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East Meets West

In this Darien garden, the owners beautifully merge exotic elements from two different cultures

photography by Kindra Clineff

No question about it–Lois and Bob Baylis cherished the view from their Darien home looking out toward Scott’s Cove, where a traditional English-style perennial border framed the shore. But something was missing. The couple sought a sense of seclusion. They wanted the comfort of four buffering walls outside. To nurture that need, they looked eastward. Actually, it was the Far East that furnished an epiphany.

Both Lois and Bob knew they wanted to celebrate nature’s beauty when they bought their Darien place in 1988, but beyond thinning the forest that surrounded the house, they didn’t have a grand plan. Fortunately, Lois had been a member of the local garden club for many years. “Seeing other people’s gardens got me going,” she says. Before long, Lois was doubling the size of the perennial garden abutting the water. Working with it got her creative juices flowing and she was pleased with–but not passionate about– the results. Then came a stint in Hong Kong, and the couple’s travels there helped to alter the look of their garden dramatically.

Bob began a two-year assignment in Hong Kong in 1993, and the relocation put the couple in a position to observe a whole new way to work with nature. Frequent trips throughout Asia, especially to Japan, turned Lois from an interested gardener to an enthusiast. “The travel was the start of my love affair with moss,” says Lois. In the Far East, she also learned a new vocabulary, because the gardens she visited there were the polar opposites of the English spin-offs she encountered in the U.S. Lois was also greatly influenced by an acquaintance she made while in Japan. Marc Peter Keane is an expert in Japanese landscape design. He and Lois became long-term friends and together, they transformed her garden back home.

Lois and Bob returned to Darien in 1995, but by this time, with Keane as her ally, Lois was ready to give her property a whole new persona. They went straight to the source of her inspiration and combed Asia for authentic pieces, making multiple trips there throughout the 1990s. That’s how the Korean tomb figures, water basins, stone lanterns, granite slabs and Tang Dynasty lions all found their way into the garden. With a small cache of remarkable pieces, Keane (who traveled to Darien from Asia every summer for ten years to develop the Baylis garden) went to work creating room after room in what’s become a plein-air horticultural mansion. Lois is prone to refer to the rooms as “paths,” because she thinks of her garden maze as a journey. And each one of the paths is like a chapter that’s separated from the others by fencing, shrubs and plants to whisper a message without “noise” from surrounding venues.

On a practical level, the rooms are buffeted from the wind, but they also serve as showcases because Lois is all about troughs. Troughs are everywhere. We’re talking hundreds, and each one is a mini-masterpiece, like horticultural haiku, and they give cadence to the garden’s flow. The troughs started innocently enough. Lois gave herself a trough workshop as a birthday gift, certainly not expecting to turn the tide of her life for the better part of two decades. From there “it was like eating peanuts,” she says. Lois just couldn’t stop making them. Not only does she create the trough containers herself by a free-form method, she also plants every one personally as a small landscape. Conifers, alpines, succulents and plants that dote on the seaside climate are arranged deftly and adorned by miniature boulders and other artifacts from the land. Lois has become an expert in the art; she even teaches trough-making workshops. Over the last seventeen years, she’s taught about seventy-five students each year. Many of her students have gone on to make troughs on their own, which means there’s a whole lot of Zen going on. Lois’s growing collection of troughs requires appropriate staging. Part of Keane’s challenge has been to create gardens that glorify these mini-landscapes. Finally, the population explosion of troughs made an amphitheatre necessary. It’s like a trough art gallery.

Even with all the changes to her garden, Lois retained some of its original features, including the herb garden that snuggles beside the house and the prim, straight-axis perennial border by the water. As a result, the Baylis garden showcases elements from two cultures. The setting has an Asian accent that is totally congruous with the American flag waving over the Sound. Although the garden is only two acres, it feels immense as you wind through the maze and become engulfed in spring-blooming shrubs early in the season and tall grass plumes later on. The terrain is syncopated to slow and easy movement. There’s really no reason to rush through this landscape that has so much to show and share.