Laws of Nature
For an eminent attorney, creating one of Connecticut’s premier gardens has given due process a whole new meaning
Written by Paul Deitz
Photographed by Christopher Baker
Produced by Senga Mortimer and Deborah Needleman
LIKE A HORTICULTURAL Cinderella, Barbara Paul Robinson found herself on a chilly April morning in 1991 scrubbing the terrace at Highgrove, the Cotswold country estate of the Prince of Wales. She had already spent hours in the greenhouse, preparing 580 thyme cuttings. Hard labor indeed, and hardly glamorous, but she expected it. Although she as at the top of the legal profession in New York and the first woman law partner at the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton, Robinson had chosen to spend six weeks of a five-month sabbatical from the law in a gardening apprenticeship.
Twenty-six years earlier, she and her husband, artist Charles Raskob Robinson, had purchased the eighteenth-century farmhouse and barn in Washington, Connecticut, that started them gardening. “I found gardening both overwhelming and daunting in our early Connecticut days,” Barbara Robinson recalls as she details the learning process that eventually produced one of the premier gardens in the state. “The books may tell you how to intermingle colors in a border but not how plants behave.” She immediately set out to learn the basics and is now writing a book meant to inspire confidence in people like herself.
The idea of apprenticing herself to two leading English garden designers and authors — Rosemary Verey and Penelope Hobhouse — was simply one more step in Robinson’s determinedly pragmatic education. “Considering the contrast with her high-powered life in New York,” recalls Verey, whose Cotswold garden at Barnsley House is legendary, “it was marvelous how well she fitted in with my other gardeners, who were the sons of the local coal merchant.” Bare-handed, from eight to five with lunch and tea breaks, Robinson energetically addressed chores — deadheading, weeding, propagating and pruning — including the work at Highgrove, where Verey was engaged in designing gardens. By the time se moved on to Penelope Hobhouse’s garden, then at Tintinhull House in Somerset, Barbara Robinson was a seasoned apprentice.
Her own garden encapsulates all the stages of her horticultural education. Once they had settled in the old Connecticut house, the Robinsons began the struggle with forty acres of derelict land, most of it an abandoned gravel mine. It is difficult today to imagine the unimproved site as you face a woodland drive, rolling greens that dip down to a pond, and the series of lush gardens — each with its own character. At first, gardening consisted of nothing more that tidying up the land. In the next stage, Barbara Robinson planted a vegetable garden. Eventually, after a neighbor removed gravel from a pit, Barbara and her husband created a pond and put in a grove of pine trees on a bluff overlooking it.
As they progressed, Charles Robinson began to sculpt the land, creating what he calls canvases for his wife’s gardens. Over the years, earthmovers have flattened hills, cut a path to the pond, and rerouted the entrance drive so that it passes through the woods. Because each garden offers a special experience of scale and palette, with only glimpses of neighboring spaces, the overall impression is of a vast terrain connected by paths.
Each scheme has its breathtaking moment. For the Rose Walk, the centerpiece of the Robinsons’ garden, a profusion of climbing roses in shades from deepest red to palest pink grows on parallel rows of rustic trellises. The grass pathway between them is lined in a haze of lavender Nepeta. A small blue-gray latticed shed at the end of the walk is one of many imaginative follies created for the garden by Charles Robinson. There is usually a touch of whimsy in their designs, like the stained-glass iris and daffodils in the door of this shed.
The Robinsons’ travels have also provided them with inspiration. After falling in love with the famous Golden Garden at Crathes Castle near Aberdeen, in Scotland, they made their own version, the Moon Garden, outside their bedroom window. Designed with borders around a fountain and a figure eight of lawn, the Moon Garden of dwarf cypress, potentilla, berberis, yellow-twigged dogwood, clematis, trumpet vine, and honeysuckle is fragrant and luminous.
Where the land slopes upward to an old orchard, a serpentine garden crowns the landscape with a network of curing fieldstone retaining walls. The borders planted along them feature a bold combination of brilliant reds, oranges, and purples. In the middle of this field stands another of Charles Robinson’s follies, a latticed gazebo overlooking the gardens. In the evening the last rays of sun stream through its stained-glass window of a single rose.
In addition to his chromatic blue bridge at the pond’s end, Charles Robinson’s “wa” (for woodland arch) strikes another surprising note. The “wa” is an intricate yellow bentwood affair that forms a gateway to the new woodland garden. Planted with rhododendrons, native orchids, hellebores, and white digitalis under a canopy of maples and oaks, the woodland paths afford views through the trees of the more formal gardens.
As she studies the laws of nature at home and the laws of man at work, Barbara Robinson finds that her interests are perfectly compatible and even complementary. “The law is composed of abstract principles and human conflict,” she says, “whereas gardens are tangible and quiet.”
Paula Deitz is a coeditor of The Hudson Review