Photo: Noah Greenberg
Wherever you choose to pause in Dianne Wallace's remarkable Long Island garden—under the canopy of pear trees, say, or on the exquisitely twiggy love seat set among the rhododendrons—your gaze will be carried onward to an object or opening farther along. "Come look," the Grecian urn seems to call. "Come see," teases the path through the hedge wall.
There's no rush, mind you. As with all great gardens, whether formal and French, rambling and romantic, or spare and Japanese, there's a feeling of timelessness here. It's as if a June morning could last forever, as if the garden has always been here and will always be here.
This is true of Wallace's garden even when you know full well that the illusion is in fact the product of countless and ongoing hours of digging and planting, watering and pruning. And before all that practical labor, there was the dreaming and planning—a process of discovery that involved several years of intense study and travel. But Wallace was more than willing to take her time and do it right: Her first attempt at a garden in the same location had been a complete disaster. "It was absolutely ghastly," she says with a grim chuckle.
When Wallace and her husband purchased the property in 1990, there was no garden on the three acres. It was the house, a magnificent 1912 building designed by society architect Harrie Lindeberg, that had captured their imagination. For the first year or so after moving in, all of Wallace's free moments were spent restoring the place to its former glory. Not yet a gardener, she turned the grounds over to a landscaper.
"It was as if you sent someone out with an unlimited budget and said, 'Go get me an art collection,' but you knew nothing about art," she says. The resulting garden had no soul, she recalls, no underlying idea. Plants were massed together without any structures or ornaments to stop your eye. Nothing pulled you in for a closer look. About the nicest thing she can say is "I was housing an enormous amount of plant material."
So Wallace, who is, among other things, a serious student and collector of contemporary art, embarked on a quest to discover what makes great gardens work. She began by reading every book on the topic she could get her hands on, especially those dealing with history and design, even taking them to bed with her rather than her usual novels and magazines.
Finally, when she had learned what she could at home, Wallace went on a pilgrimage to some of the great gardens of Europe. She focused on England because its romantic style appealed to her—and her house was modeled on the architecture of the Cotswold region. Hidcote, Westwell—every famous garden she visited taught her something, but none moved her quite as much as Sissinghurst, the renowned creation of novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West in Kent. There Wallace spent nearly a week photographing and walking among classic English garden scenes of flower-covered cottages, climbing roses, high trimmed hedges, and broad grassy paths.