The Landscaping Trends That’ll Dominate Fairfield County in 2024

above: Riots of color are popping up in the chicest gardens across the county. – Photography: © Yols – stock.adobe.com

One of the great natural pleasures of spending time outside on warm spring and summer evenings is listening to the free outdoor concerts performed by the All-Star, All-Insect, All-Night Orchestra. This gardening season, as members of the rhythm section—the tree crickets and land crickets, the cicadas and katydids—magically appear, the big band promises to crank up the volume and be in full swing for the first time in decades.

That’s because all across Fairfield County, many of the top landscape architects and designers have been preaching best practices to an increasingly committed congregation of environmentally conscious homeowners.

While buffalo grass and other native and ornamental grasses are kicking Kentucky blue and fescue off golfclub-like lawns (or at least out of sections of them), pollinator plants and brightly colored flowers are attracting birds, bees, butterflies and other creatures by the kabillions.

At the same time, paradoxically, something of a return to order and formality is underway, and why not? There’s a hard, clean look to arborvitae walls and boxwood borders, precisely edged garden islands and shrubs sharply pruned into statuesque topiary. They’re complementing both modern houses and formal mansions but also providing a kind of architectural structure for disorderly rows of perennials and annuals.

Which is not to say the backyard is no longer the place to chill after long, hot, summer days. Popular this year are plunge pools—small, shallow respites to soothe and restore sore bodies.

From Greenwich to Westport homeowners are heeding the call of the wild, staying true to tradition and taking care of themselves as well as their garden companions.

Where the Wild Things Are
For decades Fairfield County homeowners have been obsessed with golf course–quality grounds. Blame can be laid on Thomas Jefferson, whose Monticello estate boasted one of the earliest American manicured lawns. Since he set that style, cultivated grasses have dominated suburban yards as well.

In the past few years, however, a number of local landscape designers have convinced customers to go native instead.

Wesley Stout Design Associates, a New Canaan landscape design firm, has installed native and ornamental grasses both at the residential and the commercial level for environmental reasons: “It’s staggering the amount of water bluegrass turf grasses require,” founder Wes Stout says. “It takes a full swimming pool to water a typical yard for a week!”

For a large commercial property in the area, the firm removed every blade of traditional turf grass and replaced it with species like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a prairie grass admired for its cool-hued color during the summer months and reddish-bronze tones in autumn. (“Skipper” butterflies like it, to boot.) It demands little watering, thereby aiding local reservoirs, and though it can grow up to three feet high by fall, lawns planted in the grass need to be cut back just several times a season.

Other designers confirm the trend’s rise. Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses in Greenwich has reported an uptick in orders for native seeds and plantings as well as perennial meadow garden material.

Native grasses and gardens planted like full-of-life meadows are taking up space alongside—and sometimes even replacing—traditional manicured lawns. – Photography: grasses and pool by Neil Landino

“People are using their spaces differently,” notes Maggie Bridge, a partner in the family firm that has been on the same North Street parcel since King George I of England bestowed it as a land grant in the 1600s. “Where traditionally you would see a giant lawn, we’re now starting to see more requests for wildflower meadows and pollinator gardens.”

(Pollinators are plants that attract insects which, in turn, transfer pollen from one plant to another. Here in the Northeast, they include milkweed, sunflowers and wildflowers, sweet alyssum, black-eyed Susans and some zinnias and verbena, as well as many herbs.)

At the Chelsea Flower Show in London last May, Sandy Lindh of English Gardens & Designs in Greenwich took note of a turn toward the rewilding of formal English gardens and a more naturalistic approach to landscape design. Back in Greenwich, she found her customers requesting the same. Last year, her company installed some half-dozen pollinator gardens in addition to open meadows of wildflowers.

“I think [homeowners] are beginning to realize that we need to make space for nature and that having pollinator-friendly flower beds with no chemicals is the way to go,” Lindh says. This spring she’s encouraging clients to reduce their lawn footage and expand their blooming plots.

