Springs Gardens: A Sense of Place

There is no mistaking the personal stamp of an owner on his or her own garden
The house and gardens of Willow Hill,above and below, have been hiding in plain sight off Old Stone Highway for years. Durell Godfrey Photos

I am delighted to report that the art of garden-making is alive and well in Springs. You can see for yourselves on Saturday on the Animal Rescue Fund’s annual garden tour, which features five gardens in that hamlet (plus one in Amagansett).

Two are the personal gardens of famous garden designers (Deborah Nevins and Edwina von Gal); two were created by designers (Oehme, van Sweden, and Jane Lappin) for clients, and two were made by homeowners for themselves.

No matter how sensitive the professional designer, there is no mistaking the personal stamp of an owner on his or her own garden. In the best, you sense the passion and vision of the maker. Since gardens are not static, you also become aware of the gardener’s growing knowledge and experience over time.

These gardens reveal a great deal about their makers, intentionally or not, as well. Bob Dash’s insightful comment that gardens are an expression of autobiography applies to these two Springs owner-created gardens.

Thus it was not a complete surprise to learn that Pamela Bicket is an architect whose taste has been influenced by living in France for five years. And it seems completely right that Dick Baxter, the meticulous restorer of historic buildings hereabouts, did the work on the 1752 Willow Hill house and barn of Peter Bickford and Greg McCarthy, who extended the same dedication to period and place in their landscape.

Both houses, and surrounding lands, had originally been farms with fields for cattle and horses, and both are enclosed by the woodlands typical of Springs. Both sets of gardeners first tried to use plants reputed to be deer-resistant, but finally and as a last resort installed deer fencing. And both feel their responsibility as stewards of the land and took their cues from it.

Willow Hill has been hiding in plain sight. Seemingly forever I have driven down Old Stone Highway, sometimes twice a day, craning my neck for a glimpse into the garden of Emily Cobb and the late Ann Stanwell, famous for its spring bulb display. Out of the periphery of my vision I’ve been aware of the 18th-century farmhouse with a traditional grape arbor on a knoll across the street.

Silly unobservant me. That is exactly what Mr. Bickford and Mr. McCarthy, who bought Willow Hill in 1994, have striven to achieve. It’s not until you enter the wooden gate, supported by a pair of granite pillars and an unobtrusive deer fence, that you realize this is a greatly loved and respected traditional Springs farm, with a nod to the 21st century at the rear.

Split-rail fences delineate the land surrounding the house and the parcel to the rear, with narrow flowerbeds running in front of the fences. Most of the flowers are white, and attention has been paid to have them open sequentially throughout the season.

White flowers exaggerate the expansiveness of the undulating lawns as the color slowly fades into darkness after dusk. One of the late spring highlights is a white wisteria cascading from the oaks edging the open space.

A mid-19th-century barn, moved from Canada to replace the farm’s original barn (sold and moved nearby in 1969), was re-erected in the rear section of the property as a guesthouse in 2001. To site the barn, more than 70 Virginia cedars were dug up and held for a year before being replanted. Some were scattered widely and naturally in front of the barn while others were planted along the edge of the woods, creating a dense background. Unfortunately the deer feasted on the bottom branches before the fence went up.

The restraint and simplicity of the grounds of Willow Hill make a visit there like a spiritual trip n a time capsule to a place and time long vanished.

Ms. Bicket and her husband, Zachary Cohen, sited their house, which she designed, at the rear of six-plus acres of abandoned pasture off Fireplace Road.  The shingled house, built in 2004, is all-American, but the hedged entry garden, aligned with the house and divided into four grassy segments traversed by paths of bluestone grit, is pure Europe. Low clipped box outlines the flower beds along the four sides of the garden, also showing the influence of France. 

When she designed the garden in 2006, Ms. Bicket selected plants that were said to be deer-resistant. After three years of destruction, gates and netting were installed, and the plant selection broadened. Year-round structure in the beds is sustained by plum yews and box clipped into spheres.

One of the most original touches, against the facade of the house, is a riff on the knot garden that has links back to antiquity. It is worth seeking out. Here box zigzags within a rectangular bed edged in box; astilbes and hellebores are planted thickly, filling the voids.

The plantings within the beds repeat patterns and textures, and this is where Ms. Bicket’s love of plants comes up against the architect’s sense of order. Perennials have been selected to provide color throughout the season. Ten days ago peonies, iris, the gorgeous Oriental poppy Patty’s Plum, and catmint, Nepeta Six Hills Giant, were dominant. A new pink Salvia nemorosa Eveline from Piet Oudolf of The Netherlands was tucked in to trial. The mophead hydrangeas will be missing this summer, but the roses should be opening by Saturday; phlox shortly, and the white crepe myrtle Natchez in August.

Ms. Bicket and her husband share a love for trees; they’ve selected those that are refined enough for the cultivated areas near the house, but blend well with the surrounding woods of oak, hickory, and locust.

Garden-making here will continue long into the future. Before acting, they observe the landscape and the transitions between house and lawn to the woods and meadow to the east, as well as that from the meadow to the woods. High on the wish list is developing a new deer-protected area for rhododendrons and azaleas, viburnum, and other ornamental trees and shrubs.

Gardening for Ms. Bicket and Mr. Cohen is one adventure after another.  Visit on Saturday so you may catch the bug, or at least some ideas to carry home.

The ARF tour will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine. Tickets are $85 each and may be purchased through arfhamptons.org or at local garden centers. Purchasers of upper-level tickets, $175 and available only through ARF, will have access to the garden of Judith and Gerson Leiber, also in Springs, and to a wine-tasting reception at the waterfront home of Marshall Watson and Paul Sparks. Mr. Watson is the design columnist for the Press Newspaper Group.

At the residence of Pamela Bicket and Zachary Cohen, a hedged entry garden is aligned with the house and divided into four grassy segments traversed by paths of bluestone.
The plantings within the beds at the Zachary Cohen and Pamela Bicket garden repeat patterns and textures. Durell Godfrey Photos