Small Wonder

Wander from one “room” to another in this old-fashioned Lucas Point garden and you’ll realize that good things do indeed come in small packages



A wisteria-covered archway frames the end of the perennial garden, modeled on a casual English-cottage style.

Photographs by Stacy Bass

Walking up the white-pebble drive, Jane Valenstein pauses at the ancient crabapple tree. Its pinky-white blossoms form a flowery umbrella over the front yard, which is ringed by towering evergreens. She doesn’t know how old the tree with the many twisted trunks is, but chances are it’s been here almost as long as Old Greenwich’s Lucas Point neighborhood.

That would put it past the century mark, because Edwin J. Lucas, the developer, built the shingle-style summer cottage Jane shares with her husband, John, for his family in 1901. She doesn’t know whether a garden graced the land in the early years, but she did find out that the second owners, the Shippen family, planted three perennial beds after they moved here in 1951.

 “Natalie Brooks Sears Shippen was an avid gardener,” she says. “She had the beds triple dug—she went down three feet as if she were building an in-ground wading pool and mixed the dirt with compost and manure. I’m still enjoying the benefit, and I’ve learned that the secret of great gardening is good dirt. I do as much natural gardening as possible; I don’t use chemicals.”

Jane, a blue-eyed blonde who looks like Doris Day and has a smile as bright as the pink and white tulips on her Lilly Pulitzer slacks, started her garden in 2000, more than a decade after her marriage to John and nearly two decades after he bought the property. She is an interior designer and sees her half-acre garden as a series of blooming rooms that flow and flower into each other. Each is unique, but taken together, they form a pleasant, visually appealing meeting place for plants and people. This oasis was one of the splendid gardens featured last spring on the Garden Education Center’s annual tour.

As she’s speaking, her “assistant gardeners” —two-year-old Coco, a Tibetan terrier, and ten-month-old Fritzgerald’s Wills of Bantry Bay, a bearded collie who answers to Willie—arrive ready to dig in the dirt.   

An Evolving Space

We used to have beautiful views of Greenwich Cove and Long Island Sound,” she says, flipping through a Tiffany-blue spiral binder filled with photos that document the growth of her garden. “When the neighbors built bigger and taller houses, I started to feel we were living in a fishbowl, so I began planting evergreens to regain privacy.”

Jane Valenstein
An arch covered with white climbing roses leads the way to the pool. This part of the garden is edged with catmint.

Although gardens and gardeners grew in her family like wildflowers—her mother’s hobbies included landscape and floral design—and she had created gardens for clients, Jane had never had one of her own. A member of the Green Fingers Garden Club in Greenwich, she’s a hands-on gardener; she spends hours each day weeding, pruning, deadheading, planting and rearranging the plants.

With Willie jumping at her apple-green Crocs sandals and Coco walking demurely behind, Jane heads toward the pool room, where the blues, purples and whites of various varieties of hydrangeas, one of her favorite flowering shrubs, accent the water of the lap pool. The underplantings include hostas from her mother.

Jane feeds the birds, who have turned her property into an aviary oasis. Over the garage, there are two nests. “The same robin built both of them,” she says. “She put one egg in one and two in the other. We have no idea why.”

She opens a white-picket gate to reveal the simple wooden workbench John made for her. Right next to it, on a wire stand the size of a dresser, is what she calls her nursery. The new arrivals include clippings from an unusual wisteria vine she wants to give to fellow members of the Garden Education Center of Greenwich. “I collect the seeds from the silver maples as they fall,” she says. “I’ve grown eight trees in the neighborhood, and people jokingly call me the Lucas Point Arborist.”

On the other side of the pool, shading a statue of a cherub holding a seashell, are a pair of petite French lilacs with lavender flowers. “They are late bloomers,” Jane says as she rubs her fingers across their leaves. “You can smell them everywhere you sit.”

Off the beaten path and under the American holly that Jane says may have been planted by the Lucas family, is a path that delights in not going anywhere. “I like little surprises like this,” she says.


The side of the garage wall next to the hydrangeas “Blue Wave,” “Limelight” and Nikko Blue” is festooned with the white climbing rosa rugosa “Alba.”     

When she emerges, she all but dances over to the pale purple-pink Ayesha, which she declares is her favorite hydrangea. “Feel the flowers,” she says. “They are rubbery almost like a succulent, and the leaves are waxy.”

An arbor of climbing white roses announces the entrance to the perennial room. These are the three beds Mrs. Shippen planted with iris, white peonies and Nikko Blue hydrangeas in the middle of the last century. Jane has added some of her own favorites, including deep orange daylilies, purple Globemaster and white Mt. Everest allium, Alba foxglove and Endless Summer Blushing Bride, whose white blooms turn to pink.

From One Room to Another

“With each growing period, I have things of interest,” she says. “The color scheme is a little of everything. I love pink, white and lavender. In fact, I love color so much that I’m guilty of having too much going on.”

In the middle of the central bed, encased in English and Winter Gem boxwood, is a vintage stone-carved statue of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals like Coco and Willie. It faces the side porch, where a pair of wicker rockers, in forest green to match the house’s shutters, provide a perfect view of the plantings.

Willie follows Jane into the circular hydrangea room, whose entrance is marked by an arbor of lavender Plena wisteria. When she turns on the hose, he jumps in the air like a bunny rabbit and bites at the spray. “He has his own ideas about gardening,” she laughs. “He has created whole new pathways on the property. In the battle of Willie versus the plants, Willie always wins.”

When it comes to water, Willie is a fraidy cat, so he stays put when Jane goes to the circular pond, whose backdrop is ringed by blue spruce, Spring Grove and Golden Thread arborvitae and American holly. A small waterfall stirs the carp and koi, who swim through a green sea of cattails, floating lilies and water hyacinth.

“My mother loved Japanese flower arranging and contemporary design,” she says. “And she initiated my love of that kind of design, so I’m developing an Asian design area around the pond.” There’s one garden room Willie is not allowed to enter. By the side entrance near the street there’s a small patch of vegetables, where tomatoes, lettuce and herbs thrive far from his playful paws.Jane Valenstein

The Valensteins spend a lot of time in their garden rooms; they often host outdoor dinner parties. “During the summer, we eat dinner on the front porch every night,” she says. “There’s always a lovely breeze.”

Jane says that half of the fun of gardening is learning more about the plants. In the future, she’s going to focus on more unusual varieties like the Harry Lauder walking stick, a slow-growing shrub with perpetually wilted leaves, which she recently bought.

“I love the time I spend out here,” says Valenstein, Willie and Coco looking up at her for their next marching orders. “It’s very spiritual to look at the design of each flower, to see the rosebuds forming, to smell the scents of the blooms.

Jane and her assistant gardener, Willie, who excels at digging

 

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