Imagine waking up to the sight of a formal English garden every morning, perfectly manicured and bursting with life. For many people, it’s a fantasy, but for Susan Rotando of Fairfield, it’s a happy reality. Rotando has tended the wide expanse behind her house for many years, coaxing it back to life. “There’s a sense of satisfaction from making something beautiful,” she says. In 2015, the Smithsonian took notice. Thanks to Rotando’s hard work, her garden has been awarded a place in the Archives of American Gardens.
With over 100,000 images of historic and contemporary gardens, the Archives of American Gardens seeks to preserve the horticultural heritage of America. “The Smithsonian is looking to document the gardens as they appear today, so that the history of American gardens isn’t lost,” Rotando says.
The property, known as Farmwood, is steeped in history. The house itself, a Colonial revival, was built in 1871. But it wasn’t until 1922, when Mr. and Mrs. Udo Fleischmann bought the property, that the idea of a garden was conceived. Although there is no specific mention of a landscape architect, it is strongly believed that Agnes Selkirk Clark, a talented landscape designer and wife of architect Cameron Clark, had a part in the creation and planning of the garden. The walled gardens and water feature seen in the garden are part of her signature style.
In the 1940s, former owners Roy and Margot Larsen installed the pool and pool house, which have since become well recognized, thanks to the 1968 Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer, which filmed on location. Once a rose garden, the pool area is a perfect spot to relax and bird-watch; the Larsens donated part of the estate to the Connecticut Audubon Society.
The pool sits perpendicular to the garden, which is divided into two separate rectangular spaces. A stone and lattice fence serves as the boundary between the two, with a small, wooden gate leading from one into the other. A round reflecting pool, centered in the garden closest to the house, features a statue of a boy holding two long pipes spouting water. The two gardens are full of a variety of flowers and plantings; asters, peonies, and rudbeckia add color, while boxwoods and aesculus trees provide structure to the space.
The whole of the garden has a fully pleasing sense of serenity. Meandering paths await beyond the moon gate; some lead to a stone structure that was once a chapel but has since been converted to a garden house. These unique additions enhance the garden’s classic beauty.
As the years passed, time took its toll on the once verdant space. “It’s safe to say that the garden was in disrepair when we initially purchased the property in 2001,” says Rotando.
However, she has since restored it to its former glory by repairing original six-foot stone walls and lattice fencing, replanting flower beds and adding a gate, among other architectural features.
The hard work didn’t stop there. A few years ago, Rotando and a few fellow members of the Fairfield Garden Club embarked on what would become a two-year project—researching the Farmwood garden and submitting it for acceptance into the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens. The group gathered all the information on the property that they could find, using the resources available at town hall and the Fairfield Museum and History Center. Formally submitted by the Garden History and Design committee of Garden Club of America, Farmwood assumed its rightful place in history last spring, next to the design work of dozens of landscape architects, including Marian Coffin, Beatrix Farrand, Lawrence Halprin, Charles Platt and Fletcher Steele.
Even with its newly recognized historical significance, Rotando still does the majority of the upkeep herself, which is no small feat. “The garden is constantly changing,” she explains, adding that she couldn’t resist including her own subtle signature to it. “I usually plant perennials, and I especially like to plant white flowers.” Elegant and lush blooms of white hydrangeas border the pool. “I enjoy sitting by the pool,” she remarks jovially. “That part of the garden is the least amount of work.”