Other options exist, however unnaturally. A father of three very active young boys, was so tired of patching the back lawn, he tore it up and, in its place, laid a quarter-acre of Astroturf. It’s not beneficial for the bees—or some say even the knees. Yet it’s so low-maintenance that perhaps we’ll see the rise of these truly “no mow” yards in the coming years?

Insect-attracting pollinators are all abuzz for spring and summer. Photograph: © Aleksandr – stock.adobe.com

Silent Spring
In keeping with some landscape designers’ preference for electric leaf blowers and the “No Noise” ordinance that went into effect in the state last October, these wild lawn-substitutes are, in effect, silencing commercial mowers to combat noise. They’re also helping reduce air pollution since big, multi-wing, gas-powered rigs operate outside of EPA emissions regulations.

During the peak summer season, according to Stout, “the commercial lawn mower that’s going around your two-acre yard every week is the equivalent of something like 18 automobiles on the road.”

Like him, Heather O’Neill of Second Nature Landscape Design in Norwalk encourages clients to incorporate native grasses, pollinators and other thoughtful plantings on their properties. But she’s also keenly aware of Fairfield County sensibilities.

“Replacing a lawn either in part or whole with native and ornamental grasses is great on paper, but a lot of homeowners want green grass that looks like a putting green,” she says. “We’re trying to do the best of both worlds.”

O’Neill also adds that native seed and plants can be more expensive than non-natives and remains skeptical of any immediate widespread adoption of battery-powered leaf blowers due to their perceived inefficiency compared to their gas or electric counterparts.

But on one thing homeowners throughout the county have needed no convincing—filling their properties with tons of flowers. Maybe it’s the lingering gloom hangover of the pandemic driving the trend, but bold, bright colors are widely believed to bring joy and signal hope. If that’s the case, we’re in for a joyous, hopeful gardening season.

Posh pools boast sun shelves, heating units for winter and plunge options for cold immersion therapy.

Rainbow Valley
Late last fall, O’Neill’s crew planted thousands of bulbs on a three-acre property in backcountry Greenwich to appease the owner’s seemingly insatiable desire for continuous color.

From earliest spring to late in the fall, the property is lined with blooming borders, even down to the edge of a pond, and dotted with blossoming islands. The plantings have enticed legions of insects, amphibians and reptiles to feel at home, as well as at least one bald eagle O’Neill spotted on one of her regular visits to the property.

“Honeybees are swarming over the flowers,” she says, “and there are tons of fish and frogs and more snakes than I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s as if St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland and they came to Greenwich!”

Flowers are also being mixed into vegetable gardens, bringing visual sustenance to the dinner table.

At Homefront Farmers in Redding, towering sunflowers line the edges of the handsome raised and fenced gardens the company constructs for clients. “We’ve always grown a lot of native plants that we intermix into our vegetable gardens, but more people are asking for them today,” says Miranda Gould, Homefront’s director of client operations.

Dahlias, the large-headed, showy members of the family of flowers that includes sunflowers, chrysanthemums and zinnias, are the prima donnas of the gardens the company creates. Blooming in late-summer and well into the fall, the blooms come in a range of sizes—“Café au Lait,” the Queen of the tubers, is a dinnerplate dahlia that can grow to ten inches in diameter!—and a prism-full of colors.

Dahlias have become so much in demand that orders for them are crashing supplier websites and blowing up availability to a degree perhaps not seen since tulip mania in 17th-century Holland.

Hot Water
All the while, swimming pools continue to be in high demand, with landscape designers scrambling to line up contractors who’ve been booked for as long as a year in advance of construction. Driving demand has been a trend toward viewing them anew.

“Pools have become more for pleasure than just for swimming and diving,” says Roger Haggerty of Haggerty Pools in Norwalk. “We’re doing a lot of shallower pools. Diving boards have pretty much become obsolete.”

