Long Island flora has shaped Franklin Salasky’s weekend haven
text and photography by KEN DRUSE
FRANKLIN SALASKY IS A DETERMINED GARDENER, even though his early horticultural experience was limited to tending a single amaryllis on a New York City windowsill. A decade ago, the architect (a partner in the design firm B5 Studio) bought a little shack in the village of East Hampton, on Long Island, New York, and set about transforming the place into a comfortable weekend getaway.
B5 is known for intelligent interior and exterior architecture that combines the best designs of the past and present. Salasky refashioned his simple cottage into a jewel that retains the character of its humble beginnings. When it came time to create the perfect horticultural setting for his summer home, he approached the task in his typical analytical way. He began with “the program,” a list of needs to be met by the landscape’s design. He knew he wanted a place for dining, a gravel parking area, a welcoming entry garden, a grass lawn, a buffer from the weed- and trash-infested land behind his quarter acre, and a few spots to just hang out. He also wanted plants, of course. “I looked at pictures in books,” he recalls. “I looked at gardens. I saw lots of plants I loved, and soon came to love so many pretty things that I was totally confused.rsquo;
But Salasky loves wild places most, and even before he bought his weekend home, he visited land preserves, Nature Conservancy sites, marshes, and seaside scrub on Long Island. To him, the beauty of the local flora is the region’s main attraction, and as the delicate habitat has felt the pressures of development, Salasky has found himself something of an activist. “My friends and I were lamenting the fact that the native landscape was disappearing before our eyes,” he says. He decided to practice what he preached, by making a restorative planting on his own property. It would be a symbolic nod to local flora, and, at the very least, a haven from rampaging invasive plants like privet and Oriental bittersweet.
An academic approach appealed to the architect, who likes things orderly and organized. Plants don’t behave that way, but Salasky’s directive—to use plants native only to Long Island—provided a horticultural structure. A limited palette also curbs a novice gardener’s (or any gardener’s) shopping frenzy.
Planning the outdoor spaces was not nearly as daunting as discovering and deciding what species to grow. Franklin looked into historical plant surveys, consulted local environmental experts, and cataloged some of the plants on conservation sites to discover what grew well on this slender finger of land in the years before English settlement.
Finding sources for these plants was another story. He came across the book (now out of print) Long Island Native Plants for Landscaping: A Source Book by Karen Blumer, which helped with species lists but featured out-of-date suppliers. Being accustomed to hiring specialists to implement his professional work, he sought help in locating plants, and recommendations for their placement. He turned to Long Island landscape designer Betsy Perrier.
‘Not all of my clients want native plants,” says Perrier. “Franklin is the only one who got into it philosophically, to the extent that he wanted Long Island natives, not just U.S. natives or East Coast natives.” Some purists might take exception with Salasky’s inclusion of a few cultivated varieties of local species, but a desire for compact versions—ones that stay low without pruning—fit the design scheme and the scale of the property. The result could serve as an excellent guide for people planning any landscape for a typical suburban lot.
The seahorse in the entry garden is a focal point and a nod to the nearby ocean.
The entry garden makes a great first impression. Its plantings and paving are perhaps the most detailed and developed of any place on the property. There is gravel and bluestone paving, and a little pool created from a lined stock tank buried in the ground, with a fountain that recirculates the water. A covered and screened walkway leads beyond this garden to the house’s narrow porch. Salasky added doors to the living room, master bath, and kitchen; these open directly to the garden. Large bifolding doors open a wall of the living room into the screened walkway to capitalize on cool summer breezes. Woven trellis covers the little porch’s posts, and vines scamper up to the eaves. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus virginiana) provides cool green foliage and trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) vibrant orange flowers in summer. American Turk’s-cap lilies (Lilium superbum) planted in the entry garden reflect the trumpet vine’s flower color.
An unpainted picket fence contains the entry garden, making it feel like a little room. There is also a low, unpruned hedge of sweet pepper bush (Clethra alnifolia ‘Hummingbird’), the plant that has become the property’s leitmotif, with bottlebrush flowers that fill the air with the sweet odor of vanilla and clove during summer vacation time. The focal point, a concrete seahorse, adds a bit of whimsy and a sculptural reference to the island’s other influential habitat, the Atlantic Ocean.
The term “outdoor room” is overused these days, but in this case the landscape really is an extension of the indoors—which makes a lot of sense for a seasonal retreat with a long, comfortable summer. Spring comes late to Long Island, but so does winter. The climate, moderated by the Atlantic on one side and the Connecticut Sound on the other, has very late autumns that seem to go on for months. It is not unusual for the first frost to fall in December.
Several seating areas dot the yard, each with a different mood. One basks in the shade of a large maple. Another is set against an interesting backdrop, a lucky piece of borrowed architecture—the back wall of a neighbor’s garage. On the other side of the house is a more formal spot—a dining room with walls and ceiling created by a handsome pergola stained the teal color of the house.
A SPACE TO SHARE
Like many of us gardeners, Salasky fell in love with his first water feature and added a second, a new pool next to the dining area. This is a wooden trough built like a raised planting bed and lined with 40-mil butyl rubber sheeting. (A handy gardener could build this pool in a couple of weekends.) It is home to local water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata).
American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) screens the parked cars and also separates the entry garden from a miniature grove of chokecherry bushes (Aronia arbutifolia) beneath a cluster of white-flowered dogwood (Cornus florida). In spring, these plants burst into flower, as do the buffer planting’s shadblow, or service-berry, trees (A melanchier canadensis) and azaleas, which are underplanted with ferns. The shadblow are most prized for their longlasting, multicolored foliage and berries in the fall.
A benefit of bringing nature back to a garden is that other native species visit places where wild things grow. Birds are first attracted by the sound and sight of water in the entry garden’s pool, and then by fruit. The serviceberry, chokecherry, dogwood, inkberry (Ilex glabra), American cranberry, sumac (Rhus typhina), and Virginia creeper all have edible fruit.
Salasky would be the first to tell how the garden feeds not only birds, but also the souls of anyone who visits. He set out to make a garden that reflected his site’s history, his interest in local flora, and the way nature plants. He ended up creating a small-scale repository of local genetic material threatened by houses sprouting up where wild things once reigned. This comfortable, informal place does exactly what a garden should do: it provides a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. In this way, the little garden could be more successful than many of the more ambitious weekend homes that populate the east end of Long Island. H