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A Gentleman's Garden with Soul

Ken Druse

What is a garden, and what is a gardener? There are nearly as many answers as there are plants.

Both questions involve being in the company of living green things and cultivating the soil. However, regardless of the scale — acres or inches — a good garden has another quality. I think of it as the evidence of a guiding hand — art, intellect and what one might think of as the soul of a garden.

Soul might seem an odd word to associate with an eight-acre estate in Greenwich. But besides massive rock outcroppings towering above a natural stream, the additions of world-class sculpture, a Chinese pavilion and a secret grotto, at the heart of this property is a gardener: Fred Landman.

“I go out every day, and it is a whole new experience,” says Landman. “Layer upon layer, things are coming up, leafing out, blooming, from the spring snowdrops to the toad lilies in fall.” When asked what he does for a living, he answers, “I’m making a garden.”

Landman was fortunate to retire at a young age, selling his international satellite communications company in the midnineties. At about the same time, he bought a house on a ridge in the backcountry of Greenwich. He began restoring and ultimately expanding the home he shares with his wife Seen Lippert, a California chef formerly of Chez Panisse, and his collection of French Impressionists. When the house, which was originally built between 1937 and 1942, was settling into its reincarnation, Landman felt that it, like his paintings, needed the perfect frame. “People build a beautiful house, and then they have the contractors put in foundation plantings and a couple of trees and nothing to embrace it,” he says. “I wanted to make the grounds the house could be proud of.”

He started with a swimming pool and pool house but soon realized that his ideal landscape would need to be dramatic and for that he would need a master. He had seen some work in the area by Charles J. Stick, a landscape architect based in Charlottesville, and the men met and discussed possibilities. The art collector became a patron, student, colleague and collaborator.

The first place to merit attention was the fringe around the house: areas surrounding the swimming pool, outside the kitchen door and directly behind the house. The kitchen got a formal herb garden for easy picking, and behind the house, Stick designed a stone-paved terrace featuring a work of art sculpted in a living medium. It is a formal boxwood parterre. Although the English boxwood clipped into a paisley pattern appear to be the traditional variety called Buxus sempervirens 'Suffruticosa', which has been suffering from decline in recent years, they are in fact the disease-resistant 'Green Gem'.

Beyond the parterre garden, a straight paved walk runs east to west, from the swimming pool to a small private spot surrounded by hedges, dividing the formal and the less formal garden rooms. Within the hedges is a round pool with slate coping and more 'Green Gem' edging with a charming carved marble fountain depicting boys astride a dolphin, one blowing on a conch shell. There is a white bench on which to sit and contemplate the solitude — all beneath an exquisite mature Styrax japonica tree with tiny white bell flowers that will be followed by little dangling egglike green fruits in early fall. “We wanted formality close to the house,” says Stick, “and then the formality starts to disappear.”

After the petit secret garden, topography takes over and no longer is there a flat space for clipped box. Neither Stick nor Landman had an interest in changing the grade by leveling the contour of the property. Instead, they took advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the remarkable site, the swells and swales of lawn, the old trees and some surprises.

South of the house, a huge decorative urn has handles fashioned as if they were figureheads on a ship, mermaids leaning back against the bronze jar. The ornament anchors the view. “My general impression was that this was a very typical New England glaciated landscape,” says Stick. On approaching the urn, you glimpse what lies beyond: the exposed granite of the rock outcroppings and a stepped path leading down into the depths of the garden.

Linking the disparate areas of the flat formal places by the house and the dramatically steep, wildlike edges of the landscape was a major design element, one that Stick has encountered and managed before. “My challenge was to make places and connect them all with the pathway that goes through the gardens,” he explains. Remnants of old deer paths became parts of the current trail that meanders through the landscape. This is the “Golden Path” (named in homage to designer Russell Page and the path he created atthe PepsiCo Sculpture Garden in Purchase). A counterclockwise amble beginning at the small garden beneath the Styrax takes visitors to the western boundary of the property and further along to a pool. Here water lilies are cooled by a man-made stream with recirculating water that originates from one of the garden’s more arresting features — the rock grotto built into the hillside. In early spring, the grotto garden bursts into bloom with hundreds of daffodils — some of the 250,000 bulbs planted by Landman. The next feature along the path is a symbolic rivulet of Hosta sieboldiana 'Elegans'. The path then turns into an elevated boardwalk through the woods and leads to a wet meadow thick with iris.

Coming out of the woods, the garden opens to the sky, lawn takes the place of woodland understory, and there, in the clearing, is an island in a pond, and on the island a red Chinese pavilion. “It’s like a pagoda,” says Landman about the structure inspired by a trip to China. Since it is not a place to pray but to view and enjoy the garden, he uses the correct name: ting. The ceiling of the ting is covered in gold leaf to bathe everything below in a warm glow.

The next stop is an orchard of dwarf fruit trees, and then a choice — to walk through the wisteria-covered pergola back up to the swimming pool or climb the stairs that lead to a patio with a romantic statue of the goddess Diana. She isn’t overseeing a hunt but overlooking a pea-gravel plane with a boccie court that could have been lifted right out of a Parisian carte de visite complete with a metal table and park chairs on which to sit between turns and sip licorice-flavored pastis, an aperitif served with water over ice.

Fred Landman probably dreams of sitting more often than he actually has an opportunity to do. If he is not enjoying walks through the garden, he is working in it. “And then Charles shows up in his bow tie,” followed by two pickup trucks with plants, he says. “This is a garden he really enjoys working on.”

Stick agrees. “I have a few people that I’ve worked with for an extended period of time; if you have one of those in a lifetime, you are very, very fortunate; and few are as involved as Fred is to make something beautiful or care as much.”

When the men are not planting or planning, they are often traveling to other gardens, looking for inspiration. “It is a great thing to work with somebody who makes an effort to see gardens,” says Stick. That exchange of ideas is enhanced by the fact that Landman also makes an effort to seek out the historic precedents for Stick’s designs.

Fred Landman is indeed a gardener, whether his hands are in the dirt or he is directing machines and men who help move earth and put in plants. He has other qualities that are shared by all gardeners; for example, his loathing of what he calls the “axis of evil: ground hogs, chipmunks and deer.” He also shares the gardener’s attribute for having little desire to get the job done; that is not the point. The thrill is in the doing, gaining satisfaction with the results along the way, anticipating the return of the bulb flowers and responding to a need to learn and grow in his passion.

“That is at the heart of our work,” Stick explains, “our collaboration.” Looking for the next new idea with open minds and hearts. One could say that besides soul, a good garden has art, and if you are very lucky, a mentor to guide the way. But Stick adds that the men have learned from each other, and continue to. And he adds one more thought about this “phenomenal relationship.” He says, “Fred is a great friend.”