Making Memories

Life Lessons and More Than a Few Good Stories from the Garden



Photograph by Stacy Bass

Everything in the Christie home is unusually quiet today. not that there’s anything wrong. It is, afterall, situated in a cozy corner of Greenfield
Hill . . .

 It’s just that with two adults (Tom and Janet), two teenage daughters (Eliza and Cass), one grown daughter (Logan), one grown son (Cole), five dogs (Ted, Danny, Lily, Rocky and Lucy), and a cockatoo (Percy), serenity seems like a long shot. But that doesn’t mean the homeowners aren’t going to try.

“We’re all about nature, animals and our kids,” says Janet. “And when you come to the garden, it’s like, ‘Welcome to the garden — and the zoo.’ ”

In the parlor of her 1868 house, the Dr. Martin Van Buren Dunham estate, Janet Christie is surrounded in yellow. Different shades of it drape her walls, accent her furniture and weave their way into most of the accessories. Naturally, the hue is pure sunshine, and that is just as Janet wants it. “It’s my favorite color. It’s everywhere,” she says, gently patting an embroidered throw pillow next to her. She smiles easily, without any of the weariness one might expect of someone who regularly swims in the happy chaos of an active household.

Her antidote to teenagers, enthusiastic canines and all manner of responsibilities is more than the home she tends to, but also her oasis outside. “The garden is my journey,” she says. “As you get older, you need a place to go, a peaceful place, and it seems the closer you get to the earth, the closer you get to your higher powers. It evens me out. If I’m having a frustrating day, I’m immediately out there pulling weeds, nipping things back.”

Her garden — and it is hers, as she does most of the planning and planting, with instrumental help from her husband on setting walkways and positioning arbors — is what she calls her “centering point.”

The Christie house is set back far enough from the quiet, winding road to make each corner of the house rich with opportunity for an inspired landscaper, but the sweet spot of the estate is in the back of the house, where a swath of border garden frames stone steps, patches of swaying grasses and garden rooms aching to be explored. Here you find heliopsis, yarrow, Bonica roses, “Big Sky Sunset” echinacea, mallow, orange poppies, “Moonbeam” coreopsis and Russian sage. Many varieties of trees — “Crimson Queen” dogwoods, sugar maples, ginkgos, Japanese maples — anchor sections of the property. A rustic bench and a pair of chairs set the stage for an afternoon of conversation under a Japanese cherry tree (a gift from her husband Tom and her son Cole) planted as a twig more than twenty years ago. “This arrangement really describes the garden, because we’ll sit out there, and as the dogs jump on our laps, it’s complete pandemonium. But we can sit back and just look out at nature’s wonders.”

The project started from scratch twenty-one years ago as a little perennial garden, which got a little bigger, then took on a water feature, welcomed a bountiful vegetable garden, and so on. This season, it is a collection of formal gardens at full maturity, adding sophisticated bursts of color and interest.  

“The thing I love the most,” says Janet, “is that they are filled with plants that I’ve taken out of friends gardens. So when they bloom, I think, ‘Oh, there’s Annie.’ And I mean friends who live in Nevada or on the Cape, and things my children have given to me for Mother’s Day.” As the seasons pass, the reminders pop to the forefront like a photograph discovered tucked away in a drawer. “Sometimes people move away,” she explains, “you lose touch, but then a coreopsis blooms and you think, ‘Kathleen!’ ” Janet tends flowers such as delphinium and lavender and green grasses, ferns and boxwoods in well-mannered beds that handsomely alternate patches of color and height in a subtle pattern, subconsciously soothing in their arrangement. “It’s really important,” she says, “to plant in groups, so you have that blast of color. If you just put in a lot of stuff, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t flow, and you’re left saying, ‘Something’s wrong; I just don’t know what it is.’ ” So, she places purple next to pink, but not necessarily the same plants. “It’s not just about the flowers. You have to add in some architecture. You have to add in some greys, to break it up. I never used to be an orange lover, or red, but purely by mistake, just because my husband likes these red Blaze roses that climb the arbor, I see now that they change the whole garden,” Janet says. “Somehow when you put red or orange in your garden, it makes the other colors more vivid.”

She learns life lessons too from her garden: “Give it up, give it up, give it up,” she says, with an easy, knowing smile. “The garden is a little more relaxed, because my personality is such that I like everything in its place — I come down and the first thing I do is arrange the pillows. I mean, my kitchen counters are clean. But my garden has a life of its own. When I first started out, I would trim the heck out of the thing. Now I see that it’s going to do what it wants to do. And it should.”

Learning that Mother Nature — weather, bugs, critters and blights — is a force to be accepted and not controlled is one thing. Deer is another. As with most gardeners in Fairfield County, Janet knows deer are great, though not discriminating, pruners. “They’re eating stuff they shouldn’t be, like holly and roses with thorns,” she says. She decided to put up some restrictions. Since the Christie dogs had retired from defensive chasing duties, Tom and Janet had a deer fence installed along nearly the entire periphery of the property, camouflaged with an abundance of bushes. It worked. “I saw things come up I forgot I had,” Janet says, her eyes wide with delight.

One of the smallest intruders, though, came as a surprise. “One day I was working in the garden, planting lilies. It was hot, so I went inside to get some iced tea — maybe five minutes,” Janet says. “I came back out, and they were gone.” She patiently waited to discover the culprits: voles living in a crack in the nearby stone wall. “They must have been watching me with their little eyes. When they saw me go inside the house, they tracked over there,” she says, wiggling her fingers in pitter-patter steps, “chomped through the stems and started dragging the lilies back to the wall.”

She’s learning to share with nature, to embrace the humor of relinquishing some control and to always be thankful for whatever life pleasures and lessons are brought to her and her family. There is no greater symbol of this than the goddess garden statue, a birthday present from her husband. “She’s holding this cornucopia of blessings and gratitude,” she says. Tom laid a rustic stone path, headed by a green arbor that frames the statue perfectly. “He even installed lights around it, so in the winter, although nothing is going on out there, it looks really beautiful.” Encircled in crabapple trees, Rose of Sharon, a mix of boxwood, lavender, roses, dahlias, Russian sage, peonies from a best friend, and iris from another friend, Lucia’s garden is a meaningful, emotional spot and the focal point of the property regardless of wherever Janet or her guests may wander.

While not everyone may understand the significance of each treasure in the gardens, Janet says, “I just love walking through them and having all these memories of good times with family and friends come back to me.”

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