The art of making garden rooms

The Tropical Quadrant at Sakonnet Garden has not just bananas and cannas, but also tropical-looking plants like the cardinal flower and gold-cut leaf staghorn sumac. (Photo: NYTimes)
It is the key question in making any garden: How do you get all the plants you cannot resist and the ideas insistently flooding your imagination to coalesce on common ground?اضافة اعلان

The makers of Sakonnet Garden, a private landscape in coastal Rhode Island that welcomes the public by reservation three days a week in season, have been puzzling over that for decades — one boardwalk, hedge, or unusual plant at a time.

John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli’s points of creative reference are wide-ranging. The defined rooms of traditional English gardens are an influence in the Little Compton garden. So is the color-field theory of pioneering modernist artist Josef Albers, whose bold squares of pigment were intensified in the context of carefully chosen adjacent ones.

Memories of business travels to the Amazon are also part of Sakonnet. And those of domestic travel are, too — specifically, Gwynne and Folcarelli’s four- to six-hour car trips back to New York City every weekend during the 30-odd years they were part-time residents at Sakonnet, where they now live full time.

Before that, Gwynne knew the land as his family’s second home. Happy memories included working alongside his sister to bushwhack out planting spaces from the dark thicket of invasive autumn olive, multiflora rose, and Oriental bittersweet, connecting those spaces with narrow tunnels hacked from the underbrush.

Such crude, connected openings were the earliest hint at what Sakonnet would become.

The garden now has 15 distinct rooms, affectionately given names such as Punchbowl, a space with an ombre effect, thanks to gradations of rhododendron colors from cerise to pink to white. Pinkie, within a grove of incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens), is also about the color, and about verticality: 3.65m poles are painted to match the clematis that climbs them.

But Fernie, a small, green space hidden in the middle of the garden, is Folcarelli’s favorite: There, trunks of dead autumn olives are wrapped in chicken wire to support Euonymus vines, creating sinuous, snakelike forms overhead.

Throughout the garden, living walls and those made of stone and logs create spaces for acts of horticultural theater, allowing for a sense of hide-and-reveal instead of overwhelming you as you move through the landscape.

“Because we have too many plants, separators between the rooms try to create some sense of calm and focus,” Gwynne said. “Otherwise, you see everything all at once.”

Small plates, served one at a time, instead of the exhaustion of an all-you-can-absorb buffet.

The 321m debriefs
The garden rooms, though, do more than just measure out delight. Their walls allow for what the men call “microclimate manipulation,” a technique for coaxing coveted plants — from palm trees to the elusive Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis Lingholm) — into adjusting to the Zone 7b maritime environment.

Maybe this strategy is no surprise, if you know these gardeners’ backgrounds: As the head of design for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo for many years, Gwynne created habitat exhibitions. Folcarelli created spaces for a living, too, as a visual presentation executive in retail and hospitality, and for private clients.

He misses the debriefings that went on for decades during their 321km drives back to Manhattan. Gwynne would carry a black book to write notes in — one of a series of identical volumes he has used for fastidious record-keeping since the mid-1970s.

These days, what with maintaining the garden and doing volunteer jobs in the local community, there is no such time, except maybe in the winter. Instead, there are chores and more chores, and visitors to welcome, from Thursday to Saturday, to the 2-acre garden — 2,000 or so of them last year.

Moving clockwise through the garden
This is “a garden built by wheelbarrow,” said Folcarelli, as its spaces were too tight for earth-moving equipment, even in the beginning.

“But it’s also monumental,” Gwynne chimed in.

It is, indeed, a construct of contrasts — of scale, color, texture, and light. And the men enjoy turning up the volume at every opportunity.

On open days, it is Folcarelli who greets visitors, pointing them in a clockwise direction. Passing through a doorway in a 3.6m wall of stones and logs, they move into a world with an undulating surface carpeted in moss and a grove of old highbush blueberries, “all gnarly, Arthur Rackham-y,” Gwynne said, referring to the work of the English illustrator.

It’s “a kind of elfin forest that makes you feel huge,” he said.

Duck to navigate a little hole in an old holly hedge, where the first of several boardwalks beckons toward an allee of Cryptomeria, the Japanese cedar, that feel as towering as giant sequoias. Such shape-shifting elements prime visitors for exploring — the desired effect.

The oldest space in the garden is a rectangular room “wallpapered with gaudy azaleas and designed by rabbits,” Gwynne said. Years ago, whenever an evergreen azalea was transplanted out of a protected nursery area into the garden-to-be, the animals would have at it. Back to the nursery row, the chewed-on young shrub would go, creating a lineup of “refugee azaleas” that eventually became the flowering wall.

The plants are in charge
There are bananas and cannas, but also large-leaved, faux-tropicals such as Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia ashei, a Florida native) and big-leaf magnolia (M. macrophylla, mostly found in small pockets in the Southeast). A red Mughal pavilion, a souvenir from a trip to India, perches high in the mini-jungle, draped with garlands of marigold blooms.

The two men admit it: Their room-making process was a little backward. Best practices would dictate starting with the hardscape and then adding plants. The walls and paths should come first, but they did not here.

“The plants are in charge,” Gwynne admitted.

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