Dianne Wallace in her English garden
Photo: Noah Greenberg
They told her it couldn't be done—a full-blown English garden? On just three acres? In the wrong climate? What was she thinking? But Dianne Wallace dug in, read up, plowed on. And created a work of art full of breathtaking vistas, hedge-walled "rooms," stylish allées, cottagey borders, and lots of ideas ripe for picking.

Stroll through the Wallace garden
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.

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."


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