Now immaculately clipped and groomed, Stone Acres in Stonington, Connecticut is an 80-acre farm that has been handed down through the generations. Behind stone walls, discovered in a maze of boxwood hedges, its gardens seem to come from a forgotten past. Old-fashioned rambling roses climb arbor after arbor, and flowerbeds are dense with blowsy heirloom blooms. For the past 35 years, one gardener has made this his project. Christian Careb, who started out helping with dairy-farm chores in 1978, when he was a teenager, “fell in love with the place” when he was asked to lend a hand in the garden.
For Careb, the Guernsey cows were nothing compared to the gardens that date back more than a hundred years. During the Victorian era, 17 rose arbors, a quarter of a mile of boxwood hedges, a greenhouse, and flowerbeds were added to what had been a farm since 1765. Another person infatuated with Stone Acres is Wynne Delmhorst, a member of the seventh generation to inherit the farm. It was Mrs. Delmhorst’s great-grand-uncle, Eugene Phelps Edwards, who, with a twinkle in his eye, added strutting peacocks, an indoor saltwater swimming pool, a grapery, and a greenhouse. He planted more boxwood and fluffed the flowerbeds. But he also kept the Guernsey herd, the orchards and hay fields that had made this a practical “provisions farm” selling milk, eggs, meat, poultry, fruit, and produce to railroads, steamships, and hotels.
When Chris Careb started working at Stone Acres, the land was being farmed by Wynne Delmhorst’s father and mother, Frederic and Edith Paffard Jr. The head gardener then was 80-year-old Charlie Gavitt, who called on Careb to do “anything he needed a young guy to do—dig trenches, get on ladders.”
Wynne Delmhorst remembers running her hands along the hedges, playing hide-and-seek with her sisters in the gardens, and getting paid to pick beetles off the roses. When the Paffards, her parents, retired to Stone Acres permanently in the 1980s, the gardens were suffering from lack of maintenance. They hired Chris Careb full time, and he began to transform the place—moving forward in methods but bringing the gardens back in time. He dug up the weedy stone-dust paths that had taken so much of Gavitt’s time, laying landscape fabric covered with crushed stone. He mulched with seaweed.
“I saw the ghost of what this garden had been,” Careb recalls. He threw himself into thinning out the overgrown lilacs, weigela, deutzia, flowering almond, and bayberry bushes. He freed the ha-ha—a sloping ditch with a vertical wall of stones—from a snarl of brush. He clipped the hedges into shape, and thinned the spring bulbs to revive them.
The structure is formal—all those clipped boxwood hedges and a carefully wrought symmetry—but rambling roses and showering shrubs give the place a relaxed and dream-like demeanor. Heirloom flowers include love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena), sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), bachelor’s button (Centaurea montana), iris, phlox, oriental poppies, and peonies galore. The ha-ha, an orchard, the evocative wood skeleton of the old greenhouse, the barns, and mown fields surround the formal gardens—reinforcing the Brigadoon atmosphere.
Careb built new, sturdy arbors better able to shoulder the increased burden of the mature rambling roses. He propagated the roses to increase their bounty and make them available for visitors to buy—along with perennials and annuals grown from seed. Every year, Stone Acres opens for the Garden Conservancy. (This year’s dates are June 16, 2013, and July 13, 2013: gardenconservancy.org.)
Aware of the spell the gardens cast, today’s owners share it by hosting weddings and events. The family is exploring ways to bring Stone Acres into the next generation.