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Take a Peek at Private Gardens Through the National Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program

Down one of the winding roads surrounding Rainbow Lake in Ridgefield, CT, there is another rainbow a little harder to see. Pass through the gated entrance of Julia Cencebaugh Kloth’s private backyard into a garden bursting with color. One day a year, she invites the public into her sanctuary and shares her babies—which she nurtures and tends to with extreme care—with the world. She is one of the hundreds of private gardeners around the country who participate in the National Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. This year, as she has done since 2020, Kloth’s garden will be open for viewing and strolling on August 26. Tickets are $10 and must be purchased in advance for the gardens, which you can do on the conservancy’s website. Ticket prices benefit the conservancy’s national program to help preserve, share and celebrate America’s gardens. 

“The American tradition of gardening is very individualistic and unique,” says Kloth, who serves as a consultant for the Garden Conservancy, helping with documentation for the preservation department. “It’s something that makes the open days program very interesting. We’re not all following the same styles. It’s our own interpretations and traditions. It’s a true artform where you are expressing yourself.”

In Kloth’s garden, the stars are the dahlias. They are planted in pots, in flower beds, in rows and in clusters throughout the property in a riot of color. She is even working on hand-pollinating and creating her own varieties—a task that takes three years and painstaking attention. 

An iron redtail hawk created to scale sits perched on the hill in her front yard overseeing her cross-pollination work. 

In the backyard, a number of varieties of hydrangea, lots of hollyhocks, poppies and roses surround the sitting areas. Past the driveway made of oversized brick, a formal English garden is formed with gravel paths, boxwood and roses.

Catmint is a workhorse in her garden filling space with soft lavender and green. Native geraniums grow throughout the property.

Past the English garden, you can stroll over a walking bridge her husband built for her for their anniversary just last year. It allows guests to stroll over a field of ferns and into the more wooded sections of the property. In the spring, 2,000 daffodils bloom in her fields and rhododendrons, which have grown six feet high, create walls of color along the walking paths. “I like to pack things in tight and have different seasons of interest,” says Kloth. 

In May, the peonies come out. Her peony garden is made up of a historic collection, which she salvaged from the Ballard garden in town a few years ago when the property was being renovated. Kloth understands the importance of preserving collections of plants in gardens from her work with the Garden Conservancy’s documentation program. “I read an email in the morning that they were digging up the garden and I went in my pajamas and rescued the whole collection,” says Kloth. 

She has made great efforts to keep true to the history of her property, which was once the carriage house and grounds of Seth Low Pierpont, one of Ridgefield’s most wealthy residents and chief of the Latin-American Division of the U.S. State Department from 1911 to 1913. Mrs. Pierpont and Mrs. Ballard were friends and both members of the Ridgefield Garden Club, which Kloth belongs to today. “I think they would both be happy to know Mrs. Ballard’s peonies are being preserved here,” says Kloth. 

Gardening is by nature a hobby that is very democratic and community oriented, says Kloth. “I think that’s one of the most important aspects of gardening in general,” says Kloth. “The gardeners, and why I went into the gardening industry—everyone is so generous and positive. You might want to call it cross-pollination in its own respect. We share a lot of resources and plants with each other. I went to an open day in Saratoga, NY, and came home with spectacular hosts they were willing to share. There is a lot of that. It’s being part of the community and sharing ideas. It’s the most positive thing you can do.”


Must-See Gardens in the Open Days Program

The Old Barlow Carriage House garden is just one of dozens of gardens in our area that open their doors to the public once a year. “Our open days program has grown since it’s 1995 launch, but at its corn it remains the same,” says Horatio Joyce, director of public programs and education for The Garden Conservancy. “Open Days offer a rare chance to peek behind the garden gate that is rarely afforded through other programs and has created a uniquely supportive community of gardeners who come together to learn and share through garden visiting. Through all of our educational programs, we work to raise awareness of the important role that gardens play in America’s history, culture and quality of life.”

In addition to private tours through the Open Days program, The Garden Conservancy helps private gardeners offer education through seminars and lectures, workshops and webinars. Kloth will be hosting a Digging Deeper event August 26 as well, when she will teach guests about seed salvaging, preservation and breeding. “Gardeners love to share,” says Joyce. “They pick up ideas for their own spaces, and help other gardeners tackle the challenges facing their spaces. It’s a joyful group and it’s not uncommon to leave not only with ideas for next season but also even a plant or two for your own garden.”

Here are a few others we at Serendipity can’t wait to see.

Sleepy Cat Farm, Greenwich, CT
Open Day: Saturday, August 19

One of Fairfield County’s hidden gems, this 13-acre property has been a 25-year collaboration between the current owner and distinguished landscape architect Charles Stick. Stroll from “room” to “room” exploring a greenhouse, French terraces, sculpture, topiary and terraces. A long reflecting pool is the star. Don’t miss the wisteria-covered arbor, a mosaic terrace, and the Chinese pavilion and koi pond. Fruit orchards, rose gardens, an iris garden and a winding bamboo railway path provide beauty to each month of the blooming season.

Garden of Bunny Williams, Falls Village, CT
Open Day: Saturday, August 19

Famed Interior Designer Bunny Williams opens her 15-acre estate to the public twice this year, to the delight of those who are fans of her book, Bunny Williams On Garden Style, which she published in 2015. Tour her sunken garden, perennials, a parterre, a year-round conservatory with tropical plants, a fish pond and a large vegetable garden as well as a working greenhouse, aviary, apple orchard and woodland paths. 

Perrin Garden, North Salem, NY
Open Day: Saturday, September 9

If you are looking for ideas for going organic, be sure to make a visit to the Perrin Garden this September. Soft grasses and wildflowers pair beautifully with beech- and yew-lined courtyards, brick and flagstone paths and structured boxwoods. The English country house also has an apple orchard, a spring woodland garden and meadow.

Adelaide House, New Canaan, CT
Open Day: Saturday, September 9

When Sarina Vetterli bought Adelaide House, she had no gardening experience at all. But the gorgeous setting and established plantings lured her into the hobby. Wisteria, pollinator plants, specimen trees, smoke bushes and hydrangea invite you in and encourage you to stay. Vetterli has taken inspiration from the experts she has learned from over the years, from master gardeners to renowned florists, and loves chatting with fellow gardeners about plant selection, best practices and more.

Susan and Richard Kaminski, Oxford, CT
Open Day: Saturday, September 10

This one is perfect to bring the kids since the star of Susan and Richard Kaminski’s garden is an outdoor railway. The large goldfish pond, fairy garden and gazebo will delight all ages, too. The display runs three trains and a trolley simultaneously. The couple recently added a miniature circus!

Great Hill Schoolhouse, Bedford, NY
Open Day: Saturday, September 30

This is a historic property on two acres owned by landscape designer John Holm and industrial designer Harry Allen. The property served as a school house until the 1940s. The homeowners have transformed the garden with grasses, native plants, perennials and boxwoods. The house sits under a copse of maple sugar trees providing shade for the patio. Holms is a student of the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Horticulture. His first job out of school was for Martha Stewart as her head gardener. 

Sakonnet, Little Compton, RI

This is an acre of woodland garden that has been subdivided into outdoor “rooms” with native coastal plants, stone walls, woodland areas, a colorful pollinator garden, sculptured topiary and subtropical plants, which are at their peak in summer. The Garden Conservancy’s Open Day for Sakonnet is in July each year, but you can buy tickets any time between May 4 and October 14 to tour this garden. $25 for parking including driver; $20 per passenger. Reservations are required.

For more Open Days, visit gardenconservancy.org/open-days.

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