June 10, 2012

And the Bobolinks Rejoiced - A visit to Sakonnet Garden

Herbaceous  single white Peonies and clipped box and holly hedges demonstrate great a thoughtfullness ( not restraint) in a part of the world where blue hydrangreas and pink roses are amnipresent, if not iconic. 
I was first introduced to the private garden known as Sakonnet Garden in pages Ken Druse's book The Collector's Garden (Clarkson Potter, 1996). I remembered every photo - the Crytomeria lined walk, the room of pink Rhododendrons, the little red chairs, the boxwood hedges and the wood paved walks. This weekend I finally visited this very secret garden, hidden behind a tall stone wall in posh yet rural Little Compton, Rhode Island. The garden was open for the past two weekends only, as part of the Garden Conservancy Garden Open Days, and I was delighted to be invited to attend.

A PAIR OF SUCCULENT DOMES TOP OFF TWO STONE WALLS AT THE MAIN GATE. THESE ARE BUILT FROM MOSS-LINED WIRE BASKETS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN, MAKING THE ENTIRE OBJECT EFFECTIVELY GEOMETRIC YET  IMPRESSIVELY MYSTERIOUS.

 This year there were two gardens in Rhode Island participating in the Garden Conservancy Open Garden Days, check the Garden Conservancy schedule here, to find out about Open Days near you.

Sakonnet Garden is the creation of John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli, two energetic and obsessed plant collectors who have taken their passion far beyond the idea of a mere garden, they've created something special - a living museum. Hidden from the road completely, the only hint is the number of the address on a tree. A short driveway lead to a gravel car park, a garage and a massive stone wall. I started to wonder where the garden was... a dare-I-say quaint 1910 shingle home, typical for this area of Rhode Island was thoughtfully restored and updated with a massively thick granite stone walk, a magnificent stone wall that was taller than I was hid the lawn and meadow behind it. Around the home, a few potted plants arranged tastefully showed the restraint of a designers mind, a clothes line complete with willow basket set out reminded me of beach homes when I was a kid ( this originally was John's parents summer home), and a sweet grassy and fenced terrace remained much the way his mother had gardened there, complete with a few peonies, a chaise and a simple fence.

When I saw this, I looked for my mother, for every evening this was a ritual in our garden. At Sakonnet Garden, nothing was too perfect, rather, it demonstrated countless ways one  could be perfectly imperfect. Life is that way, nature follows the same rule of perfect imperfection too. John and Mikel neither celebrated not hid parts of a garden where they live, instead, everything is there for a reason. A compost pile can be beautiful in the middle of a lawn, if it abuts a vegetable garden, A bucket of dumped refuse from a breakfast from the past sits upon clippings from a lawn, artichoke leaves from a plate, and weeds. It;s not only OK, it's just life. (or at least it should be).





Mikel was kind enought to take some time to give us a personal tour, but so far, I started to wonder about where this amazing garden that I had read about actually was. So far, the entire space was thoughtful. Simple, clean, uncluttered. Mowed lawn, a boxwood hedge, and then meadow. But oh, what a meadow. We saw the wild Iris long before we arrived, as a mile or two before we reached Sakonnet Garden, we stopped to photograph a nearby meadow full of Iris versicolor, at least I believed that it was the common Blueflag Iris, Iris versicolor, later, I learned that the Iris is a rarer species, that of Iris prismatica,  known as the Slender Blueflag or the Cube Iris. A species that is similar to the larger blueflag, but is distinguished by the width of the leaves, which are only a 1/4 inch wide, similar to the grasses it grows with.




