The art of making garden rooms

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The art of making garden rooms
In a photo provided by Brian Reyes, a portion of an evergreen azalea wall at Sakonnet Garden, in Little Compton, R.I., on May 28, 2022. Brian Reyes via The New York Times.

by Margaret Roach

NEW YORK, NY.- It’s the key question in making any garden: How do you get all the plants you can’t resist and the ideas insistently flooding your imagination to coalesce on common ground?

The makers of Sakonnet Garden, a private landscape in coastal Rhode Island that welcomes the public by reservation three days a week in season, have been puzzling over that for decades — one boardwalk, hedge or unusual plant at a time.

John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli’s points of creative reference are wide-ranging. The defined rooms of traditional English gardens are an influence in the Little Compton garden. So is the color-field theory of pioneering modernist artist Josef Albers, whose bold squares of pigment were intensified in the context of carefully chosen adjacent ones.

Memories of business travels to the Amazon are also part of Sakonnet. And those of domestic travel are, too — specifically, Gwynne and Folcarelli’s four- to six-hour car trips back to New York City every weekend during the 30-odd years they were part-time residents at Sakonnet, where they now live full time.

Before that, Gwynne knew the land as his family’s second home. Happy memories included working alongside his sister to bushwhack out planting spaces from the dark thicket of invasive autumn olive, multiflora rose and Oriental bittersweet, connecting those spaces with narrow tunnels hacked from the underbrush.

Such crude, connected openings were the earliest hint at what Sakonnet would become.

The garden now has 15 distinct rooms, affectionately given names such as Punchbowl, a space with an ombre effect, thanks to gradations of rhododendron colors from cerise to pink to white. Pinkie, within a grove of incense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens), is also about the color, and about verticality: 12-foot poles are painted to match the clematis that climbs them.

But Fernie, a small, green space hidden in the middle of the garden, is Folcarelli’s favorite: There, trunks of dead autumn olives are wrapped in chicken wire to support Euonymus vines, creating sinuous, snakelike forms overhead.

Throughout the garden, living walls and those made of stone and logs create spaces for acts of horticultural theater, allowing for a sense of hide-and-reveal instead of overwhelming you as you move through the landscape.

“Because we have too many plants, separators between the rooms try to create some sense of calm and focus,” Gwynne said. “Otherwise, you see everything all at once.”

Small plates, served one at a time, instead of the exhaustion of an all-you-can-absorb buffet.

The 200-Mile Debriefs

The garden rooms, though, do more than just measure out delight. Their walls allow for what the men call “microclimate manipulation,” a technique for coaxing coveted plants — from palm trees to the elusive Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis Lingholm) — into adjusting to the Zone 7b maritime environment.

Maybe this strategy is no surprise, if you know these gardeners’ backgrounds: As the head of design for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo for many years, Gwynne created habitat exhibitions. Folcarelli created spaces for a living, too, as a visual presentation executive in retail and hospitality, and for private clients.

He misses the debriefings that went on for decades during their 200-mile drives back to Manhattan. Gwynne would carry a black book to write notes in — one of a series of identical volumes he has used for fastidious record-keeping since the mid-1970s.

“We’d assign a plant of the week to talk about, and we would talk about what had been successful and not successful,” Folcarelli recalled. “We’d talk about what we had or hadn’t done. That was really a very important part of building the garden, that relentless drive.”

These days, what with maintaining the garden and doing volunteer jobs in the local community, there is no such time, except maybe in the winter. Instead, there are chores and more chores, and visitors to welcome, from Thursday to Saturday, to the 2-acre garden — 2,000 or so of them last year.

“I wish I could make people this happy at church,” said a local minister with a smile, after a recent garden tour.

“We’re in the smile business,” Folcarelli said. Although there is the occasional unexpected reaction, such as that of the woman who was on the verge of tears after seeing the blue poppies bloom. “She said she never thought she would actually see one, a living one.”

Bucket-list item checked, for the successful growers and their visitor.

Moving Clockwise Through the Garden

This is “a garden built by wheelbarrow,” said Folcarelli, as its spaces were too tight for earth-moving equipment, even in the beginning.

“But it’s also monumental,” Gwynne chimed in.

