AS I WRITE THIS, I AM IN THE PROCESS OF planning my next garden. It will be my seventh garden, and I’ve been collecting images in my head, tear sheets in folders, and names of varieties of trees, shrubs, plants, and flowers that I think will be appropriate in this new and exciting landscape. And I’ve tried to imagine if this time will be any different from when I designed and dug (and double dug), then planted my very first, and very modest, garden in front of our tiny, white clapboard single-story cottage in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts.
It was my very own garden, where I was free from my father’s beautifully modulated instructor’s voice telling me what to do, and how to do it, in his backyard garden. Here, I was relaxed and confident that I could plant a noteworthy, productive garden. At that time, my guidance came from my father, of course, but also from some wonderful books and places that influenced me profoundly: the writings of Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Jekyll, and Helena Rutherfurd Ely, and the historic gardens that I loved visiting, including Monticello, Mount Vernon, the Mission House in nearby Stockbridge, and Old Sturbridge Village. Using a simple geometric plan, I laid out a front-path garden, which captured the sunlight for most of the day. Recycled bricks, carefully cleaned of all old rubble and cement, were laid in walks of stone dust and edged in more bricks laid on the diagonal. I discovered early on the beauty and efficacy
of perennial planting, and most of the flowers there, in that small, pretty garden, were indeed perennials, interspersed with some herbs and very few annuals.
My most vivid memories of that garden were the hours spent tending the beds, singing to my young child, Alexis, making up fairy-tale-like stories about the flowers, reiterating the common as well as Latin names so that they are still ingrained not only in my head but also in hers. I was so proud when she could recite the flower names to my friends, pointing out her favorite campanula, digitalis, or Papaver orientalis.
The second, and the one that has been so instrumental in my subsequent development as a serious gardener, was the two-acre garden I designed and planted in Westport, Connecticut, on a perfect plot of south-facing land, and known as Turkey Hill. What began as two acres grew to four, and then in an orderly fashion to six as neighboring properties became available for purchase. Surrounding at first the 1805 farmhouse, which also played an important part in my entrepreneurial development, these gardens were my true testing ground, my “college education” for growing and experimenting, and my inspiration for putting pen to paper and writing books about subjects I loved. My first gardening book, Martha Stewart’s Gardening: Month by Month, appeared in 1991. In that book, I described the challenges and rewards of planting and growing not only flowers but also trees and vegetables and shrubs. In the beginning, I did most of the gardening myself, choosing the plant material, planning the layouts of the beds, placing the young trees in appropriate places, and weeding, fertilizing, watering,
and grooming. I found that a half acre was doable, an acre not, and I hired my first two gardeners. They were not trained horticulturists, but they were very hardworking and each had a wonderful affinity for plants and their care. As my vision for the place expanded, they scurried to keep up, sometimes enlisting a brother or cousin to help. During this time, I traveled quite frequently to Europe and Asia, where I visited as many gardens as I could. My husband was a publisher, and he was working on Visions
of Paradise, an extraordinary volume about Europe’s most beautiful gardens. We traveled to England, France, and Italy to see with our own eyes the gardens so faithfully displayed in the photographs. It was on this trip that I started to understand the true nature of a real gardener, and the true worth of great garden and landscape design. I discovered the most famous landscape architects—in England, the Humphry Reptons, the William Kents, the Capability Browns; and in France, the René de Girardins, the
André Le Nôtres, and the André Mollets. I bought books devoted to their works, and read with great interest why this and not that! I was even very influenced by Claude Monet after several visits to Giverny, and my flower garden emulated those gardens in intensity of color and types of flowers.
At Turkey Hill I made plenty of mistakes, but none that could not be remedied. I learned that gardening was enjoyment and sacrifice, that planting required inordinate patience and fortitude, and that instant gratification provided by planting large trees and established plants could be tempered with patience and smaller specimens, ultimately with better results.
While at Turkey Hill I purchased my third garden, Lily Pond, a one-acre parcel of land surrounding a large shingle-style nineteenth-century home on a beautiful tree–lined avenue in the village of East Hampton, Long Island. The climate, tempered by the proximity to the sea and the milder winters, was excellent for the cultivation of roses, and I was determined to grow a large assortment of old-world varieties—shrubs as well as climbers. I began a yearlong search for as many roses as I could find. Fortunately, there existed several excellent growers in the United States and Canada, and I bought about six hundred bushes, the bare roots of which were delivered by post. For twenty-five years those bushes grew to produce very strong and beautiful blooms. The gardens perfumed the surrounding areas during June and July, and I was thrilled with the results. I studied the care and maintenance of roses, consulted great rosarians, and devised my own methods for successfully growing these amazing plants. We often featured those gardens in the pages of Martha Stewart Living. When the roses finally reached maturity, and began to decline from robust shrubs, I dug them all up and moved them to my farm in Katonah, a hamlet of Bedford, New York, hoping that a drastic change in climate and soil conditions might revive them. Happily, I can now report that they are thriving.
