Like many fortunate enough to have a second home outside of the city, Ryan James Brandau, an artistic director and conductor, and his husband Ian Ferguson decamped to their home in Water Mill in Southampton as soon as stay-at-home orders were enacted in New York. It gave them more room to spread out, of course, but it also provided precious outdoor space with a balm many have sought during the pandemic: a garden to tend.
They renovated the home two years ago with the help of design firm General Assembly and rebuilt the pool area last summer, but the landscape still needed some work. “I had intended to do a lot of gardening this year,” explains Brandau, “but being here more regularly meant that I could do planting and maintenance work for two or three hours a day rather than for the entire weekend.”
The first two growing seasons spent at the home were filled with trial and error; he discovered that drainage on the site isn’t uniform, with an area that used to be the driveway, which consists of compacted clay-heavy soil, being particularly water-clogged. Brandau took careful notes, and charted what bloomed and when, so he could have a clear idea of what would thrive in the “close-to-the-ocean microclimate.”
The home combines traditional and modern elements — a shingled exterior is met with simplified forms and poured and troweled concrete inside — and Brandau wanted to do something similar in the garden. His goal was to create “a landscape that was soft and approachable, as opposed to formal and manicured: something that you’d want to admire from afar and then walk towards and through, hands outstretched.”
He also wanted plants to be in bloom from May to November and needed it to be fairly low-maintenance. He sought perennials, particularly those with a long and dependable bloom period, “with an eye especially eager to find interesting textures.”
The foundation plantings consist of inkberries and hydrangeas, which Brandeau painstakingly revived. “The hydrangeas had been neglected for at least a decade,” he says. “I made a careful effort, over two years, to cut out completely dead wood, preserve ‘old wood’ that bore buds, manage shape and height, and protect the buds through the winter. As a result, we had a fabulous explosion of blooms this year.”
Along walkways and in an open meadow-like area visible from the kitchen and bedroom, he opted for a cottage garden, cultivating a charming, carefree jumble of flowers and herbs that’s tactile and fragrant. Brandau mixed textures, height, shapes and colors, choosing plants with tall and spiky blooms, like the violet-hued salvia caradonna meadow sage and the distinctive liatris, and those with atypical blooms, like the eryngium yuccifolium, with its thistle-like globe of tiny white flowers.
He also mixed in “plants whose natural, un-clipped shapes were themselves beautiful,” like mounding amsonia and Russian sage. Flowing grasses like blue grama, heavily feathered nassella tenuissima, and Muskingum sedge, planted as filler throughout, lend a beachy vibe.
“Rather than create a matrix of grasses with a few flowers popping up here-and-there, I wanted to try to create gentle drifts of shapes and textures, favoring greens, blues, and purples, that would maintain a general shape but shift gradually, every three weeks, from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving,” he explains.
Throughout, there are large groupings of wild indigo, feathery amsonia hubrichtii, gray-green nepeta, pink echinacea, lavender, and amethyst allium millenium, as well as showy foxtail lilies, 4-foot-tall dahlias, verbascum, hollyhocks, and cosmos leading up to the house.
“I wanted to create, around our pathway to the front door, the experience of walking nearly face-to-face with beautiful flowers, across several months,” says Brandau, whose favorite of the flowers is the Lysimachia atropurpurea Beaujolais.
“Each May, it sends up tall spires of wine-red flowers, with goose-necked endpoints,” he says. “En masse, it looks like a gang of curious, maroon meerkats looking around. Its post-bloom form, when going to seed, is also beautiful. It’s by no means the most durable or dependable of the plants in my garden, but it’s unusually beautiful.” Ferguson has taken to photographing the blooms at night, creating captivating portraits that capture the garden's phases of growth.
Now in its third year, the garden has come into its own, and quarantine allowed Brandau — who, with only a childhood herb garden and small city container gardens as previous experience, did all of the work himself — the time to perfect it. Instead of only coming on the weekends, and waiting to see what the garden might hold, he was able to stay ahead of weeds and focus on the growth habits and shapes of all of the perennials.
But more importantly, as all of his performances through December have been canceled, the garden gave him a much-needed escape. “As a conductor of classical music, I spend most of my time considering balance, texture, color, and volume,” he says. “Being in the garden this spring and summer has provided an irreplaceable creative outlet.”
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