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Garden of Genius

by Mary Jasch

The drive up country road to Hollister House Garden in Washington, Connecticut, gives no indication of what awaits the visitor. A thick border of greenery – ferns, hosta, hydrangea, shrubby Andromeda, rhododendron – alongside the road hides the property completely.

On a walk down through the gate, past 18th-century barns toward the house, one might be thinking what a wonderful country place – quiet, serene, and all the adjectives used to denote a bucolic setting with a peaceful, contented feel – fresh air, old red barns and lush plants. Tranquility and curiosity gently guide the visitor through the gate to a different world hidden from even the imagination. Hollister House, built circa 1760s.

Past the woodshed through a brown picket fence, potted plants of painterly colors and planted holly make a warm welcome in the herringbone brick patio. As pretty as the plants are, they are no indication of what is to come.

Suddenly a wave of leucothoe advances under a sprawling coppery Redbud ‘Forest Pansy’ beside orange lilies and faded red barn.

Round back of the house, a tidy cobblestone courtyard, a.k.a. Gerald’s Parterre, surprises and one might think this is pretty enough to be the whole garden. But follow the path down stone steps crowded with adventuresome young plants and !Viola! a kingdom opens before you.

Hollister House Garden, the very English garden of George Schoellkopf, is one of constant, yet soothing, views of texture and shapes, of colors that mingle and flavor the air. It is arresting arrangements and paths that change immediately, yet unhurriedly, from one step to the next. It is slight elevation that presents elegance spread out before you. Close up views are of sculpted, tamed plants, plants gone wild, plants that form melding, lazy relationships – one up against the other like kids playfully rubbing shoulders, plants I’ve never seen before. It is green grass used perfectly. It is sharing, co-habitation, stateliness, royalty, and detail – and definitely romance and history. It is a garden of genius.

“It’s a garden of vistas and cross vistas that you see from one space into another,” Schoellkopf explains. “It’s the structure of the garden that makes it wonderful. It’s a wild garden within a formal structure. There is a line between wild and messy and we try to not cross that line.”

Catch a glimpse of the Gray Garden, a formal parterre, and shrub tops that almost appear to be tree tops in a valley. Gorgeous, but their real impact hits later. A spreading century-old apple tree in front of you frames a hillside meadow yonder. A love sick rooster crows after his Leghorn hens.

A few steps later, you are greeted by the Gray Garden, filled with contrast of light and dark, white flowers and blue. White flowers: they’re so fresh and so clean and vibrant, says Schoellkopf. “There’s something about white flowers that is so satisfying, so restful, and yet so pretty.”

Look for the white variegated maple-leafed Abutilon, a.k.a. Parlor Maple because Victorians grew them inside in winter. “That is something I fuss over,” he says. “That little garden is sort of special and I bring things in and out. I bring it (Abutilon) inside in the winter and chop it way back in the spring so it doesn’t get too leggy. Fungi don’t get it; nothing does. It’s a nice dependable plant but it isn’t winter hardy.”

If you take a sharp right, in a few steps you’ll reach the stream. Here, the wild joins the tame. The stream rushes clear through bluish-green Sea-buckthorn related to autumn olive, past-its-prime silvery Scott’s Thistle, roses, huge hosta, cattail, Joe Pye Weed, black philodendron and frogs. The stream cascades over stepped waterfalls. And across the falls, planted shrubs, trees and perennials have gone feral.

Many plants self-seed and Schoellkopf considers them as a very important part of the garden. “I dig a lot of them up if they’re in the wrong place. Forget-me-nots in the spring, what I call my summer Forget-me-nots (Browallia americana) – a sun-loving browallia, foxgloves, Scott’s Thistle (Onopordum arabicum) – a six-foot high silver thistle from Arabia which is wonderful, verbascums…

Back to civilization, dark, shaggy-barked pear trees all in a row behind a short box hedge live across the brick sidewalk from regal Casablancas. The garden is eye-popping.

The path – at times brick, stone, gravel, boulders, with sage mixed in for scent - makes a sharp left and Wow! A twist of design: formality and hot color. This is Garden Grandeur, a.k.a. the Double Borders. Stone-lined beds, a greensward past tall clipped yews, a stone path – all lead to other gardens.

Views are everywhere. Lots to explore! Take a few steps and a garden appears you never thought possible. One step in any direction brings you to a new view. All of them blending, changing.

To the left, a tapestry of purples leads to a reflecting pool with a water lily garden in a planter and other gardens further on. To the right, a mosaic of hot-colored flowers have jumped the hedge to form new borders beyond and beyond. Pink and gold flowers lead to a sitting area.

Schoellkopf’s interest in gardens began about 60 years ago when he was a kid in Texas. “I remember liking flowers when I was a little boy. My nurse took me and we bought some seeds. I was very upset because the plant never bloomed. And then it turned out it was a night-blooming plant. They put me to bed before it bloomed! They let me stay up once to see it (moon flower). It’s very beautiful but I’ve never grown it since.”

Turn left along a pond where a flock of wild flowers from the Great Plains are brilliant in the sun. Across the pond, an old oak grows on a hillside pasture. Borders of perennials and wild flowers lead to a massive Hydrangea paniculata.

“There was a hydrangea on the other side of town I admired. It wasn’t sold anywhere so I took a couple cuttings 25 years ago and that’s how big it grew. What’s so nice about it is it has that form – that great mound coming from the ground. Most of the hybrids are bare at the base. They don’t go down to the ground. That’s the thing I like about it most, although I like the loose, wild quality to the blossom. It’s rather beautiful as a small tree as well but I just let it do what it wanted to. And that’s what it did.”

Wander around through perennial borders between the stream and the rambling 18th-century house, part of it covered in brick so Schoellkopf can grow plants on it, eventually to a bench beside the chicken coop. Rest quietly a moment. Maybe a white chicken will come out to see you.

So what makes this garden so incredible besides the fact that George and Christa spend 5-6 hours a day, four days a week maintaining it?

“What I value is the structure – the architectural part of the garden and the way the plants are grown loosely within that. The levels are dramatic and to look down from the Gray Garden and on to the pond with the hedges and all and to be able to see that structure from above – I think that’s exciting. Any kind of geometry you can look down on is the best way to appreciate it, really. You can also look down on the Gray Garden from the house level. You get a lot of that.

“I think there’s a great sophistication in the design and the way it’s gardened but on the other hand it’s not the kind of sophistication that is off-putting - it’s behind the scenes. What’s up front is if you don’t care about garden design, there are lots of pretty flowers. There’s really something for everyone here.”

If you love gardens, don’t miss this one. It’s open to the public on September 7 as part of The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. The garden is also a Preservation Project of The Garden Conservancy.

For more info:
Hollister House Garden:
Garden Conservancy Open Days Program:

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published August 25, 2008

Photos to enlarge


Hollister House

Gerald's Parterre

Stepping out of Gerald's Parterre

Two more steps and the view changes

Pear trees over Double Borders

In this stream-side garden where the wild meets the tame, a Sea-buckthorn rubs foliage with a faded Scott's thistle.

Looking back to Hollister House from the Gray Garden

Two Borders

Yew towers and Coral plume looking toward Nature's (& Schoellkopf's)plantings along the road

The view through perennials to the house

The cross-town hydrangea & the bricked-over barn

To the water lily pool


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