Land calls us all, maybe more so here in walled and subdivided suburbia, where the eye longs for open vistas. And for some, the wilder the land, the louder the call. That may explain why a young couple with a perfectly beautiful home on a well-tended one-acre lot in Westport would leave it for two wildly overgrown acres and a slew of structures in need of restoration on Greenfield Hill. At least, that’s as good an explanation as any. The husband and wife hadn’t even been thinking about moving, much less house-and-land hunting. “I was in Fairfield playing golf one day,” she recalls, “and my friend said, ‘Oh, I went in this wonderful house the other day and they have all these blueberry bushes.’ It just sounded like a pretty garden.”
A high-tax bracket, low-profile woman with a fondness for flowers and vegetables but a history of gardening “vaguely” on land with too much shade, she found herself pulling into the driveway with the Realtor the next day. Although the listing noted a 150-year-old center hall Colonial plus barn, guesthouse, pool, sheds and mature gardens, it was nearly impossible to tell. “You couldn’t see the house from the road, you couldn’t see the barn from the house, and you couldn’t see the pool from the barn,” she recalls.
Nor did the property appear to be anywhere close to two acres. Aside from the thickets of elderly boxwoods and forests of ancient rhododendrons, the old pool in the center of the yard was surrounded by a twenty-five-foot-high hedge of hemlock and dark American arborvitae that dominated the site and divided the property in two. Like lost temples overtaken by time and jungle vines, the remnants of what had once been a New England Eden lay all but hidden behind the pool: a riot of blueberry bushes in a ramshackle pen; a paddle tennis court with trees growing in the center; the bones of a vegetable garden gone to ruin; a root cellar with wild blackberries shooting up through the roof “like an insane person,” the woman remembers.
In real estate terms, the Greenfield Hill property was pure potential. The couple bought the old place. With two young children and a husband who “gets poison ivy if he walks through the woods,” the wife signed on as groundskeeper. “I don’t know why we did it,” she says now of the purchase. “I had no idea what I was doing!”
In landscaping terms, the property proved a stunning example of how suburban homeowners can reimagine a piece of land and how the land creates and nurtures gardeners.
Some people hire landscapers to create instant gardens, erasing the past. That would have gone against not only the ethos of a neighborhood like this but also the young couple’s sensibilities and budget. “I couldn’t just hire people all the time,” the woman recalls, “so I learned by mistakes and by talking to neighbors.” Many of those neighbors who had lived on the street a long time knew the property and identified the trees and plants worth saving. Then it was a matter of editing the site down to reveal and enhance its wonders.
The towering hedge around the pool extended to the garage, isolating one side of the property from view. That section of hedge was taken out, opening up the land, as were the rhodies that had grown higher than the windows in front of the house. Also deleted was the paddle tennis court that had been reverting to nature, which created a broad section of lawn for the children to play ball. Once the rusted fences around the vegetable garden and blueberry patches were replaced, vegetables were planted along with hundreds of daffodils and nearly a thousand tulip bulbs to replace those eaten by the herds of deer that considered the yard their cafeteria. Wheelbarrows of peonies that had been blooming in anonymity at the back of the property were relocated to the garden.
While pruning and planting, the couple was also growing the family. A year and a half after moving in, twins arrived. “All of a sudden,” the wife says, “I was lugging four kids under four back and forth from the house to the vegetable garden.” For this woman, gardening and mothering went hand in hand.
“Growing vegetables was my favorite part of gardening,” she says. “Perennials are great but they bloom for ten days and all the rest is maintenance. With vegetables you see the results—you see the whole cycle, from seed to something you can walk out and consume—so quickly, and then you have two months or more to enjoy them.”
The vegetable garden also turned out to be an idyllic setting for raising children, and for the next few years it became the outdoor focus of family life. The older kids built birdhouses for the top of the garden posts and helped their mother harvest vegetables for dinner and berries for pancakes and pies. A ramshackle chicken coop at the end of the barn was also restored, and for a time the children went on daily egg hunts.
Meanwhile, the young mother took a garden design class with Westport artist and gardener Enid Munroe, which she found helpful. But, eventually, she hired Rob Wilber of Wilbur & King Nurseries in Stonycreek to reconfigure the property and tie together its disparate elements. “It was typical of a Greenfield Hill home and a typical ’50s planting lacking any design or creativity,” he says. “The only real elements of design were the hedge of hemlock around the swimming pool and the vegetable garden.”
Wilbur’s crew laid Mexican river stones around the perimeter of the vegetable garden to define the border and keep weeds out, and built a raised bed to help organize the plantings inside. Parts of the hedge had died off or were otherwise unbalanced, so arborvitae was added in those places to restore symmetry. A set of wide stone steps with low, abutting walls was also added to define the entrance to the pool area.
But the main thing the landscape designer did was reorient the eye to the property by installing a cross of flagstone paths from the house and the guesthouse. The paths merge at a concrete fountain that serves as both the central reference point and the point of departure for the pool and beyond. Rustic cedar arbors here and at the entrance to the vegetable garden frame the journey to the back of the property.
The best suburban yards mix public and private areas, and on this property, the semi-enclosed outdoor “rooms” behind the house—hedged-in pool, fenced blueberry patch and vegetable garden—are for both solace and produce, while the panels of open grass and the big lawn to the left of the house are for play and for letting the eyes roam free. “It’s a gentleman’s country estate,” Wilbur says of the property today. “There’s formality but also softness and casualness, which reflects the clients and the neighborhood. There are defined garden rooms, but the property is casual enough so that you can meander through it. It has a utilitarian feel, a combination farm and English garden.”
Last summer, after seventeen years, the couple moved on. “We had done so much,” the wife says, “but we could have gardened there for the rest of our lives and still not be done.”
This spring, another couple from Westport moved in. “I can’t take any credit for it,” the new owner says, “but I will be taking responsibility for maintaining it.”