When Jeff and Claudia Little purchased two high, wind-swept acres on Darien’s Contentment Island in 1995, they got a garage, barn, pool and 1,500-square-foot cottage to share with their two children. In a sense, they also got Heather O’Neill, a budding landscape architect who was working with Odd Job Landscaping of Darien while attending horticultural classes at New York Botanical Gardens.
O’Neill, today the owner of Second Nature Landscape Design in Norwalk, began working on the estate twenty-eight years and three owners ago, when she was just eighteen. In 1999, when the Littles bought the contiguous 3.3-acre parcel with Eastern frontage on a small cove of the Sound, she again stayed on.
“I know this property like the back of my hand, like one of my children,” says the mother of three. “What’s unique about it is the lay of the land and its seclusion. You turn into the narrow winding drive and find yourself in the pages of a pop-up book.”
Although O’Neill had done extensive work on the property for the previous owners, Jeff and Claudia had a fresh program in mind. “What we wanted was to create scenes so that everything looked a little different,” Jeff says. They also wanted the gardens to grow naturally, over time. “I’ve learned that you can’t do this in one year,” he says. “It has to evolve.”
Cleft down the middle by a valley of plush lawns, specimen trees and rock outcroppings, the conjoined 5.3-acre estate is both sylvan and nautical.
From the main entrance, a long drive meanders through this vale, passing Claudia’s fenced vegetable garden and a 200-year-old copper beech—of so deep a burgundy as to appear almost black—before forking at a century-old, fire-engine red barn.
To the right, up on the southwestern edge of the property, O’Neill rejuvenated the original gardens around the cottage (now a pool/guest house) with woodland perennials—columbine, Shasta daisies, Japanese iris, phlox—against a backdrop of coral and butterfly maples. A stone path from the cottage climbs to the pool through a flowering thicket before passing through an arbor hung with wisteria and clematis on its descent back to the barn.
Fittingly, for an expansive estate on the Darien coast, the property also has a formal side.
To the left of the barn, the drive ascends to a pebbled courtyard, where boxwood and hibiscus frame an 8,000-square-foot English country house overlooking the Sound. Designed for the Littles by architect and A-List winner Sean O’Kane of Ridgefield, the stone-faced manor, with its concave façade and Palladian windows, is modeled after Old Westbury Gardens, the late Ogden Phipps’ estate, which Jeff remembered visiting as a boy growing up on Long Island.
The new main house is magnificent, but the true beauty of the property is how the structure and landscape work together so seamlessly. Everywhere, bedrock erupts through the earth. Where other owners and landscapers might have buried or blasted them, here the outcroppings have been sharply edged in mulched islands of their own, as if they were the most prized plantings on the estate.
“I love rock,” says Little. “It was spending time in Maine that made me realize its beauty, and I love the way rock and plants and flowers work together.”
This marriage of contrasting elements comes most into focus behind the main house. Down a long, flat lane bordered by undulating rock gardens and towering evergreens, the lawn runs headlong into a massive ledge of solid granite that tumbles forty feet into the nameless cove below.
All that solid mass is softened by low clouds of blue hydrangeas and red roses. As the narrow footpath through one of the side gardens approaches the ledge, showy plantings give way to Russian sage, guara, silvery dianthus and nepeta. So seamless is the union of flora and stone that it’s hard to tell which holds sway. As O’Neill observes, “Plants are popping out of and clinging to the rocks and the rocks are popping out of and clinging to the plants.”
The path ends at an open-aired Adirondack-style pavilion, sparsely decorated with weathered twigs, perched at the top of the ledge. Down below and across the cove, on a flat section of the ledge rock, is a boathouse and access to a steel-and-wood pier that ventures hundreds of feet out into deep water.
Yet again, for all the organic beauty of the rear gardens, formality has a place here, too. Off the back of the house lies a rectangular green bordered in bluestone and anchored at the corners by flowering urns, and to one side is a patio designed in a checkerboard pattern of variegated blocks of granite separated by wide strips of grass.
What’s surprising, given the rockiness and onshore breezes, is how resilient the plants are. O’Neill believes this is because the plants have embraced the terrain and are the heartier, and more vibrant, as a result. “There are books on seaside gardening that talk about how difficult it is,” she says. “But I think the sea air and the winds force plants to adapt to the conditions, and I think they’re the better for it.”
What’s less surprising is why, after twenty-eight years, Heather O’Neill is content to continue working the grounds. “Claudia and Jeff are among my most appreciative clients,” she says of the current owners. “Jeff will say ‘Do what you think is right.’”
No matter where she stands on the grounds, O’Neill has views of both the past and future. “I started this business on this property out of the back of a Volkswagen Jetta with a shovel and some gloves,” she says. “And I have evolved as a designer and a person because of my relationship with it.”
Heather O’Neill, Second Nature Landscape Design, Inc., Norwalk, 203-515-0527