An Accidental Gardener
Taking her cues from nature and her childhood
“A LOT OF MY GARDENING HAS BEEN BY ACCIDENT,” ADMITS ALICE LEVIN, as she surveys her property, which includes an antique house and lush, yet rustic gardens in North Wilton. “I put something in and think, ‘that looks nice—I could do that again’ or ‘that didn’t work—I’ll try something else’. I try to take nature and edit it. I like a casual garden, rather than a formal one.” Her philosophy may explain why her gardens, gorgeous as they are, appear to have an almost random quality, as though they planted themselves; they emerge from the ground without a bit of contrivance or affectation. Her deep respect and appreciation for the vegetation surrounding her may trace, in part, to the fact that she knows the land so well. The property has been in her family since 1929; she was seven when her parents, Manhattanites, purchased the now 17-acre farm as their country home. “It was a very poor farm. The original part of the house probably dates from about 1810. It was dilapidated, and had no plumbing. My parents had great courage; at the time, not many people were buying country homes so far from the city. It took us several hours to get here. Back then there was no parkway, it was all back roads,” she explains.
While Levin spent her childhood summers climbing trees and playing and exploring in the woods, her parents worked to transform the rundown grounds. She helped them occasionally but recalls, “My parents weren’t very sophisticated gardeners, although my father, in particular, loved to grow things. I worked in the yard with him because it pleased him, but I don’t think gardening interested me much back then.” However, it’s clear her childhood experience shaped her passion for nature—for flowers, bushes and trees—as an adult.
Levin went off to college, married and returned to her family’s country home in 1949 with her husband to raise her own family. “I didn’t become a real gardener until my kids were old enough that I had the time and could do what I wanted,” she admits. She set about enhancing the landscaping her parents had put in place. Her father had planted many trees, including apple, peach and pear trees. Over the years, Levin has added even more, creating several arboretums. “Trees are my passion,” she enthuses. She often used her woods as her nursery, digging up seedlings and smaller plantings there and moving them to her yard. “I started by finding interesting native ones – dogwoods, hawthorns, shadblow—and transplanting them. I tried to place them so I could see as many as possible from my kitchen and bedroom windows. One of my favorite trees is the fringe tree. The town was going to cut down one in the center of town, so I asked if I could take some seedlings. Four of the five I put in have survived. Another of my favorites is the red leaf Thundercloud plum.”
Because her yard is punctuated by trees, she has had to cultivate plants that thrive in shade. Deer have been another consideration. “To a degree, my gardens have been formed by my inability to control the deer,” she laughs. She has never put up a fence because she thinks part of the beauty of her property is its openness. “Since I can’t keep the deer out, I’ve had to figure out what I can grow and what I can’t. Most of my gardens contain plants like foxglove, which is poisonous, Canadian anemones, ferns, and smaller deer resistant flowering bushes. I’m really into bush and tree gardening now because so many of the perennials don’t survive. I love smoke bushes. I have one bordering the head of the driveway, with a variegated dogwood growing up right through the middle of it. I love the color contrast of the two bushes,” she says.
In her side yard, one of many softly riotous fern gardens graces the base of a towering maple. “I found the root structure and rock formations there so beautiful. I didn’t want to cover anything up. The area receives very little sun, but I discovered one of the few things I could grow there was ferns. I planted every kind I could find from my back woods. The only ones not indigenous to the property are the silvery ones; those are Japanese, and imported,” she admits.
A massive bed of pachysandra encircles another large maple in the center of the backyard. “There was no chance of growing grass there. My father put in a small circle of pachysandra around the base. It has spread over the years, threatening to take over that part of the lawn completely,” she laughs, “but it has created quite a beautiful pattern.” To break the monotony of such a large bed, Levin tucked a grouping of foxgloves, tiny Japanese maples and azaleas (which the deer haven’t discovered yet) into one side, among an interesting arrangement of rocks. In another area of the yard, Levin has planted a grassy carpet of thyme, anchored by what she refers to as “another gorgeous set of rocks.”
The abundant varieties of trees, bushes, flowers and ferns on her property create an intricate tapestry of colors and patterns throughout the growing season. Levin’s gardens start to bloom in early spring, with the white forsythia, and continue all summer long, until the hydrangeas peak in late fall. “I love blues but it is hard to grow plants that produce blue flowers because many aren’t deer resistant. My gardens tend to have more pinks, whites and greens. Foxglove comes in white and every shade of pink. Deer never eat ferns, so my fern gardens have been one of my joys.” Levin also loves daffodils – which happen to be deer resistant too. Every year she plants additional bulbs in her yard, including in front of her house, along the road, and across the road as well.
A series of thrown rock walls, many dating back to the early 1800’s, several benches, an exuberant sculpture by local artist Rick Parisot and a double arbor add to the spontaneous yet pastoral beauty of her grounds. “My father commissioned the arbor, which has since been reconstructed twice due to rot. The current iteration was built by Halfdan Prahl, a local arborist who has worked on my property since he was ten. The arbors were originally grape arbors, but I couldn’t stand to not have wisteria, so I stripped the grape vines on one of them and replaced them with wisteria,” she says.
At 87 (she’s not at all self-conscious about admitting her age), Levin still does most of her own yard work—a fact as amazing as her gardens. “I don’t mow and I don’t plant large trees, but I do my own weeding. I prefer to, because nobody knows my flowers the way I do. I couldn’t explain to anyone what should be pulled out and what shouldn’t,” she laughs. She did install an irrigation system that covers a large part of the yard. “I had to. I didn’t have the strength anymore to haul water everywhere.” As a result, plants like maidenhair, rare in her back woods, have flourished in her gardens.
Levin points out that some of the wildflowers she has put in have taken over parts of her gardens, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “A bunch of Canadian anemones planted themselves in front of the house in a pachysandra bed. At first I thought ‘that’s terrible’ but then I thought ‘why’? They’re lovely actually. Now I have these wonderful flowers shooting up through the pachysandra.” For Levin, it is just another happy accident, and what gardening is all about.