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Trees First

From this foundation, everything follows



“We should all plant more trees,” says Penelope “Pepe” Maynard. She is looking out at majestic native oaks that seem to hold up the sky over her picturesque garden. “I am a firm believer in the English adage: plant a tree for any event.” As long as she can remember, she has marked family birthdays, deaths, and anniversaries by planting trees. Trees are the leitmotif of her gardening.

When she and her husband, John, acquired their eight-acre property on Hook Road in 1969, the oaks were there, so were dogwoods, but there was no garden, only a wooded tangle covering a steep incline along Mount Aspetong. “At the time, we were living in a New York City apartment with two small boys,” says Pepe. “I am not a city girl. We needed a place where the kids could run and I could dig in the earth.” Three years later they decided to build a house, a four-bedroom contemporary where the couple still lives. “The trouble with the architect’s design was it meant cutting trees,” says Pepe. A compromise was reached and only three trees had to come down. “We built around the other trees,” Pepe adds. To this day, inches outside a floor-to-ceiling living-room window, the tall spare trunk of an oak looms like a stately column in a stage set.

The house built, Pepe wanted a garden. Raised on a farm in East Africa, she learned about plants early. She trained at the New York Botanical Garden, worked on creating the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and was designing gardens for friends. Now she set about putting in a small rock garden, a vegetable plot, and a peony border, while John began clearing the land below the house for trees and shrubs. John’s father gave them prize rhododendrons and hollies to plant. But, except for the peonies, deer ate everything. John, with a lawyer’s rational bent, concluded that the considerable cost to fence the property was worth it.

Once the deer barrier was up (it took two years to complete), planting could start in earnest. Pepe feels strongly that a garden should fit its site. “To be successful, it has to feather into its surroundings,” she says. For them, that meant a woodland garden that conformed to the rocky, sloping environs, with trees and shrubs as the key.
Pepe selected trees for their shape, foliage, bark, or other aesthetic quality. Many are unusual. The katsura, a Japanese native, in the fall gives off a fragrance like caramelized sugar. A golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) is like a sunburst even on a cloudy day. There is a cedar of Lebanon (not many of those around), a Stewartia pseudocamellia with white camellia-like flowers and pink and gray bark, and Japanese maples with sinuous trunks and filigreed leaves. Franklinias and two splendid Southern magnolias, used to warmer climes, do well here because of the excellent drainage. Thanks to the downhill nature of the land, water runs off, and the roots are spared an accumulation of ice in winter.

Pepe replaced many of the native Cornus florida dogwoods that died out in the 1990s anthracnose pandemic, and also planted Asian Kousa dogwoods (large flowers and gorgeous bark) and a Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ (creamy white on the leaf margins, like fresh-fallen snow). The tall canopies of the mature oaks, pruned every five years, maintain a dappled shade over the other trees. Evergreens add contrast. Pepe is particularly fond of the false cypresses (Chamaecyparis), such as the Alaska cedar that grows to 100 feet, and intensely green Thujas (Arborvita), for vertical accents. Many yew hedges, boxwoods, hollies, and firs (Abies koreana prostrata) whose needles are green on top, silver beneath, and produces purple cones!—are part of the panorama today.

Where the land sloped precariously, level places to garden were created with a succession of retaining walls. Made of local stone and built by local craftsmen, Vincenzo and Rocco Bueti, the walls follow the contour of the land to look natural. Hidden from view are four-feet-deep footings reinforced with rebar; drainage pipes to release pressure from descending water; and underground “bridges” crafted over tree roots. Says Pepe proudly: “We only lost one tree in the whole process—a magnolia we tried to move.”

As the walls went in, patches of level lawn became possible and beds for shrubs and perennials were grubbed out. Paths now circumnavigate a variety of intriguing plants—airy perennial grasses such as the Chinese Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ waving in the breeze, and the native Carex pensylvanica sedge and its cultivars hugging the ground. Barrenworts (varieties of Epimedium), dogtooth violets, and the lovely native columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis) with its nodding yellow and red blooms grow under the trees in profusion. “In more formal flowers I like blue and pink, pure colors the way they were put on this earth,” says Pepe. So the peonies are pink, there are pink azaleas, pink pinks (Dianthus), blue balloon flowers (Platycodon), blue and pink asters, but also some white. In spring the color scheme changes to white and yellow with thousands of daffodil bulbs interspersed with white snowflake (Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’).

Once they had moved there full-time, the Maynards added an all-glass, octagonal master bedroom. “When we wake up, we have the garden all around us,” Pepe says. More flowerbeds were planted near this extension. They also built a swimming pool. “We did that when our friendly neighbor died and our boys could no longer use his pool,” explains John. The pool is free-form, because it had to conform to a depression in the existing rock ledge. Around it and down from it, Pepe created a series of terraced beds of shrubs and perennials; above it, John had a garden shed built of old barn boards that looks as if it had grown there with the trees. More recently, they added an indoor lap pool that also serves as a conservatory for a collection of citrus trees and tropical plants.

When Pepe’s aunt from England came to stay one time, she looked out over her niece’s garden and exclaimed: “This is truly a fairyland.” That is how the hundreds of visitors who have come to admire the Maynards’ creation have felt. It has been on the Garden Conservancy Open Days program, that Pepe helped start, for 20 years. But now Pepe and John are leaving their fairyland. They have built a house near their grown sons in Massachusetts. “It’s time for us to move,” says Pepe. How does she feel about it? “Sad. Over four decades I have put so much of myself into this place. It’s home.” Is she taking anything with her from the garden? “A few cuttings of favorite plants to root.” Then she adds: “And ideas!” Ideas for a new garden, new trees, in a new place. They have already planted an allée of sugar maples there.

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