The art of making garden furniture

That’s the key question in creating any garden: how do you get all the plants you can’t resist and the ideas that flood your imagination insistently to coalesce on common ground?

The manufacturers of Garden of Sakonneta private Rhode Island coastal landscape that welcomes the public by reservation three days a week in season has been perplexing for decades – one boardwalk, hedge or unusual plant at a time.

The creative references of John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli are very varied. The defined pieces of traditional English gardens are an influence in the Little Compton garden. So too is the color field theory of pioneering modernist artist Josef Albers, whose bold pigment squares have been intensified against the backdrop of carefully chosen adjacent squares.

Souvenirs from business trips to the Amazon are also part of Sakonnet. And so are those of domestic travel – specifically, Mr. Gwynne and Mr. Folcarelli’s four- to six-hour car journeys to New York every weekend during the nearly 30 years they resided part-time in Sakonnet. , where they now live full time.

Before that, Mr Gwynne knew the land as his family’s second home. Fond memories included working alongside her sister to create planting spaces in the dark thicket of overgrown autumn olive trees, multifloral roses and oriental bittersweet, connecting these spaces with narrow tunnels hewn in the undergrowth.

These raw, connected openings were the first hint of what Sakonnet was to become.

The garden now has 15 distinct rooms, affectionately named as Punchbowl, a shaded effect space, thanks to gradations of rhododendron colors ranging from cherry to pink to white. Pinkie, in a grove of frankincense cedars (Calocedrus decurrens), is also about color and verticality: 12-foot poles are painted to match the clematis that climb them.

But Fernie, a small green space tucked away in the middle of the garden, is Mr. Folcarelli’s favourite: there, trunks of dead autumn olives are wrapped in wire netting to support Euonymus vines, creating meandering shapes resembling to snakes.

Throughout the garden, living walls and those of stone and logs create spaces for horticultural theater acts, allowing for a sense of hide and seek rather than overwhelming you as you move through the landscape.

“Because we have too many plants, the dividers between rooms try to create a sense of calm and focus,” Gwynne said. “Otherwise you see all of a sudden.”

Small plates, served one at a time, instead of the exhaustion of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Patio sets, however, do more than just measure pleasure. Their walls allow for what humans call “microclimate manipulation”, a technique for coaxing coveted plants – from palms to the elusive Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis Lingholm) – into adapting to the maritime environment of zone 7b.

Perhaps this strategy comes as no surprise, if you know the background of these gardeners: As Design Manager for the Wildlife Conservation Society at the Bronx Zoo for many years, Mr. Gwynne created exhibits on housing. Mr. Folcarelli has also created living spaces as a visual presentation manager in retail and hospitality, as well as for private clients.

Missing are the debriefings that took place for decades during their 200-mile drive to Manhattan. Mr Gwynne is said to be carrying a black book for writing notes – one of a series of identical volumes he has used for tedious record keeping since the mid-1970s.

“We would assign a factory of the week to talk about it, and we would talk about what had worked and what hadn’t,” Folcarelli recalls. “We were talking about what we had or hadn’t done. It really was a very important part of building the garden, this relentless drive.

Nowadays, between maintaining the garden and volunteering in the local community, there is no time, except perhaps in winter. Instead, there are chores and more chores, and visitors to welcome, Thursday through Saturday, to the two-acre garden – around 2,000 last year.

“I wish I could make people so happy in church,” a local minister said with a smile, after a recent tour of the garden.

“We are in the smile business,” Mr. Folcarelli said. Although there are sometimes unexpected reactions, like that of the woman who was on the verge of tears after seeing the blue poppies bloom. “She said she never thought she’d see one, one alive.”

Checked bucket list item, for successful producers and their visitor.

It is “a garden built with a wheelbarrow,” Mr. Folcarelli said, because its spaces were too narrow for earth-moving machinery, even at first.

“But it’s also monumental,” Mr Gwynne added.

It is, indeed, a construction of contrasts – of scale, color, texture, light. And men like to crank up the volume at every opportunity.

