Design, In the Garden


Sakonnet Garden: a Personal Perspective on Rhododendrons

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Last week a few friends and I made a much-anticipated return to one of my most admired gardens in the northeast, right across the Sakonnet River in Little Compton, Rhode Island. What made this outing even more special is that it was preceded by 2 days of full rain and a morning that dawned fog swept, to put it mildly. But as we walked into Sakonnet Gardens we began to appreciate the serendipity of these conditions, for there before us was every imaginable color of rhododendron in full bloom. The mist and fog only made the colors pop more as well as adding to the moody magic of the damp woodland floor of moss and ferns (to include the wonderful, large-leafed shiny petasites).

But, of course, we’ve all come to expect this fulsome experience at this special piece of paradise. On not quite one acre of land, two supra creative visionaries–Mikel Folcarelli and John Gwynne–keep stretching the imagination and pushing the envelope of plant selection, placement, and usage. You know there’s creativity afoot when the understated access to the garden is bordered by a curving wall of log rings that undulates through parts of the garden itself.

While the “formal” entrance provides a striking contrast with its cathedral-like allee of cryptomeria.

Given this point in late spring/early summer, rhodies from soft pink

to buttercream yellow, that here introduces the visitor to the yellow garden room.

To a deep red rhododendron placed “just so” to draw your eye to the Balinese pagoda behind the stand of specimen bamboos.

All are taking advantage of conditions at Sakonnet that are perfect for this popular shrub — just the right mix of shade and sun (something I have not mastered in Parterre’s woodland).

Of course, a sharp eye for color juxtaposition adds immeasurably to the visitor’s pleasure. In the apricot garden, the rusty shade of handsome acer griseums (paper bark maples) are a foil to the rhodies placed around this garden.

Along with many specimen cultivars that will seldom be found in any other garden setting, like rhododendron ‘Chionoides.’

and rhododendron ‘sappho.’

Spent blooms adding their beauty to the woodland floor.

One leaves Sakonnet Garden empowered and making promises to oneself to be fearless, take chances, and turn your imagination on its head! Few gardens I have visited (and I’ve visited many) inspire me in this vein. It’s a rare experience, therefore all the more reason to be treasured. And another reason to love living in Newport, which is only a 45 minute drive to Little Compton.

John and Mikel are now taking reservations (a first!) to tour their garden this summer, so be sure not to miss this rare opportunity. Their website has all the details. Enjoy!

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

16 thoughts on “Sakonnet Garden: a Personal Perspective on Rhododendrons

  1. Thanks for letting us know Sakonnet’s now open all summer instead of just the annual tour. What a great day trip for when I have visitors!

    1. Isn’t that exciting? A first for them in along time; be sure to keep it on every calendar page. xB

  2. Thank you for the lovely article on The Sakonnet Garden. I just made reservations for next Thursday! I remember your blogs on it from other years. Can’t wait to see this beautiful garden.

    1. Hi Kimmy, you’ll be in heaven!! We’ll have to get together soon to compare notes. Are you going to the Friday night NFS opening?? xB

  3. Sakonnet is my favorite garden–created by my favorite gardeners! 🙂 Thank you for your post about the rhododendrons. There are so many inspiring views at Sakonnet. It’s a brilliant place.

  4. What an utterly enchanting garden! The colors are spectacular. No wonder you enjoyed it so much! Truly a magical visit.

    1. Always anticipating my return. And as I write this I think of Filoli and how much I would love to see it again…it’s been soooo long. B.

    1. Yes, peaceful is a good description! Made all the more so with the ethereal fog. Happy Summer, xB

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