 We rounded back to the parking area near the garage, and Mikel then said "so, are you ready to see the garden?" He lead us down a mowed strip in the meadow along side of the property, to a steel gate that was taller than all of us. Beyond this portal, lay a labyrinth of garden rooms - I heard voices in nearby rooms saying things like "Can you beleive this? It's is like a Disneyland for plant lovers". As a designer who worked on some Disney Theme park activations myself, I had to admit, that many of the principles of theme park design have been employed here - for example, "the big weenie - which is what Disney Imagineering insists in added to every project, from a theme park ride to a restaurant - it means, add one thing that is so awesome that everyone will look at it and go "ahhhhh". At Disney, it would be a giant castle, or a huge globe that lights up at night at EPCOT.  A giant sculted tree of life smack in the middle of Disney's Animal Kingdom.  At Skonnet Gardens? I might be a rare blue Meconopsis, or a an exotic temple rising above a pool of huge, floppy Petasites leaves, it might simply be a color theme, a long vista giving one a view through four rooms, a returning path through the same garden, but at a different level.
A gate of Ilex crenata becomes a green portal, a virtual star gate to another land. Beyond? The allee of Cryptomeria japonica.



In different ways, I connected to both John and Mikel, John, a talented artist and designer who had pivotal roles in designing the Bronx Zoo, and Mikel, a Creative Officer at the fashion brand Façionnable based in Nice - we all have crafted a  life where we play and plant, become part of nature, and then change and augment nature daily. We design with nature, allow nature to become art,  or to simply be 'art' - we create scenarios where nature can carry on peacefully, with some stewardship, and we even sometimes aid nature in a world where it often seems that the opposite is happening.

Gardens are so much more than just places where one plants plants. The are environments where all of the senses can be tweaked. Scent and sight are two obvious ones, but there is an emotional aspect to a garden too, or at least in some well crafted gardens. A garden can give you goosebumps, it can make you feel cosy, nervous with anticipation, excited, it can surprise you, especially when you turn a corner or step into a room and go 'Wow, look at that", Like a well hung museum show, a garden can provide restful places for the eye, too. A cool stone corner, with a single stream of water, a long narrow wall between rooms, lined in bow wood that towers over you. Each garden room here has a different theme, each one surprises you, make you smile, then feel serious, gaze in awe or inspire you to site for a white in it' peaceful, quiet space. This is a garden that I would cherish some time alone in, and not with a crown of people. In that way, it is very much like a museum. "I want to sit on a bench in that room with the massive Sol Le Witt and just absorb it".

Birds were our friends, here. -not sparrows as in my home garden, but a warbling Carolina Wren,and the wood oboe tones of a Red-Breasted Grosbeak high in a Pawlownia tree, a distant wood thrush and Oven Bird, even a Crested Fly Catcher. One is surrounded by summer life. It made me melancholy and even a little sad, since these are the things that I miss in the home I grew up in - in my garden, we returned to the "thump thump thump' of techno music in the low riders, as a pit bull barked and English sparrows chirped making the yard that just two years ago would have been rich with the dawn chorus.  Firetrucks screeched by at midnight, and then a few bomb blasts from home made fireworks at 2:00AM. Clearly, it's time to think about leaving my garden and move on to a better land, but until then, I need to visit and dream, - a practice many of us can do, since, yes, there are always ways to improves ones garden, and visiting other gardens can inspire one to make life changes that are often too difficult to make alone.

Wondering how a garden can change your life? Look at these pictures, and let me know what you think. Sometimes, experiences like this can change your life.

A SITTING AREA IN VERMILION, IT APPEARS TO BRILLIANTLY FLOAT ABOVE A SEA OF PETASITES JAPONICA SSP. GIGANTEUM ( AND, A GUNNERA). BY NOW, ONE FORGETS ONE IS IN RHODE ISLAND, LAND OF THE BLUE HYDRANGEA AND WHITE PICKET FENCE.


Living and gardening incorporating simplicity isn't easy, especially for plant collectors, but John and Mikel found a way to do it. I'm sure there are arguments and bouts of eye-rolling between he two of them ( as Joe and I do) about where a plant should be planted, or about a garden space that one may feel needs refreshing, but in the end, it all must be resolved. Do I dare call it 'purposful restraint'? 

Maybe, but as a designer myself who works on large, global projects, few things happen alone, there are teams to execute, and even more who can make reality happen. Often, this is the phase when a project can drift off from a singular vision. One gardener, or rarely two, will eventually need to dominate, to stand their ground. I never had time to ask wither John or Mikel ( nor Ed Bowen!) where the struggle ends, or starts, for a garden this complex is very much like a business - and new product lines are on a continual cycle of evaluation, elimination and germination. There is a a process - a concept, visualization, and then, reality. Such things rarely happen without fire.
CINNABAR STAIRS AND THAI GARLAND- John and Mikel love tropical fusion, here Honeysuckle on a June day in Rhode Island. This garden transports the guest, to a different country in every room. And now, to England.
If this is not on your wish list, it is now - Podophyllum delavyi. There are just some plants that you pass over in catalogs, until you see one in person. Lift a leaf, and these are the flowers.

