Take a Tour of Martha's Most Beautiful Gardens and Learn How She Created Each
When Martha was four years old, her father handed her a screwdriver and showed her how to wiggle it between the cracks of a cobblestone path in their Nutley, New Jersey, yard to dig out a weed. Within a few hours, she'd cleared the whole path, and discovered a lifelong passion. Here, she walks us through four of her homes, past and present, that have shaped her as a gardener, and shares the decisions and details that make each one spectacular.
Turkey Hill, in Connecticut
As a young mom in 1971, Martha moved with her family to Westport, Connecticut, where she embarked on the ultimate DIY project: fixing up the 1805 farmhouse and creating an unforgettable landscape. She started with two acres and gradually expanded to six as adjacent properties came up for sale. Those years spent planting and tending perennial borders, orchards, herbs, and a potager gave her what she calls a "college education" in gardening. "I would not be who I am today without the vast knowledge I gained there, on that small bit of paradise," she wrote when she sold the property in 2007.
"My advice to new gardeners is to go to nurseries and find something you love, and just start digging and planting," Martha says. "You're bound to make mistakes—I make lots—but you'll learn from them, and you can always dig up a plant and try again."
A Playful Palette
"I never thought I would love so much color," Martha says. "But seeing Monet’s garden at Giverny in all its glory blew my mind." She planted an exuberant sea of blooms at Turkey Hill that unfurled from April through October—at left, clusters of tulips and daffodils blend with sweet pink bleeding hearts that jubilantly trumpet spring. Mixing lots of different hues is challenging—shades can clash and overwhelm. One of Martha's secrets is to stick with tried-and-true varieties: "There are certain old plants that you can't get wrong combining, like purple Higo and Siberian irises, orangey-red and pink Oriental poppies, and columbines. Put them together, and you have a magnificent tableau that you couldn't get with other plants."
Setting the Scene
When Martha added a two-acre plot to her property in 1975, she configured the garden's layout on paper before excavating and sculpting the land.
Prepping the Soil
Engaging the Senses
"The fragrance of pink Clematis montana var. rubens is one of the best smells ever," she says. "I planted it so the vines would cover my kitchen pergola."
A narrow path led from the house to the pool, which was framed by a stone wall and perennial borders. A wisteria tree marked the entrance.
Lily Pond, on Long Island
This beach retreat in East Hampton, New York, which Martha purchased in 1990, "was a revelation," she says. "Everything grew so easily! It was such a joy to garden there." Amazed at the way plants flourished in the rich, silty loam and mild coastal climate, she filled her yard with a riot of roses, including heirlooms, climbers, and English varieties. Twenty-five years later, she transplanted them to Bedford, giving her grandchildren a thorn-free space in which to play outside the house, and making room for trees like Stewartia and Parrotia, known for their mottled, exfoliating bark, and Japanese maples.
A Tapestry of Texture
After Hurricane Sandy destroyed trees and plants in the side yard, Martha decided to rethink this stretch. Keeping the palette tight, she layered the beds on either side with varieties of cut-leaved Japanese maples, such as Acer palmatum var. dissectum "Red Dragon," and a mix of perennials, from feathery ferns to large-leaved hostas. With the exception of a few blooms, like lush stands of white hydrangeas, foliage reigns over flowers. "It's now a beautiful contemplative garden," she says.
A Leafy Lane
The gravel path in the shady side garden leads to an elegant latticed gate, which opens to the property's backyard and pool.
A large strawberry pot (with pockets on the sides) filled with giant alocasia, purple scaevola, chartreuse creeping Jenny, and trailing silver dichondra sits by the pool.
Bedford, in New York
When Martha bought this 153-acre property in 2000, she found herself in vast, empty fields with only a small smattering of trees— "a blank canvas," she says. Today her bustling farm is bursting with flora and fauna. She's planted a dramatic boxwood allée, thousands of trees (including a fruit orchard, added a few years ago), and prolific plots of vegetables, flowers, and shade plants. She also fenced off paddocks for her horses and donkeys, added greenhouses, and built a pool.
"My father taught me that you can do it all from scratch, starting from seeds or cuttings, and if you nurture them, they will produce," Martha says. "I still do this: I grow trees from saplings and boxwood from rooted cuttings, and pretty much all my flowers are from seeds sown in the greenhouse. I enjoy seeing them develop. I think a gardener learns more this way."
An Unfolding Landscape
"The farm is always evolving," says Martha. Storms take down trees, turning a shady spot
into a sunny one. Overly vigorous plants (otherwise known as invasives) get pulled and alter the look of a border. Pests force plots to move, and new interests ignite a flurry of plantings. And that's the thrill of gardening: You are constantly learning and adapting.
To create this swath of daffodils, Martha mapped out waves of cultivars, plotting about 100 bulbs in each group; every spring, the flowers explode in drifts of yellow and white, multiplying each year.
The Border Garden
A Shady Spot
Two weeping katsura trees provide dappled shade for white alliums, clematis, and peonies.
In fall, the farm is ablaze in gold and red foliage.
A Diverse Collection
Every January, Martha dives into a stack of seed and plant catalogs to find unusual cultivars and species to grow next. "For me, gardening is all about scent, color, and variety, variety, and more variety," she says. Instead of ordering just one type of baptisia, for instance, she'll choose several to try out new colors and test cultivars to see how they fare. In her flower garden, which is inspired by Turkey Hill's, she fills the beds with dozens of kinds of roses, irises, dianthus, phlox, columbines, and self-seeding poppies, which have "the nicest way of popping up in unexpected places," she says.
One side of Martha's greenhouse is devoted to all kinds—tuberous, rex, semperflorens, fibrous, and her favorite, rhizomatous.
Martha tends several compost heaps on the farm, and spreads a fresh layer on her beds every year.
Skylands, in Maine
"This is the only place I ever bought that had an established garden," says Martha of her summer home on Mount Desert Island, in Maine, purchased in 1997. Designed in the 1920s by Danish-born landscape architect Jens Jensen for Edsel and Eleanor Ford, the property is filled with fir and spruce trees towering over carpets of moss, stone pools, meandering paths, and mile-long driveways that vanish into the scenery. Martha takes her responsibility as a steward of this American treasure seriously: "I revel in the fact that I have a landscape designed by someone of such importance, who in my mind made absolutely no mistakes whatsoever."
A Sculptural Scene
Every year at the end of May, Martha heads north with a truck loaded with trays of small succulents and large agaves, aloes, and palms that she has propagated and overwintered in her Bedford greenhouses. She and a group of green-thumbed friends make a weekend of it, potting Martha's containers on the "cracked ice" terrace.
The circular driveway at the entrance of the house.
A detail of a granite trough planted with echeveria and senecio.
The Long View
When the sky is clear, Martha can see Seal Harbor from the terraces of the house, which was designed by New York architect Duncan Candler.
When in Maine
Martha covers the paths in white-pine needles every spring (a local tradition). The coppery color complements the bright-green moss.
A Lush Landscape
La Rivière, a bronze sculpture by French artist Aristide Maillol, rests below the stone terrace in a bed of ferns, moss, and other ground covers. Martha spends several weeks each summer at Skylands with her family and plenty of friends. "I love to water the plants in the early morning, or walk around and just take it all in," she says.