There are a few certainties in the design world: trends come and go, but quality lasts for decades; every season, a variety of experts will proclaim a color—not necessarily the same one—the “new black”; and Bunny Williams, interior decorating icon, will have some of the most exquisite gardens in the Northeast. Need visuals? We took a trip last week to Bunny’s home in Falls Village, Connecticut, where the roses are lushly creeping, the veggies are exploding with color and fruit, the parterre is looking particularly Euro-gorgeous, and there are beautifully blooming surprises around every corner. Come on in.
In her book On Garden Style, Bunny says, “Great design, wonderful plant material, and delightful ornament: A garden becomes a work of art when these three elements are at play.” Thus her gardens, situated over 12 acres and full of inspired plantings and unusual antiques and accents from her worldly travels, have been a 34-year labor of love.
Eric Ruquist, Bunny’s chief gardener, notes that when Bunny and her husband, John Roselli, bought the property, the gardens had been long abandoned by previous owners. Eric says, “Bunny didn’t really have a plan at first. She knew she liked a mix of the indoors and the outdoors, and she wanted the gardens reflect this.” Bunny also has a very defined sense of space, so once she designed the structure for each of the six garden “rooms”—the woodland garden, the parterre, the perennial garden, the sunken garden, the orchard, and the vegetable production gardens—her garden team was able to get down to the business of selecting the best plants for each part of the land. “Once you have the structure, you’re allowed to go out of bounds a little bit—plant exuberantly and let things go a little wild,” Eric notes.
When Eric, who studied art and art history at Hampshire College and is a self-taught gardener who apprenticed at Stonecrop Gardens and later became the curator of the organization’s flower garden, came on board, his first big project was turning an old production garden into a French-style parterre. Located in front of a majestic conservatory—featuring tall, gracefully arched windows salvaged from an estate on the Hudson River—that Bunny uses for luncheons and dinner parties, the parterre is a case study in making manicured plantings look natural.
To get the look, Eric defined the symmetrical squares and rectangles with easy-to-maintain boxwoods, then filled in with lots of leafy green plants, and tall flowers in the purple, white, and pink families—like lilac shrubs and the charming cochliasanthus, or snail vine, which twines up an arbor. He’s also partial to the Jerusalem oak, with its spiky leaves and Dr. Seussian shape, and the antique oil pots, courtesy of Bunny, that are tucked into the beds as decoration. “One of the best parts about working with Bunny is all the stuff—the antiques, the pots, the containers, the accents,” he says.
Since then, the pair have worked on a variety of garden upgrades, from crafting a man-made waterfall in the woodland garden to creating a “Little Italy” pathway of thyme plants and arbor vitae leading up to a Greek temple–style poolhouse. Their most recent project is the perennial garden, which Bunny first conceived of last fall after visiting an English-style garden in Normandy created by the late, great landscape designer Russell Page. Bunny came up with the overall design; then she and Eric sat down for a series of conversations about color and texture. From there, Eric applied his in-depth knowledge of plants and his artistic sensibility. The resulting garden—finished in less than a year—is a stunner, from its prolific pink climbing roses to its profusion of thistles, spikes, and ball-shaped plants, which Bunny loves for their eye-catching shapes and differing heights.
The perennial garden also features a unique geranium bed—a feature Bunny wasn’t on board with at the beginning. Eric explains, “I love geraniums, but Bunny thinks the flowers are a little too small. So I did a planting in the new perennial garden with black, white, purple, and lilac geraniums. They look amazing en masse.”
Bunny’s gardens are featured annually on the Trade Secrets Garden Tour, thanks to their distinctive designs and unusual plants like the solanum, which bears ominous purple spikes on its broad green leaves, the striated-and-striped setaria (a type of palm grass), and more than a dozen succulents. It’s also a tour favorite for its unmistakable ambience. Where else you can relax on a bentwood chair in the shade of overhanging trees while savoring the soothing sounds of a waterfall, then cross a sunny open knoll—the smells of soil, pine trees, and flowers on every breath—to meticulously designed, European-inspired gardens bursting with color and texture? We can definitely say: not at many private homes. But if you can’t get there in person, no worries. Pick up a copy of Bunny’s best-selling An Affair with a House, which gives an in-depth look at these amazing spaces, and will provide garden-design inspiration for years to come.