By Val Khislavsky
Get an infusion of color and inspiration with this visit to a very unusual garden that brings the look of the tropics to the northeast.
A tiny fountain set into a chimney enlivens a niche near a frequently-used door. The purple blooms are a Tibouchina, which Steve Silk calls “one of the most beauteous tender shrubs.” Photo: JMMDS.
Steve Silk’s lush, tropics-inspired garden is the last thing you expect to find at the end of a narrow, easy-to-miss dirt road in Connecticut. But once you drive up to the house, past the mounds of composting leaves nestled among the surrounding oaks and hemlocks, you know you’ve arrived in a special place.
Steve prefers foliage over flowers any day and thinks of plants as sculptural objects. With forms and color like this, who could argue? Photo: JMMDS.
I met Steve at Julie’s lecture for the Connecticut Horticultural Society this fall, but his history with Julie goes way back—they went to high school together in Wilton, Connecticut! Steve is President of the Society and was instrumental in organizing the lecture. The following day, he invited Julie and me to visit his garden in Farmington.
Steve’s gardening background is marked by humble gardening beginnings—weeding the pachysandra at his parents’ home in Connecticut—but he has developed into an ambitious and skilled gardener. Steve studied anthropology, before moving to the University of Missouri to study journalism. He later became a travel writer, which took him to Latin America, including Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, and Ecuador, and the Indonesian archipelago, especially Java and the octopus-shaped Sulawesi. He grew fascinated by the way in which plants adapt to a variety of surroundings, and an interest in exotic gardening was born. The volcanic lushness of these faraway places is echoed in Steve’s gardens today.
L: Steve used his chainsaw to create these friendly garden dwellers, resembling Indonesian totems. R: Hanging plants camouflage the hot tub cover and give a jungle effect. Photos: JMMDS.
Now, we all know Connecticut is far from tropical, despite the advances of global warming. So, in order to achieve the aesthetic he wanted, Steve uses planters to compose open-air rooms and add stunning form and color to the in-ground plantings. Then, once the weather turns cool, he brings the plants indoors. Many of them actually go completely dormant in the wintertime, requiring no light, water, or attention until the following season. You might think of tropical gardening in the northeast as a labor-intensive pursuit, but Steve has a surprisingly low-maintenance approach. Where irrigation is concerned, for example, the potted plants receive attention, especially in the summer, but anything in the ground is on its own after one year of irrigation. If the plant can’t cut the mustard, he replaces it with something else. But Steve doesn’t just expect the plants to work hard—he does all the gardening himself and enjoys the labor. He and his wife used to maintain separate areas of the garden, but she, a painter, has traded her trowel for a brush, and Steve is now responsible for the bulk of garden design and maintenance. He considers himself a pupil of the “chop wood, carry water” school of meditation and enjoys the work. Take a look at some of the fruits of his labor below. Steve also maintains an entertaining and informative website and blog; visit him at http://clattervalleygardens.blogspot.com.
L: Steve built this little garden shed, which features repurposed windows and a paint job inspired by tropical architecture. Hannah noses around in the foreground. R: An outdoor sitting area invites guests to linger in the garden. Photos: JMMDS.
L: In a sunroom attached to the house, Steve has installed a Woolly Pocket green wall with a drip irrigation system. Don’t worry—he used a plywood backing and pond liner to protect the house from unnecessary moisture buildup! R: Close-up of Woolly Pocket.
L: To engage his son’s interest in birds, Steve created an aviary that houses several ring-necked doves. R: Farther beyond lies a pond complete with ducks and geese. Photos: JMMDS.