Time to Unwind

A gardener’s tale of creating an old-fashioned romantic garden for actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson.

Almost twenty years ago, I was called to a house in Chilmark. I had visited the property before to have tea with the widow of the late minister of the West Tisbury Church. I’d always liked the house and its site, nestled into a hill with stunning views of the ocean.

So here it was a number of years later. The yard had been dug up for a septic upgrade, and the hedges had overgrown their original placement. What little landscaping there was had long ago passed its prime.

Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen took a relaxed, cottage-garden approach to their Island home.
Jessie Webster

I met with Ted that day, and as he sat perched atop the washing machine in the entryway, he talked about what he and Mary would like to change and what they wanted to remain the same. They especially didn’t want to change the feel of the place, but were fashioning it to suit themselves and their four children – remodeling and redecorating, repainting, adding a bluestone terrace and more stonework.

What was left of the landscape needed serious help. They were adamant about the project having little impact; they respected the site and the mark they were to make.

From the start it was obvious they really loved all of the ingredients that make the Vineyard the Vineyard – and what being here did for them. It gave their family the opportunity for some precious time together, away from their other worlds. It was a restorative spot.

Roses tumble in profusion over lichen-covered stone walls built by stonemason and poet John Maloney.
Nina Bramhall

And they told me they planned to get married here at the season’s end. By then the house would be finished, and the meadow that was not yet cleared would host their ceremony and reception, and they’d walk among the walls that were not yet built.

You can imagine how scary a thought it was – getting everything ready for the big day while looking around at a sand lot!

And so we began. They love stone walls, and they love roses. Chilmark poet and stonemason John Maloney built a stone wall to enclose the house from the north, and we planted it with ‘Seafoam’ roses to tumble over the top. The wall created a kitchen entry garden protected from the prevailing ocean winds. Fairy roses flank the path inside, and we planted abundant ‘May Night’ salvia, ‘Anthea’ achillea, peonies, platycodon, phlox, hollyhocks, astilbe, echinacea, malva, buddleia, and hydrangea.

Swaths of fragrant lavender punctuate the lawn behind the house and main gardens.
Nina Bramhall

The front door is also on the north side. ‘Montana Rubens’ clematis drapes over the doorway, and a ‘New Dawn’ rose climbs on the gable end of the bedroom addition. Mary wanted an old-fashioned cottage feel to the house and designed the screen doors to match some on a farmhouse she knew as a child growing up in Arkansas.

The secret path to the south runs peacefully along the side of the house, with autumn clematis on the outdoor shower structure, ‘Annabelle’ hydrangeas around it, and the creamy blooms of aruncus leading from this shady shower area to the western sun and the white flowering rose of Sharon.

There is little need for extra plantings or flowers on the south side facing the ocean. Ted and Mary simply wish to sit on the porch and look – beyond the far walls that John built farther down the slope – at the sparkling sea. There are more rambling roses, honeysuckle vine, and rugosa roses along the far walls.

Pool plantings include Siberian iris, ‘White Dawn’ roses, and ‘Brookside’ perennial geraniums.
Nina Bramhall

The old-fashioned porch is a marvelous vantage point, where an unassuming sweep of lavender, Teucrium, and dwarf spirea are tucked along the patio surrounding the porch. Viburnum and inkberry round out this area, with veronica and Geranium macrorrhizum at the base of the shrubs to soften the texture.

There are clematis vines growing on the south walls of the house and farm porch. On the side of the porch, Mary has subtly worked the vines to form a heart opening. Not everyone notices it, but it’s a treat if someone recognizes it. The combination of Mary’s Arkansas charm and quirky sophistication, so understated, brings out the life and love of the house.

Several years later and with their children grown up, they asked for a pool. They wanted to easily handle the overflow of their friends, young and old, and to offer a fun gathering place for all to enjoy. The pool tucks nicely into the hillside. From the upper hill, one looks right over it. It is far enough to the side of the lot that it doesn’t break any vistas from the house. Just enough bluestone terrace, a ribbon of Japanese iris along one side, and an arbor with wisteria in the protected far end all help nestle the area into the wild banking. The little pool house evokes a lakeside camp, and solar panels on the roof heat the pool.

Clematis vines form a loosely woven heart at one end of the old-fashioned farmer’s porch.
Nina Bramhall

There is now a meadow above the house, punctuated with ancient glacial erratics – a huge boulder stands vertically, as if it had been placed in this special spot many, many centuries ago. A vegetable garden with old locust posts sits in the corner of the meadow, with collards and okra, herbs of all sorts, and flowers to pick.

It was this spot where Mary and Ted were married in October of 1995. Fifteen years later, their daughter Lilly was married on the property and hosted her wedding reception there on the hill. Since then, a grandchild has joined the family.
Tending to this Vineyard home and its rambling, romantic gardens over the years has been all about family – and the love that holds it together.