Gordon and Mary Hayward's Vermont Farmhouse | The Gardener's House
Over the past 30 years, a famous garden designer and his wife have transformed a dilapidated Vermont farmhouse into a study in harmony between indoors and out, where garden views are always in focus.
Town life never suited Gordon and Mary Hayward. They found that out firsthand in 1981, when they bought an 1850s-era white Cape in the heart of Saxtons River, Vermont. Over the next two years, the couple, both teachers at the time and the parents of a young boy, fixed up the old place and rebuilt the small gardens around it. But living on Main Street proved too busy for the Haywards, avid gardeners, both of whom had grown up on old farms—Gordon in New Hartford, Connecticut; Mary in the North Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire, England. They wanted more country, more land. “We wanted a large garden, but we had no concept of what it would look like,” Mary says. “We just knew we wanted to grow things.”
Then, one day while driving to Brattleboro, where he taught high-school English, Gordon spotted a tired-looking 1780s Cape in Westminster West. The house, which sat on a rolling dirt road, looked so neglected that he couldn’t tell whether somebody was living in it, but he loved how it perched atop the slight rise of a south-facing hillside. He loved its attached barn and old pastures.
There was one catch: The home, still lived in and still in the hands of the family who had originally built it, wasn’t for sale. So the Haywards began talking to real-estate agents about finding a place like it. “We’d tell them that we were looking for an older place, built in the late 1700s, early 1800s, with some cleared land around it,” Gordon says. “Something that we could fix up and didn’t cost that much. And they’d say, ‘Yeah, and you want a stream and a pond and 11 acres of sugarbush, too, right?’ They’d heard it before.”
Over the next year they talked to anyone who would stand still for a minute about what they wanted. Then a teacher with whom Mary was working heard rumblings about a dilapidated Cape in Westminster West whose owner was looking to sell. It needed a lot of work, they were warned, but it had some land and sat on a little rise of land just off a pretty dirt road lined with big maples. “I knew exactly the house she was talking about,” Gordon says. “We made it down there in about a minute and a half.”
On a cold December day in 1983, the Haywards moved in. The house satisfied the couple’s eagerness to renovate. The plaster walls were crumbling, the house lacked central heat and insulation, and the well had long ago ceased working. The grounds were just as much of a project. Overgrowth and old car parts populated the acre of land. At one point the Haywards had 14 different brush fires going. Out of the barn and the woods they hauled seven large truckloads of scrap metal.
Much of this early heavy lifting the Haywards did themselves. They stripped plaster walls of tattered wallpaper, refinished them, and painted them white; they seeded newly cleared grounds with grass. Color choices and experimental plantings could wait. “It was a matter of getting it to a point where we could manage it,” Mary says, “so we could keep it under control.”
“At one point, I got up on the metal roof, which was just covered with rust, and I wire-brushed the whole exterior of the house—roof and sides,” Gordon says. “We were driven.” With a laugh, Mary adds, “We were into work.”
During those early years, the property became an experimental site for Gordon, who quit teaching in 1985 and launched himself as one of the country’s leading garden designers, with landscape projects that have taken him all over the United States. He’s the author of 11 books, including Your House, Your Garden, which was lauded by the American Horticultural Society as a top title in 2004, and he’s been a regular contributor to Horticulture and Fine Gardening magazines.
“When we bought this place, we had an opportunity to express what interested us,” Gordon says. “It became our laboratory, where we learned about plants, where we learned about design.”