were her favorites have formed the core of my plant palette with surprisingly few additions. I have inherited many of her books on flowers and garden design. The horticultural world has added some wonderful varieties but little else seems to have changed in the world of gardening. I am also blessed with one of her benches, a half circle of white limestone with a back and griffen end figures. Reminiscences of a past era are all but gone except in my memories and in the gardens of my clients.
My grandmother believed that one should cut the flowers from the perennial garden to bring in the house, thereby making the task of deadheading all but unnecessary. She had planted masses of each type of flower so that any cuttings would still leave enough color in the garden itself. Her rose garden was a circle of white marble with a beautiful lead figure in the center. The roses were underplanted with heliotrope and the bed surrounded by ivy and sweet alyssum. The scent of heliotrope and lavender filled the bedrooms and bathrooms, as my grandmother believed that on every dresser and sink should always be an arrangement of fresh flowers. My mother has carried on with this tradition, and I find myself rushing out to cut a few greens or flowers whenever I have guests.
I have worked on many beautiful gardens that have taken me from Maine to Florida and France. Almost all of my clients have become friends and continue to call me to help them with new projects, large or small. Their births, like any construction project, were sometimes stressful, but it has always been a joy to watch them grow over the years.
I have always loved the tropics. There is something very special about the southern light and the way it illuminates everything into architectural or sculptural planes and intensifies the colors. It appeals to my senses as a painter. My first experience working in the tropical climate of the Palm Beach was to help a client whose landscaping I had designed in New England with their newly purchased beach house, which was being renovated. I transformed the pool (a sixties, naturalistic style with a wooden bridge going over it) into a sleek, clean rectangular pool with a negative edge that seems to flow into the ocean. The color of the pool was the exact color of the ocean no matter what the sky, and it incorporated an underwater chaise lounge, integral spa with a negative edge, and water wall to keep out traffic noises.
Each time I find myself in a new setting I confirm that the principles of design do not change from one region to the next. What does change are the environmental constraints and personal taste and style, which can both vary dramatically, even between next door neighbors!
I have come to realize that every garden is unique and has its own set of cultural, architectural, environmental and spiritual conditions. I love the challenge of exploring a new site and finding out about its wonders and mysteries. I’ve worked on some interesting gardens – establishing prairie grasslands, creating azalea and native plant collections, wetland restoration, and coastal planning with native plants; designing for children, indoor/outdoor swimming pools, pools located on the side of a cliff, sculpture gardens and lighting. I’ve also created all white gardens, moss gardens, Japanese dry gardens, putting greens, croquet lawns and bocce courts!
I love working with a completely different plant palette from that of New England. When thinking of the tropics, images come to mind of brightly colored flowers and birds. However, my sense of the essential tropical landscape is on of form, texture and brilliant luminescence in contrast with deep and welcoming shade. The light is so intense that all materials are transformed into volumes with contrasting planes, harsh edges and intensified colors. How very different from the soft edges and blended forms of the New England landscape.
There is no true Palm Beach style of gardens, but rather an expression of the synthesis of the architecture, the function and the client’s tastes. A Miznor house, for example, doesn’t automatically indicate a formal, geometric landscape plan. Flowing lines and curvilinear forms could well serve to compliment the house and work with the style of its owners. I love to plan the overall structure, or bones, of the Florida garden with symmetry and balance, and then have the base plan flow like a river beneath the formal verticals and overhead canopy.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for most gardeners in Palm Beach is trying to blend a style of garden with the natural conditions and local microclimate. We have all grown to love many beautiful exotic plants that are not well suited to the island. I’m a full believer in going native, and getting familiar with the plants that thrive under harsh conditions. If used in accordance with good design concepts, these plants will look good almost all the time, and will provide a windbreak that will allow less tough plants to thrive. Some plants I like in Florida…
Coccoloba unifera Seagrape
Coccothrinax argentata Silver Palm
Scaevola plumieri Scaevola
Serenoa repens Saw Palmetto
Yucca aloifolia Spanish Bayonet
Croton sp. Beach Croton
Zamia pumila Coontie
For the lee side of the dunes, these natives could be very useful:
Bursera simaruba Gumbo Limbo
Clusia rosea Pitch Apple
Coccoloba unifera Sea Grape
Ficus aurea Strangler Fig
Quercus virginiana Live Oak
Sibal palmetto Cabbage Palm
Eugenia sp. Stopper
Guaiacum sanctum Lignum vitae
Thrinax morrisii Key Thatch Palm
Thrinax radiate Thatch Palm
Eugenia foetida Spanish Stopper
Myrsine guianensis Myrsine
Serenoa repens Saw Palmetto