Field of vision
In the garden around his energy-efficient home, architect Larry Wente has created a garden of luminous grasses and native plants that blends with the surrounding farmland
Straddling the borders of New York and Connecticut is an inventive garden that combines grasses and native plants with great verve and style
When environmental architect Larry Wente first saw the hilltop that is now his home, his view was partly obscured by tall stalks of corn and he had to fetch a stepladder to get a good look. But even perched precariously atop a ladder he could see that the site had potential, offering breathtaking views over corn and alfalfa fields to the distant Berkshire Mountains.
Seventeen years on the property – now, unsurprisingly called The Cornfield – feels an established part of this farming area that straddles the border of Connecticut and New York State. At its centre is an energy-efficient house, designed by Larry, that features a cooling tower, solar panels and a grey water system, which collects rain water for use in the house. It is also has eight doors with each one leading out into a different area of the garden. “Even when you’re inside, you feel as though you’re outdoors,” says Larry. “I can’t stay inside. I’m constantly pulled out into the garden.”
Larry designed the garden to work almost as an extension to the house, with a structure that is loosely based on the original cornfield. Its grid-like composition reflects the blocks of crops typical of farm fields. While the structural layout of the garden was largely down to Larry, the planting design was very much a joint project between Larry and his late partner Jack Hyland, featuring many native plants and ornamental grasses that blur the lines between cultivated garden and agricultural land.
Grasses have been a feature of the garden from the start. Even while the house was in its earliest stages of construction, Larry and Jack planted timothy grass, Phleum pratense, to hold the soil firm near the house in an area that has become a wildflower meadow. Today grasses feature throughout the many areas adding height and movement and in some areas colour – with the Japanese blood grass ( Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’) playing its role in the red-themed planting beds. But despite the emphasis on grasses and loose,
meadow-like planting within the garden, there is no doubt this is a carefully designed, well-structured garden. When it was still in its planning stages, Larry and Jack spent a lot of time visiting other gardens looking for ideas, and decided traditional garden styles were not for them. Although they could see that wide perennial borders might hold drama, Larry and Jack preferred gardens that offered plenty of changes of scene, areas with succinct themes that would be revealed around a bend or glimpsed through tall shrubbery or a clipped hedges. The areas they’ve created, which include a formal rill garden, wooded walk and the totally unexpected allée of solar panels, which in this eco-friendly garden is turned into an feature in its own right, surrounded by plantings of rows of sun-loving nepeta.
Originally, the site had no trees but Larry has planted some to add strong vertical elements throughout the garden and added a grove of pines, spruces and maples that will ultimately reach heights of 12-15m, on the edge of the property. They act as a windbreak to the strong winds that would otherwise race through to the house. Those breezes are harnessed in the tall cooling tower, which has been clad in unpainted Western red cedar to reflect local farm buildings.
Beyond the more cultivated areas are orchards and wildflower meadows that help to smooth the transition to the surrounding fields that Larry now rents out to a local farmer. These meadows not only link the garden to surrounding farmland but serve as a reminder of the garden’s own farmland past. But this is a garden that could never be accused of dwelling in the past. It’s a garden that has a forward-looking vision – that sits comfortably in its surroundings and works with the sustainable house it surrounds. “Designing something sustainable was always in my DNA,” says Larry. “The garden was an obvious extension of the house.”
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Right A path made from locally sourced stone cuts through a meadow of Verbena bonariensis mingling with Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Schottland’ to one side and a stand of Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ to the other. A pair of tall Thuja occidentalis ‘Degroot’s Spire’ mark the steps, sheltered by box hedge and a dome-shaped crab apple tree.
Right Originally, this area close to the house was planted with timothy grass, Phleum pratense, to hold the soil firm. It’s now become a wildflower meadow made up of five different varieties of Solidago, some grown from seed that blew in from nearby areas. The Solidago attracts plenty of pollinators and creates a wonderful contrast with the deep green of Larry’s house.