Painting the Hamptons

At Madoo Robert Dash trains an artis’s eye on the landscape

The first things you see upon entering Robert Dash’s Long Island garden are a pair of wooden chairs and a small table. They’re the sort of outdoor furniture you might see in many lived-in gardens, except that these pieces are painted in bright yellow and vibrant blue (called “Dash blue” by its creator). They set the tone of this garden–witty, surprising, and with a masterful use of color throughout, both in plant combinations and in architectural elements. Dash, a painter, brings an artist’s sensibility to the garden, working with painterly considerations of form and space, color and light.

Contrasts of light and dark abound: Dash has put in three small ponds to reflect the sky in their shimmering, sometimes mysteriously misty, surfaces. Three narrow mirror panels on the wall of a storage building reflect the adjacent pond, throwing light and adding depth. They appear to be windows at first glance, until you notice the garden reflected in them.

Foliage is important in this garden. Green appears in a host of shades and tints, some solid, others splashed with gold or streaked with silver and cream. There are gray greens, blue greens, lime and chartreuse, deep forest green and rich emerald. Shrubs are often paired with groundcovers of similar hue, as in the inspired combination of a golden-variegated euonymus with Lysimachia numtnularia ‘Aurea’.

From the garden’s entrance, a pebbled path leads to a wood-shingled studio created in a restored eighteenth-century barn. The studio’s currently yellow door is sometimes painted to match the hues of nearby flowers. The trim around the window frames is painted “Dash blue” and a cheerful spring green (“Dash green,” of course).

The garden (which Dash calls Madoo, from an old Scottish dialect phrase meaning “my dove”) covers about two acres in Sagaponack, New York, on the eastern end of Long Island. The property adjoins a working farm, one of a dwindling number still left on Long Island. Dash began the garden in 1967, borrowing a neighbor’s tractor and mowing paths through the grass. Now the two acres are lushly planted and the garden is a conservancy, open to the public two days a week from May to September. (See “If You Go,” page 39.)


OPPOSITE PAGE: Painter Robert Dash mixes naturalistic and formal elements for a strong, unique sense of place at Madoo, his Long Island garden. THIS PAGE: A pagoda-style bridge offers a place to enjoy the interplay of light and water.

The garden seems larger than two acres as you travel through it. Winding paths weave through a diversity of plantings structured around forms and spaces created by groupings of trees and shrubs, hedges, constructed elements, and open patches of meadow and lawn. The paths reflect Dash’s love of the Indian trails that once traversed this part of Long Island. Path surfaces vary in different parts of the garden: some are paved with pebbles, others with wood rounds sunk into sand, still others with mulch. Against this framework, a company of constantly changing perennials dances through the seasons. After all, says Dash, “nothing is fixed in a garden.”

Above all, Madoo is about the plants. One of the basic tenets of garden making for Dash is that “plants must rule the garden.” He has often relocated paths to make way for plants growing into the space. And he strives to use plants that not only thrive in the coastal climate, but which also look appropriate–plants that fit. He tried planting tropical water lilies and other exotics in and around one of the ponds, but they looked out of place, so he got rid of them. Now the pond holds hardy native water lilies, whose white flowers are less showy but entirely more suited to this area.


The Hamptons were settled by English colonists in the 1600s, and an Anglophilic air lingers in these thoroughly American villages that are still home to farmers and fishermen, as well as increasing summer hordes of tourists and wealthy seasonal residents. The Dash garden captures the spirit of the place, with its lively plantings contained within formal structural elements.

Near the back of the property is a series of quincunx beds, each anchored by a central Osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera), whose white flowers bloom in spring and whose sharp thorns would recommend them for barrier plantings. Four fastigiate yews mark the corners of each bed, which also contain golden chamaecyparis, hedge willows, and astilbes and other perennials.

Next to the beds, a stately brick walkway is flanked by double borders lush with the fragrant blooms of rugosa roses (‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’) in summer and a varying crowd of perennials from spring to fall. There are painter’s tricks at play here, too– the walkway is eight feet wide at the near end and gradually narrows to six feet at the far end, exaggerating the perspective and drawing the eye to the brick exedra at the far end (which conveniently blocks from view a new house that conceals a glimpse of the ocean formerly visible beyond the farm fields next door).

Next to a dozen columnar ginkgos underplanted with neatly clipped round boxwoods (a combination that calls to mind the Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 New York World’s Fair) rests a light purple gazebo. “Manet,” Dash explains, “said that the very air is violet.” The gazebo pulls that violet right out of the atmosphere and anchors it to the earth.


