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.
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 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.