When Tom Harris moved into his North Wilton home 25 years ago, it was a pokey ranch-Colonial hybrid with tiny windows and virtually no landscaping. “It was as dark as a tomb,” says Harris, “the yard was non-descript, just overgrown bushes. At the edges of the property it was like a jungle.”
But the new homeowner had a vision for both the house and the property. A nature lover, he wanted to integrate the inside with the outside, so the confining faux colonial exterior structure had to go. A second story was added, the west end of the house was expanded, and interior spaces were opened up to create better flow. Dozens of new windows were added—many of them floor to ceiling—allowing natural light to flood every room while providing unobstructed views of the property.
Appreciating both the familiar and the classic, Harris opted for authentic mid-century modern furnishings. Today, there is nothing fussy about this house. Every piece has been deliberately chosen for comfort, visual appeal, and design pedigree. Varied textiles and original artwork from Harris’s travels, add dimension and texture. While the interiors are understated and welcoming, the real show is outside.
Extensive gardens take up most of the two-acre property, which boasts more than 500 species of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees. The result is breathtaking. Many Wilton gardens are a predictable arrangement of miniature boxwoods, rhododendron, and impatiens, so it’s unexpected to see such a visual cornucopia. It comes as no surprise that the property has been included on the Garden Conservancy Tour the last two years running. This extraordinary garden project represents a close collaboration between Harris, and Ridgefield-based landscape designer Laura Stabell and has been 24 years in the making. “I didn’t want a classic garden where the plants are a row of tin soldiers,” says Harris. “The look that I wanted was one of unplanned abundance—not quite a cottage garden but still extensive and full. Laura was very helpful in realizing that goal and putting in enough structure so that the landscape made sense.”
Though Stabell was given a large amount of autonomy with the design, Harris had three specific requests: plants needed to be fragrant, good for cutting and arranging, and ones that had attractive foliage. If a plant or flower didn’t meet the criteria, “it was out.”
Stabell comes by her passion for landscapes naturally. “I started studying plants as soon as I could read,” she says. “I grew up in the Ridgebury area of Ridgefield. It was a wild corner of the world—we used to say if you were lost, you were here! Bennett’s Pond State Park was my stomping ground, and if I missed the bus I was happy that I got to walk through the fields to get to school. Those landscapes nurtured me as a designer.”
Stabell showed a horticultural aptitude at a very young age. At seven, she landed her first job, gardening for a neighbor. Later, when other teenaged girls were turning the pages of Seventeen, Stabell had her nose glued to Organic Gardening. Gifted in the fields of art and science, she decided to pursue a career combining both of her passions. At 19, Stabell got her groundskeepers license; she became a licensed arborist before age 30, and soon after she opened the Down to Earth Nursery at the corner of Old Redding Road and Route 7. “The town wouldn’t let me put up a sign that was more than one square foot, so I planted a 300 foot long perennial border—that was my sign. The business took off and Stabell’s list of clients grew. She was designing, climbing trees with a chainsaw, building stone walls, and transplanting many of the 10,000 potted plants cultivated at her nursery. “I was living on coffee and Tic Tacs,” she says.
In 1995 Tom Harris was driving by and was taken with the beauty of the perennial plant and flower “sign” for Down to Earth, and knew it was exactly the aesthetic he was looking for. “He came into the nursery to buy plants,” recalls Stabell. “He liked what he saw and asked me to create a landscape design.”
Stabell discovered that the Wilton property had thin, poor soil that needed serious nutrient rehab. It was also covered with an array of invasive non-native plants. To eradicate the problem, she has systematically covered an area, then pick-axed the roots and replanted with native varietals over time. Today, every square inch of the property has been cultivated and the soil enriched.
“The garden isn’t a thing, it’s a place,” says Stabell. “It’s an important distinction. Each area has an emotion that I’m trying to evoke. The landscape is my canvas and I’m painting with plants. The front garden has a bit of prairie feel because we put in grasses and seeded the walkway with thyme. The back is all about bright yellow daisies and flowers. It’s a joyful area with a happy feel. It gets a little more wild along the curved path. The feeling is mysterious, it draws you in and the bold Hakone grass is a surprise. In the far back, there are more fragrant plants so the mood is more romantic.”
Harris is delighted with the end result, which, with Stabell’s expertise, has far exceeded what he would have been able to achieve on his own. “Laura is very planful,” says Harris, “and wants to have the garden unfold, so there is always something in bloom or something with visual interest no matter what the season.”
Now retired, Harris has even more time to enjoy his exquisite gardens, time for leisurely breakfasts on the bluestone patio and evening strolls through the winding pathways. Birds, bees, and butterflies are also plentiful adding another layer of pleasure to his landscape experience. Harris, who studied flower arranging at the New York Botanical Gardens, makes sure there are flowers throughout his home until late fall. “It’s so easy to do and it makes the house so much nicer,” says Harris. “An arrangement doesn’t have to be elaborate to have an impact.”
According to Stabell, the landscape canvas changes from month to month. “This is my opus,” she says with understandable pride. “Tom has been a patron. He’s always been there, understanding what I needed to do and letting me do it.”