NOTE: The owners of this garden will give a lecture on January 19, 2011, to benefit Wave Hill.

One of my favorite gardens is in Little Compton, Rhode Island, and--a rare treat-- it is going to be welcoming visitors as part of the Garden Conservancy's Open Days on Saturday, September 11th. And my favorite plantsman, Ed Bowen, will be on hand, selling plants from Opus, which is usually (and strictly) only open by appointment. I was introduced to this paradise after many long years of driving past its shambling walls, little suspecting what a treasure lay behind its nondescript street presence. Sakonnet Garden, as it is called, was, or I should say, is constantly being created and recreated, by John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli. We included the garden in the gorgeous book on garden design that we produced using shoots from the pages of House and Garden, The New Garden Paradise: Great Private Gardens of the World. But the garden--like any great garden--has changed a great deal since the publication of those photographs. I raced over to Sakonnet Garden this morning so that I could give you a sample of what you will find if you visit this weekend.

In May, the garden is in its full floriferous (one of my favorite words, sounds like what it describes--lots and lots of flowers!) glory--as John says, "there is almost too much happening then." He likes it better in September, when it is quieter, and its structure, its bones, are far more evident. Which is not to say there isn't still a whole lot going on over there! This is a garden that is abundant in every season, and you cannot help but feel transported and inspired when you visit, if only because it is unusual to find a garden that so profoundly expresses the exuberant, adventurous spirit of its owners.

Right now, Johnnie is pleased with an expanded tropical area, with new hardy cycads and palms looking happy and well-established. The banana is in pride of place, and the canna give a nice ruff of color at the front edge of this area. Sakonnet Garden is known for its interlocking structure, a series of rooms leading into one another, each of which features a different color scheme, or planting combination, or whimsical idea--usually all three combined. You never know exactly where you are, and the rooms make the garden feel quite large, though it is not.

A fantastic new addition to the garden is a gazebo from India. John and Mikel found it in Old Delhi; "it was so tacky, we fell in love with it," said John. They know one of the design world's lovely secrets: a pinch of vulgarity can be just the spice that makes beauty more delicious. The whole thing was packed up and shipped. Six crates made it to US Customs. Only three came out of US Customs. (Don't even get a horticulturalist started on the difficulty of dealing with customs when they are shipping plants...) John and Mikel waited a couple of years to see if anything other crates might materialize, and when it became clear that their pagoda had been truncated, they came up with a new design for it, and assembled it over a tiny frog pond. The copper finial was made by craftsman in Smithfield, Rhode Island, who usually make finials for the top of church steeples. The gazebo hovers over the tropical garden, so that you feel as if you were in the canopy of its ecosystem.

All well and good, horticulturally, but here is what always touches my heart when I visit this garden: I feel like a child again. I am filled with a sense of wonder-- and play. John and Mikel have tucked surprises everywhere, even in the way they contrast colors and forms.

Sitting in the pagoda, of a summer evening, with plump tiger-patterned pillows at my back, the little elephants twinkling pinkly in the golden light, I feel as though I were playing house (albeit it a grown up version, nursing a glass of wine rather than warm milk.) I remember, as a child, sitting under a table, pulling sheets over the top so that I could feel protected and hidden, giving myself a safe, quiet, retreat from a busy household. It struck me what a fine role this pagoda plays--a resting place that has a simple, sheltering quality to it. And the height gives you that terrific sense of spying down on the antic activities of mere mortals.

There is so much else in Sakonnet Garden this fall. Your eye is teased along by a riotous display of contrasting foliage, with giant, round, textured, spotted, jagged leaves everywhere. At this time of the year the hardy begonias are in full flower, and when the sun comes through their leaves the rich, red veining glows.

The small fish pond and fountain are a work in progress, and that too is interesting to see, because you can almost watch a gardener think out loud. Where will the paving go? Where will we want to sit? Where does this catch the sun? Is it deep enough to protect the fish? And, of course, here in Rhode Island, we have to put beach rocks wherever we can; they are irresistible. I have them piled all over the house, and I've used them for drip lines at the edge of the roof.

The frogs and fish, however, are content to move right in. They don't mind living in the midst of a renovation. Surely they bring good luck? A lotus quickly escaped her pot and sent tendrils through the water; one handsome seed pod hangs over the scene.

The scent of an autumn garden is heavier, almost overripe, and the rich decay of earth begins to mingle with the lingering fragrance of later-blooming plants. At John and Mikel's you can catch the last whiff of Clereodendrun.

Seed pods are full to bursting, and they sit against the foliage like the overblown brooches of an old-fashioned Palm Beach matron. This red jewel is on Magnolia ashei.

The Sakonnet Garden will host a symposium on June 18th, 2011. That event is already inked into my calendar. Do visit the Sakonnet Garden website for more photos, if you can't come this weekend. Two other gardens will be open for the Garden Conservancy this Saturday as well--so you can make a long day of it. And have a lobster roll at Commons Lunch.


c said...

Looks fabulous, wish I lived closer ... thanks for the photos, it's not quite as good as seeing it in person, but good enough for me.

And I do remember the spread on H&G. actually, one of the issues of the magazine I've kept all these years ...

Ashling said...

Oh my....I wish I could explore this garden in person, but your post did a lovely job of weaving a picture for me.

cynthia - thedailybasics.com said...

I love the open days from the Garden Conservancy. I work for Better Homes & Gardens and Trad Home and always had the pleasure of scouting them for our Garden Pubs. Sigh, pure genius and love in these gardens. I'm over in Portsmouth - Looking forward to going! Thanks for shouting about it!

Layanee said...

I had the pleasure of visiting this garden earlier in the year and it is not to be missed by any garden enthusiast. The blue poppies were just waning but they were still glowing coolly in their shaded corner.

Valerie said...

I took a glance at this when first posted, while in the midst of an intense campaign. This morning I took 15 minutes of meditation before starting another long, day of hard effort. And, now that I could take a few minutes, I actually read what you wrote and really looked at the pictures. What a difference. Taking a glance made it just another distraction. Reading and really looking have given me a good measure of Peace. Thanks.

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