Jean Nonna is a patient woman. She and her husband, John, moved into their Pleasantville property on Thanksgiving, 1986, knowing she wouldn’t be able to gear up into gardening mode for at least four years, when the youngest of their four children started school full-time. But the moment the time was right, she dug in with gusto. The result is a deftly syncopated landscape chock-full of little wonders. Indeed, Nonna prides herself on the diversity of her collections—but she couldn’t have done it without hitting Oliver Nurseries in Fairfield, Connecticut, when prices are deeply slashed. Rather than making frequent forays throughout the season, she patiently waits for the sales before swooping in and filling (and sometimes refilling) her car with botanical beauties. “It’s amazing what I’ve tucked into my one and a quarter acres over the years,” she says.
The daughter of an ardent northern New England gardener, Nonna always knew that she’d follow down her mother’s path to play in the dirt someday. Their property had good “bones,” as the previous owners had terraced and peppered the plot with a thoughtful selection of grand trees that have spread their limbs. To those trees, she added several notable connoisseur additions such as zelkova and stewartia—worthy additions for a suburban scene. And while she can thank the original owners for the masonry hardscape, Mother Nature gets credit for the stunning rock outcropping that runs as a ledge about a foot or so below the soil’s surface. As for the backyard’s steep slope—some gardeners would be less than grateful for the irregular grade, but Nonna saw it as having “character.” When she was ready to tackle the landscape in earnest in 1992, she took those “givens,” embraced them all, and whipped them into shape. What she composed was a radiant success, partially because she was sensitive to the site. “The topography tells you what to do, you just have to roll with the flow,” she says, waving off compliments.
Nonna insists that working with her slope is “easier than navigating a big, flat palette.” And she has a point. Rather than scratching her head and searching for defining features to insert, she just filled in the blanks. But still, buying time also brought insight. She knew the light patterns around the house intimately by the time she was ready to start planting. As a result, she was an informed shopper and when the plant sales came up, she aimed her shopping wagon directly at the shade plant section of the nursery.
At first, love may be blind. But when you’ve lived with a landscape for a while, you know its—shall we say—weak points. Nonna realized early in the game that the substantial house perched at the summit of the property needed to be anchored. Vines perform the “grounding” function even more efficiently than foundation plantings. Nonna enlisted tried-and-true climbing roses such as ‘New Dawn’ to soften the vertical lines of her house, integrating outdoors and inside with grace and romance.
Not only is she simpatico with the scene, Nonna also knows herself well. When she decided to take on the landscape, gardening pretty much took over her life—and she saw it coming. Plant-driven pursuits swallow up the bulk of her time as her plantings encompass the entire property—and we’re not talking about large expanses of grass. In fact, the landscape minimizes lawn, except for paths and segue areas that serve as frames between the plantings and guide the flow of foot traffic through the many venues. Nonna readily confesses that she devotes 40 hours (or more) a week to the garden—and it shows. Many annuals, such as zinnias and marigolds, are started from seed under fluorescent lights before the growing season starts. Even in the height of summer, the garden is clearly adored and groomed with an attentive hand. It’s one of those rare instances where a collector works with each plant to shape perennials as well as shrubs and trees into performing at their ultimate potential.
In all aspects of her craft, Jean Nonna is a focused gardener. Rather than proceeding willy-nilly, she created themed spaces. She has a fern garden, a conifer garden, a rock garden, an Asian garden, and a chartreuse and purple space. When she heard that white gardens were a Victorian favorite, she figured, “I can do that.” And of course, she nailed it. Not only does the white garden blossom with hydrangeas, anemones, irises, pure white columbines, white daisies, zinnias, snapdragons, and ‘White Swan’ echinacea (“Which seeds itself in and comes in drifts”), but she also uses silver foliage to tie the bloomers together and fill gaps when blossoms pause. Color has become one of Nonna’s favorite themes, starting with the backdoor lavender-hued garden populated by spiraeas, asters, and lavender autumn crocus. Further afield, there’s an orange area with marigolds, chrysanthemums, black-eyed Susans, and dahlias supplying their monochromatic punch. But, in many parts of the garden, green—in its many manifestations—commands the stage, especially as you move down the hill into the secluded dining area swathed in a grapevine arbor and container-grown tomatoes within picking distance.
Listening to her, you might imagine that the garden simply fell into place. Not so. She was confronted by plenty of challenges along the way. Deer were a major issue, as they put the chomp on many of the plants that she would love to have included. Alas, tomatoes and herbs (grown in containers) were the only option for food crops, due to the four-footed visitors who are apt to bound in. And, even though she devotes 40-plus hours a week to gardening, she finds that some areas are so high maintenance that they defy even her fervent dedication to the landscape. The moss in the Asian garden is an example. It requires “two fisted weeding,” Nonna admits. Is it imperiled? Definitely not. “Some things are worth the effort,” she’s quick to explain.
Nobody would guess that Jean and John Nonna’s property is relatively small at one and a quarter acres. But thanks to all that is happening, it has the impact of a much larger panorama. Not only does it weave down the hill with a series of vistas that keep you transfixed, but along the way, the Nonnas have staged creative sculptures and accents to enhance the connoisseur collection of plants. And when Jean Nonna hits sales, she returns repeatedly, ferrying carloads crammed with botanical booty back home. As a result, the storybook garden that Jean Nonna created—with its drama and colorful characters—is the best possible plea for patience. Gardens like this are worth the wait.
Jean and John Nonna’s garden is open to the public through the Garden Conservancy Open Days Program on Saturday, August 10. For more information, go to gardenconservancy.org.
With seven acres of gardens and meadows around her home, Tovah Martin shares an obsession with the land. In addition to digging the earth, she writes about gardening organically indoors in her latest book, The Unexpected Houseplant (Timber Press). Plus, she spreads the word, lecturing throughout the region (her schedule can be found at tovahmartin.com) and she blogs at plantswise.com.