During open days, it is Mr. Folcarelli who welcomes visitors by directing them in a clockwise direction. Passing through a doorway in a 12-foot stone and log wall, they move into a world with a moss-carpeted undulating surface and a grove of old, highbush blueberries, “all gnarled, Arthur Rackham-y,” a said Mr Gwynne, referring to the work of the English illustrator.

It’s “a kind of elven forest that makes you feel huge,” he said.

Plunge into a small hole in an old holly hedge, where the first of several boardwalks beckon to an alley of Cryptomeria, the Japanese cedar, which looks as towering as giant redwoods. Such metamorphosed elements inspire visitors to explore – the desired effect.

Then, in what Mr Gwynne calls “a series of strange experiments”, there is the central lawn – and, finally, a bit of a view. Along a wall of yews (Taxus) stand iron benches found at the Puces de Paris, adorned with Chinese Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus henryana).

The black border is home to dark-leaved plants including weeping beech (Fagus sylvatica Black Swan), black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens), and Ligularia dentata Britt-Marie Crawford.

Then, just ahead, is a lighthouse from Mr. Albers’ Color Field Theory. Through an opening in a nine-foot boxwood hedge, the Neon Yellow Garden screams in contrast to the dark space you find yourself in with an outpouring of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra Aureola), variegated massive comfrey yellow, hostas and more.

The oldest space in the garden is a rectangular room “carpeted in garish azaleas and designed by rabbits”, Mr Gwynne said. Years ago, whenever an evergreen azalea was transplanted from a protected nursery area into the future garden, the animals would get on it. Back at the nursery row, the chewed up young shrub would go, creating a range of “refugee azaleas” that would eventually become the flowering wall.

How do you create a jungle in New England? The tropical quadrant of the garden offers an answer.

There are bananas and cannas, but also large-leaved tropical scythes like Ashe’s magnolia (Magnolia ashei, native to Florida) and large-leaved magnolia (M. macrophylla, found mainly in many small pockets in the southeast). A red Mughal pavilion, a souvenir of a trip to India, is perched high in the mini-jungle, draped in garlands of marigold flowers.

The two men admit it: their room creation process was a bit backward. Best practice would dictate starting with the hardscape and then adding plants. Walls and paths should come first, but they didn’t here.

“Factories are in charge,” Mr Gwynne admitted. “We just started planting and integrated everything afterwards. That’s probably why he has such a strange feeling – chimerical and sometimes even silly.

Although the bud count already matches what he describes as “three plants to a hole”, the quest for more “mythical plants” never seems to stop.

It doesn’t help that the rare plant specialists at Issima Nursery are neighbors. The nursery was behind the latest selections of men’s Chinese mayapples (Podophyllum chengii), with dark leaves with wild spots they couldn’t resist, and the alluring new range of Thalictrum.

The climate’s shift to warmer winters — the typical low in this part of Rhode Island was once around minus five degrees, but is now in the single digits — has encouraged a bolder zone.

Humans’ first experience with the area-stretching power of a well-placed stone wall involved courtship with a species of Mexican Yucca that did not thrive. The 12-foot wall they built for a needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix) was more successful: the tree grew on the south side of the wall, in the shade, for 35 years – but not without a little extra TLC.

To minimize the effect of freezing and thawing on the evergreens, the palm is wrapped in Reemay fabric during the winter, which keeps it in suspended animation. Last year, another layer of support was added: incandescent Christmas lights under the fabric, with a little thermostat that turns them on if the temperature drops below 35 degrees.

But most plants in the garden aren’t swaddled in fabric – and some aren’t even tucked away in patches. In the newer area, just as you emerge from the last formal, enclosed space, three species of milkweed (Asclepias), various aniseed hyssops (Agastache) and Verbena bonariensis are part of the mad swirl of foliage and flowers filled with pollen and nectar.

The goal? “A hole in every leaf,” Mr Gwynne said.

Come get it, beneficial insects. Dinner is served – not in a formal dining room, but in the Pollinator, as the newest wallless garden space is called.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to gardenand a book of the same name.

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