The Evolution of Sheila Perrin's North Salem Property into a Garden

A “land whisperer” goes native in her North Salem garden with grasses and wildflowers that provide an ever-changing tapestry.



The ever-changing tapestry of the Perrins’ meadow goes for the gold in autumn, echoing the woods in the background.

When describing how her North Salem property came of age, Sheila Perrin always begins with the explanation that her mother was English. And that might account for the Edwardian house with its slate roof and timeless fortitude, served up with plenty of craftsman-quality appointments and built for the long haul. Sheila Perrin’s roots are part and parcel of the architecture in situ. Perhaps the most notable sign of her British heritage is that when she and her husband, Charles, drew up plans for their house, they insisted that every room have a garden view. But these gardens take a scenic detour from your typical English landscapes.

When the couple finished building their North Salem house and moved to the 13-acre property from Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 2001, they were content to let the architect bring in his landscape team to create a set of garden terraces immediately around the house. As a result, the hardscape echoes the structure seamlessly. It was a breakout moment, because their home in Ridgefield was wooded and the relative wide-open spaces of North Salem were one feature that coaxed the Perrins over the New York border. Sheila was all set to bask in the sunbeams and luxuriate in the abundance of flowers that the new ultra-sunny location made possible. She had gardened from childhood onward, so it definitely wasn’t the first time Sheila dug in. And her first foray at the location began conventionally enough along the beaten track of heather, boxwood, and that sort of thing. But working the site’s sunny disposition wasn’t smiling in the Perrins’ favor. “Along with the sun of the exposed site came wind and varying temperatures,” Sheila says. The typical plantings proved too faint-hearted for the location. In fact, most of the usual fare available in nurseries surrendered straightaway when pitted against the elements. It didn’t take long for the Perrins and convention to part company.

In a terrace garden, a pair of cardoons stand sentinel between cut flower zinnias and the vegetable garden. Beyond a boxwood-edged bed, the native prairie rose, Rosa arkansana, forms a fiery orange skirt around a pair of hawthorns.

“We lived here a few years,” Sheila says, “and then we began to change our thoughts.” And plants: rosemary and Swiss chard, phlox and tricyrtis went into the courtyard beds rather than your average buttoned-down dooryard treatment. Meanwhile, her focus became more outward bound. “Originally, we concentrated immediately around the house,” she recalls. The time had come to look further afield. For Sheila, that meant a meadow.

“This is an evolving story,” she warns. She didn’t go it alone. Early in the drama, she stumbled on an article about Larry Weaner (lweanerdesign.com), who is something of a legend in the meadow-meister realm. That fortuitous liaison led to a sequence of stripping the land stretching in the four and a half acres (three in back, the rest in front) around the house of the weeds in residence, letting the field lay fallow, observing soil types and moisture situations in all the different ecosystems that make up the profile of the site, and then creating a custom-tweaked seed list to densely sow, muscle out unwanted plants, and ultimately create the meadow of her dreams. They planted in late summer, sowing “tiny seeds planted in drifts,” Sheila recalls. Sure enough, the following spring, they had a solid field—of dandelions.

Sheila didn’t bat an eyelash. “It takes time for seeds to take hold and develop root systems” was her unwavering philosophy. They waited patiently. Eventually, the sown space-holder flowers began to germinate and flex their collective brawn, giving the weeds a run for their money. Meanwhile, the flowers bought the ornamental grass seeds time to become established.  

“Every meadow is different,” Sheila says, “and it evolves in its own way. This meadow has been different every year.” As a result, there is no template to follow. She can’t consult with other meadow mavens and compare notes. Winging it is the only way this project can fly. Still, watching the evolution furnishes more intrigue than your typical soap opera. Tuning in on a continual basis, the Perrins have come to know their land and its moods intimately. They are cognizant of the wet areas that nurture cattails, and they are aware of the dry spots where only the deep-rooted grasses will thrive. Sheila has gained the sensitivity of a land whisperer. And the property responds.

With the weight of its lavender-colored berries, callicarpa (purple beautyberry) drapes over the hedges by the front door.

Springs in the Perrin meadow come out swinging with Zizia aurea (golden Alexanders) and other early season transients forming a glistening yellow shag carpet in the field. By early summer, that act is over and the cold-weather grasses are exhausted. The Perrins take advantage of the mid-June lull as an opportunity to mow, allowing the warm-weather grasses to do their thing. By autumn, the unified girth and fluffy plumes of those grasses are joined by asters, goldenrods, and a bevy of other natives to form the tapestry that spreads texture all around the house.

Not only is Weaner known for his colorful fields, which attract countless birds and pollinators (deer, on the other hand, don’t generally penetrate the dense growth of the meadow), but he also proved himself as an artist with the vision to merge the meadow with the plantings around the house. To make the leap, he designed transitional gardens between the terraces and the carefully orchestrated “wilderness.” The design echoes the geometry that anyone might draw up to complement his or her house. But the botany is translated into plant choices that depart from the rank and file. When the typical nursery fare failed, the Perrins went native throughout their property. That would account for the chorus line of blueberries along the lower terrace. No fewer than 24 blueberry bushes (early, midseason, and late-bearing) are used the same way that other gardeners might plant rhododendrons. In your typical year, the produce from those shrubs affords plenty of berries for both the Perrins and the birds without the need of veiling the shrubs in unsightly netting.

There’s a pair of “Winter King” hawthorns being trained to join hands in a living archway to frame the view of the meadow from the house. There’s an orchard of heirloom apple trees bedded in clover. Rather than fiddling with hybrid teas in the rose garden, Sheila selected indomitable field roses interspersed with aronia. In autumn, that rose garden yields plump hips as fodder for innumerable flocks of birds. Even the leisurely entry driveway up to the house is bedded in sumac and bottlebrush buckeye in keeping with the natural mood in residence. And a newly constructed tree house lures visiting grandchildren to stay outside and enjoy the bounty.

Unlike other gardens with their one-shot crescendos, the Perrin landscape is always on top of its game. In spring, it can take your breath away, but the same could be said for autumn. Indeed, the entry court is carefully crafted to bristle with hellebores, winter-blooming witch hazel, daphne, viburnums, and other berried shrubs that might bring the birds into binocular vicinity of the house and give Sheila something to admire when her meadow is blanketed in snow. But the meadow that keeps the Perrins at the edge of their seats watching its seasonal moods is almost a constant crowd-pleaser. Except in the deepest snow, its seed heads stand above the white stuff.

Yes, it’s been a journey. Absolutely, the meadow has required labor, attentiveness, and monitoring. Charting a course with no road map is definitely a nail-biter. But for anyone invested in the land, that’s all part of the thrill. And then, at the end of the day, there’s that incomparable feeling of having stewarded something that contributes positively to the land forever. That sensation alone is golden—just like the meadow in spring and autumn.

Together with goldenrod, asters play a major role in the meadow behind the house. Although their individual flowers might be small in size, their collective volume is impressive.
Especially in autumn, the Perrins throw on sweaters to eat on the patio outside the kitchen surrounded by peonies in fall attire and a glorious color display in the trees farther afield.
The terraces flowing around the house transition into the wilderness farther afield
After the last berry is harvested by the Perrins or the birds, the blueberries blush bright red for another season of splendor.
Heirloom apples bear their fruit in an orchard bedded in clover.

 Photography by Karen Bussolini

 

 

What To Read Next

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module