Lee Link's Lifelong Passion
Photos by Wendy Carlson
On warm June morning, Lee Link stands inside her greenhouse looking momentarily perplexed as she watches a hummingbird dart back and forth in the eaves. “I’ve heard that if you put something red in water, they’ll be attracted to it,” she says. A crimson-orange Mexican sunflower placed in a glass vase at the open doorway does the trick, and the hummingbird soon escapes to the outside terrace garden.
Watering hose in hand, Lee returns to her morning ritual. The light is still softly filtering through the thick woods above the greenhouse, but Link—dressed neatly in a crisp white blouse and lime-green pencil pants—has been up since dawn watering, deadheading, clipping, rearranging the potted plants and the garden furniture—all under the watchful eyes of Flora, a fluffy grey house cat.
Lee is a horticultural master: her gardens are regularly featured in the Garden Conservatory Tour and Trade Secrets. But she is also respects and revels in the robust wildlife that thrives in and around her gardens, whether it’s hummingbirds flittering above or snakes slithering through the lush summer grass below. “We have snakes all over here. It freaks people out. But I like them,” says Lee. Her rustic timber-clad house rests atop of a steeply sloping hill featuring three cascading stone walls.
So it is not surprising that the walls play host to usual garter snakes, and that long, narrow goldfish pond has been home to a water snake, or that rattlesnakes have been know to take up residence in the in rocky outcropping above her woodland garden. “I won’t allow my gardeners to kills snakes, especially rattlers, because they’re endangered in Connecticut,” says Lee, emphatically.
Which may seem odd coming from someone who spends much of the week in New York City, with her attorney husband Fritz. Now, weekenders for more than 30 years, they have grown accustomed to living among the wild things: bears, snakes, coyotes, bobcats, and an annual explosion of chipmunks that require Lee to keep the doors shut at all times come summer.
Her beautiful gardens have evolved over the years, engaging this natural setting and blending into the wild terrain. “I think my big concern was to keep it as much country as much as possible by keeping negative space rather than over planting all over the place,” Lee says.
When the Links first bought the house in the mid-1980s, they were nonplussed by it. Built as an A-frame, it was a throwback from the hippie-era with “an awful asphalt-shingle roof,” says Lee. But the Links fell in love with the seven-acre parcel of rugged land it stood on—they have since increased it to more than 20 acres. And they quickly realized that the house, while ugly, could be made attractive, and that the property, with its the backdrop of rolling hills and unfolding valley, was one of a kind.
So over the next 30 years, the Links transformed the house, renovating it into a 2,500-foot cottage suited to the surrounding wild beauty. It was to be primarily a weekend get-a-way. “So the first thing I did was put in a screened in porch on one end of the house. But that made it so out of balance,” Lee says.
Because the dining room, living room, and kitchen were crowded together on one floor, they installed a winter dining room and conservatory on the opposite end to balance it out. The conservatory also serves as the front entrance, opening into a courtyard formed by pillar-shaped arborvitaes connected by yews.
As Links continued to build—installing another screened sleeping porch and an arbor to shelter an outdoor shower and spa that connects the main house to a small guesthouse—the building became an extension of the outside world. In the summer, the Links spend most of their time on the screen porch: reading, dining, and in the evening watching the bats swooping back and forth like fighter pilots. “The screens are like scrims creating a little bit of a theater to the outdoors,” Lee says.
With the addition of new roof, dormers, additions, and architectural details, the house lost its weary 1970s look. Bright blue morning glories climb up the stone chimney, which features concrete rosettes that Lee salvaged from an exterior archway at their Manhattan apartment building. “The workers were taking them out to replace them with lighter fiberglass, and I said, ‘I’ll take those.’”
A stone path leads into a courtyard where potted succulents and a massive antique French oil jug command attention. Here, and elsewhere the influence of good friend and neighbor Michael Trapp is evident in the use sculptural artifacts. She ripped out a perennial garden and replaced it with gravel and cobblestone, accenting the space with garden orbs, pillars, and a trio of evenly spaced, matching dogwoods. Off one side of the house, a former vegetable garden was cleared away and replaced with a grassy field, and the Links installed a part-Asian and part-Arts-and-Crafts-style pool pavilion with a screened interior for relaxing—and enjoying the spectacular views. The greenhouse above the garage was constructed last, but it is where Lee first begins her morning with a cup of coffee in hand.
With everything in place that garden connoisseur could wish for, it’s no wonder that Lee spends most of her time here—Fitz, a confessed non-gardener, prefers golfing. “I rarely leave the campus. I just love the park-like feeling I have created here,” Lee says.
She caught the gardening bug more than 40 years ago. “I had the luck of living in Paris for two years, and Fritz had found an apartment with a huge garden that was enormous, larger than the apartment. But it was a total mess.”
She threw herself into renovating it, and in the process discovering the joy of gardening, now her lifelong passion. “That’s what got me started: It was like being given a gift,” she says.