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Green Rooms

Master gardener Carol Seldin created a sanctuary on her New Canaan property, where color, contrast and drama are at every turn

photograph by Stacy Bass

For years, Carol Seldin gardened a two-acre corner plot that served as a meeting place for joggers and walkers who would stop to talk to the woman who came to be known as the Flower Lady of Hoyt Farm. Her garden there could have been on the summer tour schedule had it not been open to the public in the first place. “I felt that people could view my garden just passing by,” says Carol.

In 2004, Carol and her husband, Peter, decided to move across town to Ponus Ridge. At that time, their two sons were nineteen and twenty-two years of age. “Most people downsize,” Carol says, “but my idea was to have a larger house and more property so that when my two sons got older our home would be the place for everyone to gather. A larger property would also allow me to do more gardening.”

The Seldins found the ideal place at the point where Wahackme Road runs straight into Ponus Ridge Road. There, a 9,000-square-foot brick Georgian is sited in the middle of six sloping acres that back up to conservation land and Stamford reservoir property. Aside from the sprawling acreage, the features that attracted the Seldins to this site were the elements that continue to draw attention to the property today. Beyond the wall that faces the street, the land falls away, with no house in sight. “From the road, you have no idea what’s down the hill,” Carol says, “but as the wrought-iron gates open there’s a kind of quiet drama as the property unfolds.”

Her new garden is three times the size of the Hoyt Farm site, providing ample opportunity for Carol to nurture her passion for creating beautiful outdoor spaces. She recently gave us the opportunity to see and photograph her home. “Because we’ve been blessed, we need to share this,” she says.

Soil Sisters

The Seldins’ Ponus Ridge property took shape slowly, evolving over time as many great gardens do. Rather than hire a small army of landscapers, Carol asked designer Heather O’Neill of Second Nature Landscape Design in Norwalk to work with her rather than for her. “Carol is a master gardener,” says O’Neill. “Working with her is a pleasure because she’s as into it as I am.”

Carol is equally impressed with her collaborator’s skill. “Heather is a wonderful designer and my dear friend,” she says. “We are soil sisters. I have ideas and she brings her ideas to me. Then we sort them out together. I’m ridiculously hands-on and would not be comfortable working with someone who was just going to present me with a plan.”

As it turns out, there was no plan for the Ponus Ridge property, at least not in the big-picture sense. Section by section, the garden took shape. At the same time, the women created seasonal arrangements in a dozen or so planters of various sizes and provenance to punctuate the grounds. Each arrangement makes a distinct statement; each is its own small garden.

At the top of the driveway, four foot-wide urns from Marvin Gardens in Wilton sit atop the stonewall and are stuffed with plantings. Small groupings of boxwood anchor the base of the walls and stone entry pillars. Near the road, old maple trees in poor condition were taken down with the town’s blessing and on Carol’s promise to replace them. Cherry trees wouldn’t do. “We decided they were too Greenwich,” O’Neill says. Instead, they went with dogwoods, which were established on the property. “We thought about how the property looks from the street and considered how to give it the grand entrance the house calls for,” says O’Neill.

Carol was also thinking about passersby. “A property’s face to the street is its welcome to the world,” she says. “I wanted this one to be pleasing and something people would enjoy.”

Natural Beauty

Inside the formal gate (by Grand Entrance Gates in Mt. Kisco, New York), roses and banks of rhododendron appear to float on a sea of Japanese blood grass which, in turn, flows into a meadow. From there, a long drive winds down around a high hillock of dogwoods and sugar maples on its way to the house, which is hidden from the road. The topography is part of the property’s allure, of course—land rises and falls to produce drama at nearly every turn.

Carol, it seems, finds beauty in the tamed and the wild, in juxtaposition and contrast. Close to the house, the clipped boxwood hedges complement the brick façade and grand Georgian entablature. The same holds for the back patio and walks. Elsewhere, though, a less-structured beauty prevails, as if Mother Nature and the Soil Sisters were in cahoots.

While antique planters are placed to artfully catch the eye, statuary, fountains, benches and other ornamental objects arrest it. These pieces of interest are located all around the property, and they seem to work best against riots of bark, foliage and bloom. To the far left of the house, for instance, plantings of hydrangea and cinnamon bark maple blend with lawn and meadow, and also surround statues of Apollo and Diana, which Carol found in an antique store. To the right, behind the house and a pool patio vibrant with shasta and red knockout roses, a woodland garden room is decorated with a large fountain that overflows not with water but with robust plants.

In the solitude of an early morning or evening stroll, one is never alone on the Seldin property. Bacchus looks down from up high on a tree trunk and nymphs dance around a bronze Grecian urn. “It’s classical with a twist,” Carol says of the artifacts. “When I found these things, they just spoke to me.”

At this home, the spirit of horticultural largesse extends to a wider kingdom—“to the creatures that were here before me and will be here long after I’m gone,” says Carol. “The deer, the raccoons and the woodchuck that’s bigger than my pug, they deserve a place, too.”

Secret Garden

At this home, the spirit of horticultural largesse extends to a wider kingdom—“to the creatures that were here before me and will be here long after I’m gone,” says Carol. “The deer, the raccoons and the woodchuck that’s bigger than my pug, they deserve a place, too.”

With O’Neill, Carol worked a largely unused section of land that hugs the far border of the property. It’s hilly, rocky and all but hidden from view by thick evergreens. Starting near the bottom of the property, they created a quarter-mile path through a series of smaller gardens that are as different from one another as the rooms in the main house. “By design, we went not just for the flower but for color, texture and contrast,” says O’Neill. “We thought about the way a leaf looks against another leaf, the backdrop, the way the grass moves in the fall against the plants next to it. Everywhere you turn there’s a different view. What you see in the distance is as beautiful as the scene right in front of you.”

Rising steadily through light and shade, the woodsy path ends in a high, formal fountain garden. It is from this lofty space that Carol sets out every day, even on cold winter mornings when she straps on snowshoes. “The feeling I get from walking here is both soothing and exhilarating,” she says. “My father, who was a businessman, told me he felt closest to God when he was out gardening. I understand what he meant, and what he felt. I feel closest to my dad when I’m in the garden.”

Sharing the Wealth

Carol is proud of her garden rooms and truly enjoys sharing them with others. Two summers ago, the Seldin home was on the New Canaan Nature Center’s Secret Garden Tour and also part of a Garden Conservancy tour. As a result, about 1,000 visitors passed through her front gates. Last summer, she hosted an event for the Westport Country Playhouse (she’s on the board) and a fundraiser for Skidmore College, where she matriculated. This year, her place—which is now maintained in part by Odd Jobs Landscaping of Darien—will be back on the Garden Conservancy tour and also on the Bartlett Arboretum Spring Garden Tour. If you miss it, though, you may be able to catch up with Carol by walking along Ponus Ridge, where you’re likely to find her out weeding, watering or deadheading plants. If you stop to ask what’s on the other side of the wall, she will likely tell you. “People appreciate what I’m trying to do, and that’s a nice benefit for me” she says.  “I’m in my garden glory here. This is my dream property and it’s better than I had imagined.”