The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lanford Wilson's Sag Harbor Garden

The Main Garden Room. The Adirondack Chairs were painted to compliment and contrast the colors of the plantings. Notice a glimpse of the spiny leaves of the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Araucaria araucana.

Grandmother's Tiger Lilies

A small pool on axis with three garden rooms.

The garden house with pergola. Kirengeshoma palmata in bud.

A quite, elegant square lawn that was the first garden behind the House. Aralia elata 'Variegata' at the far edge.

Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, died on Thursday. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit his garden in Sag Harbor, Long Island. The garden, probably about a third of an acre, was divided into rooms and was designed to be an extension of the house, a two-story wood-frame house built in 1845. The house had essentially no garden that could be seen from the street. There was a walkway along the house that lead to the gardens behind the house.

Although there were countless unusual plants, many from the original Heronswood catalogue, Wilson had included many old fashioned nostalgic plants. In particular, he recalled how the tiger lilies reminded him of his grandmother. My favorite tree in the garden was the monkey puzzle tree, Araucaria araucana, an unusual evergreen tree from Chile. It has a stiff growth habit with ominous spiny stiff leaves which added an exciting texture to the garden.

The garden was quite shady with numerous inviting seating areas. Having a small garden myself, I really appreciated how the formally laid out rooms made this small in-town garden appear larger. Wilson originally divided the plot into rooms using string. He made the paths two feet wide and they were aligned on axis with one another but something wasn't quite right. Later, a garden designer friend insisted on four-foot-wide paths but he resisted and made the paths three feet wide. Finally, he conceded and made the paths four feet wide and "pop" the proportions were right.

Like all the best private garden's I have visited, Lanford Wilson's garden was a very personal and idiosyncratic creation. I was very lucky to have had a chance to visit it.


  1. Michael, this looks like a wonderful garden with a great feeling of age to it! I wonder what will happen to the house and garden now that Wilson is sadly gone?--Joe

  2. Joe,
    This was a wonderful garden! I often wonder what happens to gardens when the gardener is no longer there to tend the garden. Gardens are certainly are ephemeral.

  3. Thanks for this. Loved the spaces, plants and your record of your visit!

  4. Robert,
    I'm glad you liked this post. It was a special garden and a very thoughtful and generous gardener. As always, I really appreciate your comments!

  5. just found your wonderful blog! (thanks to delphine over at paradis express) i'm in california, but we visit family cabins on gregg lake in antrim every summer-so can't wait to check out some of your local gardens!!!

  6. Laguna Dirt,
    Glad you found the blog! I'd love to show you around the public gardens when you are in NH. Thanks for commenting.

  7. Michael,
    Thanks for sharing this garden. Lucky you to have seen it. I'm going to be making a small garden behind our Brooklyn house, and seeing this one gives me ideas. It's also good to be reminded that 4-foot-wide paths are a must (most of the time).

  8. James,
    Lanford Wilson's garden was a true gem. I will be anxious to see what you do in your Brooklyn garden. A totally different problem to solve as compared to your "country garden".

  9. Such a classic garden; serene and creative, at the same time. I do find monkey puzzles interesting too; actually, I just wrote an article about their history as garden plants, it is going to be published in the Washington Arboretum Bulletin this autumn. I might make a summary of it for my blog... Thanks for sharing this wonderfu garden, Liisa.

  10. Hi Lisa,
    The monkey puzzle tree was very cool. I will be on the look out for your article summary on your blog. I was also struck with how creative this garden was. It was of those gardens that just felt "right". Thanks for commenting.



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