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A Secret Garden

Julie Stauffer

Four acres of gardens in New Canaan are the elegant extension of Teddy Berg, who for the past thirty-five years has taken her cues from the ancient farmstead and undulating bedrock of the estate she shares with her husband, Peter. Far more than trees, rocks and flowers, the site is autobiographical.

When cancer took her daughter fifteen years ago, Teddy says she turned to the garden. “My garden is my church,” she says. The seasonal regeneration especially resonates with her. “I love the spring. It’s exciting. There’s nothing but dirt, then little green things pop up and turn into this,” she says, facing the lush acreage. Her gardens flow freely, unforced but elegantly ordered by her instinctive, inherent talent, the laws of nature and design falling into beautifully proportioned place. They pivot gently from one to the next, surprising and delighting. Behind each vignette and every vista are great care and attention to detail, thoughtfulness and a sharp intellect.

“It’s a walk-around garden,” says Teddy (short for Theodora). “You don’t see everything at once. You get a sense of place, and the feeling in each place is different.”    

Sometime in the 1930s, the original structure — a late-eighteenth-century farmhouse — was moved from the center lawn to the property’s hill. At that time two stately stone wings were added, resulting in a wonderful integration of two iconic Connecticut architectures: the vernacular eighteenth-century clapboard farmhouse and the Georgian revival fieldstone manse.

When the Bergs arrived in the early 1970s, several outbuildings had been added or were preexisting from the farm, and an old tennis court sat in disrepair. A hemlock hedge had been planted in front of an old stone wall and a rose garden. With four children in tow, Teddy took on the hemlock hedge and garden that grew stiffly in front of it.

“I Anglophiled it!” she says, leading a visitor to the breathtaking wall of green coaxed into two dramatic arches with a mixed border underpinning. “My mother was English and I always loved it. I started turning this perennial border into a mixed border. It has trees and shrubs. It’s not just a big flat plain of flowers. It’s got depth and texture and shadows, up and down in form. I’m more inclined to buy things for foliage,” she explains.

One is drawn from the back of the house across a vast, level lawn to the hemlock hedge, with its perfect pair of graceful arches. The meandering mixed border, ever in flux, challenges the eye at every turn. Mushroom-shaped staddle stones adorn one end, while a stone horse found on Second Avenue in New York City anchors the other end among the heliotrope. Sedum softens the edges. Digitalis coexists with a banana tree, plum poppies and autumn clematis (which snowcaps the arches in the fall). Kiwi vine climbs up the cedar, and kaemphorai, berberis and numerous others take turns in leading roles. An old birdbath from Teddy’s mother stands nearby. One of the best things she did with this bed, notes Teddy, was put a flagstone walkway alongside.

Accompanied by the scent of lavender, one is inevitably compelled to pass through an arch to explore the botanical beyond. When her children were younger (she’s a grandmother now), Teddy decided that the lawn behind the wall and to the left would make a great vegetable garden. “I got a shovel and dug out the lawn myself. Then the animals ate everything,” she says. Ceding to the rabbits, deer and other furry vegans, Teddy tried again, this time with success: She turned it into a parterre.

“This is basically a quadrangle. In order to give it some oomph, I lined it with boxwood. There are four dwarf apples, each different; one in the center of each square, surrounded by lavender. It forms a cross in the center,” she explains.

But she found it too “stilted” and decided to add an Old World effect. “At the very center of the cross is an old broken column that was part of an Italianate garden in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, designed by Ferruccio Vitale. It’s surrounded by pots of plumbago, grasses and agapanthus. The garden is basically blue and white,” she says. Fabulous Egyptian-style stone chairs draw the eye into the far corners of the garden.

To the right, opposite the parterre, are the remains of what was most likely a walled enclosure for animals. Now kept as a simple square of lawn, it focuses the eye on the texture of the wall itself, dappled by light and moss, and comes to rest on a pair of large vertical stones at an opening in the wall, again inviting exploration. Passing through, the ground begins to slope downward.

Bedrock intermittently pokes through the turf. Instead of a nuisance, the rock spurred Teddy to think creatively. “I formed these island beds because the lawn is so full of big rocks,” she notes, ambling toward a lovely bed decorated with a stone pagoda that was a gift from a fellow gardener. Designated as the oriental garden, it features tree peonies, acers and other specimens.

Teddy moves on to the viburnum bed. “This is the pièce de résistance. I love the way it just falls over everything,” she says, pointing to the white peach and cream viburnum’s cascading branches and the tiny spent blossoms resting on anything below the branches, carpeting the ground.

Continuing down the gentle hill, two large, four-foot granite hitching posts were placed there strategically by Teddy. “It eyes you right to the barn,” she says of the posts’ framing effect of the barn in the distance, up the hill. In the other direction, the posts  announce an expanse of lawn. And a funky stable.

“This is my testament to Vermont and New Hampshire. [She has a bigger garden in New Hampshire.] The stable was here. We roofed it and re-sided it. I found the wagon wheel bench at Pound Ridge Nursery. That old urn came from my mother-in-law’s in Roxbury, Connecticut,” she says. But what is that odd- looking object sitting on the wall? “That’s a copper still from New Hampshire.”

