My Favorite Rooms
An interior designer rearranges the landscape
Bunny Williams is a much-sought-after interior designer, with her own line of home furnishings. She is also a dedicated gardener, having worked on her extraordinary garden in Falls Village, Connecticut, for more than 30 years. She has written and lectured about gardens and garden design, and her own is featured in her book, Love Affair With a House and in Private Gardens of Connecticut. Recently, she sat down with contributing editor Francis Schell to discuss her ideas about gardening in general, and her own special place in Connecticut.
You are one of the foremost interior designers in the country and also an avid gardener of 12 acres in Falls Village. The one word that seems to intersect your vocation and avocation is “rooms.” Can you elaborate on that?
Inside the house and outside it, you need to break up the space into a size that your eye can take in. Unless you isolate the eye, you will never experience a space. In a house you make a floor plan, and from open space you create an entrance, a hallway with doors into rooms. In a garden, the space is even vaster—think of the sky overhead—so you divide it into different rooms: a parterre garden, a rose garden, a wild garden, a vegetable garden, areas that your eye can comfortably focus on. In both the house and the garden, hallways and pathways are important to lead the visitor, to make it easy to navigate the space between rooms. Finally, rooms build on the element of surprise, drawing you along from one to the other to see what’s around the corner.
“Gardens are as individual as fingerprints,” you have said. What is the particular fingerprint in your garden?
Some people’s gardens are entirely linear, neat, clipped, and manicured to perfection; others have a more loosey-goosey
approach. Mine is a mixture of both. I must have structure and form, but I also love randomness to soften the formality. In a room, pillows on the couch, stacks of books, papers on the desk break up formality. In all my formal gardens, plants are allowed to do their thing—amid the severely clipped boxwood in the parterre garden, annuals may run riot; in the sunken garden, the severity of the stone walls is relieved by creeping dianthus. I love vines that spread, a rose or clematis climbing over a fence or billowing on an archway. A combination of formality and randomness is what a garden should be.
Why garden in this area?
I grew up in Virginia and do miss the early spring of dogwoods and redbuds, but not the hot summers. Here we have a pretty extraordinary climate that allows us to garden intensely from April to the first frost. We have the wonderful fall colors, and in winter we can enjoy our house and recoup for the coming gardening season.
Practically everything in your garden came about through correcting mistakes, you say. How is that?
I am a self-educated gardener. Take my sunken garden. When I bought my house, I immediately wanted a garden, so I looked for a flat place, dug long perennial beds, backed them with five-foot trellises, then went out and bought lots of plants to put in them. Only the plants were too small. The scale was wrong—for large beds, I needed bold, large plants. I had low stone walls built to front the beds. But the designer in me gradually realized that the picture was still boring, so in the lawn between the beds I had a small reflecting pool dug. I surrounded the pool with a stone terrace and enclosed it with a boxwood hedge. After several years, this garden now made sense. Most recently, to connect the sunken garden to the nearby parterre garden, I leveled a piece of the lawn behind it, planted a yew hedge and created an empty “room” to link the two gardens. I call it my 25-year-old missing link.
Which is your favorite part of your garden?
The woodland garden, because it has been my problem child. When I decided to tackle this wild, hilly slice of our property, I had no inkling of the problems I would have. It brought me to my knees, learning what would and would not grow in this dry woodland environment with poor soil. It has been like a delinquent child maturing into a wonderful adult. Today, after ten years, it finally looks like something. Thousands of flowering bulbs, hellebores, primroses color it in the spring, ferns spread under the tall trees whose trunks give this garden its structure. It is now a place where I want to spend time.
You share the garden with your husband, John Rosselli. How do you accommodate each other’s affinities?
It is a bit challenging when one spouse moves into the established garden of another, as John did. There is the pride of ownership, the divergence in tastes. But eventually you learn to accommodate. My husband, being of Italian descent, loves loud colors and delights in his fuchsia, orange, and red geraniums. In the beginning I didn’t, but gradually I began to like them. I added some softer-toned and scented ones, and now we delight in “our” geranium collection. These plants have pride of place lined up in pots atop a stone wall. Developing projects together helped in learning how to accommodate each other. And John, an excellent cook, is fussy about his vegetables, so he holds sway in the vegetable garden, though I designed it.
You and John are noted for your garden ornaments. What do they add to your garden?
I love the juxtaposition of man-made and nature-made. Ornaments add the inanimate component. It is wonderful to see a piece of stone sculpture, for instance, contrasting with an exuberant planting of perennials. Their placement is important, though. As focal points, they beckon the eye. Our Italian antique stone urn placed at the end of a path makes you want to go up the steps leading to it. A set of faux-bois chairs and table in the woodland invite you to sit and linger. You should always have places in gardens to sit. Under spigots, old outdoor sinks are useful for taking water for plants and animals. Perhaps my favorite “ornament” is a 19th-century wire compost bin placed in the middle of our vegetable garden that combines originality with practicality.
The Greek-temple pool house of rustic, local oak logs is one of the most unusual structures in the region.
After we built the pool on a hill some distance from the house it became a destination. We needed a pool house where we could spend time. I didn’t want to settle for a standard white clapboard structure. I wanted something whose look better fit the site near our woodland. While paging through one of my garden books, I came on a picture of an 18th-century house whose porch columns were of tree trunks. Ideal for our structure so close to the woods! And our site atop a hill perfectly fit a Greek temple. So that’s what we built entirely of logs. Today I never tire of walking through the orchard and suddenly seeing my temple coming into view before me.
Like most gardeners, you have given a lot to your garden. What has your garden given to you?
For me, gardening is close to a religious experience. I don’t see how you can be an agnostic if you garden. I constantly marvel at the amazing processes of nature, how a seed of a passion flower gives way to that delicate object of petals and stamens. I love the mystery of gardening and it puts me in a philosophical frame of mind. I can decorate a room according to a plan and when it is done it will stay that way. But in a garden, as much as you plan, the outcome is beyond your control, always subject to the vagaries of weather. Of course, in the physical realm, there is no better tiredness than the one at the end of a day of gardening.
You see many gardens and landscapes. What are the most common mistakes you see?
Too much foundation planting. That technique was invented in the 1950s to hide the ugly cinder block foundations. It is so much prettier to see the house connect to the ground, with low plantings or ones at a slight distance from it. Poor color combinations are also a frequent problem—bright pink azaleas against a red brick wall. And trees tend to be planted too close to houses, with no regard for their size in a few decades. There is sameness, too, in the trees planted, flowering trees that the nurseries proffer because they are easy to grow. Too few hawthorns, oaks, and maples are used.
What would be your advice to a homeowner just beginning to make a garden?
To have a garden, you must want it. Whether you plan it yourself or have help, you must take ownership of it. It must be your point of view, your vision. Before you rush to a nursery to buy plants, educate yourself. Get in your car, take a camera, drive around and see what others are doing, what grows well in your neighborhood, what looks good. Visit other people’s gardens to get ideas. And don’t be in too much of a hurry. Sometimes gardening is an exercise in patience.