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Natural Touch

A British couple surrounds their historic carriage house in New Canaan with Old World color and charm

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The bones of good gardens often reside in the houses they surround. Buildings with history, character and quirky footprints can grant gardeners the security to plant from their roots and the opportunity to do so with abandon. That’s exactly what Sue and James Kemp have done outside their 1903 carriage house with attached gardener’s cottage that sits atop one of the highest points in New Canaan.

The rustic fieldstone and cedar shake structure was part of a large working farm that was subdivided in the late 1980s. It follows form as it was designed in the Shingle style of the main house that fronts the street, but it also follows function. The current living room once housed a mechanical turnstile for carriages and farm wagons. The four-story tower, now a home office, supported a windmill. A walled exterior room once penned livestock.

By the time the Kemps bought the property in 2006, it had been reduced to 2.89 acres while the carriage house had expanded to 7,000 square feet. The couple brought to the place a distinctly British gardening sensibility—both Sue and James are from England—and a love of the outdoors that suits the somewhat eccentric layout of the house. That sensibility found expression in half a dozen exterior garden rooms of considerable charm.

Pottering for Pleasure

“I’m a lightweight gardener,” says Sue, who has been involved with the New Canaan Secret Gardens Tour since she moved to town and whose own home was on last year’s tour. “But I do enjoy being in the garden, which I think comes from my British roots. I like to potter there with my trog, which is a little baseket, and dead-head. There’s something therapeutic about getting your hands in the soil.”

Sue began planting soon after moving in, but she entrusted the redesign of the existing gardens to Nancy Nichols of Nancy’s Natural Habitats in Stanfordville, New York. Although old-growth evergreens preside over the grounds in neatly edged islands, and rows of tightly planted arborvitae shield portions of the house from the street, beds close to the house had been left largely unmade. Nichols rejuvenated these areas by kicking out the tired, overgrown inhabitants and replanting them with fresh perennials.

In the front of the house, ivy-covered fieldstone walls form a semi-enclosed entry on one side and a pathway to a rustic pavilion on the other. Low boxwood hedges were planted to frame the front door. Perennials—roses, peonies, St. John’s wort—fill in vacant spaces. In a walled hydrangea room around the right side of the carriage house, Nichols created a patio for two and further brightened the space with planters of colorful annuals. “I wanted to make it lush for the family to enjoy from the inside and outside,” she says. “Sue has a fine sense of the English garden. I wanted to give her a bit of home.”

England realizes some of its finest moments, at least in New Canaan, in the sitting garden off the back of the house. There, Nancy and Sue turned a hodgepodge of plants into a traditional English rose garden featuring Vesey roses, Jackson Perkins, single pink Knockouts and New Dawn roses on trellises. Waves of lavender, a Vitex bush and white hibiscus flowers the size of dessert plates wash the air with color and summer perfumes. The space is accessed from the house through French doors in the living room. “This is my little England,” Sue says of the exterior room. “When my Mum comes, this is where she sits and has her cup of tea.”

At the end of the sitting garden, a classic arched arbor signals the entrance to a wilder replica of the motherland. A broad pebbled path passes through clouds of blue iris, rose-colored thistle and, late in the season, black-eyed Susans, on its descent to the lower vegetable garden with four raised beds.