ROXBURY, Conn. — Peter Wooster, a designer who has created many houses and interiors, fell in love with plants about 30 years ago. And being a collector of beautiful objects, he wanted one of everything.
"Peter laid out the garden before he really was a gardener," said Rob Girard, 45, who has tended Mr. Wooster's garden for 14 years. "He started collecting plants and filling in the rectangles. There weren't any repeats, no swaths or spreads of things. Now we have a lot of self-sowing annuals that move around."
I had been hearing about this garden for years from other gardeners, who spoke about the startling arrangements of plants, whimsical objects and surprising views, all crammed into six rectangular beds with the razor-sharp edges of a perfectionist hand.
Sydney Eddison , a renowned gardener and garden writer who is 81, said she traded some of her choice lilies for a few cuttings from Mr. Wooster's brugmansia in 1989. "Inside the beds was this wonderful madness, with all different heights," she said. "And the sheer number and variety of plants knocked your socks off."
Mr. Wooster, now 66, was an urban soul before he came to this rural corner of Connecticut. He grew up in Albany, earned his degree at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and lived in that borough for decades, designing for his friends in the art world.
It was back in the 1980s, while looking for a country retreat for his friend and client Stephen Sondheim (Mr. Wooster had transformed Mr. Sondheim's town house in Turtle Bay, and knew what he needed), that he found the fine old clapboard farmhouse under the great elms, with a carriage house on the other side of the country lane, and about 20 acres of old pasture and woodland. He moved into the carriage house, to supervise renovations for Mr. Sondheim, who bought the whole property and granted Mr. Wooster squatter's rights to the smaller house and meadow.
Mr. Wooster, perhaps to his own surprise, took to the country and never left. He built a professional croquet court in the meadow, where the two friends held tournaments, and moved a small timber-frame barn to a wooded hillside behind Mr. Sondheim's farmhouse, turning it into a summer house.
Mr. Wooster and Mr. Sondheim, who are still close, "used to have their drinks back there, until both of them had trouble getting down the hill," Mr. Girard said with a smile. So Mr. Wooster had the barn moved to his side of the road, where it looks out on the meadow. "Peter takes his power naps in there."
Those first decades, Mr. Wooster couldn't stay away from nurseries. He and Lindsay Law , the theatrical producer, who has a place down the road, would fill up Mr. Wooster's pumpkin-colored 1955 Chevy pickup with plants that had names they didn't even know how to pronounce.
On a recent afternoon, as the two watched the light change over the garden from Mr. Wooster's terrace, Mr. Law recalled: "You were much more bold than I. I couldn't remember what this or that was, or if it liked full sun or shade, but you just stored everything."
Mr. Wooster looked at his old friend with a knowing, clear-eyed gaze. "Gone, but yay," he said.
Mr. Wooster had a stroke in 2006, and medical complications left him without the use of his right arm and leg, and unable to speak. How he has carried on since is a story of humor and stamina — his own and that of the friends who gathered around him.
As Mrs. Eddison said, "He's brilliant and funny, with this gorgeous sense of humor."
So losing language was a particularly cruel irony. But not being able to draw up plans for a house or dig in the garden was terrible, too.
Mr. Girard, who found him the morning after his stroke, said: "He was depressed and angry. Who wouldn't be? But even while he was in rehab, we brought him potted plants from the greenhouse and photos of the garden and of pets, to remind him of what was waiting for him back home."
It was Mr. Law who drove Mr. Wooster home from the rehab center. "He wept the whole way home," Mr. Law said. "I don't think he thought he was ever coming back. I think the knowledge that he would be in that garden again was overwhelming to him."
Mr. Girard had to weather his friend's fury as the two worked out a new way to tend the garden. They had to let go of labor-intensive projects like planting cannas, bananas and brugmansias, and digging them up every fall. Mr. Wooster could pull weeds or deadhead flowers, but only with his left hand. And if an overgrown vine or tree needed pruning, he couldn't do it himself. Instead, he would point to it and command, "Gone!"
A Garden Gives Back
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After so many years, Mr. Girard is able to communicate with Mr. Wooster using a few words that have various shades of meaning depending on intonation, gesture and expression. And that particular word and its nuances, Mr. Law said, could fill nine pages in Mr. Wooster's dictionary.