The climate here, so close to the ocean, can be tough on plants. The plants in this garden have to be able to withstand strong winds and salty air. Weaklings and prima donnas don’t last here. But hardy natives, such as salt-tolerant inkberry (Ilex glabra) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosun), thrive.

The deft placement and inspired pruning of the trees is one of the hallmarks of Madoo. Many of the trees were started from seed, and none were more than five feet high when planted in the garden. Trees are best planted young, says Dash, for that is when they make their greatest growth and can be most easily trained. Although it’s not a path to instant gratification, the process takes less time, he says, than one might think. An imposing group of monarch birches (Betula maximowicziana), for example, was started 15 years ago–a brief span in the life of trees. Seeds were sown indoors and the seedlings moved to their current location when they were about four inches high. There were originally five trees in the group–he believes that competition among trees when they are young strengthens them and allows him to choose the most vigorous specimens and get rid of the rest. Like all of the trees in the garden, the birches were pruned up–lower branches were removed and the canopy judiciously thinned to allow light for perennials and groundcovers to be planted underneath and to reveal the interesting bark.

Trees are also trained to assume idealized and sometimes fanciful forms. From atop a low bank, a Russian olive sweeps downward and spreads its two main scaffold branches in flowing, almost pincer-like curves, the arching trunk supported at the junction by a sturdy forked branch driven into the ground.

Of all the trees in the garden, however, magnolias are favorites. Although there is, says Dash, a tree for every season, “You can’t have too many magnolias.” Why does he love them so much? “How can one not?” he replies. Magnolia grandiflora enjoys a protected spot and blooms from early June right up until frost. The hybrid ‘Elizabeth’ brings her soft yellow blossoms in mid spring. A dozen more magnolias– 12 different cultivars–are planted in a bed of ornamental grasses.

Robert Dash’s words to guide a garden

We asked Robert Dash to share his best advice for fellow gardeners, and he kindly offered these key principles to keep in mind.

  • To garden is so natural an act that you need only follow your instincts; have no fear and plunge right in.

  • Follow your first, not your second, idea.

  • Expect mistakes; mistakes are not errors if you learn from them.

  • Walk your plot in all kinds of light, all times of day, all kinds of weather, as often as possible-paying particular attention to slight changes of level and, above all, shadows.

  • Gardening, remember, at its best, is a form of autobiography, an art of the wrist, like painting, enacted on the earth.

Large shrubs, such as a 20-year-old tree lilac (Syringa reticulata) and a row of privet, are treated like the trees, pruned high to make them look more treelike and less shrubby. One bed is full of weeping and decumbent evergreens, planted together “to see what would happen.”


Dash cares for his garden organically (except for a bit of herbicide on the pebbled drive). This part of Long Island used to be mostly farm country. The local soil (referred to in these parts as Bridge-hampton loam) is one of the finest in the United States, and Dash has worked hard to keep his rich in nutrients, organic matter, and microbial life. Each fall he spreads six truckloads of aged horse manure from a local horse farm (“three-year-old manure is best,” he declares). Sixty bales of salt marsh hay (which is seedless) are spread in the garden when the leaves begin to fall in autumn. The manure is spread on top and left in place to break down and enrich the soil. He tosses peat moss over the rhododendrons (“just toss it into the foliage”); it works its way down to the ground to add organic matter and maintain the necessary acidity for the plants. Each clematis plant receives a teaspoon of lime each year. Bulbs are fed with bone meal (and no, he doesn’t worry that bone meal produced in the United States could be a vector for the spread of mad cow disease).

After 35 years of continual development, Robert Dash’s garden is still evolving. “You have to make mistakes,” he says. Like all good gardeners, he is a tireless experimenter, discarding the failures and building on the successes. At Madoo, the successes are everywhere to be seen. H

If You Go

Madoo is open every Wednesday and Saturday from the beginning of May until the end of September, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10, which is used for garden maintenance. Strollers, dogs, and children under six are not permitted. Separate tours may be arranged for groups of 10 or more. For more information, telephone 631-537-8200, or visit


Robert Dash has published a highly entertaining volume of essays on Madoo and other gardening subjects under the title Notes from Madoo: Making a Garden in the Hamptons (Houghton Mifflin, 2000; $24). The book is available from and Barnes & Noble (

Tuteurs, arbors, and carefully clipped hedges may add a formal air to some gardens, but at Madoo they punctuate Robert Dash’s joyful gardening style, one that puts plants first.

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