On a High Note
Color, texture and architecture play in perfect harmony in this expansive and historic garde
Jane Dunn, elegantly earthy in a crisp white linen shirt, Tiffany-blue shorts polka-dotted with dirt, and forest-green Muck clogs, is standing at attention in the circular drive.
She’s listening to the garden rooms on her five-and-a-half-acre property. The three-tier fountain, which looks like a wedding cake, provides a deep-throated backbeat for the highly colored notes of the hydrangeas, azaleas and peonies. Their sassy brassiness is shaded by the subtle notes of the wisteria, which has clasped a lavender necklace on the back of the house, and the doily-delicate leaves of the mimosa and locust trees.
“A proper garden is like a symphony,” Jane says. “Each flower contributes, comes and goes, and new flowers take its place. Sometimes, a plant’s sole purpose is to provide a contrast for a more showy flower. No one flower can carry the whole garden. In fact, each plant goes through much work and transition before it displays its full glory. Some flowers never need much attention. We seem to covet the ones that require more of our energy. But I’ve come to be thankful for the plants that simply reseed on their own.”
Tuck, Jane’s three-year-old standard poodle, adds his own tempo to the symphony as he trots by, his sharp nails click-clacking on the granite stones.
Jane was conducting gardens long before she and her husband, Vaughn, and their two now-college-aged children, Reed and Caroline, moved into the Georgian red brick house six years ago. An award-winning member of the Greenwich Garden Club, Jane’s seldom seen sans scissors and green watering can.
“Being a constant gardener, I’m always on the move overseeing the landscape of color,” she says. “I love to keep moving through the garden, and I look forward to enjoying how the sunlight reflects the radiance of all the plants. It was my mother who instilled my appreciation for gardening. In the summer, she used to go out at night with a flashlight to see her plants. I do the same thing.”
There’s much to keep Jane’s scissors —and her crew of gardeners—busy. The early-twentieth-century house, which has a 1939 wing, is on the site of a dairy farmhouse that was built in the late 1800s. Back then, it presided over 100 acres. Today, the property includes a guesthouse, a three-bay garage and a Roaring Twenties clapboard pool house with leaded-glass windows that Jane’s children have always called the Prancing Pony.
There’s also a greenhouse, a tennis court, a solarium, a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, a pair of invisible-edge water features, a waterfall where black lion heads spit out streams of water and a whimsical wrought-iron pavilion with a filigreed dome.
The Grand Grounds
The beauty begins at what Jane calls the hospital, a small glass house where the exotics, including the potted hibiscus trees and Robellini palms, are stored in the winter and where ailing plants are sent for R&R. Jane’s thrilled because planted in the corner of the urn that has placed her eight-year-old agave on a pedestal, there’s a bird’s nest. She peeks inside; the chicks—she thinks they are nuthatches—are waiting, peepless, for their mommy to fly back with breakfast.
“Each room of my garden is small and human-scale,” she notes.
Down the grassy hill, there’s her organic vegetable garden, which was inspired by Keswick Hall at Monticello in Virginia, and a pair of beehives. The children next door planted the pole beans. Jane snaps off a snow pea; it’s a sweet snack on a heat-soaked morning. The produce—cucumbers, kale, Brussels sprouts, turnips and tomatoes—will turn up on her dinner table and those of grateful friends.
The budding orchard—seven apple trees, two cherries, one ancient quince and a pair of peaches—was planted in conjunction with the Garden Club of America’s Centennial Tree Project. Jane, along with members of the Greenwich Garden Club, did research for the sake of history and chose two of Thomas Jefferson’s favorite apples, Albemarle Pippin and Esopus Spitzenburg, from his estate, Monticello, for her garden and also planted five of these young “whips” in the historic George Bent Apple Orchard at Audubon-Greenwich.
This season, the Greenwich Garden Club celebrates its own centennial, and Jane, as cochair of the horticultural committee, helped develop wildflower projects at the Audubon, the Garden Education Center and the Armstrong Court community garden.
“She has been an inspiration to our members,” says Karen Marache, president of the Greenwich Garden Club, the town’s oldest garden club. “She has great energy and enthusiasm, and she’s always encouraging people to grow new things.”
The evidence of Jane’s ardor lies in her own garden, Karen says, adding that it is, indeed, “magical; everywhere you look, you see something beautiful.”
And it is so. Jane chose a palette of pinks to make the home’s red bricks blush and added blue and purple accents throughout.
The red-brick East Terrace, where the family dines, is hemmed in by heady hydrangeas in hues from pinks to periwinkle, as well as a perennial border of lady’s mantle, lupines, salvias, dahlias and digitalis. It leads to the pool, where the blues and purples continue with plumbago, nepeta, lavender and clematis, which are accented with lush roses and lilies. The pavilion, the pool’s jewel, is covered by a lacy cloak of pink and white mandevilla. Potted gardenias perfume the air.
A fancy wrought-iron gate and pink granite steps lead to a waterfall that’s splashing serenely. It opens to a manicured croquet lawn that is bounded on the outermost edge by a magnificent hornbeam hedge that’s high enough to ensure privacy yet low enough to show off the eastern ridge of the sky.
When Jane looks at the lacy leaves of the mimosa beyond the lawn, she’s reminded of her friend from North Carolina. “Her mother used to tell her to be home before the mimosa leaves closed up, as they do habitually every evening around 7 o’clock,” Jane says. “I gave her a rooted cutting of mine.”
On the grounds below the master bedroom, there’s a cutting garden. “I have fresh flowers on the table every evening,” she says.
As Jane strolls toward the walled-in brick kitchen garden that’s surrounded by espaliered Southern magnolias, she passes three trees—two lilacs and a hydrangea. “They came from my previous house,” she says. “They are like friends—I had to take them with me.”
Chives, strawberries, rosemary, thyme, oregano, they’re all there. She uses the mint to infuse flavor into her homemade iced tea.
The adjoining room, Charlie’s Garden, is named for the family’s previous poodle; this was his favorite play spot, one that Tuck has taken over, filling it with empty plastic planter pots he’s fetched. A bronze plaque in the grass commemorates Charlie, the constant companion. The space’s walls are lined with espaliered pear trees, and in the spring, the pink-sherbet tulips unfurl like automatic umbrellas.
Jane begins and ends each day in the garden, Tuck at her side. “He’s a natural pruner,” she says, adding that he’s never destroyed a single bud. “There was an elephant’s ear that was looking ragged, and he chewed it a bit but not too much, making it perfect.”
Sometimes, when she looks at her garden, Jane thinks about what the land must have been like centuries ago.
“I have so much respect for our ancestors, and pioneer women in particular, who relied on their gardens for so much,” she says. “They had to feed their whole household, plus their animals, with what they grew in their gardens. We are just so fortunate that our gardens can be a hobby and an act of love and not of necessity.”
Jane likes the idea of handing plants down through the generations. She’s eager for her mother to give her a cutting from a sweetheart rose bush that’s been growing in the family for a century. Someday, she’ll pass the bough to her daughter.
That, she says, is the true beauty of gardening —sharing.
“Gardening teaches me humility on so many levels and brings me great joy and peace,” she says. “It is a gift from the hand of God and not our own creation.”