WHEN BEETLES ATTACKED the lilies and voles ate the hostas, those plants were not replaced. And over the years, Mr. Girard, who has a more naturalistic sense of design than Mr. Wooster, has allowed plants like the tall Nicotiana sylvestris, with its jaunty white tubular flowers, to self-sow and jump the paths.
Trees have grown taller and shaded out sun-lovers like crocosmias and day lilies, but rare beauties like kirengeshoma, or wax-bells, whose yellow flowers dangle from soft green, maple-shaped leaves, thrive in the dappled light.
Mr. Girard carries on the ritual of the Victorian circle, with Mr. Wooster's approval, in a mischievous nod to 19th-century gardeners who loved to set out their tropical bedding plants in garish patterns on the lawn. "It changes each year, which is part of the fun," he said. "Last year was all yellows and silvers and purples, sort of icy. This year, it's a little hotter."
A 12-foot burnt-orange banana plant seemed to be exploding out of a mass of burgundy fountain grass, with ever-widening circles of blue-green plectranthus, Red Threads alternanthera and Heuchera Caramel, as buttery looking as the candy.
"When it gets frosted, it's like a birthday cake that suddenly just disappears," Mr. Girard said. "Peter used to say it was more like an 18-year-old, at his peak, who gets killed in a car crash."
On Friday evenings, friends still gather in the middle of the garden, where four towering hinoki cypress trees suggest a garden room in the open grass. Weathered Adirondack chairs placed around a Victorian wooden umbrella, surrounded by potted giant aloes and quirky succulents, invite visitors to sit down with a cool drink and enjoy the evening breeze.
It's a longtime ritual that used to begin on Friday morning, when Mr. Wooster would fire up his Toro push mower and edge the paths with a vengeance, Mr. Law said. "If you wanted to drink in the garden, you had to volunteer Friday mornings," he recalled. "I had to hold the plants out of the way of the lawn mower, and I was always convinced I'd lose my toes."
To Mr. Law, the genius of this garden lies in its rooms and views, or "the idea of creating spaces in which one is comfortable," he said. "There's a kind of wealthy person who decorates a house — you see them all the time in Architectural Digest — and you think, 'Isn't this beautiful, but where do I put my drink?' You can't imagine living in it."
But Mr. Wooster's rooms have always been different.
"You walk into a room of his and you wanted to sit down," Mr. Law said. "It was just comfortable. This garden, to me, is just an extension of that."
While Mr. Wooster was in rehab, Mr. Law orchestrated what he foresaw as some needed renovations to the carriage house. "There was no downstairs bathroom," he said. "And no views of the garden except upstairs."
So he rallied Mr. Wooster's old friends and clients, as well as the crew Mr. Wooster usually worked with, to put in a bathroom and a sunny living room, as well as the terrace that overlooks the garden and meadow. "Everyone stopped what they were doing," Mr. Law said. "And it was built in six weeks."
No longer able to draw plans of houses and execute their design, Mr. Wooster tried his good hand at photography, then watercolors, then charcoal and colored pencils. Nothing seemed to suit, until one day he began to play with colored pieces of paper, Mr. Law said — or maybe they were swatches of color or paint chips. Now Mr. Wooster is becoming known for collages made from images clipped from magazines. He has had several local shows and one in Manhattan.
"You see 30 or 40 of them on a wall," Mr. Law said, "and it's like seeing our times reflected."
It might be tempting to suggest that the garden brought Mr. Wooster back to life. But the garden is only part of it. As Mrs. Eddison, who has also battled illnesses, put it: "It wasn't the garden, it was Peter."
She comes every Sunday afternoon to glue the pieces of paper that make up each new collage. "I am his hand," she said.
As for the collages, she added: "They are very astute, sometimes scary pictures of modern life. Sweet and funny, hilarious or rude, ones so horrible you think, 'Oh, God, do we really do these things to each other?' Yes, we do."
And over time, the garden has taken on a life of its own. Mr. Wooster still points to whole trees and says, "Gone." But by now it has become Mr. Girard's garden, too.
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