THE FLOWERS OF PODOPHYLLUM DELAVYI ARE A SURPRISE TO ANYONE WHO SNEAKS A PEEK UNDERNEATH THE MOTTLED UMBRELLA SHAPED LEAF - A SHREDDED RED TASSLE AWAITS.

Some rooms became very flower-show like, yet when staged outdoors, became magical and sureal with the broad open sky, the buzzing of bees, and dragon flies. This garden room, suddenly transformed our journey into a very English one. Skyrocketing foxgloves, and giant clouds of Crambe cordifolia, tower over head, not just because they are tall, but because they are planted on a berm, a trick that used mounded soil to raise the plants to magnificent heights. It creates a canvas that is more vertical, lifting and exposing plants to the eye with a new dimension. A practice I want to steal for our garden, as it is flat too.


MIKEL CALLED THIS RED FOLIAGE GARDEN, A HOMAGE TO THE RHODE ISLAND RED, A WORK IN PROGRESS THAT HAS SOME SHRUBS TRIMMED TO LOOK LIKE THE FAMOUS RHODE ISLAND CHICKEN.

RODGERSIA PINNATA, MY FAVORITE PLANT, GROWN THE WAY IT SHOULD BE, AS A CARPET.

THIS HIMALAYAN BEAUTY WAS SPOTTED NEAR A POOL. THE RARE TIBETAN BLUE POPPY, MECONOPSIS BETONICIFOLIA.


A LOG GATE!

THE YELLOW GARDEN, LEADS TO OTHER ROOMS BEYOND, EACH WITH DIFFERENT COLOR THEME.

And then, of course, there is the plant material. Arisaema of most every species, rare trees, rare shrubs, rare, rare, rare everyrare one looked. A tall forest of rhododendron trunks, a canopy of red beech trees, a garden composed completely with a palette of yellow tinted foliage.

A RARE MEADOW IN NEW ENGLAND, NESTING BOBOLINKS WERE SIGHTED!


We returned from our "theme park" ride back to the meadow. John's other passion is the preservation and stewardship of the few remaining grasslands in this part of coastal Rhode Island. These grasslands are essential breeding habitats for many migratory song birds, most notably the Bobolink, which breeds only in open grassy meadows and grasslands in the north eastern US and Canada. These natural habitats of swaying timothy, Milkweed and blue stem are becoming scarcer each year across North America as farm land becomes inhabited with McMansions and outdoor shopping malls. Ground nesting species such as the Bobolink and Meadow Lark require special attention since they need quiet open spaces to raise their young.Stewardship means more than just "saving the land", it means maintaining it the right way - such as haying later in the season - after August 15th, so that broods are allowed to mature without being disturbed. Early haying in July will destroy nests, along with young and food sources).

John Gwynne and Mikel are dedicated to preserving the grasslands of coastal Rhode Island and New England. To learn more about their project WILDMEADOWS, visit their site here.


Later this week, photos from the other garden we visited.


5 comments :

  1. Holy crap this is amazing. Had never heard of it, but now I'll never forget it.

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  2. Matt,
    I also read about Sakonnet in the Druse book and saw it first about 10 years ago and again last year. It is one of my all-time favorites. Wonderful design full of surprises , whimsy and humor. Not to mention amazing plants. I hope to get back there someday soon. Greta post.

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  3. Thanks, Matt! Very inspiring!

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  4. Good Tuesday Morning in June, Hi Matt: Thanks for taking us along for this one, Very inspiring!

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  5. Matt,
    This Sakonnet garden is just insane! ... John & Mikel have orchestrated quite a dreamscape/s... you portrayed quite a magical experience in your photos. I would just love to get in there to shoot... especially throughout the seasons. Thanks for posting!!!

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