Flight of Fancy

A gorgeous garden oasis that’s literally for the birds

photograph by Hulya Kolabas

A long, winding road curves into another that looks like a secret passageway. They lead to the front stone terrace, which is marked by a pair of Italian urns filled with purple-hued petunias and verbena. There, by the dwarf crabapple trees, is Perry Johnston pruning plants, gently placing their faded blooms into a bright blue plastic bucket as if they were priceless diamonds.

Perry is a tall and lithe blonde whose casual-chic leather flip-flops, white T-shirt and khaki cargo pants are in perfect sync with the naturalistic 2.25-acre landscape. “I let nature rule the roost,” she says, running her fingers through the lupine, scattering the seeds so they plant themselves. “The garden is very simple, it’s nothing fancy.”

When Perry and her husband, composer Jim Johnston, bought the property a decade ago, there was no garden to speak of. Many of the mature plants, which included a pair of dogwood trees and some azaleas and rhododendrons, bear-hugged the two-story 1952 home, which they have transformed into a country-style farmhouse with a cedar-shingle roof. “We opened things up outside by moving plants, and inside by adding windows, so we can see the garden all year round,” she says. “And we painted the interior rooms in greens to create one continuous visual landscape.”

Come One, Come All

Perry’s garden is designed not only for people but also for birds, bees, butterflies and the other wild things that plant themselves here. While Perry’s tending the garden, the gurgling of a small fountain plays background music for the sweet songs of birds. Feeders are focal points of many of the spaces, and there are little houses everywhere to coax the feathered ones to stay and nest.

She walks past the New Dawn and Eden roses that form a soft baby-pink cloud on the wooden trellis climbing the garage and inhales the heady perfume of the southern magnolia’s snowy white blossoms, which are the size of dinner plates.

For the yellow finches, she planted the echinacea and anise hyssop, an easy-to-grow herb that also keeps the honeybees abuzz.  She’s perfectly content to let the birds eat all the fruit of the eight-foot-high blueberry bush out back. “There have been times when the anise hyssop is so loaded with finches eating its seeds that some of the boughs bend upside down, and the birds look like ornaments on a Christmas tree,” she says. “We put a net over the blueberry bush, which is one of the most treasured plants on our property, but they still sneaked in and got caught in it, so we just let them have it.” Even the man-made feeders draw flocks. Two rain chains, which look like strings of budding flowers, serve as waiting stations during peak feather-ruffling traffic jams.

Perry leads the way down the garden path, carefully stepping over the petite pink flowers of the portulaca that are peeking out of the fieldstones. At the end, she presents the woodland garden, which is ringed by white azaleas.

The large, green space serves as the family room of the garden. It is here that Poppy, a black lab, and Lily, a lab/hound puppy, take dips in their plastic kiddie pool. Poppy isn’t much of a gardener, but Lily has been far too diligent in her digging duties.

Jim, for his part, has been trying to coax bluebirds to nest. The species likes to settle in communities, so virtually every tree here has a homemade house set at exactly the right height to entice them to stay.

The woodland garden opens to what Perry affectionately calls the greenhouse. Really, she says, it’s more like a shed. Like the other structures in the garden, Jim designed and built it. In the winter, it holds tropical plants like the elephant ears that Perry replants close to the kitchen window in the summer so she can see their faces.

Growing a Family

“What makes the garden interesting is that we’re not starting from scratch every season,” she says. “These greenhouse plants—the gardenia, the jasmine, lemons, limes, oranges and bougainvillea—are reintroduced each year like old friends.”

Specimen plants, including the three-foot-high umbrella pine by the garage roses, also add interest. “I buy them when they’re small and watch them grow,” she says. “It’s like adopting children.”

The vegetable garden, where herbs and lettuces, tomatoes, asparagus, sweet potatoes and avocado trees grow, is meant to attract the bugs and birds. While Perry inspects the produce, a yellow finch, gleaming in the golden light of the sun, perches on the fence. Within seconds, it’s joined by another of more muted hues. “It could be the mate,” Perry says, her blue eyes shining in excitement, “or perhaps it’s a baby.”

Perry and Jim love to host dinner parties—Perry adds herbs from the garden in her home-cooked dishes—and their main entertainment space is the terrace, complete with fieldstone fireplace, off the back of the house. “We use the fireplace ten months out of the year,” she says. “We recently added the strings of little electric lanterns; we had seen something similar at a restaurant when we were on vacation in Anguilla.”

Perry sits down on the front terrace, where a fancy silver tray holds a plate of blueberry muffins and scones. The iced tea, which she serves in glasses decorated with painted butterflies and flowers, is flavored with fresh pineapple mint and spearmint from the garden.

Perry spends almost every hour of every day in the garden with Poppy and Lily; when the dogs hear her rev the John Deere engine, they jump in for the ride through the woods. Jim wishes he had more time off from work to join them, but he settles for building the garden’s structures and watching the hummingbirds that gather at the bright-red feeder outside his office window.

An inviting hammock is tied between two trees, but Perry doesn’t get to use it much. “When I do and I look up, I can see the big orange and chartreuse flowers of the towering tulip trees,” she says.

Her love of gardening stems from her childhood. Although she was raised in Greenwich and always has lived here, her family had a second home in Vermont. “We were there all the time,” she says. “We always had outdoor tasks to do. I painted picket fences and deadheaded flowers. One season, my dad sent away for 100 evergreen saplings from the forest service. We thought it was crazy, but we planted them all. We didn’t think they would survive, but they’ve grown into a forest.”

Whatever time of the year, Perry’s garden is stunning in its complex simplicity. In the fall, the fun colors of summer give way to the vibrant ruby leaves of the blueberry bush and the orange/yellow/reds of the sugar maples that Perry says glow so much it looks as though someone has turned on a light. And in winter’s snow, the old crabapple tree and some of the other trees are illuminated by thousands of tiny, fairy-like white lights.

Perry tried to choose plants that are not only easy to care for, but also look carefree. Variety is introduced in her container gardens, which distinguish themselves with unconventional plantings. Last year, for example, she made a pineapple plant the focus point in some of her urns. “It had an incredible pink and silver glow,” she says.

Even after a decade, the garden continues to evolve. The stunning stand of twelve-foot-high English hornbeam in the front yard was recently added, and Perry and Jim are planning to build a recording studio on the property soon.

Perry unfurls a piece of rolled-up newspaper, revealing a variety of dried seed pods she just brought back from Vermont. These will be the beginning of her backyard meadow, a narrow strip framed by a rustic split-rail fence. “There’s always something great going on in the garden,” she says.

A small orange and black butterfly dances toward the bright pink Mandevilla. As Perry watches its flight, she smiles.


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