Everything in Gerard Pampalone’s life changed the day in 1995 that he found Beanacre, a bedraggled three-and-a-half acre estate near the highest point of Greenfield Hill. Other than the neighborhood, there was little to recommend in that sorry old parcel. Transients and loafers had been squatting in the abandoned house and barn. Everything was in disrepair. But Gerard stood in the ramshackle garden and he saw something. So for $1.5 million, it was his.
A garden obsessive was born. Growing up in the shadow of steel mills in Gary, Indiana, what did he know about the gentleperson’s craft of gardening? Nothing. Living the hectic life with his wife, Arlene Carpenter, at the helm of a fast-paced marketing company, racing across the country all the time, shuttling between a house in Bridgeport and a getaway in the Hamptons, what did he know about tulip bulbs? Zilch.
Which makes it a chin-stroking wonder to think that the southern edge of his property is now lined with 6,500 tulips and daffodils, and in spring that garden is radiating with enough floral brilliance to be seen from planet Mars. And those bulbs were personally planted by Pampalone. He also yanked the weeds and laid down the deer-resisting fertilizer (Milorganite), too. The only help he took was from people to mow the lawn and trim the trees, including that staggering silver beech that is likely the oldest in Greenfield Hill, a thick-armed colossus that reaches way out horizontally before climbing skyward.
Something happened the day he and Arlene took over the property. He stood in the West Garden and saw how he’d organize it all — two big spiraling juniper trees framing a phalanx of boxwood hedges. This towering topiary is the first thing you see today when you set foot there. The corkscrew spirals of the twenty-five-foot-high junipers were lovingly formed by Pampalone for more than twelve years to get into that whimsical shape.
“I saw the composition,” he says. Pampalone is proud of his creation, and he sweeps you through it with the quick-moving strides of a man who knows how to get things done now, yesterday. The garden is a pastoral beauty, with numerous benches and areas for deliberation. Its gardener-in-chief, however, is a genial, outgoing, well-tanned man who moves like someone who can pack an afternoon’s contemplation into a fourteen-second study period before briskly getting on to something else that needs attention.
In Pampalone’s garden, everything is structure. “I learned structure when I went on garden tours in Italy. We’ve also gone to see the gardens in Ireland, Belgium, France and Holland, and they’re magnificent, but it was in Italy that I learned structure.”
In part, structure means the habit of framing things in interesting ways. A stone bench, for instance, will have a framework of hedges around it to give it the look of an overstuffed chesterfield. It’s the sort of garden that keeps coming at you. There are myriad subtleties, but it’s definitely not of the Japanese tea-garden variety where delicate strands of perfect posies are arrayed like bejeweled sea anemone. Pampalone’s garden reflects his nonstop energy. At the same time, it is by no means a claustrophobic experience; there is negative space offsetting the treasure loads.
His philosophy: “Amassing hundreds or even thousands of plants in huge herbaceous borders does not make a garden. You need to have a plan.” In Ireland, garden television host Helen Dillon (also known as Ireland’s premier plantswoman) taught him the use of silver-leaved plants, such as artemisia “silver king” in the blue borders, to act as a connector. Touring Tuscan villas with acclaimed garden writer Penelope Hobhouse, he learned about the rhythms of garden architecture, about patterns of light and shade, about “verticality.”
With verticality you provide things to look at various eye-levels. “You don’t want people just looking down at the ground. You want them looking up. That’s why these tuteurs are important,” he says, pausing before the seven-foot-high bent-steel towers upon which climbing roses and clematis are intertwined and rising. Nearby are a couple of gray arbor obelisks of similar height, bursting with chandelier lupines.
Elsewhere you see arches and high hedges trimmed on top in a staircase effect. “Those are tiered hedges; I picked up that idea in Holland.” Then you come upon an iron bench with enough climbing hydrangea to look like Jupiter’s undersea throne. You walk on paths of red brick and although there are patterns to it all, it doesn’t have that merciless symmetry you see in English gardens. Well, he hasn’t toured England’s gardens yet. Give him time.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER
The heavily remodeled houses on the property do much to provide the garden’s storybook flair. To the rear of “Beanacre,” the 1890s main house, Fairfield architect Rick Swann added a conservatory. To the little ranch building that serves as an office for Pampalone and his wife, a stone front and a pergola were added. The big red barn was extensively redone by barn specialist Ed Cady; they rent it out. (The last two couples, he notes, happily conceived their first babies here and then moved out, all suggesting further evidence that this is a helluva place we have here.)
Heading out to the apple orchard in back, a unique garden-sculpture set is arranged on the grass like mysterious sentinels — seven hip-high balls made of rusty barbed wire. He found them in Texas.
In the back of the property is the Squatter’s Garden, surrounded by a wire fence. It had once been a vegetable garden, but it’s used now mostly to provide cut flowers for the house and other experiments in horticulture.
In summer, the rose garden next to the barn takes precedence. Again there is the fine hand of the structuralist seen in the circle-in-a-square walled area. Although it’s relatively compact, you need wide-screen vision to take it all in. When the roses are in full bloom, a brief stop here is like an hour’s rest in some hyperbaric chamber of saturated color.
The roses are arranged in four color sections that surround a rondel. Within that is a host of lamb’s ear, lady’s mantle and excelsior foxgloves. The centerpiece is a stone orb with water bubbling out of the top. And don’t look for gentle tea roses. “Here, in this weather? Forget tea roses. They don’t last. You have to go for the modern breeds that are coming out of England.”
Pampalone, whose only formal training in the horticulture arts was a one-day class at the New York Botanical Gardens, is consistently obsessive about learning. In the basement under the barn, he has tables and tables of new plants germinating under grow lights. “Here’s my little lab,” he says, pulling out a tray of sprouting poppies. “And here are some French pumpkins. I’m going to do a lot of pumpkins this year.”
He pulls out a ledger book that shows all the carefully maintained figures for the hundreds of seeds planted, which variety, where they went, the whole case history of a jillion flowers. You get the idea that the Chilton seed merchants in England really treasure the phone calls they get from Gerard Pampalone. Any ideal query is probably cause for popping champagne corks.
Out in the sunshine, Pampalone walks along the southern border. When the neighboring property was subdivided a few years ago, a driveway was added along that border. Pampalone’s remedy was a border of trees, but done in his cornucopic style so it’s not just a dull wall of green but a shape-shifting diorama of inkberry holly, magnolias, scotch pines and other things to give it all what he calls texture. “You need textures in a garden to really make it work. The viburnum offsets the hardness of the trees. Different textures, different thoughts.”
Standing by the abundant river of tulips and daffodils, trying to absorb the multiple planes of colors and silhouettes and tangled green and white and grayish purple and chrome yellow, you can see texture, all right.
Having shown off his three gardens, Pampalone smiles and says that there is also a fourth to be found here. “My feeling is that you can make a winter garden. Really. Why not create something that looks wonderful in the winter?” He gestures expansively toward the West Garden which will be given another design for winter wear — a separate structure, if you will — and then he stops. “But that’s another story.”