Text by Tovah Martin
Every year, Heather O’Neill sets out with a spade, a trowel, and a truckload of plants to frame the distant lighthouse in Long Island Sound.
Heather O’Neill was a teenager when she first began planting around the cottage on Long Island Sound. That was 24 years and two owners ago, but she still remembers the sensations she felt that first summer when as a teenage gardener she was hired to gussy up the original little gingerbread cottage. She remembers wedging plants into the back seat of her Volkswagen sedan and can still feel the brisk sea breeze and the resonance of her shovel when she attempted to dig into the soil but hit unyielding coastal cliff. But what Heather has remembered most clearly over the decades is her reaction to the ambience. “From the beginning, this place was so peaceful and serene; it was like being transported to a whole different world,” Heather explains. No wonder they call it Contentment Island.
Before the coastal Connecticut property was expanded to stretch over 4 acres with views of both Long Island Sound and Scott’s Cove, Heather was hired to plant the flashy annuals that were all the rage around the quaint little cottage. “But even then,” she recalls, “I was full of ideas.” During her initial struggle to plant the rocky soil, she realized that boulders lay hidden just below the earth’s surface. Most gardeners would struggle with stone as a fault in the terrain, but Heather saw the bedrock as a blessing. When the current owners came and increased the shoreline acreage, Heather didn’t skip a beat. She knew exactly what she wanted to propose. “Celebrate the stones,” she suggested. So began Heather’s working relationship with the rocks.
What followed was actually a liaison with the land. Even when the boulders were lying partially obliterated beneath the soil, Heather sensed they were majestic. With nothing but lawn going down to the water, she also knew that she could do better to render the natural terrain proud. And sure enough, when they excavated to reveal the boulders, the outcroppings were cataclysmic.
Heather was circumspect in her plantings. Rather than dominating the scene with look-at-me plantings, she strove to complement the outcropping. “I didn’t want to gild the lily,” is how she explains her “less is more” philosophy. Nature dictated some of her decisions. Unable to dig holes sufficiently deep to support most perennials with the exception of some particularly stoic Flower Carpet roses, Knock Out roses, a few dianthus, and gaura, she opted for shallow-rooted annuals instead. Painting with a palette of angelonias, Profusion zinnias, salvias, cosmos, lantanas, verbenas, million bells, creeping phlox, and portulaca, she pays homage to the coastal terrain. And in the process, Heather has gained an intimate understanding of stone. Anyone who thinks that seaside boulders are simply gray hasn’t spent time in their company. “Rock changes color with the light,” Heather has learned.
The colors in the plantings reflect the ever-changing moods of the rock face. In fact, the vibrant shades in the petal palette came as a surprise to the lifelong gardener. “The colors are amazing,” she says. “Something about the fog and dew enhances the spectrum.” The hues far surpassed colors advertised in catalogs. Similarly, the hydrangeas also planted on the property are a shade of sky blue rarely seen inland. They combine with the pines and blue spruce to expand the landscape’s rainbow.
The gingerbread cottage that was formerly the primary residence is now a guesthouse, while a majestic manor-type home has become the focal point to overlook the view oceanward. And when the landscape was expanded to include a neighboring property, maintenance duties were doubled. As a result, the cottage was fitted with plants that “can take care of themselves,” such as iris, columbines, black-eyed Susans, catmint, and dwarf conifers. However, all the plants on the property are selected for their suitability to a coastal climate.
When a gardener collaborates with a coastal property for so many seasons, finding sweet spots really becomes second nature. “I let the land tell me what to do,” Heather says. The result is a sensitive union that has deepened with time. For Heather, “going to work is like visiting an old friend.” Nowadays, she arrives in a truck rather than the cramped sedan. Meanwhile, experience and intimacy have taught her which plants to load on board for planting. But every year is different. And every season on Contentment Island brings new understandings and enlightenments as the coastal garden reveals its secrets.