Garden by the Sea
“I choose plants to feed the birds or attract the butterflies,” says Bunny O’Callahan, explaining the composition of her coastal Connecticut garden. “Sunflowers really draw the goldfinches in. I like to float on my back in the pool and listen to them and watch butterflies and hummingbirds on the Buddleia. It’s paradise.” Bunny also has a soft spot for bees, which congregate on her billowy blue catmint and Russian sage.
Bunny and her husband Juan’s mansard-roofed, circa-1860s house sits on a breathtaking promontory at the southeastern tip of the state. Inside, visitors immediately gravitate to one spot: a living room bay with floor-to-ceiling windows and magnificent views to three sides.
To the right, there’s the historic village of Stonington, still looking as though a whaleship might come into port. To the left, there’s the curving shore of Rhode Island. Straight ahead lies a flat, sandy barrier island, and beyond, Long Island Sound and open ocean.
Complementing the expansive vistas, a sweep of garden extends from the house down to a protective seawall at the water’s edge. In the foreground, a tiny garden pool guarded by St. Francis echoes the saltwater in the distance. Bunny laughingly shares the fact that a pair of wild ducks likes to frequent this tiny reflection of the larger environment.
Since 1992, when the O’Callahans moved here, their goal has been to create a peaceful oasis for friends and family, especially their 12 grandchildren. “The children sense a freedom here that they don’t have at home because they live on busy streets,” Bunny explains. “They can get out of the car and run. They play soccer and football and fly planes and kites. They go check the chickens to see if there are any eggs, and visit the vegetable garden to see what we’re going to pick for supper. They run down to the beach searching for little treasures, like sea glass and shells. It’s a magical kingdom for them.”
The heart and soul of this realm is the sunken garden (also called the “secret” garden because it’s not visible from the house). When the O’Callahans bought the property, they knew they wanted to develop this area first. A 10-foot-tall retaining wall and stone steps were discovered under overgrown Boston ivy and Euonymus. Now the grandchildren take special pleasure in this restored space, playing hide-and-seek amidst its tall grasses and ledge outcroppings.
Another major landscape feature is a large cutting and vegetable garden ringed by a tall yew hedge. Juan, whose father was a professional artist, is a passionate painter himself. Juan designed the layout of the hedge to protect the plants within from wind and to create the feeling of a walled English garden.
If there’s one challenge to gardening in an exposed coastal location, it’s wind. At one time the O’Callahans grew tea roses, but many of them succumbed during one particularly bitter winter. Since then, Bunny and Juan have focused on growing tougher customers, although they do make an exceptional effort to preserve a fruiting fig by wrapping it in foam and tarpaulins every November.
But sometimes the wind can work in a gardener’s favor: It knocks down slender twigs of a favorite corkscrew willow, which Bunny then gathers to display in vases throughout the house. Fog, too, is a cloud with a silver lining. It can promote fungal problems, especially on susceptible plants such as tall phlox and tomatoes, but the water that condenses out of it can help keep sandy soil moist. Mulching with a generous layer of straw also conserves moisture. At the end of the season, Bunny turns the straw into the soil to decompose.