It’s a typically tranquil spring day. The mirrored surface of the water reflects the neighboring houses, trees and water birds. As Rob pushes off the dock in his yellow rowing shell, Sharon pours herself a glass of mango juice and takes in the views while relaxing in her waterside garden. “There goes a great blue heron,” she says. “He’s quite fantastic. Can you see the swans? We have lots of mating pairs around the pond. And look at the great egret!” Rob and Sharon have lived in this turn-of-the-century cedar-shake cottage steps from Cove Island Park for seventeen years. Word has it that in the old days it was a carriage house for a large, now long-gone manor; today it is one of five houses that form a nuclear neighborhood in a wedding-ring peninsula on the pond. “At one time, this was all cow pasture,” Sharon says. “I’m told that after the big house was built, the maids would go up on the hill to watch the waterside parties their employers threw. There are stories of women in elegant gowns dancing and waving long scarves in the breeze.” Every day Rob and Sharon see something new and beautiful unfold from their property, which abuts a National Audubon Society-designated Important Bird Area. “All of the neighbors have different views,” Sharon says, “so we like to go to each other’s houses.”
Awakening The Garden
There was no garden when Rob and Sharon moved into this dream home, only grass that ran wild all the way to the water. So it wasn’t long before Sharon, a landscape designer, rolled up her sleeves, and following feng shui principles, got her hands dirty creating a garden that now wraps around the house and to the water’s edge. But since the quarter-acre property is prone to flooding—one year the water got so high there were swans swimming right outside the back door—Sharon added a fieldstone seawall and a rope and post fence to give the outdoor back space a sense of boundary and protection. She also ringed that perimeter with masses of saltwater-tolerant plants, including brilliant Montauk daisies and fragrant bright-pink double Hansa Rugosa roses.
Here you’ll also find ornamental Miscanthus grasses, shore juniper and sea kale, as well as a butterfly bush with purple blooms and banks of Endless Summer hydrangeas. “I’m not a fussy person,” says Sharon, a sun-bronzed woman with honey hair and fresh earth under her fingernails. “I wanted simple, hardy plants that didn’t detract from the view. And I don’t want to spend all my time tending the garden.” In the distance, as Rob continues to row, the sun breaks through the clouds in the big, open sky, letting a long ray of light strike the water. “I don’t always plan everything I plant,” Sharon says. “I have a lot of plants that ‘volunteer’ to be where they are.” Sharon is also known for making use of what washes up near her garden after storms. A leaking rowboat is now a planter filled with pumpkins, butternut squash and tomatoes. There’s a sculptural piece of driftwood next to it; Sharon found it there one morning and liked how it looked. The rest of the back garden is a produce store of organic tomatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, squashes, lettuces, spinach, broccoli, rhubarb, onions, apples, kohlrabi, red cabbage, strawberries, garlic chives, cantaloupes, peppers, potatoes, kale and onions. Mixed in are herbs and spices: lemongrass, oregano, dill, sage, fennel, sorrel and more. “I love to graze in the garden,” Sharon says, adding that she and Rob are “flexitarians,” not strict vegetarians. “We grow most of the veggies we eat. Whenever we’re invited to friends’ houses, I come with an armful of hydrangeas and cucumbers.”
Sharon appraises the strong, red stalks of her rhubarb plant, and admires some long, crinkly Swiss chard leaves that are as large as elephant ears. “Is that not beautiful? I marvel at the beauty; this is what people miss when they go to the supermarket. Growing vegetables helps me appreciate the specialness of things and gives me a real respect for nature.” As a result, giving back to the earth is part of Rob and Sharon’s gardening routine. To one side of the house, where Rob stores his rowing shell, there’s a composting station. “We don’t waste anything, we put nearly everything in here,” Sharon says. “And we use it as mulch and soil conditioner.” Along the other side are towering Japanese black pines that form a canopy for Sharon’s pots of amaryllis. This area is the bloomers’ summer home; in the winter, they reside inside, where they flower for months on the wide window seat facing the pond. Sharon walks along the wooden plank floor of an arched trellis that’s covered with bean vines, which takes her to the front garden. “This is magical,” she says, smiling as widely as the Smiley Face necklace she’s wearing. “I left the beans hanging all winter, and some of them fell and replanted themselves. I’m tempted to leave them again.”
An Izu persimmon tree in the front garden brings another smile to her face, in part because the species is really not supposed to like living in Connecticut. “It’s protected from the winds by the house, so it has its own little microclimate,” she says, as she picks up one of its fallen fruits and breaks it open. “Is that not exquisite?” Ferns, striped Japanese fountain grass and Annabelle hydrangeas, their blooms as big and bouncy as basketballs, form a lush green blanket under the tree, contributing to a front-yard color palette of greens and whites that complement the red of the front door and begonias in pretty window boxes flanking it. “We’re not formal people, and this is not a formal garden,” Sharon says. “You don’t need every needle and every branch to be perfect. Our garden is practical, and it’s inviting—it welcomes people in.” And it offers guests a seat. There’s a bench in the front backed by lovely hydrangeas; a sun terrace out back with potted plants; a lookout with far-reaching views of the pond; and to one corner, a table and chairs under the shade of an old oak tree. “Even if you choose not to sit in any of these places, they relax you,” Sharon says. “Landscapes can be subtle; they don’t have to say, ‘Look at me’ to be enjoyable.”
According to Sharon, her garden requires little upkeep, and that’s the way she likes it. To be sure, she has to weed often and Rob has to mow the small sections of grass. But groundcover does much of its own work. By the front walk, there’s a patch of prolific Golden Creeping Jenny, Euphorbia Robbiae, vinca and Carex Ice Dance. “They’ll have to duke it out,” Sharon jokes. If Sharon had a bigger property, she’d add a wildflower garden to attract more native birds. But her outdoor space is well defined as it is. Looking ahead, she will continue to make changes, but whatever she does, she’ll remain true to the land. “I’m going to let Mother Nature take her course. She’s much more wonderful at planting than I am.” At this moment, a butterfly flaps its orange wings and heads for the dill, a favorite place to plant its eggs, and a catbird hops about the bayberry bush. “There’s always something new and special about being here,” Sharon says.