A Family Affair

Would you like a glass of iced tea,” Margaret Bragg asks as soon as she opens the front door. It’s one of those stay-in-the-AC summer days, but she prefers to be in the soothing shade of the garden with a cool drink at hand. “Gardens are healing places of refuge,” she says. “I feel so at peace when I am in mine.”

Grab a glass and come along with her, down the quartet of rough-hewn rock steps to the kidney-shaped swimming pool, which is framed by a border of pale pink Bonica floribunda roses that produce bounteous bouquets of blooms on each stem. They are accented by the blooms of hybrid teas and David Austins. “I spent an hour deadheading them, but you’d never know it because we had a shower this morning,” she says, sighing. “There’s something missing in my day if I haven’t come to see the roses and talk to them, to ask them about what’s going on.”

She and her late husband, Edward, moved here in 1975 with their three young sons. The Greenwich house was a simple 1965 ranch on a cul-de-sac at the end of a winding road. But the more than two acres of land that came with it, ah, that was what caught their attention and drove their imagination. “There was little more than some azaleas and rhododendrons and some shrubs,” Margaret says. “We bought the house for the grounds.” As she’s reminiscing, a small waterfall plays a soft, steady song in the background, and a handful of snow-white peony parasols shimmer in the sun as they shelter the precious posies. The sound reminds Margaret, who has big blue eyes and is partial to pastels, that there used to be a towering Colorado blue spruce above. When it died, her sons planted a rustic gazebo in its stead.

The waterfall trickles to a diminutive koi pond that features a water lily. A Japanese maple, along with iris, wild geraniums, spirea and delphinium place it in a lush mini landscape. “We get a lot of froggies jumping in the water,” she says.

As the children and the garden grew, the Braggs renovated and slightly expanded the house until grounds and living quarters embraced each other and became one. The cedar-roofed, stone and clapboard house, which is defined by a front porch supported by cream-color colonial columns, forms a backdrop for the gardens that wrap around it like a shawl, sheltering it from the free-form foliage beyond. Like Margaret, there’s nothing fancy or formal about either, and that’s what makes the scene so grounded. “It’s definitely a hands-on garden,” she says. “I can’t do heavy digging anymore, but I still do a lot of the work myself.”

In her hands, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The most pretentious plant, a rotund stewartia tree, stands sentinel over the front drive. “There aren’t many people around here who have one,” she says. “I love the flowers because they look like camellias. And look at the bark—it’s mottled, pink and gray.” Years ago, Margaret devised a master plan, but gradually she let Mother Nature play a role in guiding her hand. Margaret ringed the property with evergreens to create an uninterrupted artistic oasis and added the major plantings. But the hollyhocks planted themselves. The foxgloves followed their lead, and here and there other flowers trespassed in a glorious way.

Margaret, an artist who can see the garden from her second-floor studio as she paints, picked a pastel palette of pinks, blues and purples that are easy on the eyes. “The biggest challenge is getting something to bloom all the time from spring through fall,” she says. “I like things to be profuse. That way there’s no room for weeds.”

Although she spends winters in Vero Beach, Florida, where she has a house and garden on the Indian River, she cuts her stay short to catch an early view of spring in Greenwich. “There’s nothing like the first rose bloom in June,” she says. “It’s a profuse burst of color. That’s why it’s so special. They repeat bloom, but it’s not the same.”

The outer edges of the garden, wild by design, meld into a forest of sky-scraping tulip, maple and hickory trees. Meandering earth paths lead to an untamed woodland garden. Margaret takes the nearest one and ends up at the shallow pond, which has a green cover of duckweed. She remembers when mallards used to swim here and how her boys played hockey when it froze in winter. Now grown, they sometimes still take up their sticks.

“Several years ago, there was a pileated woodpecker here,” she says, pointing to an ancient tree at water’s edge. “He was about two feet high. I brought a friend down here who had been ill, and the bird appeared. It was a very healing moment.”

Margaret, who grew up in Greenwich and is a longtime member of the Greenwich Garden Club, gets her love of gardening from her mother. They tended the beds together, just as she and Edward and their sons did. “As an artist, I see gardens as art,” she says. “This came together for me when I was eight and I was staying at an Austrian spa with my mother. I was bored so I started picking wildflowers. I pressed them in the pages of books and later used them to make birthday cards.”

Her work—landscapes and florals—is based on her gardens and those she has seen in her travels. “Painting allows me to show all the flowers blooming together at the same time, something I would never see in real life,” she says.

Margaret heads to the back of a house, where a conservatory off the kitchen gazes over one of the terraces. In its beds, fairy roses mingle with azaleas, Japanese iris, lady’s mantle, astible and interloping foxgloves and columbine. On a summer’s day like this one, she’s likely to have a garden party, serving her guests cocktails by the pool, then taking them to the terrace for the main course. In one corner, there’s what started out as a vegetable garden. Margaret opens the green wrought-iron gate, which has a central boutonniere, and looks at the tiny plots of tomatoes, lettuce, basil and herbs. She’s not quite sure how or when it happened, but the flowers have taken over. Of course, she planted the dahlias, one of her favorites, but the solo sunflower barged in on its own. Margaret’s quite glad it turned out this way; she loves to make bouquets for friends, so this serves as a cutting garden.

Gardens, in Margaret’s mind, are living heirlooms. She and her six-year-old granddaughter, the aptly named Lily, paint and plant together; Chase, her three-year-old grandson, plays along the paths; and her oldest son works on the garden during his frequent weekend visits. It was he, in fact, who created the woodland garden that’s running free.

The iced tea that Margaret’s drinking is a subtle reminder that gardens grow through the generations. It is her own recipe: tea, water, Crystal Light lemonade and apple mint. The apple mint is from her backyard. She got the clipping from her parents’ garden.

 

 

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