April 13, 2011
Text by Megan Fulweiler Photography by Brian Vanden Brink
The ideal time to peek in on this Fairfield County paradise might be late afternoon, when golden sun patinas the roses. On the other hand, early-morning dew clinging to the silvery lamb’s ears is something to behold. And, of course, moonlight has its charms. Not limited by the clock or even the calendar, this pretty garden offers constant rewards. Summer, though, is its main focus and the season that best highlights not only the appealing plants and pool but also the well-conceived plan.
Recently included in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens, the impressive setting owes its merits to owner Ellen Levinson, an interior and garden designer. When she and her husband, John, decided it was time for a pool, they didn’t just plunk it down willy-nilly. Instead, they carefully studied their two-acre property for suitable locales. One thing was for certain: the couple didn’t want the pool crowding their historic 1830 home.
Southport architect John Franzen, whom the owners had previously enlisted to design their handsome garage, was recruited to help. With his guidance, the Levinsons determined that a far corner of the deep yard was ideal. This savvy solution left plenty of open grass and, at the same time, created a feeling of distance and a sense of removal from everyday occurrences. Pool—and picturesque pool house—would serve as a destination. With family and friends in tow, the owners could travel down to the pool and spend long, languid afternoons relaxing. A backdrop incorporating a stone wall and a mass of green shrubs and trees would help ensure that the gathering point would remain a private world—a remarkable feat considering there are nearby neighbors and a busy town within walking distance.
“We also wanted the pool house to look like it had always been here,” Levinson says of the roughly 500-square-foot cottage that sprang up. And with a fieldstone façade and cedar-shingled sides, it most assuredly does. The arched front door is reminiscent of a fairytale house or, as Franzen sees it, “a sweet New England farm building.” A cedar shingled roof heightens the spell, as does the pergola that cools the stone patio for al fresco meals. Come July, trumpet vine dripping through the pergola bursts into bloom, its apricot flowers lasting through September.
Levinson saw to it that the building was equipped with all the amenities, including a dressing room, bathroom and kitchen. White-pickled pine paneling and cheery yellow cabinets exhale a fresh, garden-y feeling of their own. A reproduction old-fashioned cookstove with modern capabilities lends a playful note. And wet feet come and go on the limestone floor with never a worry, making the day-off ambience all the sweeter. “An indoor sitting area was unnecessary,” the designer says with a laugh. “If you’re here it’s to enjoy the outdoors.”
The alluring blue-as-sky pool sports a diving stone (much more romantic than a board) and a bluestone surround. Beyond—just over the low stone wall—are the robust flower borders, which are also visible from the house and, according to Levinson, almost always feature something in bloom.
Consulting with garden designer Ken Twombly, who was then with Twombly Nursery in Monroe, Levinson unleashed her horticultural creativity. Sculptural topiaries—spiral Alberta spruce at the front entrance and spiral boxwoods at the side entry—are immediate attention-getters, but that’s just the beginning. Close examination reveals layers of shapes, colors and textures. Spring offerings like azaleas, lilac standards, voluptuous peonies and baptisia give way to classic summer treats such as catmint, salvia and phlox. Roses are abundant. Repeat bloomers such as Pink Meidiland, Carefree Delight and Carefree Wonder sing out for weeks on end alongside bright Happy Returns daylilies and hydrangea.
The fall finale is led by peegee hydrangea and stalwart chrysanthemums. Winter—but who needs to look ahead?—affords the garden an opportunity to show off its structure. Topiaries along with clipped and variegated boxwood, daphne, Japanese maple, a crabapple tree and buddleia wantonly flaunt their curvaceous shapes in snow.
The only annuals Levinson allows are those that burst like fireworks from containers. Not content with familiar fillers, the clever designer follows her mood, composing a dramatic array with, say, datura, Abyssinian gladiolus, lantana, ipomea and verbena. “In my pots, I always use contrasting foliage—could be golden, silver, variegated, burgundy—to make the whole arrangement pop,” she says. Like all the other elements in this noteworthy garden, the ever-lush display never fails to elicit appreciative sighs and admiring words.
Garden and interior design: Ellen Levinson
Architecture: John P. Franzen