The Miss Kim lilacs are recently spent. Arriving at the bottom of the hill, where there is great open space and rolling lawn, the enormous trees capture the imagination. “I’m not all about flowers,” Teddy states, walking over to a triangular grand pine. “This is a Vanderwolf’s Pyramid. I love the softness of the new green growth with the silvery green. The looseness of this went so well with the stable,” she says, noting the comparable silvery quality of the weathered shingles and the pine needles. The lawn also features a spectacular Dawn Redwood. “Look at the size of the trunk versus the delicacy of the leaves, which are feathery, pinnulated,” Teddy says, stroking the branch. “I love green, it’s my favorite color.”

At the very lowest elevation is a sprawl of Cotinus coggygria, or smokebush, a primeval- looking plant. “These huge-leafed things have to be in water and they are,” she says, mischievously, brilliant blue eyes dancing. Of course, there is no visible water in sight. An underground spring, perhaps?

“Under the ground, yes. Laundry wastewater provides the moisture,” she says, looking up the hill where the house is sited. With four acres of specimen trees, lawns and endless gardens, what other water sources do the Bergs employ besides laundry water?

“I’ve got water company property across the street, and we have a couple of wells. We just put in a new one,” she explains.As the ground begins its ascent, a fringe tree comes into focus.» “It blooms feathery in late May with the most incredible fragrance,” says the gardener. Beyond are stands of white birch, chestnut and a corkscrew willow. A new woodland bed with spirea, a deep carpet of ferns, and soon-to-come blueberries adds further interest to the stone wall at the property’s perimeter.

“I love walls, I love the stone,” she says, walking up the hill past an enormous weeping cherry and a nearby Bradford pear. In the spring, the hill is a riot of yellow and purple — hundreds of daffodils and scilla in bloom.

Toward the front of the property, close to where the farmhouse originally sat, is another arrangement of trees and shrubs, the centerpiece of which is a trio of gold spirea and a Japanese maple. “I really love the wine, and the gold and the blue of the Atlas cedar. There’s so much color there, but they’re all green trees,” she says, walking past a beauty bush, Kolkwitzia amabilis.“I couldn’t live without trees. To me, the whole garden is trees.”

There are trees that hold onto their leaves later than any others and bloom last, and some strategically placed to shade part of a lawn, trees with intense fragrance, in all shapes and sizes and genera. Teddy has supervised every pruning, trimming, clipping, placement and feeding. She refers to each wooded progeny — new or old — as “he.”

Circling back up to the side of the house, one arrives at the swimming pool, a natural, rocky free-form tucked into the L-shaped area between the home’s den and the backdrop of one of the two-story stone wings. Teddy knew she wanted rocks — and she got them in spades. “These boulders were here when they dug the pool. I had this one made into a diving rock,” she says, indicating a boulder perfectly placed for exuberant leaping. Others appear to occur naturally within the context. All around them are enveloping plantings: magnificent cedar, Japanese maple, New Dawn roses, viburnum, sedum and potentilla, ivy and much more.

The Bergs’ penchant for collecting architectural salvage and other curiosities for the purposes of garden ornamentation comes to a fevered pitch around the pool. Lead planters that were once gutters now hold annuals. Teddy has turned chimney pots into bird feeders and birdbaths. The leaded-glass windows on the den addition came from a house that was being torn down in Westchester. Stone finials punctuate the deep end of the pool. A terra cotta gargoyle urn brims with flowers. Teddy’s collection of antique watering cans reposes by the shallow end. Presiding dramatically over the pool scene, however, is a regal lion’s head, rendered in copper.

Emerging from the pool area — so well concealed as to feel organic — an expanse of lawn leads to the other end of the property, which is wooded, where a refurbished tennis court and subsequent tennis cottage lie. Stopping on a little bridge along the way, Teddy points downward: “One day ten years ago, I decided to create a dry stream bed between the existing stones.” It looks as though Mother Nature herself placed every rock and forgot to turn on the faucet.

Heading back toward the house, the sheer number of pots and planters is staggering: clever combinations of foliage, color, texture, scent, scale. A lively herb garden is at the back doorstep, with off-white dahlias forming a wall along the entry walkway. At the end of the herb garden, a high-walled niche of marble has four distinctive iron discs set into the stone, each one with a motto. “These are old manhole covers from the original Westside Highway in New York. They depict the boroughs of the city,” Teddy explains. A copper lion’s head watches over another niche, which is actually the side of the potting shed. Terra cotta Williamsburg bird houses flank the menacing big metal cat.

The potting shed has an outdoor component of brick and stone. Placed perfectly parallel, set into the brick at eye level, is a pair of protruding copper pot lids. “Those are Wagnerian pot lids… Brunhilde cones,” she says with a sly smile.

Throughout the ramble Teddy comments on how she would move a plant so “he” would be happier, or start a new bed or try a new combination of things. But she savors much along the way. And while her garden is gloriously abloom in the spring, she says it’s even better in the fall.