Guardians of the Garden

A picturesque five-and-a-half acre estate on Oyster Pond boasts a wide variety of English gardens, but the pi`ece de resistance is the property’s unique gomery.


It was 1969, and the property was nothing but a scrub pile of trash. At least that is how homeowner Sara Dunbar remembers it. “We didn’t know much,” she says of her relative gardening naiveté at the time, “but we knew we loved trees. My, how it’s changed since.” She motions from a patio on her five-and-a-halfacre estate, which overlooks picturesque Oyster Pond, a saltwater inlet connected to Nantucket Sound. From here, we overlook a three-seasonal vista imparted by a collection of rare trees and several distinct gardens.

Sara Dunbar and her husband Prescott, who spend their winters in New Orleans, were undaunted, however by the challenges inherent in building a multi-faceted and multi-functional garden from scratch.

“We started with a few of our favorite trees,” Dunbar says, “And, around the trees, the gardens evolved. The good gardens take a long time to mature, and our gardens have matured as we have.” Truly unique in its design, the focal point of the magnificent landscape is an enchanting portion that consists of 36 10-foot whimsical topiary gnomes. It is here, Dunbar says, in which the heart of the estate lies.

“The gnomes set the tone of the property,” explains Dunbar. “The gnome walk is the centerpiece of the gardens; it is a magical place. And we love the gnomes dearly.”

Although many will say that it is renowned for its exceptional “gnomery,” the Dunbars started with a simple vision that, she says, did not originally include the integration of the mythical earthdwelling creatures.

When asked how she and her husband decided to employ the gnomes on their property, Dunbar remembers the instance unerringly. “After we’d been working on the garden for several years, and had spent a great deal of time pouring through books and visiting other peoples’ gardens, I began to realize that to give a garden its own unique personality demanded an otherwise unique element of garden design,” she says. “I thought, ‘What could that be?’ Then, one day my husband and I saw a gnome topiary figure at Weston Nurseries in Weston, Massachusetts. We realized what the gnome possessed was what our garden needed to give it a unique quality—a sense of humor! We loved the whimsy it represented, the unusual shape, and the different material he was carved from—boulevard cypress—which is not the typical yew or boxwood from which most topiaries are carved.”

A first-time visitor to the estate, which enthusiasts may now view as part of the Garden Conservancy’s annual Open Days tour, would be hard-pressed to imagine the property before the staggering transformation.

She says her gardens, which draw from a variety of design styles, are marked by themed color borders, and are typical of what you would observe in a traditional English garden. “The gardens are classically shaped, and incorporate color themes,” Dunbar says, pointing out a customary English border made up of herbaceous plants that die down at the end of the season.

Featuring an assortment of vibrant, purposeful gardens, Dunbar’s property is ensconced in textured shrubs, with a grass meadow serving as the backdrop for a collection of mini utopias that serve as an ideal habitat for birds, butterflies and bees. A bog garden offers a serene venue for an afternoon of meditation, while a vegetable garden bursting with delicacies including sweet peas, lettuce, artichokes and rhubarb, presents endless options for a naturally cultivated dinner option. The “woodland walk” dotted with rhododendrons, delivers a placid path down which to mosey, and a sunken gravel garden with its own succulent-producing climate is indisputably an idyllic setting to relish in the warmth of a sunny day.

While she does a great deal of the day-to-day upkeep of the premises herself, Dunbar, who studied painting in college, attributes her property’s distinct features and stunning beauty to the talent and insight of a handful of accomplished landscape architects and horticulturists. “Gardening is an ongoing learning experience. I always keep a notebook, and write down the names of the plants I am interested in when I am traveling. The exposure to good gardens really shaped my plan for this property. Seeing what the best gardeners came up with definitely inspired me.”

A Little Gnome Primer
Most people have come to be familiar with the multi-colored ceramic gnomes frequently used as comical accessories in suburban garden design. These diminutive woodland icons— whom some revere as learned and insightful, and others disregard as kitsch yard art—evoke strong emotions from members of gardening circles.

According to gnome lore, the garden variety gnome-as opposed to the forest, dune or house-dwelling gnome-is said to have originated in Europe in the mid-to-late-1800s, such beings have earned a reputation as guardians of the earth and protectors of gardens, and therefore comfortably cohabitate with plants, trees and animal kind. Those who attest to the actual existence of living, breathing gnomes, report that these “little people” may live to be hundreds of years old. Those versed in gnome culture describe gnomes as having insurmountable fortitude, with the physical strength seven times that of a human.