Architect transforms cornfield into 41-acre ecofriendly home, landscape

Design New England Gardening Style
Contrasting with the strong lines of the arbor, the fiery foliage of Amsonia hubrichtii wades between pines and miscanthus plumes.
Contrasting with the strong lines of the arbor, the fiery foliage of Amsonia hubrichtii wades between pines and miscanthus plumes. Kindra Clineff

By autumn, they’ve spent their summer energy and performed their full repertoire. But Larry Wente, an architect with Gertler & Wente LLP in New York, and the late Jack Hyland, an investment banker, had longer-term plans for the landscape around the house they designed for themselves on the Connecticut-New York border. Synchronized to show off just when the neighboring valleys, forests, and hayfields are cloaked in many colors, their garden steps up when most others have bowed out. Grassy plumes sway on the knoll, oakleaf hydrangeas blush radiant shades, while hostas blanch flaxen hues, all mirroring the surrounding spectrum.

Even after searing frost, the garden shines as the late-autumn sun rips across the landscape, igniting the ornamental grasses Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’ and Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ footsteps from the pool. —Kindra Clineff

It took a spectacular package to lure Hyland and Wente from their in-town home in Sharon, Connecticut, where they were perfectly happy. The period house with an in-garden studio suited them fine — until they spied a “For Sale” sign while driving around the nearby countryside. “Did you ever see a cornfield for sale?” Hyland asked Wente as they tooled along. Soon, Wente waded into the cornfield, where, standing on a ladder, he surveyed the view of a lifetime. In that August 2000 instant, as they took in the panorama of Oblong Valley, Indian Lake, a quintessential dairy barn, and a broadloom of farm fields, the two decided the 41-acre property was their future.

Twin sheds nestled in the Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ serve as a pool house and a sculpture studio beside plumes of miscanthus and fiery foliage of amsonia. —Kindra Clineff

Wente was poised for the forward-thinking challenge. He had long hungered to play with ecologically sensitive, energy-efficient, and construction-waste-frugal design. Creating his own home and garden on this parcel would afford him that opportunity. His was a no-apologies plan that celebrates its futuristic approach. Solar panels would be woven into the design. The solar greenhouse would speak to a matching storage shed on a “look at me” central axis. A handsome stand of white pine and spruce, seemingly part of the hedge system, would act as a windbreak protecting the house, while adjacent fields, 30 acres of which were planted with corn and alfalfa, would lap at the foundation, integrating the building into the agricultural landscape.

Within the formal axis, the plantings themselves pit structure against informality, with tousled hakonechloa and liriope beneath ‘Red Delicious’ apple trees salvaged from an abandoned grove. —Kindra Clineff

Besides the year-round dialogue with the setting, the plan is based on a magic number. Everything, says Wente, is done in multiples of four to avoid waste of materials: Paths are 4 feet wide, the pool is 16 by 48 feet, even the orchard was planted with apple trees (rescued from a soon-to-be-abandoned grove) set 20 feet apart.

The pool was positioned where it would enjoy maximum sunlight but remain hidden from the house. —Kindra Clineff

Before deciding on the final plantings, Wente and Hyland visited gardens and decided what they didn’t want. “We found that we lost interest in endless perennial beds,” says Wente. Instead, they created short and sweet statements such as a series of color-themed checkerboard pocket gardens planted with white, red, blue, and yellow blossoms in a tight grid. Wente calls them modules. “Initially, it was a single brushstroke of design,” he says. But the brushstrokes never ceased and they extended the garden outward.

The derring-do with grasses includes Sesleria autumnalis below the ocean of Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster.’ The late-season vestiges of the garden’s red section keep the dialogue going across the walkway. —Kindra Clineff

Although the view was the paramount lure, they chose not to lay the garden bare to the elements in an effort to admire the scenery. Instead, they used peekaboo hedges that frame vistas at key points, and vertical shrubs such as Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ serve as exclamation points.

Lights illuminate stainless steel gazing balls that Wente purchased on line and then fit into tuteurs from Michael Trapp in West Cornwall, Connecticut. Hyacinth beans climb to the top of the trellises creating a lacy effect. —Kindra Clineff

Plantings do not compete with the view. Using ornamental grasses with bulky footprints, statements are broadened. Hyland, who passed away in August, believed that only bold moves could compete with the large-scale distant landscape. Massing and proportion accomplished, they had a field day with color, planting bright red salvias, purple verbenas, and other annuals with hues that remain until the killing frosts.

In late season, structure is everything, and pencil-thin Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ stand sentinel amidst ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass. —Kindra Clineff

Autumn is momentous in the cycle of this landscape, but even in winter it has a presence when glittering frost, blustery winds, and the beauty they set in motion are all in the playbill. For a garden that never really slumbers, the view and the outlook are forever.

Looking across the rill, formal hedges corral hostas, tradescantias, liriopes, and black fountain grass. —Kindra Clineff
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