The Gardens Are Choreographed

Open from May to October and of interest all year
Alex Feleppa, LongHouse’s horticulturalist. Carissa Katz


On an unseasonably warm day in early March, a tour of the LongHouse Reserve’s gardens began on the Golden Path, where Barmstead gold, a late bloomer in the reserve’s winter-flowering witch hazel collection, was still resplendent in rich yellow with a burgundy burst at its center.

On either side of the path is a mix of native and non-native witch hazel, the first of which begin blooming around Thanksgiving. The last fade just as daffodils enter their spring glory, but weeks before the gardens open regularly to visitors. 

When Alex Feleppa, LongHouse’s horticulturalist, began working there a year and a half ago, one of the first things Jack Lenor Larsen asked him was what the reserve could do “to increase off-season traffic, to stay on the calendar,” Mr. Feleppa said.

Tours of the witch hazel were one obvious answer.

For the young horticulturalist, who will be 40 this year, working to help carry out the vision of the 89-year-old creative mastermind of LongHouse, there is no bad time to visit the gardens, but off-season tours help “clue people in to the four-season nature and four-season interest.”

“Even though the season is May through October, there are things of interest all year because Jack has been so passionate about the design,” Mr. Feleppa said.

“What is really wonderful is that I have two teachers.”

 “One, I have Jack and his sense of design and his knowledge of the land and what has worked and what hasn’t. . . . That is the greatest teaching tool.”

“Then I have the land as a teacher.” In horticulture, he explained, there are two equally important rules: Put the right plant in the right place, and plant and take care of that plant the way it wants to be tended to. “For that, the property is its own teaching tool, and it’s amazing.”

LongHouse’s standouts change by the week, Mr. Feleppa said, going on to describe something special about every section of the property. In the winter, it’s the Golden Path. As winter tapers off, the hellebores blooming in the Kreye Canyon at the far back of the gardens are a special treat. The daffodils are everywhere as early spring progresses, and then, in early May, the cherry trees bloom.

By late May the Red Garden is spectacular, Mr. Feleppa said. “You just can’t beat it.” A mass of azaleas in what Mr. Larsen described to him as a symphony of reds line the walkway there. “When that is in bloom and there are purple-leafed plums above that, it is so magnificent, and it shows the value of massing things.”

The Scree Garden, which is near the house, is great every time of year, he said, and is especially nice when the moss phlox is in bloom in early summer. In June “the roses start doing their thing,” and in midsummer he’s partial to the sand dunes, which greet visitors as they enter the gardens through the gatehouse. “Because that’s the first vision of LongHouse, you have a real feeling that you’ve arrived somewhere different.”

Every visitor to the property — and there are 12,000 each year — interacts with the gardens and the artwork in an individual and unique way, Mr. Feleppa said. And it is hoped that they will find new treats each time they visit.

“From my experience in other public gardens, I know Americans are so flower-centric. In many ways, LongHouse is not that. This is about form and texture, about the other aspects of the garden that quickly get overlooked.”

The artwork throughout the property is moved almost as often as the plants are. “Jack always wants LongHouse to exemplify what is new and what is different. He wants the choreography to be a bit different, and we want the discoveries to be new.” Pathways move, new art comes in, new structures are built and old ones are taken away. An earthform pyramid at the back of the gardens is gone this year, for example, and a new moss garden is being planned beyond that in the Council Ring.

Bonifacio Rojas, the head gardener since before LongHouse was established as a foundation, and Mr. Rojas’s right-hand man (and nephew), Josue Rojas, bring Mr. Larsen’s vision to life. Two seasonal gardeners join in the spring, and last year, Mr. Feleppa got a garden volunteer program going. He is in charge of buying and laying out material and of all plant record-keeping.

 “For me, the greatest challenge is to make sure that I’m always changing things enough and keeping it as fresh as Jack has been able to do.”

“He’s so positive and he’s so fun. He enjoys the process, and he’s so tuned in to trends, whether it’s design or horticulture.” The two often discuss “what will be the next big movement and how does that relate to LongHouse.” Mr. Larsen often emphasizes “the value of subtraction in the garden.”

“We’re at a point now where taking things away, proper editing, is just as valuable as adding something to the space because we can accentuate what is beautiful and what has happened naturally.”

Mr. Feleppa described a new movement inspired by Piet Oudolf, an acclaimed Dutch garden designer, “of big drifts of plants, big masses of things. What that achieves is you get the color when they bloom, but you also get the structure.” Mr. Larsen explored the same ideas when he created the Red Garden, one of the first on the property, and now he and Mr. Feleppa are working together to get back to greater massing in the gardens.

Mr. Feleppa and Mr. Larsen meet every morning to discuss short and long-term plans. In buying plant material this year, “we were pushing each other to increase the quantities, increase the mass of certain things,” Mr. Feleppa said. “For me, consistency and repetition of plant material helps the choreography through the space. You want to walk along and you want to see where this one planting is going to take you and how it’s going to transition to the next space.”

“It’s a dance. The plants dance with each other. We dance in the space.” And that motion never stills.

“This whole place is a work in pro­gress and it is also meant to be a teaching tool, for people to come and see what we have success with and what we don’t,” Mr. Feleppa said.