A House by the Sea - Bunny Williams, Schafer Gil, Christian Brechneff, Angus Wilkie, Page Dickey, Jane Garmey, Roxana Robinson (2016)
IV. CREATING THE GARDENS
“Little by little we kept developing the gardens, creating paths that lead from one garden room to another.”
GARDENS BY THE SEA
It was hard for me to look at the rocky, barren hillside where we had chosen to build La Colina and believe that we could ever grow anything in that windswept terrain. But John and I were fortunate to have as our mentor Oscar de la Renta, who had created his own magnificent garden not far away. He gave us hope, saying that with the addition of good soil and plenty of water, our bleak plot could also bloom.
We began the gardens at almost the same time that we began building the house, and it started with a single tree. One day, as we were clearing land to find the ideal building site—the highest spot with the best view of the ocean—we uncovered a struggling but sizable tree bent all the way to the ground. We learned from Oscar that the tree’s roots grow into the coral, and they cannot be transplanted, but they will grow tall and beautiful if they are watered and sheltered from the wind. We saved this one by literally building a staircase around it. On each of my site visits I checked to make sure that the tree was being protected. It was worth the effort: Now the tree is almost as tall as the house, and it drapes over the curving staircase to the main floor. Every time I walk under it, I marvel at how beautiful it has become. We ended up planting another tree of the same species on the other side of the house to balance the façade.
THE COURTYARD GARDEN
In order to create a flat platform on which to build the house, our contractor had to jackhammer into the coral hillside. This produced massive piles of coral rubble, which were used to create a wall along the road. You can enter the property either by car or through a pair of tall wooden doors that also lead you to the beach.
The driveway into the property comes along the north side of the house, and there we installed an allée of coconut palms, underplanted with a silvery gray ledge of button mangrove, or Conocarpus erectus, to shield the building from view. This makes one’s actual arrival at the house more of a surprise. The palms were small when we planted them, and we did not realize they would not grow straight. As they began to mature, some curved into the drive and made it impossible to pass through, so they had to be moved. You live and learn: One can only control nature so much, which is the humbling part of gardening.
The driveway ends in a gravel courtyard with the garage on the left and a high stone wall on the right with tall pillars topped with locally made coral-stone urns. This wall sets off the entry-courtyard garden and is covered with vines: creeping fig (Ficus pumila); Queen’s, or purple, wreath (Petrea volubilis); and Angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum). In the corners are two flowering palms (Phoenix canariensis) with orchids growing from the trunks.
“One can only control nature so much, which is the humbling part of gardening.”
More orchids nestle amid the trees. This courtyard is not only our home’s entrance but is also on view from the shady loggia where we have breakfast every morning.
One can hear water spilling into a large fountain, also covered with vines. I always love the sound of flowing or falling water in a garden, especially in a hot climate; it is instantly refreshing. Off-center in the courtyard is a stand of the remaining ancient trees we nurtured back to health, now casting wonderful shade and shadows on the bright gravel.
Whenever you are beginning to think about planning a garden, it is important to really assess your property and identify what special aspects already exist. This will make a new garden seem as though it has always been there.
“Off-center in the courtyard is a stand of the remaining ancient trees . . . now casting wonderful shade and shadows on the bright gravel.”
“Our landscape is more about foliage and the contrasts in leaf shapes and colors than simply about flowers.”
THE HILLSIDE GARDEN
The back of the house has the ocean view. We knew that we would not want a garden here, as it would distract from that view; however, it was important to anchor the house visually to the steep contours of the hillside. With Ernesto’s help we designed large steps that lead to a simple terrace with a low wall on each side. A double staircase opposite these steps leads down to a walkway that ends in a gate to the beach. The terrace is furnished with coral-stone pots surrounding an eighteenth-century cistern that John owned for years, all filled with agaves. Iron urns with more agaves sit on the low walls, enhancing the very simple area and providing a special vista when looked down upon from the second-floor porch.
The lower path features a narrow stream coming from an arched fountain under the stairs. The path is bordered by an allée of roble amarillo (Handroanthus chrysanthus), which have lovely yellow blooms and add romantic shade.We clip them regularly so they will not grow tall enough to block the view. Either side of the lawn below is dotted with coconut palms that also cast lovely shadows. For a tropical garden, I think pockets of shade are just as important as the plants themselves.
La Colina means “the hill” in Spanish, and we wanted trees to help offset the height of our lofty house at the top of a hill. We were lucky to locate four very tall matching date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) almost right away, and these we planted along the rear of the house. They instantly made the structure feel as if it belonged to the site. Sadly, we lost one tree in a storm, but another is now trying to catch up to its companions’ towering height.
Off the lower loggia we created pathways at each end—one heading to the pool and one leading to a small vegetable garden. In the initial design phase, I struggled with these paths. I like straight lines, but since the pool house is placed at an angle, this would not work. I finally came up with the idea of creating a circle of coral stone in the center of each space and placing large terra-cotta oil jars in the middle. This creates a central axis, and the paths are angled from opposite sides. I repeated this concept in other areas of the garden.
“For a tropical garden, I think pockets of shade are just as important as the plants themselves.”
THE POOLSIDE GARDEN
The north path leads to the swimming pool. The pool house is fashioned as a Greek temple, its granite columns extending to the edge of the water, which often reflects their image. Along the sides of the pool we constructed low stone walls and terraces just wide enough for chaises for reading, sunning, or napping. We planted tall hedges behind a wall of palms and Tahitian gardenia (Gardenia taitensis). A large ficus in one corner has grown and created a natural umbrella. At the end of the pool we created a fountain made from eighteenth-century Regency stone. It is covered with a huge cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens), one of my favorite flowers. Under the palms I tucked night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), which has the most intoxicating scent, perfect for moonlight swims.