Adapting to the latest trend, Haggerty is building sun shelves in the shallowest ends of existing traditional pools for sitting and chatting. And, along with other pool companies, they’re installing a whole other kind of hole in the ground for serious runners and athletes as well as for the owners of small properties. In what sounds like the opposite of entertainment, Soake plunge pools typically range between seven and 15 feet long and are equipped not only with heaters but also with chiller units that can plunge water temperatures to as low as 37 degrees. Cold-water immersion is believed to help muscles recover quickly from strenuous exercise, heat and stress—and fast.

Because they don’t overwhelm a backyard in the way traditional pools can, plunges can be tucked into a corner of a property, leaving space for gardens. They range from a third to half the cost of a standard swimming pool and can convert to hot tubs at the end of summer for year-round use.

“The appeal is socialization,” observes Lindh. “With the heater on in cooler weather, you can get in there and wallow with friends all year round!”

Flowers are the ultimate accessory in well-appointed vegetable gardens.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
For all the talk of wild meadows and explosions of color, Fairfield County is still home to some of the most exquisite examples of formal, classical architecture in New England, and on a grand scale. Landscape designers here are as attuned to gardens that reflect these places as they are to horticultural trends.

As such, reports of the demise of boxwood, prompted perhaps by a blight in recent years, has been clearly exaggerated (with a nod to Hartford’s Mark Twain).

Sandy Lindh uses sharpened, finely crafted British pruning shears to handcut evergreen shrubs and trees towards a range of goals: screen properties from neighbors; frame gardens overflowing with flowers; maintain allees of hornbeam and linden trees; and shape boxwood into stunning topiary.

When well-maintained, borders and walls of these evergreens provide a sense of tradition and dignity befitting the grand mansions and estate homes that dot Fairfield County’s Gold Coast and backcountry. They work to marry the wild and the tamed, giving large properties a sense of enclosure and focus.

As with other landscape designers working the grounds of formal homes, Lindh favors boxwood-lined gardens close to the main entrances and around foundations.

“For big mansions in backcountry Greenwich, you might have topiary hedging leading the way to the main entrance,” she says. “They don’t have to be boxwood—they can be hornbeam or linden trees–to lead the eye to a courtyard or fountain or formal garden in front.”

Behind stately homes like these, Lindh also creates topiary courtyards that can be more whimsical, with boxwood shaped into spirals, balls or animals.

Blooming in never-ending cycles of pretty, meadow-like gardens feel like being surrounded by a field of flowers in the English countryside.

And yet boxwood borders and boundaries also fit more contemporary abodes, too. For its clients in modern farmhouse-style houses, Putnam Landscape Associates, a design and high-end property maintenance firm in Weston, installs boxwoods to deliver clean lines and define uncluttered flower beds.

“It’s not necessarily an English garden effect,” says Grant Putnam, who cofounded the company while still in high school, “but more of a modern design with fewer elements than in the past.”

In many cases, that calls for tiers of boxwoods to add structure and accentuate the architecture of a contemporary house. “There’s nothing like boxwood to achieve those ends,” Putnam says. “It’s a timeless plant.”

Showcased within boxwood borders this spring are perennial cultivars that have been bred to bloom more than once a season and to maintain staying power. “The new cultivars of plants, like hydrangeas, are superior genetically to past versions,” says Putnam. “They’re real bloomers, rather than once-and-done, that rebloom later in the season.”

Other plants popular at Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses in Greenwich this season include the European hornbeam (carpinus betulus), a short-trunk tree than can be planted close together and pruned like a hedge.

“Hornbeams’ sleek lines look great outside modern homes but they also work in English gardens and in traditional spaces,” says Maggie Bridge.

With a little luck and a stretch of good weather, the bulbs planted last fall are emerging from the warming earth and the new pollinator plants are sprouting light-green leaves. We’ve brought back out the patio furniture and stacked the firepit with seasoned or kiln-dried hardwood.

Listen! The opening act of the outdoor concert season, The Fabulous Spring Peepers, is warming up. Now, after a winter spent mainly indoors, let’s gather family and friends outside to take in all that nature has to offer. 

Estate homes maintain a sense of tradition with a more formal focus. – Photography: © Yols – stock.adobe.com

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