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The Accidental Gardener

Agop Chalekian has never let the impossible deter him from his dreams — his garden is testament to that



Stacy Bass

While I sat chatting with Agop Chalekian one day last summer, I couldn’t help but think of the old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” In this case, the old saw aptly describes the path to the heart of this businessman, painter, sensualist and gardener. The word gardener might surprise my host.

“I had no interest in gardening,” Agop says of the time when he and his wife Nafsika moved to their home in midcountry Greenwich in 1969. It was she, an artist, talented needlewoman and designer, who wanted to work with plants. But the promise of having impossible-to-find fruit growing just beyond his windowpane lured Agop to try his hand outdoors.

As we chatted about those early days, Nafsika brought out sweet Turkish coffee and rugalach to a table where we sat under a canopy beside the swimming pool. Pots of rosemary, fuchsia, jasmine and a flowering bonsai rested on a stone wall near us on the fringe of the shade. Nafsika agreed that the seductive appeal of figs, lemons, grapes and even olives called to her husband to till and coax the soil of their one-and-a-half-acre site. The fruits are still stars in this garden’s show, but Agop’s interest in agriculture (he also has a small vegetable garden given over primarily to prized tomatoes that he grows from seeds) quickly turned to horticulture. It’s a natural avocation for a man who retired from work in middle age so he could devote his time to painting — he is self-taught — and now has been putting oil to canvas longer than he put pen to paper to tally figures. He has also been making outdoor art with Nafsika for nearly forty years. Food, art and the Mediterranean region of the world — a special place for theChalekians, Nafsika is from Greece — influence Agop’s artwork and inspired the landscape’s design. This place near the eastern shore of southern Connecticut feels as if it were on the coast of Greece: Topiary arborvitaes stand in for  cypress trees, and white stucco walls surround the swimming pool where pots of dwarf citrus bask in the reflected sunlight.

On the outside wall of the pool are fruits of a more temperate climate: espaliered pear and apple trees that blanket the background with a blur of pink and white blossoms every spring. But perhaps the plants that are most reminiscent of the couple’s favorite place are two mature trees that produce dozens of figs every autumn, which I can pledge would be the envy of any sold at Whole Foods Market.

The Chalekians’ garden is not carefree. Each winter, the citrus plants are wheeled into a greenhouse off the back of the garage, and the fig trees get bound in protective cocoons to help them survive the elements. It takes three men a day and a half to prepare the fig trees for winter. In October the twenty-foot trees are trussed and wrapped with house insulation, then covered with plastic.

“I created monsters,” Agop likes to joke, “and now they are killing me.” In years past, when the trees were young, he would dig down to the roots on one side, bend the trees into a trench on the other side and cover them with soil. “They are like rubber bands,” Agop says as he demonstrated by arching a flexible limb with no apparent damage.

We continued trading horticultural tips as we waited for the garden’s third contributor, Tony Kalaj, who came to the garden as a teenager and now runs Kalaj Landscaping — known for meticulous maintenance and for evergreens clipped into sculptural hedges. It is Tony who prunes the tall, plump arborvitae into carrot shapes to mimic cypress in a climate where the actual Mediterranean trees would not survive. He also shapes the yews in front of the house and a little-leaf linden tree that has been made into a giant topiary — a cube floating nearly twenty feet in the air. He explained that in an act of derring-do, he actually climbs up inside and through the top of the tree to prune it from above. Many of the casual visitors on the garden tour [sponsored by the Garden Education Center] that took them to Agop’s property last year may not have been aware of what goes on behind the scenes; they seemed more interested in the voluptuous climbing roses that bloom over a tunnel of steel arches — Agop has long forgotten the name of the rose. But here, too, the care is considerable.

For example, in autumn, Tony detaches the rose canes from their support, lays them on the ground and mulches them with nearly a foot of hay for the winter. The roses may not need such arduous treatment, especially in the age of global warming, but Tony explains, “This is the way my boss did it, and I still do.” The “lawn boy” eventually purchased his landscaping business from its former owner.

The effects of climate change are real and already evident in the Chalekians’ garden where a crape myrtle, doubtfully cold-hardy in Connecticut, has been blooming its head off for several years with no winter protection. Yet it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to the roses that smother their arbor with pink blossoms in late May and June; and certainly, the fig trees could not make it through our Connecticut winters.

Doing a climactic double take is normal in this place, as I realized when a honey-sweet perfume drifted across the patio. The fragrance comes from citrus blossoms on over a dozen pot-grown trees. Most of the plants are the variety Meyer lemon, an aromatic, thin-skinned orange/lemon hybrid that is barely tart. The Meyer lemons bear nearly year-round.

“I have one every day,” Agop says, beaming. Some of those trees, along with a specimen of a Ponderosa, or American Wonder lemon with fruits as large as ostrich eggs, move to the greenhouse for the winter. Others go to a former porch the Chalekians glassed in when they opened up a wall in the living room to afford a view to the garden.

Every wall, it seems, that does not display seascapes, floral still lifes and religious icons by Agop, has windows and sliding glass doors. [A collection of his works is on exhibit at the GEC this month. See calendar for listing.] The couple’s desire is to bring the outdoors in — two bougainvillea plants spiral out of control up the walls and across the ceiling in the breakfast nook — and the indoors out. They enjoy dining on one of their two terraces whenever the weather permits — very much the way people live along the Mediterranean coast.

I left Agop, Nafsika and Tony talking and laughing as they sipped their coffee beneath the poolside canopy, which I might just as easily imagine as the spreading branches of a gnarled old olive tree. I could call these three collaborators artists, but as Nafsika joked, “Oh, we’re just family now.”    

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