The art of making garden spaces

That’s the key question in making any garden: How do you get all the plants you can’t resist and the ideas that insistently flood your imagination to gather on common ground?

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

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

Memories of business trips to the Amazon are also part of Sakonnet. And domestic journeys are too – specifically Mr. Gwynne and Mr. The Folcarellis’ four- to six-hour drives back to New York City every weekend during the 30-odd years they were part-time residents of Sakonnet, where they now live full-time.

Before that, Mr Gwynne knew the country as his family’s second home. Happy memories included working with his sister to clear planting sites from the dark thicket of invasive fall olive, multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet that connect these spaces with narrow tunnels carved from underbrush.

Such raw, connected openings were the earliest hint of what Sakonnet would become.

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

But Fernie, a small, green space tucked in the middle of the garden, is Mr. Folcarelli’s favorite: There are trunks of dead autumn olives wrapped in chicken wire to support Euonymus vines, creating twisting, snake-like shapes above.

Throughout the garden, living walls and those made of stone and beams create space for horticultural theatre, allowing for a sense of concealment and reveal rather than overwhelming you as you move through the landscape.

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

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

However, the garden spaces do more than just measure the joy. Their walls allow for what the men call “microclimate manipulation,” a technique to coax coveted plants—from palms to the elusive Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis Lingholm)—to adapt to the maritime environment of Zone 7b.

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

He misses the briefings that took place for decades during their 200-mile drive back to Manhattan. Sir. Gwynne would carry a black book to write notes in – one of a series of identical volumes he has used for meticulous journaling since the mid-1970s.

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

These days, what with maintaining the garden and doing volunteer work in the local community, there is no such time, except perhaps in the winter. Instead, there are chores and more chores, and from Thursday to Saturday visitors can welcome the two-hectare garden – about 2,000 of them last year.

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

“We’re in the smile business,” said Mr. Folcarelli. Although once in a while there is an unexpected reaction, like that of the woman who was on the verge of tears after seeing the blue poppies in bloom. “She said she never thought she’d actually see one, a live one.”

Bucket list item checked, for successful growers and their visitors.

This is “a garden built out of wheelbarrows,” said Mr. Folcarelli, as its spaces were too narrow for earthmoving equipment, even at the beginning.

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

It is truly a construction of contrasts – of scale, color, texture, light. And the men enjoy turning up the volume at every opportunity.

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

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

Duck to navigate a small gap in an old holly hedge, where the first of several boardwalks beckon toward an avenue of Cryptomeria, the Japanese cedar that feels as towering as giant sequoias. Such shape-shifting elements allow visitors to explore – the desired effect.

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

The black border contains dark-leaved plants, including gray beech (Fagus sylvatica Black Swan), black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens) and Ligularia dentata Britt-Marie Crawford.

So right ahead is a beacon to Mr. Albers’ color field theory. Through an opening in the nine-foot boxwood hedge, the neon yellow garden screams contrast to the dark room you’re in, with an outpouring of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra Aureola), massive yellow-variegated valerian, hostas and more.

The oldest room in the garden is a rectangular room “wallpapered with showy azaleas and designed by rabbits,” said Mr. Gwynne. Years ago, when an evergreen azalea was transplanted out of a sheltered nursery area into the future garden, the animals wanted it. Back to the nursery row, the chewed young bush would go and create a row of “refugee azaleas” that eventually became the flowering wall.

How do you create a jungle in New England? Haven’s Tropical Quadrant provides an answer.

There are bananas and cannas, but also large-leaved, faux-tropical plants like Ashes magnolia (Magnolia ashei, a Florida native) and large-leaved magnolia (M. macrophylla, found mostly in small pockets of the Southeast). A red Mughal pavilion, a souvenir from a trip to India, sits high in the mini-jungle, draped with garlands of marigold flowers.

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

“The plants are in charge,” admitted Mr Gwynne. “We just started planting and installed everything afterwards. That’s probably why it has such a strange feel to it – quixotic and even silly at times.”

Although the main number is already what he describes as “three plants for a hole”, the hunt for more “mythical plants” seems never ending.

It doesn’t help that Issima nursery’s specialists in rare plants are neighbours. The nursery was the source of the men’s latest selection of Chinese May Apple (Podophyllum chengii), with wildly mottled dark leaves they couldn’t resist, and the seductive new range of Thalictrum.

The climate’s shift to warmer winters — the typical low in this part of Rhode Island was once around minus five degrees, 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 did not thrive. The 12-foot wall they built for a needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) was more successful: The tree has been growing on the south side of the wall, 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 in winter, which helps keep it in suspended animation. Last year another layer of support was added: glowing Christmas lights under the fabric, with a small thermostat that turns them on if the temperature drops below 35 degrees.

But most of the plants in the garden are not wrapped in cloth – and some are not even hidden in rooms. In the newest area, just as you leave the last formal enclosed space, three milkweeds (Asclepias), various anise hyssop (Agastache) and Verbena bonariensis are among the mad swirl of foliage and pollen- and nectar-filled flowers.

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

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

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A path to the gardenand a book of the same name.

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