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In Full Bloom

Peter May's Bridgewater garden and property dazzle the lucky visitors



Wendy Carlson

“Come early, there’s a lot to take in,” says Greg Bollard, project manager of Maywood Gardens, the sweeping estate in Bridgewater owned by financier Peter May. “I think you’ll see when you get here. Come around 5 a.m. when the light is good,” he adds. So, on a relentlessly hot July morning, I find myself slowly navigating a narrow country road in Bridgewater. At the top of a hill, I stop to take in the view. Below, a lush, green valley unfurls, punctuated by a light-blue dairy barn and silo. But the focal point of this pastoral scene is an immense glass structure, softly glowing in the pearlescent light.

The 4,000-square-foot greenhouse is the hub for six full-time horticulturists and two landscapers. From a distance, I spy several workers buzzing around the grounds in golf carts, shouldering rakes and readying themselves for another day of weeding and preening. At first blush, Maywood is jaw-dropping—like a modern-day Downton Abbey. With more than 1,000 acres—much of it contiguous—it is the largest, privately owned estate in Litchfield County. Roughly 15 acres of meticulously tended gardens, a vineyard and orchards, along with the greenhouse complex are situated on 60 acres around the hilltop residence, a Georgian manor house.

“I think a lot of people misread it,” says Bollard as we spin up the gravel drive in a golf cart. “The mission here is to embrace a holistic approach to land stewardship. We’re very much geared toward using the land in a variety of environmentally sound ways, not just aesthetically.”

So, while the traditional gardens with their vibrant splashes of color and geometric patterns are stunning, production gardens also are integrated into the landscape. Estate vegetables, cut flowers, maple syrup, honey, eggs, berries, herbs, and other produce are sold at the historic Village Store, which May also owns.

Neatly pruned orchards yield apples, pears, and peaches. The two-acre vineyard produces several tons of Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay grapes for annual wine-making production. This year Bollard, also the vintner, incorporated estate fruit to produce dessert wines, including a Maywood apple-maple-syrup–infused wine.

To purchase them, one has to venture beyond the village border—Bridgewater is a dry town, the state’s last, in fact. But May, who wants to open a restaurant in space adjacent to the Village Store, is among the residents hoping to change that status. For now, Maywood wine is only available for purchase at liquor stores and restaurants outside Bridgewater. 

Beyond the gardens, there are swaths of woodland and forest, portions of which border Lake Lillinonah. Native Queen Anne’s lace, thistle, birch bark, and wild choke cherries are a few of the forageables harvested from the woodland that turn up at locavore restaurants such as the Community Table in Washington and at New Milford Hospital.

The woodland is also home to a significant population of migratory birds, including bald eagles, according to Bollard, who works with state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s eagle restoration program.

Passing two whimsical cow sculptures, we turn onto a linden-tree allée leading to the house. Designed by New York architects Ferguson and Shamamian, who built two other homes for the Mays in Palm Beach and Beaver Creek, Colorado, the 10,000-square-foot house incorporates a carriage house and loggia. Built in the classical style, it features six different types of brick and stone harvested from the Roxbury quarry and 400 terra-cotta pots. But the vista from the backyard makes the defining statement.

“The view is what drew me here,” says May, admiring the undulating profile of the lower Berkshires. He and his wife, Leni, first discovered Litchfield County in the early 1970s when they were searching for a weekend retreat from the city. “We ended up staying in a little cottage on Candlewood Lake in 1970. It was really just a shack, but it’s all we could afford at the time,” says May, who is president and a founding partner of Trian Partners.

In 1976, the Mays purchased the first parcel of Bridgewater property, with a 1200-square-foot saltbox set on several acres of wooded land. Over the following decades, the Mays acquired additional parcels of land, including a 300-acre farm, now the greenhouse-complex site, and in 1991 they replaced the saltbox with the Georgian manor.

The gardens evolved gradually, designed as a series of plateaus, each leading down to the next. “The challenge on the site was that the contours were pretty dramatic, 60-feet elevations, and we had to landscape to blend into the contours of a house set into the hillside,” says Bollard. The traditional English sunken garden, a loggia with a formal inlaid garden, a back-terrace area, and a pool area highlight the back lawn, which slopes down to the greenhouse complex.

From early summer into fall, there is something blooming at every turn. Day lilies border a woodland path with a view of a great weeping willow arched over the greenhouse pond. Irises, lavender, and hollyhocks create different heights, colors, and textures in the sunken garden, which is partially bordered by a ten-foot-high stone wall. Vibrant purple-blue annuals play a lead role in the loggia’s boxwood-pattern garden that overlooks a waterfall. Blocks of peonies, delphinium, iris, and achillea from the cutting garden are used to create more than 30 flower arrangements per week. “No matter what time of the growing season it is, there is something in bloom,” says Bollard.

The greenhouse gardens, equally dramatic, are divided into four lawn areas, two with espaliered apple trees, flanked by raised-bed borders. In summer, sunflowers, zinnias, and dahlias take center stage. An expansive potager garden produces lettuces, tomatoes, herbs, and other vegetables. The greenhouse nurtures seasonal plants, and a portion of it is dedicated to tropical and exotic plants. Elsewhere on the property is the Orchid House, which Bollard calls “my ICU unit for orchids.” 

There is ample room to expand this garden paradise, but at 70 years old, May, who strolls the gardens each weekend with dog Lucy in tow, is content. “At some point, you start scaling back rather than expanding,” he says. Originally, a nine-hole golf course was designed for the property, but only two holes were installed, a compromise to the estate’s agricultural footprint.

As for Maywood’s future, May quips: “My kids joke that they’ll make it into a catering hall after I’m gone! We take great pride in what we’ve done here, and we want to see it stay that way.” 

Maywood is open to the public annually during the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days, this year on September 7. 

 

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