Intimate Spaces in a Wide-Open Landscape

A peaceful atmosphere where less is more
A peaceful atmosphere where less is more. Abby Jane Brody

What could be more romantic than sitting on a patio on a summer’s evening basking in the perfume of flowers, listening to the distant sound of the ocean, and looking out toward Wainscott Pond on the horizon as white flowers fade into the dusk?

This is the picture, and the feeling, of Toni Ross's garden.

The old farmhouse she and her husband, the late Jeff Salaway, bought in Wainscott for themselves and their young family in the 1990s gave way early in the new millennium to a vernacular farmhouse designed with the architect Lee Skolnick and, more recently, to an expanded studio for Ms. Ross, a prolific artist whose work includes drawings, paintings, prints, and sculpture. The garden, too, evolved, balancing sentimental family memories with functionality and aesthetics.

Groves of white birches grow by the entrance to the house because Mr. Salaway (the Nick of Nick & Toni's), who died in an accident 15 years ago, admired them. A home was made for a pair of weeping eastern white pines, inherited from a favorite aunt and uncle. A large weeping katsura tree was moved, not an easy feat, when the studio was expanded because their daughter remembers playing under it as a child. A swing suspended from a huge sycamore maple, original to the property, tempts those of all ages, as does a trampoline, which is also popular with adults as well as children, Ms. Ross said.

Over the years, Ms. Ross, who is not a gardener herself, formed a fruitful collaboration with Tony Piazza of Southampton's Piazza Horticultural Group. The result is a personal garden that rings with authenticity. 

Anyone familiar with Ms. Ross's art, shown at the Drawing Room in East Hampton as well as in New York City, will immediately recognize a consistent sensibility running through the house, studio, and garden. There is a Japanese aesthetic hint, and with it, a taste for warm materials and texture.

Between the studio and the house, the property is broken into what Ms. Ross thinks of as a series of rooms -- for swimming, recreation, socializing, conversation, and relaxing. They are sharply defined, not with conventional hedges but low barriers. Ms. Ross and Mr. Piazza agreed the spaces should be defined, not cut off.

A long, dry-stacked stone wall, handsome and low, runs from the studio toward the north façade of the house and then turns northward, enclosing the pool area. Narrow horizontal stones are interspersed with larger uprights, a Central American device, Mr. Piazza explained. When the pool went in, natural wooden pickets were added to bring the wall to the height required by code.  A low hedge of Japanese holly divides the studio from the pool.

Separating the slightly sunken grass area at the northern face of the house from a large patio to its west is a curved garden bed with bushes of dwarf clethra, the native summersweet, and Rosa rugosa Blanc Double de Coubert, both of which have highly fragrant white flowers and intermingle.

The jewel in the crown, at least for me, is the grassy area to the north of the house. That side of the house is nearly all glass, with a narrow porch and two shallow bluestone steps between the porch and the grass. Moss-covered boulders densely planted with a rich mosaic of alchemilla, nepeta, Japanese painted fern, and sedum are tucked into niches on either side of the steps. 

The stone wall, on the right, zigzags toward the north. Two very large upright boulders are in the low wall by the porch. They look like sculptural elements, but in fact are shim, put there to fill in the wall to meet pool safety requirements. One is covered with a luxuriant purple clematis, while the wall sports two fragrant Hall’s honeysuckle vines, favored by Ms. Ross’s daughter. Further to the north on the wall are climbing hydrangeas.

Enclosing the space at the far end is a stone bench, mimicking the wall. It is also well-detailed and heavily planted. A hawthorn and crab apple, both on the property when the land was purchased, were transplanted to cast shade on the bench. A grass opening to the west leads to an unplanted area, looking over the field toward Wainscott Pond in the distance. Closing the space as you return to the house is the curved bed of rugosa roses and summersweet.

Most of the flowering plants near the house are white. “Color doesn’t work well in this kind of landscape,” Mr. Piazza said. White also has a calming effect, and they wanted to create a peaceful atmosphere. Under a young shade tree by the patio is a mass of one of my favorite "grass" plants, snowy wood rush, Luzula nivea. It has soft white flowers that persist for a long period and graceful hairy soft green blades that glitter when hit by the sun. Widely used in England and Europe in shady spots, Luzula nivea deserves to be more widely used here, as well.

Color is largely reserved for containers. Ms. Ross’s favorite colors for containers are purple, blue, a maroon-like red, and orange. One year the large pots on the porch were filled with the vivid orange/red of Begonia boliviensis, while last summer they were nearly black with ornamental millet for height and the rex begonia vine as a skirt.

The parts of the garden that most engage Ms. Ross are a large vegetable garden — the only part fenced to keep deer out — and the beehives. She began growing vegetables in containers and, she said, they “kept growing. The kids like it.” But I suspect that even without the kids, Ms. Ross would covet the vegetable garden. This will be her fourth season caring for bees, and last year 230 pounds of honey was harvested. One year Marilee Foster, a neighbor, grew millet in a field nearby, which made the honey particularly memorable.

Every property has its own challenges and this one is no different. The water table is very high and drainage was a problem. Mr. Piazza explained that a layer of sand was placed above the water table and below the topsoil. The drainage moves horizontally through the sand, seeping into the water table, a technique he calls horizontal wicking. “This is what sets up the success of everything you see,” he said.

In a refrain often heard from gardeners with maturing gardens, “We tend not to put in many plants any more,” Ms. Ross said. “During the last five years we mostly have taken things out. Less is more.”

Perhaps less is more is what creates both the harmony and satisfying tension between the details of the Japanese-inflected designed intimate spaces in the garden and the wide-open flat landscape of Wainscott with its huge sky and dramatic sunsets.

Calming white flowers fill beds by the house, where a glass wall reflects the landscape.
LongHouse Photos
A stone bench and well-detailed boulder plantings, shown in a side view above, echo the adjacent wall.