For a brief moment in time, I owned about forty-five acres in Greenfield Hill, Fairfield, Connecticut. I truly believed that there I could create my “big” garden, but I quickly realized that the soil, the location, and even the size of the property were not ideal for my biggest effort. I do count Greenfield Hill as one of my gardens, my fourth, but only because I planted some incredible trees there, and actually spent time developing a master plan for the landscape, which was never to be. And I do miss those trees—the gum tree with the flanged bark, the large-leafed Magnolia grandiflora trees, and the grove of mature gingko trees purchased from the New York Botanical Garden.
While looking for that special place, where I could live and commute from, I bought on a whim my “fifth” garden, Skylands in Maine. The house and gardens of this 1925 American treasure were designed by two renowned architects: The house was designed by Duncan Candler, and the gardens were conceived by the great landscape architect Jens Jensen. Upon purchase of this hilltop place—eighty-plus acres, numerous buildings, and more than a mile of road—I became a caretaker of history, and I loved this new job. There was no grass to mow, yet acres of forest and moss to tend, and terraces and balconies of pink granite needing planted pots and statement ornamentation.
Skylands has taught me a great deal about a different kind of gardening. Everything is subtle, subdued. On Mount Desert Island, everything takes its orders from nature. The moss is there, but it needs the year of fallen leaves and pine needles to be carefully blown off for it to burgeon into an emerald ground cover. To keep the forest mighty and populated, trees need pruning to allow sunlight and air to help them grow strong and shapely. Gardens need to be placed where there is sunlight, and the soil must be amended with compost, seaweed, and nutrients. The gardener has to learn to cope with extremes of weather and a short but quick season once the growing starts.
And Skylands has also reinforced the necessity for careful garden planning—what to plant, when to plant, how much to plant—so that the house can be filled with plumes of Cotinus (smoke bush), myriad branches of lilacs, dozens of lilies, and hundreds of sunflowers when I am there. That is when the house is always full of guests, and dinner parties are planned, and the garden is my only go-to source.
At present my biggest garden project is Cantitoe Farm, my 150-acre property in Katonah, about fifty miles north of New York City. It is still a “work in progress,” a landscape with flower gardens, farm animals, horses, vegetable gardens, and greenhouses. I bought the place in 2000 and intended it to be my “last garden.” I do not know if that will be the case, but it is certainly my largest garden to date. Simply laid out, on land that is gently sloping from one end (south) to the other (north), and intersected with smallish streams, the property is about 50 percent woodland and 50 percent pastures, fields, and gardens. There is lots of space to express my landscape ideas and ideals—four miles of curvaceous carriage roads enable me to quickly traverse from one end to the other on foot, on horseback, or by truck. The biggest accomplishment so far has been the careful delineation of spaces, the planting of allées of trees as well as boxwood, and my inclination now to replant the woodlands with many groves
of interesting indigenous trees and plants. I have planted masses of my favorite kinds of flowers: a giant bed of pink-colored peonies; a very large perennial garden filled with all of my favorite lilies, poppies, and irises, among hundreds of others; two long gardens filled with many kinds of lilac shrubs; and borders of hydrangeas, Japanese maple trees, clematis, shade plants, and tulip beds.
There is no lack of flowers at the farm for arranging and enjoying, and no shortage of incredible opportunities to plant more of everything. I have become more interested now in variety, more picky with color choices, more critical of each and every thing I have nurtured, wanting each plant to be healthy, each flower to be usable, and the gardens to be a constant source of inspiration to others, notably Kevin Sharkey. Kevin came to work at Martha Stewart Living, the magazine, in 1996. He and I became instant colleagues and instant friends. Bostonian by birth, Kevin was educated at Rhode Island School of Design. He began his career at Parish-Hadley, the renowned decorating firm in New York City. (During school he had interned at the Arnold Arboretum, where he became knowledgeable about trees and shrubs, especially lilacs.) His love of flowers grew as he decorated rooms in homes of famous gardeners—Mrs. Vincent Astor, for one, and Mrs. Jock Whitney.
Walking through my gardens years ago, it became clear to both of us that I was the grower, and he was the cutter and arranger. It was as if I wrote the music, and he wrote the lyrics. We started our collaboration at Turkey Hill in Westport and then continued it in East Hampton, in Katonah, and in Seal Harbor, Maine. Kevin knows my gardens almost as well as I do, and he knows exactly what will please me, what will look good in the planned location, and what will not. When he ventures out into the landscape to pick and combine what I have grown into coherent “wholes,” he creates beautiful arrangements that fit the spaces allocated, the season, and the occasion.
Over the last two decades, we have learned a lot about each other—and flowers. Together we often plan the types of flowers we will plant in a new garden, and we have concocted beautiful gardening glossaries and articles for the magazine. I trust him with scissors in my garden like I trust no other, except for my daughter Alexis.
The bouquets and arrangements in this book resulted from our close planning and envisioning—and luck—in growing spectacular blooms that combine well with one another, or with foliage, to bedazzle a room or call one’s eyes to attention.
We are thrilled with the result of our labor, and hope you will be too.
And my motto for this book remains the same as in my first gardening book: Pour l’avenir, from the French, meaning “For the future.”
Copyright © 2018 by Martha Stewart with Kevin Sharkey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.