On the west side of the pool house we sited a circular terrace shaded by a giant ficus—the perfect spot for lunch at midday. The ficus has a huge large-leafed Epipremnum pinnatum vine climbing through the tree. The contrast of the small leaves of the ficus and the big bold leaves of the epipremnum is very interesting. The garden beds around the terraces are filled with huge sago palm (Cycas revoluta) backed with giant leaves of elephant’s ear (Colocasia gigantea).
“The pool house is fashioned as a Greek temple, its granite columns extending to the edge of the water, which often reflects their image.”
THE CACTUS GARDEN
The longer we stay at La Colina, the more we develop the gardens and create paths that lead from one outdoor “room” to another. An informal, curved, shaded path snakes along a small pond surrounded by ferns, with giant lacy tree philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) on the far side draping over the water. The pond is filled with fish busily swimming under water lilies. This shaded path leads to an open, sunny spot where we chose to put a round cactus garden. A low wall, perfect for sitting late in the afternoon with a glass of rosé, circles a bed with various cacti and agaves, including Indian comb (Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum), lady of the night cactus (Cereus hexagonus), and mother-in-law’s cushion (Echinocactus grusonii). Atop the wall, inspired by the famous Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, I placed bright blue pots filled with still more cacti.
A stroll through the gardens is a stroll through many different landscapes: From the sunny, bright cactus garden, you can continue down a long allée of royal palms (Roystonea regia) underplanted with tall ginger lilies (Hedychium coronarium) lit up with bright pale pink flowers. At the end of the path you end up on the lower lawn, with coconut palms dancing across the grass and where an antique bronze antelope (a piece John brought from his farm in New Jersey) sits on a stone base, shaded by the trees.
TENDING TROPICAL GARDENS
Throughout the gardens we are always tucking orchids into the trees, planting the delicate flowers in coconut shells and then wiring the shells to the trunks. I planted creeping fig vine (Ficus pumila), which softens the house and walls, making the house feel that it has been there forever and is a real part of the garden. The tiny leaves completely cover the garage. Over time we have added other vines that now drape over the stone walls; Queen’s wreath (Petrea volubilis), velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens), jasmine vine (Jasminum officinale), trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans), and passion flowers (Passiflora) all bring life to the coral stone.
We love our garden, but we have made many mistakes along the way, mainly overplanting. We can never imagine that a scrawny little plant we purchased for a few dollars will grow into a giant specimen in such a short period of time. Coming from the climate of northwestern Connecticut, where we’re lucky if something grows six inches in one year, we found it hard to imagine a plant growing six inches in one day. But that is what year-round tropical sun and frequent evening showers will do for a garden. Also, our landscape is more about foliage and the contrasts in leaf shapes and colors than simply about flowers.
Tropical plants are so strong and architectural that, for me, they are more exciting when planted in masses. And John loves to make trips to the local nursery (especially when I am back in New York) to look for even more plants.But we have both come to realize that careful thinking and planning about where particular plants should go make for a better overall design. Now it is all about constant pruning and editing to keep the gardens in shape. Like our fellow garden lovers everywhere, we have found having gardens such a joy, and we spend many hours wandering through them, realizing how lucky we are.
“Like our fellow garden lovers everywhere, we have found having gardens such a joy, and we spend many hours wandering through them, realizing how lucky we are.”
A STROLL IN THE GARDENS BY PAGE DICKEY
Here’s what I love about Bunny and John’s gardens at La Colina: visual pleasures that linger in my mind’s eye long after a visit.
Before even entering the property, you see a high wall made up of coral rubble cleared from the site when the house was being built: pink and white, rough-textured, pockmarked, running along the road, containing the gardens and partially concealing the house. I love the narrow gravel driveway that you turn up through an avenue of palm trees rising out of a clipped silvery hedge. And then there’s the walled entrance courtyard, where you are greeted by the family and the dogs; it’s a beautiful space, open and sunlit, the ground a geometric pattern of coral blocks laid within crushed coral, interrupted near the house by a cluster of willowy trees dressed in orchids. Everywhere, tropical flowering vines with names I don’t know spill from the walls in shades of lavender, scarlet, and apricot-yellow.
“I love how the gardens are linked like a necklace around the house, one intimate space opening into another.”
I love seeing John in the morning before breakfast, dressed in plaid pajamas or a bathing suit, silently crossing the courtyard with the dogs at his heels on their first inspection of the gardens. I love how the gardens are linked like a necklace around the house, one intimate space opening into another, from the sunlit to shadowy jungle spaces filled with fronds and giant leaves and perfumed blooms, then on to the serenity of a lawn punctuated by palm trees, their shadows patterning the flat green plane.
One small stunning feature: a rill of water, just a slit in the paving, leading your eye from a dark, lush garden of elephant’s ear beneath a ficus tree, on through the arched entrance to the pool house, and, finally, to the sunlit blue pool. Another: a mirror on a wall of one of the high porches, reflecting the waving fronds of palms.
And, finally, I love the way the gardens are animated—with the sound of water, with dogs, with chickens. One sight I will not forget is of hens and a strutting banty rooster, wonderfully out of context, crossing the stone terraces that rise, rather grandly, in front of the house to broad porches arranged for dining and napping on chaises. Always, at home with Bunny and John, as here at La Colina, there is this juxtaposition of elegance and earthiness, comfort and an exquisitely expressed sense of the joy of living.