Stewarded by multiple generations of the same Connecticut family, the landscape at Stone Acres is a gracious reflection of the property’s storied past. Christian Careb was 15 years old when he landed his first job at Stone Acres, a gentleman’s farm in Stonington, Connecticut. The year was 1978, and Chris was just getting the hang […]
Stone Acres’ side gate is flanked by colorful begonias in urns, as rambling roses climb the arbor overhead; the path leads visitors through neatly trimmed 170-year-old boxwood hedges into a traditional English garden.
Photo Credit : Kindra Clineff
Stewarded by multiple generations of the same Connecticut family, the landscape at Stone Acres is a gracious reflection of the property’s storied past.
Christian Careb was 15 years old when he landed his first job at Stone Acres, a gentleman’s farm in Stonington, Connecticut. The year was 1978, and Chris was just getting the hang of milking a dairy herd when word came that Charlie Gavitt, the property’s 80-year-old gardener, needed a hand in the formal flower garden near the main house. Heading up from the barn, Chris ducked beneath blossom-smothered rose arbors and brushed shoulders with a quarter of an acre of boxwood hedges. As he made his way past the billowing peonies, phlox, and iris that had been growing at Stone Acres for a couple of centuries, he fell in love. “It was this magical world, like living in a past time,” he says, his eyes still misting at the memory.
Gradually, Chris found himself being called over to help in the garden more often, which suited him just fine. Not that it was easy work; the learning curve was steep, and his mentor was a laconic Yankee, disinclined to play teacher. So Chris followed Charlie around and extrapolated lessons from watching how to plant, when to mulch, what to grow and where. He sheared boxwoods that had stretched to 20 feet in some places, bringing them back to their more-sculptured form. By the time Charlie retired at age 90 after 70 years at Stone Acres, Chris knew the garden’s rhythms.
Nearly three decades have passed since Chris became head gardener, and he’s learned that gardens, even historic ones, aren’t locked in time; they’re living, evolving things. When the glassed-in grapery disintegrated, Chris carefully lifted out its panes and burned the bittersweet that had taken hold, but preserved the skeletons of the gnarled fig trees that had long ago succumbed to frost; today they look like natural sculptures. He has devoted himself to bringing the property into the current century while being ever mindful of its storied history.
Stone Acres began its life around 1760, built as a comparatively plain, 64-acre farm for Dr. Charles Phelps, a local physician and Stonington’s first probate judge. It was Phelps’s grandson Charles, a successful dry-goods merchant, who added the lordly Greek Revival addition in 1830 on earnings from trade with China. Not content with a mere mansion, he added a carriage barn, an ice house, a glass grapery, and expansive ornamental gardens.
The layout of the original garden would be recognizable to visitors today, according to Connecticut garden historian Karen Cowperthwaite, who researched Stone Acres’ story. An acre or more of beds, divided into three sections, were planted with popular flowers of the time—phlox, yarrow, roses, nepeta, valerian, rose campion, love-in-a-mist. But even as those blooms have gone in and out of fashion over time, they’re still steadfastly in residence at Stone Acres: a joyous collection of heirloom annuals and perennials, no matter what the current floral fashions might be. Chris grows flowers that can’t be found in most gardens: old-fashioned clove pinks (dianthus), foxgloves, fragrant nicotiana, Canterbury bells, and a litany of other bygone blooms whose names have been all but lost to time.
And those middle beds are still buttressed by a cutting garden planted with peonies, irises, daisies, lupines, and the like, plus a vegetable garden chock full of edible kitchen staples.
Of course, the paradox of maintaining an old garden is that it requires constant renovation to maintain the status quo. ‘New Dawn’ is the rose on some of the arbors. But every year, Chris engages in bloody combat with the unruly canes of unidentified, deeply redolent roses after they finish their brief performance for Father’s Day. Replacing them with reblooming but less-heady modern roses never entered his mind. Nor are there any newfangled reblooming irises or ‘Bloomerang’ lilacs putting on a late-season show.
“There’s a time for everything here,” Chris says. “I love the succession from the red shoots of the peonies until they brown in autumn.” Plants are allowed to bloom, then fade.
That said, he does let himself experiment. Every winter, Chris leafs through seed catalogues and orders novelties like tithonia to try. And friends have donated Montauk daisies, platycodon, and meadowsweet. That’s the beauty of a multigenerational garden: It keeps expanding. But, Chris notes, “the garden never breaks character.”
When old photographs were found showing that the makeshift supports for the roses were once sturdy arbors, Chris brandished his carpentry tools and built bona fide supports of cedar posts. The day that Edith Paffard, Chris’s first employer here and wife of a descendant of the original owners, decided that the gardens were overgrown and needed revitalizing was a nail-biter. But the following spring, after digging up and respacing 10,000 overgrown bulbs, “the flowers came up like a carpet,” Chris recalls. “Squill, windflowers, camassias, and hyacinths form a sea of blue.” Similarly, weigela, potentilla, clethra, and azaleas that were swamped by other plants were salvaged. An old garden continually needs revitalization, but Chris Careb is forever willing to do whatever must be done. “This place touches my heart,” he says. “I know, it sounds like a Hallmark card. But it’s true.”
When Mrs. Paffard passed away, she left Stone Acres to a partnership of her daughters. Although her children—especially Wynne Delmhorst—desperately struggled to keep Stone Acres in the family, renting it out for weddings and other events, the time came when ownership was no longer feasible. The next-best solution was to find a caring and sensitive owner, a process that is still actively in motion. Some things are worth preserving, even if it’s only a Sweet William that everyone else long ago forgot.
Stone Acres will welcome visitors through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program on July 18, 2015. Check gardenconservancy.org for information on specific dates for other New England locations this summer, as well.