She returned to Long Island knowing she wanted something reminiscent of Britain's artfully planned gardens but translated into a softer, American style. Just as important, she also knew she needed help. Enter landscape designer Edwina von Gal. For nearly a year, the two women worked together, trading sketches, photographs, and ideas until they had designed what might best be thought of as a grand house built of plants.
"The garden is a series of rooms," says Wallace, who used walls of hedges and greenery to create distinct spaces. There are 14 in all, and each has a theme, starting with the welcoming flagstone terrace filled with potted plants and topiaries. Stretched out beyond is a garden devoted to only white flowers, a fragrant rose garden, and a perennial border filled with more than 100 plant varieties, including buddleia, phlox, and lamb's ears. A garage now serves as the backdrop for a fairy tale Cotswold cottage garden. "One room leads to another and then another," says Wallace. "You can absolutely lose yourself in it as if you were in a giant house."
Not everyone shared her vision; some people thought Wallace's scheme to bring a grand English garden sensibility to her Long Island backyard too ambitious. The light is different in England, they reminded her; the days are longer during the growing seasons. The unstated implication was that she couldn't possibly be up to the job. "When I described [my plan] to other people who had 'important' gardens, they thought I was crazy," Wallace says.
But she persevered, and at last the plans were ready. On a "monumental day in September," Wallace, von Gal, and their team assembled to begin the work of making the garden a reality. When the first shovel was pushed into the ground, however, instead of sliding into the expected deep Long Island loam, it hit rock.
Scraping stone is not the sound an aspiring gardener likes to hear on the first day of planting, particularly since it was no ordinary rock they hit but one that extended a long way in both directions. Wallace, however, is not the type to be discouraged by something as minor as hitting an old wall right where she wanted her first row of hedges to go.
As it turned out, the discovery of the remains of the old masonry wall helped convince Wallace beyond a doubt that she and von Gal were on the right track. A few months after that first day of planting, Wallace met, by coincidence, the granddaughter of Mrs. Erdman, the original owner of the house. She was thrilled to hear of Wallace's new project; her grandmother, a great plant lover in her day, had also created a magnificent garden around the house. The buried wall was one of the few vestiges of her extensive design, now lost through time and neglect.
The meeting provided all the inspiration Wallace needed to see her dream through. "It's almost as if Mrs. Erdman had said, 'I am choosing you to restore the garden to the level it was,'" says Wallace with a hint of surprise in her voice. "I felt as though I was meant to come here and do this."