When Evan Cowles and his wife, Brie Quinby, moved from New York to their home in Farmington in 1986, they already had spent a lot of time gardening there.
The house at 148 Main St. belonged to Evan's grandparents and had been in the Cowles family for two centuries. Evan says that while their friends in Manhattan spent weekends out on Long Island, he and Brie often would head to Farmington, "to hang out and help in the garden." They'd frequently visit Fred McGourty's Hillside Gardens nursery in Norfolk to help Evan's grandparents pick out plants for the perennial beds gracefully cut into the spacious lawn.
After Evan's grandfather died and with their second child on the way, the couple decided to leave New York — where Evan worked at Morgan Guaranty, and Brie was an editor at Mademoiselle — and move to the historic family home, known as Oldgate.
"It was because we love the house, but also because we love the garden," Evan says.
The serene park-like garden, which encompasses about an acre and a half of their property, is one of seven gardens on the Friends of the Farmington Library's 15th annual garden tour, on June 8.
"We like to describe our garden as a green garden," Evan says. "It's cool, calm and relaxing."
"I think what impresses people is the size of the garden," Brie says, as Evan adds, "that hiding behind the fence and hedge is this garden."
A President's Older Sister
It was Evan's great-grandmother, Anna Roosevelt Cowles, who laid out the original ornamental garden around 1900 in what had been a barnyard. Anna, married to Rear Admiral William Sheffield Cowles, was Teddy Roosevelt's older sister. Extra trolley cars had to be pressed into service for the crowds who wanted to catch a glimpse of the president when he came to town to visit his sister in 1901.
"It's not like we grew up in the Roosevelt history," Evan says. "It was very remote to us."
He and Brie, who met when she was 15, both grew up in Shelburne, Vt.
Evan, the youngest of six children, says, "We had to scrape together good clothes to visit our grandparents." But he remembers his grandfather's description of riding a tricycle on the roof of the White House when "Uncle Theodore" lived there.
The pleasing framework of the now-mature garden that Anna Roosevelt Cowles laid out boasts several Connecticut Notable Trees, including a Nordmann fir that was 93 feet high when it was measured in 2007, and the "state champion" Kousa dogwood, that was 36 feet high with a spread of nearly 36 feet that same year.
"Parts of the garden have been so stable," Evan says. "We've changed a lot, but the basic garden backbone is here."
Another Connecticut Notable Tree is the majestic Metasequoia (Dawn redwood) that stands at the center of the garden. Planted in the 1950s, it is one of the largest of its kind in New England.
At its base is an inviting little patio with a table and chairs — but Evan says they rarely sit out there.
"I've always been a firm believer that there should be places in a garden you can go — even if you don't go," he says, as he and Brie stroll through the garden, accompanied by their gamboling Labradoodle Zephyr and Chester the cat.
It is a garden that encourages one to explore. Hidden behind a large beech tree is a smokehouse that dates from the 1800s, with the original plaster and lath on the inside walls. Now used to store gardening tools, it is a delight to discover, as one wanders past a delicate trillium in bloom and a Yakushima rhododendron with dark red buds and pale pink flowers.
And tucked behind privacy shrubs is an old, non-chlorinated swimming pool — a "cement pond," Evan calls it — which supplies water to the garden's sprinklers, so the pool water is always fresh and cold.
Alongside the garden steps behind the house is a bed of peonies and perennials that they call Brie's garden.
"The sedum is running a bit rampant," she says. "I could pull it till the cows come home, but why!"
Continuing To Evolve
Over time, some trees have come down, and their Kousa dogwood took a severe hit in the October 2011 snowstorm.
"It's changed the tenor... Many beds went from dappled shade to sunlight," Brie says.
In a wooded section where they recently lost a large white pine, they've planted many hostas and a bosk of Persian ironwoods (Parrotia persica) that they chose, Evan says, because "they were a woodland tree that stays relatively small and should give a roof over this area." The trees also offer bright orange foliage in the fall.
This time of year, rhododendrons, peonies and poppies provide the punches of color, and Brie hopes the allium and the mass of climbing creamy-pink New Dawn roses sprawling over the front wall will be in bloom in time for the garden tour.
But for the most part, Evan and Brie tend to keep accent plants to a minimum. As a result, one notices those accents, such as a Daphne Carol Mackie, a large, low-lying mound of a shrub with clusters of tiny pale pink flowers that exude a fragrance of citrusy gardenia.
Evan, who earned a degree in landscape architecture when they moved to Connecticut, worked for a decade with a firm in Simsbury, primarily on site design for schools, until he retired.
"There's no way this garden is the result of my landscape architecture," he insists. "It's the other way around!"
But their thoughtful revisions to the garden continue, including a newly installed stone walkway behind the house, lined with more boxwood, some of it from cuttings of the original boxwood Anna Roosevelt Cowles had planted.
Oldgate And Newgate
In 1786, 200 years before Evan and Brie moved in, Zena Cowles bought what was then a small one-story gambrel house. The Farmington merchant hired William Sprats — a British architect who stayed on in the United States after having been a prisoner in the Revolutionary War — to create the grander, Georgian-style house around and in front of it.
The distinctive front gate, which is thought to have been inspired by a water gate on the Thames designed by Sir Christopher Wren, gives the house its name: Oldgate.
"They say that this house was built by prisoners of war," Brie says. As family lore has it, it was certainly preferable to help build Oldgate than to spend time in Newgate Prison.
The house is permeated with family history. In the mid-19th century it was the home of prominent abolitionist Thomas Cowles. Out front, a marker beside a tall American holly notes that it was presented by the state Legislature to Evan's grandfather, W. Sheffield "Sheff" Cowles, who served as speaker of the House from 1955 to 1957.
Evan and Brie, who both are active community leaders with Farmington's civic, historical and cultural organizations and boards, say they are looking forward to the garden tour. It seems to have given them a renewed appreciation for their garden.
"We have to remember when we toil and say, this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong — that this is what's right. ... We like showing it," Evan says. "We spend so much time focusing on the parts that need help, that we're glad to have people visit it."
Two bears — a tag in each ear and both wearing tracking collars — also recently visited the garden. They weren't in much of a hurry to leave.
Tickets for the Friends of the Farmington Library's 15th annual garden tour, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 8 (rain or shine), can be purchased at Farmington Library, 6 Montieth Drive, and Barney Library, 71 Main St., for $20 in advance and $25 on the day of the tour. For more information, please call 860 673-6791.Copyright © 2015, CT Now