Perfect Harmony

A strong vision shaped by capable hands results in a graceful modern classic

At Harmony Farms,
James Doyle Design Associates met with a challenging program: to unite a 19th-century home, guest house and barn set atop a steep hill with a landscape that swept dramatically down through an old orchard ending in wetlands. By 2004, when the landscape-design firm arrived on the scene, the buildings had been sensitively restored by the owners. But the eight-acre Greenwich site retained too much of the raw feel of the native farm. Could several buildings be tied together and the hillside transformed into the clients’ dream of a classical-style European garden, while still remaining true to its Yankee roots? In fact, designer James Doyle, business partner Kathryn Herman and associate Matthew Willinger met that challenge, and then some. In 2010, their design for Harmony Farms won accolades from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. They were awarded both the International Landscape Designer of the Year for Residential Design, and the Gold Award for Residential Design for the project itself. Just this year, James Doyle Design Associates won the Traditional Builders Palladio Award for Exterior Spaces—Gardens & Landscapes for the property.

Some of the world’s most memorable gardens were born of difficult sites. Think of Italy’s Boboli and Washington, D.C.’s Dumbarton Oaks: Both sites are organized as a progression of terraces tumbling down a hillside. These designs’ individual charms come from the rhythmic play between sunny planes and shady walkways, each area circumscribed by evergreen hedges, stone walls, flights of stairs and architectural punctuation marks. So, too, at Harmony Farms.

James Doyle Design Associates’ work characteristically employs the crisp lines and volumetric shrubbery found in such classic gardens. “We believe in installing structure,” James says, and that’s not surprising. Before moving to the United States, he supervised an Irish estate created by the great modern landscape designer Russell Page. Among other things, Russell Page was known for his architectural use of sheared trees and shrubbery.

But the creation of a great garden requires not only capable gardening hands but a clear vision to guide the process. In this case, the vision was that of the homeowners, whom James calls “sophisticated, pleasant and very informed.”

They wanted “great European-style gardens and bucolic outdoor spaces,” he says. What’s more, they wanted to work the garden themselves. The designers were asked to save the best of the existing orchard trees. But they also needed to create room for a new berry patch and vegetables.

The firm devised a scheme of terraced garden rooms, which—in true classical style—are more formal in design near the house, and then gracefully devolve as the land falls off down the hillside. A long alleé was created across the back façades of the two houses, linking the buildings in an entirely new way. Then the planting began.

Sheared beeches now create veil-like walls along the terrace, the walls opening to reveal spectacular vistas. Green-on-green, rows of topiary cones and crisp cubes instill a feeling of quietude and calm. “We are known for our creative way with Carpinus [hornbeam] and beech,” says Kathryn—and the firm’s expertise clearly shows.

Both designers travel a good deal. Their horticultural techniques, while seen in Europe, are not as familiar in this country, to the degree that the firm sometimes imports plant stock from abroad.

The stone and living walls created new spaces for gardening that Doyle associate Matthew Willinger helped to fill. In keeping with the 19th-century character of the buildings, the owners requested antique roses be planted on the walls near the house. Among those he selected are the pink Damask Comte de Chambord and the frothy, trailing Félicité et Perpétue. The Taxus allée is carpeted with fine fescue grass, a special mix also selected by Matthew. “It’s very durable grass that makes crisp, mowed pathways,” he says, while the sides are left to grow meadow-like until fall.

Something special happened at Harmony Farms: Vision and creation combined to produce a garden that feels appropriate and timeless. It’s truly a classic—but with a modern twist.