The Formal Garden

After Michael Faraca unexpectedly found himself working in a garden – and enjoying it – he educated himself in quintessential design, and with a couple of Anglophile clients, went on to develop a decidedly formal side.

Michael Faraca is New England born and bred, but his work life is all Olde England.

On this rainy mid-winter day, as he sits sipping hot sweet tea, looking proprietarily across a manicured garden of the North Water Street home that he has tended through three owners, he muses on his past twenty-five years of employment.


“In the classic old English tradition,” he says, “the gardener comes with the house.”

But that is the merest part of the English-ness of which we speak. The greater part is in the structure of the gardens he creates. They are so unlike the Vineyard norm, so structured, so contained, so clipped.

Put much of it down to his longtime employers, Dr. Gregory Sullivan and his wife Gene, who live in New Jersey when not traveling in Britain or summering here. He is a cardiologist and she trades in antiques. And they are serious Anglophiles.

They were the first owners of the North Water Street house, and Michael used to live there. Then seventeen years ago he moved into his own house in the West Tisbury woods (with a decidedly un-manicured garden, which he calls the “cobbler’s kids have no shoes” syndrome). But he still feels an almost parental attachment to this place. He was married here, and he still spends more time here than the seasonal-resident owners.

First at the North Water Street house, then later at the Sullivans’ new place, five acres carved out of the old Sweetened Water Farm on Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, the Sullivan-Faraca partnership has set about creating gardenscapes that look like they could have been picked up whole from the stately manors of England and set down here.

Indeed, that is literally true for many of the garden features. The statuary, the nineteenth-century iron gates, the huge sundial (brought to the Vineyard 150 years ago) that sits in one of the gardens at the Sweetened Water place, were brought from across the Atlantic, either directly or indirectly.

Also imported, in large measure, were the designs. When Greg Sullivan gets started talking about the places and people who provided inspiration, it sounds at times like a parody of quaint name-dropping.

Example: “The one in the middle, the little Sunken Garden, was from another country house called Little Thakeham, done by Gertrude Jekyll, who was among the most famous at the turn of the [twentieth] century of English gardeners, in conjunction with Edwin Lutyens, an architect.

“The two of them constructed a larger garden of which a sunken garden was part. They had two layers, going down to a pond. We have one.”

But before we get to the gardens, let’s go to the gardener.

Michael Faraca came to the Vineyard in 1980 after college, sailed in on a boat, and got work doing odd jobs around the harbor. He painted houses for about five years, then became the caretaker at the North Water Street house.

As he recalls it, “I couldn’t wait to get home to work on the garden. I thought, ‘If I could only make a living out of this, it would be great.’”

Greg Sullivan recalls it a little differently: “We kind of talked him into it.”

Whatever, the fact was Michael had no formal training in horticulture. He set about educating himself.

“When I first got into gardening, I made it a point to go to the Royal Gardens at Kew and Hampton Court [outside London] and Versailles [outside Paris] and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and the national botanical gardens in Washington, D.C. I did that all within a year, just to get a sense of the epitome of what is out there and the sense of its history.”

That sense made him utterly compatible with the Sullivans, whose vision was always for something different from the informality of most Vineyard gardens.

“I am an Anglophile,” says Greg. “My wife works in the countryside, so we see many of the country houses, many [of which] have very prestigious gardens.”

It was on a trip to England many years ago that they went to one such house, Middlethorpe Manor.

“I saw that, what I call the bones of the garden, the bricks, how the gardens are framed, and thought that looked terrific for the Vineyard,” he says.

It is not only that it would provide a perfect setting for the antique garden ornaments they brought home with them from their regular visits to England. There also were practical reasons.

Says Michael: “The challenge of Vineyard gardening is the wind and the storms. So the formal gardens, with these enclosed spaces with the privet hedges, these outdoor rooms [not actual structures, but delineated garden areas] for summer entertaining, actually protect from the wind.

“My style developed here,” he says of the North Water Street house, “because this formal garden goes with the formal architecture.

“And this holds a special place for me, because I got married on the porch, married the girl across the street. And it talks to me after a while.”

It talked to a lot of other people as well. Michael’s business grew. “At one time I had all the neighbors here. I had five on each side, and across the street, and it wasn’t any fun anymore, because you were running a gardening business, and you weren’t the gardener anymore. And that’s what I missed and I’m back to it now.

“What works for me is I just work for three people, three of the best customers. I’ve weeded them out, so they give me free rein. What keeps it interesting is that I get to do what I want to do.”

The exception to that rule, though, is the relationship with Greg and Gene. “It’s a collaboration,” he says. “We sit down and draw it out on the cocktail napkins and then the graph paper.”

Greg Sullivan compares the relationship to the “equal partnership” between landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, which built the magnificent ten acres of formal gardens around Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., between 1921 and 1941.

Alternatively, he makes a parallel with British garden writer Vita Sackville-West, who, when she wasn’t having passionate affairs with Virginia Woolf and other women, collaborated with her husband Sir Harold Nicholson to build a glorious formal garden on about ten acres at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, over about twenty years from 1930. (It was Harold, a classicist who favored geometry and symmetry who designed the garden; Vita, who preferred “profusion and surprise,” was responsible for the plantings in what is now the most-visited garden in Britain.)

You can’t accuse the Sullivans of not aiming high. Michael, however, was reluctant at first to start work on the Sweetened Water project when the Sullivans moved in the early ’90s. He liked his established gardens on North Water Street, the harbor views as he worked. And the new place was a completely blank space. “There was nothing there,” he says. “But they said we’d just do one garden a year. And before you know it, one-third of my adult life is in a yard. And you know you cannot leave it. You’re attached to it.”

To date, they have laid out about ten gardens of various sorts: a wildflower garden, an apple orchard (which blocks the sight of the nearby lumberyard), and of course the formal garden rooms around the house, many based on ideas borrowed from elsewhere. For example, the design inspiration for the Lion’s Den came from a book Michael discovered, which showed spouting stone felines and sentinel Mountbatten junipers. Island poet and mason John Maloney did the impressive stonework in the Vineyard version. Greg says he copied a walk linking the two houses on the property from a similar one of multicolored stone and lavender at Prince Charles’s estate at Highgrove. The delicate Knot Garden with its 4,400 bricks in a herringbone pattern, says Michael, was laid out in the exact design of one planted in 1720 that he saw in a book.

Of course, adjustments have to be made for the local climate. Privet serves in place of juniper in the hedges. It grows more robustly here, and takes trimming better. The current work in progress, a long walk under a series of arched pergolas, features wisteria instead of limes.

The planning is collaborative, but the realization of the plans is all Michael. “That’s the best part of it. It’s my yard for all of the spring and the fall. I share it with them for a couple of months in the spring and summertime.”

He loves the rhythm of the seasons. He sees beauty even in the bareness of the winter, when he can appreciate the bones of the garden.

“If you’ve got good bones, you can do anything,” he says.

The job, he says, is 90 percent perspiration, and the 10 percent inspiration “all comes at once, in May/June, after looking at all the garden catalogues. Then you buy the seedlings and put all these new planters together.

“What I like about the job is it has a beginning and an ending to it. My two favorite days are the first beautiful day of spring and the day I put tools away at the end of the season.”