ON A SWELTERING afternoon sandwiched between the rainy days
of a soggy summer, Kevin Connelly stands with the sun in his face and hope in
his soul in the great walled garden near the entrance of Caumsett State
He looks at the young crabapple trees planted along the wide strip of
freshly turned earth and describes a border about to be born. "We'll have
coreopsis, daylilies, rudbeckia, Carolina silverbells, oakleaf hydrangeas,
boxwood, spirea, winterberry, pyracantha."
Kevin, the park manager, is gazing toward tomorrow - but in a sense of the
earth and its riches and the cycle of then and now, he is also looking at
The walled garden was one of the jewels in the 2,000-acre estate of
sweeping lawns and spreading trees and green slopes on the self-sustaining farm
that a philanthropist and publisher and department store heir named Marshall
Field III established in Lloyd Neck. In Caumsett's period of privilege from the
1920s into the 1950s, the garden served its latter-day lord of the manor and
the people who worked the land and polished the silver and milked the Guernsey
The four-acre garden produced flowers and fruits and vegetables for the
enjoyment of guests who journeyed up the private roads to dine in the mansion
and visit the dairy barn and the polo stables and the 14-car garage and the
tennis courts and beach houses. At one party in 1932, more than 1,000 guests
arrived by car and yacht to dance to a jazz band and watch Fred Astaire trip
the light fantastic and mingle with Astors and Vanderbilts and Phippses and
George Gershwin, too.
It was called the Gillies Garden after the man in charge. George Gillies
was the head gardener for more than 35 years until the property was sold to the
state in 1961, five years after Marshall Field died. Visitors still walk the
paths and gaze at the Sound from the patios of the mansion that is leased to
Queens College for environmental programs.
But the walled garden was left to the vagaries of time and nature.
Now, thanks to The Caumsett Foundation, a private friends group, the
Gillies Garden is about to bloom again. And so this is a story of past and
present and the connections between them.
It is also a story of people who care. People like Carol Swiggett of Lloyd
Neck, chairwoman of the foundation that has already raised $170,000 for a
variety of restoration projects, including clearing and replanting the
northeast quadrant of the walled garden. And Catherine Jansen of Lloyd Neck,
who asked soon after she became a foundation board member two years ago: "What
about the gardens? We have to restore the gardens." People like Richard Gibney
of Wading River, the landscape architect who designed the new public gardens
that will blossom in the four quadrants. The one-acre plots will be divided by
wide all�es of white and pink flowering crabapple trees and will include a
mini-orchard, raised vegetable beds, a fragrant sensory garden and a center
circle of sedums and ornamental grasses.
And Kevin Connelly, who points with dirt-stained hands to the crabapples
that have already taken root and the masses of perennials waiting to be planted
and says, "We're making an abandoned field into a garden again." Who talks
about the crew of more than 30 state park employees putting in long hours to
clear overgrown fields and build walkways and install underground irrigation.
To make it possible with their hands, skill and sweat for the northeast
quadrant to be ready for The Caumsett Foundation's gala fund-raiser on
Saturday, Sept. 23.
Finally, it is the story of a white-haired widow named Louise Gillies, who
sits in her home on a shaded street in Huntington where her garden is verdant
with rhododendrons and Korean boxwoods that were gifts from the third Mrs.
Field. She looks at old photos of the estate where she and her husband lived in
a four-bedroom cottage just outside the walled garden facing the 10
greenhouses - two devoted to orchids and another two to melons. George Gillies
trained the melon vines to grow to the roof and the fruits were suspended in
Her husband designed the walled garden after a garden he remembered from
his childhood in England, Louise Gillies says. "He lived for the gardens. Mr.
Field was married three times, you know. George had to please each of the
wives. The first wanted a sunken garden, but she and Mr. Field were divorced
before it was finished. So it was never completed. Wife number two wanted a
rose garden. So George put in 5,000 roses - it was like rivers of roses. But
wife number three didn't want a rose garden so he tore it out."
Louise talks about lima beans growing on 12-foot poles and apple and pear
trees espaliered on the brick walls and 50-foot-long rows of vegetables. Her
eyes close and her hands mark out the remembered rows of the earth's bounty.
"He grew carrots, onions, scallions, tomatoes, beets, purple and white
cauliflower, acorn squash, butternut squash, lettuce, peas, gooseberries,
raspberries, strawberries, and red and black currants.
"Did I say tomatoes?" she asks. "Yes, tomatoes. And eggplants, celery, corn
and peppers. Of course, he rotated the vegetables every year."
"Do you want to know about the flowers?" she asks. The cadence returns to
her voice. "White roses, yellow roses, lilies, chrysanthemums, buddleias, iris,
knophia, delphiniums, tulips, daffodils and rows of catnip."
She sighs. "Oh it's been so long," Louise says of the walled garden that
And then she completes the cycle of then and now. "George would be so happy
to know it will be a garden again."
IF YOU want to contribute to the rebirth of a garden, come to The Caumsett
Foundation's "Beyond the Garden Wall" benefit on Saturday, Sept. 23, at 6 p.m.
Enjoy an evening in the walled garden at Caumsett State Historic Park in Lloyd
Neck that features an art show, silent and live auctions and a cocktail buffet.
Tickets at the door are $75 per person. The Three Harbors Garden Club flower
show opens in the dairy barn at 5:30 p.m. For information, call 631-423-1770.