It is, indeed, a construct of contrasts — of scale, color, texture, light. And the men enjoy turning up the volume at every opportunity.

On open days, it is Folcarelli who greets visitors, pointing them in a clockwise direction. Passing through a doorway in a 12-foot wall of stones and logs, they move into a world with an undulating surface carpeted in moss and a grove of old highbush blueberries, “all gnarly, Arthur Rackham-y,” Gwynne said, referring to the work of the English illustrator.

It’s “a kind of elfin forest that makes you feel huge,” he said.

Duck to navigate a little hole in an old holly hedge, where the first of several boardwalks beckons toward an allee of Cryptomeria, the Japanese cedar, that feel as towering as giant sequoias. Such shapeshifting elements prime visitors for exploring — the desired effect.

Next in what Gwynne calls “a series of odd experiences” is the central lawn — and, finally, a bit of a vista. Along a wall of yew (Taxus) sit iron benches found at the Paris flea market, adorned with Chinese Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus henryana).

The Black Border holds dark-leaved plants, including weeping beeches (Fagus sylvatica Black Swan), black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) and Ligularia dentata Britt-Marie Crawford.

Then, just ahead, is a beacon to Albers’ color-field theory. Through an opening in 9-foot boxwood hedging, the Neon Yellow Garden screams in contrast to the dark space you are in with an effusion of gold Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra Aureola), massive yellow-variegated comfrey, hostas and more.

The oldest space in the garden is a rectangular room “wallpapered with gaudy azaleas and designed by rabbits,” Gwynne said. Years ago, whenever an evergreen azalea was transplanted out of a protected nursery area into the garden-to-be, the animals would have at it. Back to the nursery row the chewed-on young shrub would go, creating a lineup of “refugee azaleas” that eventually became the flowering wall.

The Plants Are in Charge

How do you create a jungle in New England? The garden’s Tropical Quadrant offers an answer.

There are bananas and cannas, but also large-leaved, faux-tropicals such as Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia ashei, a Florida native) and big-leaf magnolia (M. macrophylla, mostly found in small pockets in the Southeast). A red Mughal pavilion, a souvenir from a trip to India, perches high in the mini-jungle, draped with garlands of marigold blooms.

The two men admit it: Their room-making process was a little backward. Best practices would dictate starting with the hardscape and then adding plants. The walls and paths should come first, but they didn’t here.

“The plants are in charge,” Gwynne admitted. “We just started planting, and fit everything in afterward. That’s probably why it has such an odd feeling — quixotic and even sometimes silly.”

Although the head count is already what he describes as “three plants for one hole,” the quest for more “mythical plants” never seems to end.

It doesn’t help that the rare-plant specialists of Issima nursery are neighbors. The nursery was the source of the men’s latest Chinese mayapple selections (Podophyllum chengii), with wildly mottled dark leaves they couldn’t resist, and the new seductive range of Thalictrum.

Christmas Lights on the Palm Tree

The climate’s shift to warmer winters — the typical low in this part of Rhode Island was once about minus 5 but is now in the single digits — has encouraged more daring zone-pushing.

The men’s first experiment with the zone-stretching power of a well-placed stone wall involved a courtship with a Mexican Yucca species that didn’t thrive. The 12-foot wall they built for a needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) had greater success: The tree has grown on the wall’s south side, in shade, for 35 years — but not without some extra TLC.

To minimize the effect of freezing and thawing on the evergreen leaves, the palm is wrapped in Reemay fabric during the winter, which helps keep it in suspended animation. Last year, another layer of support was added: incandescent Christmas lights beneath the fabric, with a little thermostat that turns them on if the temperature dips below 35.

But most of the plants in the garden are not swaddled in cloth — and some are not even concealed in rooms. In the newest area, just as you exit the last formal, enclosed space, three milkweed species (Asclepias), various anise hyssops (Agastache) and Verbena bonariensis are among the mad swirl of foliage and pollen- and nectar-filled blooms.

The goal? “A hole in every leaf,” Gwynne said.

Come and get it, beneficial insects. Dinner is served — not in a formal dining room, but in the Pollinator, as the newest unwalled garden space is called.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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The art of making garden rooms

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