Beauty by the Sea
Once totally destroyed by a nor'easter. Christopher Thurlow's rejuvenated garden represents friendship and hope
The seawall border consists of Fairy Roses, Speedwell and lamb’s ears. The yellow plants are daylilies.
Photographs by Hulya Kolobas
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As Christopher Thurlow walks me through her garden on a warm June afternoon, it feels more like the tour of a house. She strides briskly along, snapping off the tip of an overgrown plant, naming each “room” along the way, then describing the purpose it serves. Behind her stretches Long Island Sound, bringing beauty — and plenty of salt spray — to her garden. A native Virginian, Chris learned the art of seaside gardening at her home in Old Greenwich, where she and her husband, Steve, a former NFL football player, raised their two children.
Her garden has many stories to tell, beginning with its rebirth. When a violent nor’easter ripped through the Connecticut coastline on December 11, 1992, five-foot waves crashed into the house and started a flood that reached to the windows. They evacuated that night and lived, for more than a year, in the homes of friends who were away. When they moved back in, the house, which had been raised four feet on their three-quarters of an acre, was sound, but Chris was still heartbroken. The garden was gone.
“I was left with nothing,” she told her friend Nancy Altznauer one morning, as she gazed out at the barren land. Though she cleaned bricks from the old chimney and carefully laid them to create a new patio and terraced wall, the garden was empty. A master gardener with a degree in horticulture, Chris was the local gardening expert who always advised neighbors, giving away beautiful plants along with her advice.
Her wise friend Nancy, along with neighbor Sarah Vorder-Bruegge, came up with a plan. They arrived one week later with forty friends in tow, each bearing two plants: one from her own garden — a plant transferred from Chris’s garden years ago — and one new specimen. That afternoon, the women planted up a storm, and the memory garden, centered by an ornamental plum tree, was created. It became a spiritual place for Chris, an area where the lineage of her former garden could continue.
“To me, it’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened,” says Chris. “It marks the rebirth of my garden, and also the rebirth of my soul. It gave me the impetus to build again.” Alongside every iris and daylily is a metal garden marker that bears the name of the friend who gave it. “I still remember their faces the day they gave me those plants fourteen years ago,” she says. Even though some neighbors have passed away or moved, their plants keep growing, a constant reminder of their friendship.
Continuing her tradition of giving, Chris maintains a community garden near the entrance of her house, a place where neighbors are welcome to arrive at any time, dig up plants and take them home. She constantly replenishes it by thinning out her overgrown plants and transferring them over to be shared. Today, many who visit the community garden are children of the friends who started the memory garden.
Chris relishes the opportunity to launch someone on the path of gardening. Like an old-fashioned doctor, she even makes house calls, diagnosing problems and bringing plants that will thrive in that particular place. “This year I’ve already been to six of my daughter’s friends’ homes,” she says. “It’s a wonderful gift of joy to give.”
And when her daughter or son visits, there is a special place for the grandchildren: the children’s garden. With six grandchildren under age five who live nearby, Chris (who the kids call Gandy) has frequent pint-sized visitors. They run first to the green bunnies that she sculpted out of boxwood at the garden’s entrance. A short path leads them to a bench where stone rabbits await. Behind the bench lies a secret pathway lined with rosebushes, blue hydrangea and two six-foot hibiscus standards — bushes trained to look like small trees — where the children can hide. White trellised arbors frame the garden and a delicate border of lamb’s ears trails along the front.