June 6, 2010

Open Day at the O'Callahans

It is a-near annual pilgrimage for us. On a June morning that may be brilliantly clear or threatening rain, we will embark on an 80-mile journey to an enchanted garden. It does not matter that we have seen this garden half a dozen times over the past decade; all that is important is that, for an hour or so, we will experience something that comes close to the idyllic.

The garden of Juan and Bunny O’Callahan sits on six acres overlooking Little Narragansett Bay, just outside of Stonington, Connecticut. Once a year - or every second year – they open their property for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. Today, June 6, was the chosen day as noted in the Open Days Directory, and it has been marked on our calendar for months. Our goal is always to arrive as close to the 10 a.m. opening time as possible so as to see the gardens without the crowds.

This garden is stunning both for its location – a 270 degree view of the bay, the ocean beyond, and Stonington Village – and for the breadth of the garden. For starters, six generously sized cutting beds with a variety of flowers and bulbs (peonies, lupines and poppies were in special abundance today) and a vegetable garden all enclosed in a yew hedge, the better to keep out both deer and the stiff ocean winds.

A sunken garden is built into the rock ledge next to the seawall, and it is truly a “secret” garden – there is no hint of it until you are upon it. Once inside, there masses of huechera all with long stems vibrating in the breeze and succulents growing in the ten-foot-high rock wall face.

Nepeta – catmint to the rest of us – is a unifying element across the property. It is used in long, undulating rows to break up the lawn and to border other beds. Today, it seemed every catmint plant was blooming a brilliant blue. Also in their full glory were hundreds of lupines, which can be found in many of the perennial beds.

It is a garden that seems the same, even as it changes. We have watched the rehabilitation of a pond take shape over the past several years. On this visit, it seemed finished, overrun with bull frogs and with a spouting fountain. On a visit a few years ago, the O’Callahans and a neighbor had planted an unused field in red poppies, with results like something out of a Monet painting. Alas, that experiment hasn’t been repeated.

The O’Callahans have always been generous with their time on their Open Day, fielding questions from dozens of visitors. And, because there is always something new to discover, we had questions of our own. Behind their greenhouse and surrounding their compost pile, we spotted a thicket of multi-stemmed shrubs with maple-like leaves bearing clusters of some tiny, green, immature fruit. We were stumped. Bunny O’Callahan, though, had a ready answer: red and black currants. Because they were linked to a disease affecting white pines, their cultivation was banned for the better part of a century. The ban has been lifted in certain states, including Connecticut, in recent years.

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