July 18, 2010

A Garden by the Sea

When the temperature hits the nineties and the dew point soars into the mid-70s, most people hit the mall, the beach or the air conditioner control. Gardeners, on the other hand… go visit gardens. And so, yesterday, with the thermometer registering 93 degrees, we visited four of them.

Three were part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, which focused on the town of Dartmouth. Dartmouth, in turn, is on Buzzard’s Bay next to New Bedford and the prospect of a cool, off-shore breeze added to the anticipation of the day. There was a refreshing breeze, though alas, from some direction other than the bay.

Garden owners write their own descriptions for the Open Days Directory and those paragraphs say as much about the people involved as their properties. When we were chosen in 2008, the Garden Conservancy’s form came with a plea to hold the description down to 150 words and to keep it factual. Through assiduous re-writing we got ours down to 148 words with nary an adjective in sight.

As a result of our own experience, we tend to rule gardens in or out based in large part on the clues in the descriptions. One open garden yesterday began with this sentence, ‘Come see one of the most gorgeous properties on the South Coast.’ It may have been the most beautiful property on any coast, but there was something off-putting about the boast. Another garden owner tipped his or her hat to no fewer than six designers. We took a pass on both gardens.

But one garden description in particular caught our attention, It was spare in its wording and focused on providing an overall feel of what the visitor would see. So, after an obligatory visit to Frog Landing (designer Nan Sinton’s terrific garden) we set out for Sea Thrift.

Sea Thrift sits on six acres at the head of Apponagansett Bay and the owner has a pleasant view down to the water. The rambling house, built by a whale ship captain, dates to 1860. What was delightful about the garden was that it didn’t overwhelm the visitor, yet it showed intelligence and a keen eye for horticulture (a two-page description of plantings including full binomial nomenclature was available at the check-in table). There were more than 40 varieties of Japanese maples scattered around the property, as well as a specimen columnar Acer saccharum ‘Newton’s Sentry’ that was a virtual 30-foot-tall flagpole.

The property was full of surprises: woodland trails that provided cool shade on a hot day, sitting areas with bring-a-smile-to-your face lawn furniture, and striking juxtapositions of texture and color in unexpected places. After we walked the property, the homeowner was generous with his time in explaining some of the thinking that went into the design.  The three photos in this post were taken yesterday at Sea Thrift.  Double click in them to get a more detailed view.

Sea Thrift was the kind of garden you hope for on a hot summer day; a garden you learn from. A garden that sends you away smiling.

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