Enchanted Garden

It isn’t supposed to be gray and chilly. Anne Harrison mentions this as she throws a creamy-white sweater over her shoulders and exchanges her ballet flats for forest-green Le Chameau rubber garden clogs. But the 5.5-acre property, she says, is just as lovely when the sun isn’t shining. She walks out the front door, clogs crunching the circular pea-pebble drive, and ducks through an ivy-covered stone arch at the side of the Greenwich house that she and her husband, Bill, the former CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase, have called home since 1997.

Built in 1929 the three-story, Tudor-style house, stone with a slate roof, is rooted in history, including the Harrisons’. It, and several of its neighbors, were designed by Alden and Quentin Twachtman, sons of  the iconic nineteenth-century landscape painter John Henry Twachtman. Local lore attributes the landscapes to the Olmsted brothers, whose father, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed Central Park.

When the Harrisons moved in, their daughters, Katie and Anna, were toddlers, and the house needed what Anne diplomatically calls “tender loving care.” Aside from a few errant rose bushes, there was no garden on the property that, for countless years, had been left to fend for itself. Bill and Anne set about restoring the house, a Greenwich landmark, by erecting a family-room wing and an arched front-porch entrance that’s the stage for boxwood sculpted into balls. In the process, they also tamed the overgrown landscape, turning it into a pristine private park for native plants.

Anne, a wisp of a woman in skinny jeans cuffed at the ankle, looks out over the back terrace, which gives a commanding view of the property. “You really have to see it from this vantage point to appreciate it fully before you start exploring each section,” she says. “It’s defined by dramatic elevations and rock outcroppings juxtaposed with flat open spaces. Our mission has always been to make the garden look natural. We want it to look like it’s always been here, as if Mother Nature made it.”

Anne and Bill’s affinity for the land goes back to their childhoods in North Carolina. Bill’s mother, who died in 2014, was an avid gardener, and Anne’s parents taught her to respect the great outdoors. “The blossom of the dogwood is the state flower of North Carolina, so we planted several trees on the property,” she says, her slight Southern accent surfacing for a second. “We brought English boxwood from home, and the spherical sundial by the front drive came from my family’s house.”

Although they had created a garden at their previous home, which is nearby, it wasn’t until they moved here that their interest blossomed into a perennial passion. “I used to jog by this house and remark at its beauty,” Anne says. “When it came on the market, Bill walked the entire property. He knew he wanted it before he ever stepped foot inside.”

Their personal gardening dovetailed with their longtime involvement with the Central Park Conservancy and Anne’s membership in the Greenwich Garden Club.

A steep stone walkway leads to the lower-level meadow and pond, and the morning’s drizzle has made the path as slippery as ice. But Anne doesn’t seem to notice. “You have to be part billy goat to live here,” she says as she swiftly and skillfully descends. The colossal rock formations, created by ancient glaciers, are augmented with wide stone pathways that were crafted by their full-time gardener, Carlos Serna, who uses ropes, pulleys and chains to put them in place. “They all come from the property,” Anne says. “Carlos is a genius at moving them around.”

Anne, Bill and Carlos collaborate on plans and consult landscape architect Tim Paterson of Highland Design Gardens in Pound Ridge, New York, to keep them on the naturalistic path. They exchange ideas and sometimes even plants. Carlos, for instance, recently gave Anne and Bill some lilies from his own home-grown garden in Stamford.

“Billy and I get our hands dirty but not as dirty as Carlos,” says Anne, who keeps her pastel polished nails fingertip-cropped. “There’s no master plan; everything just evolves. Gardens are happiest when nothing is forced.” Carlos agrees, adding that his gardens grow in his imagination. “Any person can plant any bush, but not everybody can make it look like it came up by itself and it belongs,” he says.

As Anne walks up another path, she bends down and cups a pink columbine bloom in her hand. She didn’t plant it there. “I love the way it comes through the rock,” she says. “You’d think I must have staged this. But it looks like it just decided to stay and have a party with the others.”

The same thing happened with the foxgloves. They were planted in one space and spread out in the most unlikely—and beautiful—places. Anne salutes a solitary one standing sentinel on the back terrace. If only she had thought to plant it there. She pauses at the primrose garden, whose delicate pink and white flowers look like antique lace doilies. There’s a canoe in their midst. It’s used to ply the pond, which harbors three islands and snapping turtles as big as boulders.

Anne leads the way to the meadow, where one edge is ringed with Spanish bluebells, whose bright blue-
purple blooms announce themselves with aplomb. “The sight of the large blue drifts scattered under the trees takes my breath away,” Anne says.

This space is defined by the remnants of an ankle-high old stone wall that remains a mystery from the past. Next to it, there’s a small putting green. Anne and Bill are avid golfers as well as gardeners. The outbuildings look as though they were planted on the property from the beginning. Anne and Bill moved the rustic wood gazebo, which was original to the house, to higher ground, and defined it with climbing hydrangeas, whose white blooms look like fallen snow.

The tree house, which is reached via a foot-wide, high-wire, stomach-dropping wooden bridge, brings Anne down memory lane. Her girls loved to play here. And every Mother’s Day, she insisted they sleep with her in the companion bunkhouse, whose windows and exterior light fixtures were salvaged from the original house when they added the wing.

As the rain falls more steadily, Anne runs to the pool house and emerges with a black umbrella big enough to shelter a quartet. As the raindrops send ripples through the pond, she listens intently. The gentle splashing of the waterfall, the pair of streams and the fountain play a symphony for her.

Anne knows that the garden is far from finished, and that excites her. She and Bill have begun clearing an area for a shade garden. Neither have a favorite spot, but Carlos does. He likes to sit on the stone bench he crafted at the highest point on the property. “When I work in Mr. and Mrs. Harrison’s garden, I feel like it’s my home,” he says. “And I don’t want to leave. I forget everything; I lose myself in nature.”

The rain is now beating the ground like a drum as Anne reluctantly heads back to the house. She folds the umbrella and leans it against a chair on the back terrace before taking one last, longing look. “It’s always nice to stroll in the garden,” she says with a sigh of satisfaction. “I come out much happier and more at peace.”

 

 

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