A Story Takes Bloom

Cape Cod Home  /  Spring 2021 / ,

Writer: Allyson Plessner

Bunny Mellon’s gardens at her former Osterville home have cemented their place in the history books, but as the years carry on and the flowers wilt away, how does one preserve the legacy of an icon?

As the tides turn, so do storied tales of Cape Cod—pirates and whalers fighting their spectacular battles off the coastline of the Cape while back on land, the homes that would inspire generations of architects took root. And, as Cape Cod communities go, Oyster Harbors is a treasure trove of stories (and perhaps real, pirated treasure) waiting to be uncovered. Arguably the crown jewel of that treasure, the sparkling gem on top of a village of historic legends, is one of the notorious homes of Rachel Lambert Mellon and her husband, Paul: The Putnam House. 

Previously known as the Judge Marston house, named after its famed proprietor, Judge Marston of Marstons Mills, the Putnam House is owned and maintained today by Rachel (“Bunny” as she was affectionately known) and Paul’s grandson, Thomas Lloyd and his family. The home is believed to have been built in 1680, making it one of the oldest homes on Cape Cod—a designation which is an acknowledgment in its own right—and the oldest home on Oyster Harbors, where the house found its current home by way of barge in 1928. But perhaps the most fascinating history surrounding the home comes a bit more recently, when it was annexed to the Grand Island estate of Paul and Bunny Mellon after its purchase in 1973. Mrs. Mellon added a guest house to the seven-acre parcel, but her most unforgettable contribution was to the grounds.

A self-taught horticulturist, and an icon of elegance, Bunny Mellon is recognized as one of the premier landscape designers in the United States and beyond; an expansive legacy that continues well after her passing at 103-years-old in 2014. Beyond simply masterful landscapes, the gardens that Bunny touched became symbols of prosperity, glory, strength, and of course, beauty. Her passion bloomed in John F. Kennedy’s White House Rose Garden, Monet’s garden at Giverny, and the Potager du Roi at Versailles, to name just a few magnificent examples of her far-reaching influence. And, though Bunny disliked the spotlight that came with her aristocratic youth as the granddaughter of the co-inventor of Listerine, and her affluent life with Paul Mellon, of oil and banking fortune, her style as a horticulturist never-the-less left its distinct mark on the world of gardening. That mark was characterized by under-stated sophistication; as Garden & Gun puts it, “Studied imperfection was her style, and about it, she was a perfectionist.” Within her world of old money refinement, Bunny built microcosms of solace through her gardens which were all at once unassuming and approachable, yet grand in their majesty. 

So, how does one approach the recreation of the gardens of a horticultural tour de force such as Bunny Mellon? In its heyday, the estate saw as many as 20 regular gardeners across the properties, with Mrs. Mellon herself choreographing the show and no modern irrigation system in sight. “It was a different world,” comments Jay MacMullan of MainStay Landscape, charged with honoring the legacy of Bunny’s illustrious homes while making some more self-sustainable updates to the guest house and kitchen gardens for the home’s current stewards. As the life of a flower is often bright but short, the gardens at Putnam House have undergone many updates and transformations over the years under the direction of MainStay Landscape. “Gardens evolve as transplants; divisions; and redesigns are all necessary parts of the process,” explains MacMullan. “If there is anyone who could intimidate you as far as landscape, it was Mrs. Mellon. She was just a legend, and when it comes to maintaining her properties, we want to be sure that we continue to honor that.”

MacMullan, an Osterville resident himself, brought over 15 years of experience to MainStay Landscape, which he founded in 2015. For him, the backbone of MainStay is great relationships: “We always put people first,” he says. “Understanding our clients, their needs, and really listening is paramount to our mission as a company. We’re not just building and maintaining landscapes; we’re developing partnerships with our clients and contractors.” Whether the projects are large or small, MacMullan describes the MainStay process as strategic and thoughtful. They are a team that is systematic in their planning and emphatic in their execution, and the result is a seamless process and uniquely imagined landscape. When it comes to maintaining and re-envisioning the work of a cultural icon, there’s no company more prepared for the task.

“We started by planting certain seeds and perennials we knew Mrs. Mellon loved,” details MacMullan. “Her favorite color was blue, so of course every shade of blue imaginable is throughout the design.” The MainStay team also paid homage to the history of the property. “Because the soil at Putnam house is so rich, thanks to years of propagation, the seed layer began to expose itself through soil cultivation,” says MacMullan. “There’s so much seed in the soil that we continue to this day to discover cosmos, rudbeckia, verbena, sunflower and chamomile germinating in spring.” 

“Instead of removing a plant or seed that we uncover in an attempt to maintain order in the garden, we almost always leave it where it started,” continues MacMullan. “Mrs. Mellon would never have pulled a plant growing through a patio stone, but rather nurtured it. In fact, the randomness of nature was one of her greatest pleasures.” 

Another major update to the property was the installation of an irrigation system, meaning that the next generation of Mellons can enjoy the gardens without having a football team’s-worth of gardeners on call. Perennials and shrubs became the focus, moving the landscape away from high-maintenance vegetable, fruit, and flower-producing plants. 

The famed Putnam House gardens also have taken a huge step into the modern century with horticulture identification tags throughout the garden: The kitchen garden located just off the Putnam Kitchen is full of herbs, medicinals, citrus and tropicals. Night-Blooming Jasmine dance with Italian White Sunflower in the breezes that flow in from Osterville’s East Bay. Borage, lavender and thyme provide sensory-rich beds for potted lemon. “There are dozens of plants, and at times that can be overwhelming,” explains MacMullan. Each ID tag has a QR code that can be scanned by a smartphone, transporting inquisitive gardeners to a website detailing all the sumptuous recipes they can make using each specific plant. “Aim your iPhone at lavender and find a drink recipe for a Lavender Lemon Drop Martini or aim it at sage for a recipe for Butternut Squash Soup with Sage and Ham,” says MacMullan. “It gives our clients a fun way to interact with their garden as a family, and for us, it allows our team at MainStay to change up the space on an annual basis without confusing people with new plants.” 

“Gardening on the Cape is spectacular; when you can do it with a view of Dead Neck and Nantucket Sound, it’s even more so,” enthuses MacMullan. “Mrs Mellon set us up for success. When she first constructed the gardens in the 70s she trucked in Barnstable farm soil for days. We’ve dug in the garden, in some instances four feet down and have never hit sand. That’s remarkable when your garden is only 100 feet away from the ocean.” Ultimately, MacMullan says that the best part of what he does is the joy it brings to MainStay’s valued partners: their clients. Working with a family that prioritizes gardening at the highest level as the Mellons do creates a unique luxury and cherished partnership for MainStay — one that is sure to produce many more stories for the Oyster Harbors treasure trove. 

Bunny’s flawless taste was, like the fantastic worlds she created, natural. And as those worlds, naturally, begin to fade away, it becomes the task of landscapers like Jay MacMullan and his team to bring their own modern twist to the preservation of her legacy—and her gardens. A perfect garden occupies only a fleeting moment in time, but the story it creates has the potential to last an eternity. And so, as the pirates and the whalers wage their battles, on land an opulent garden takes root, and as the blooms unfurl, a story begins. 

Visit mainstaylandscape.com for more information.

Allyson Plessner

Allyson Plessner is a former editorial intern for Cape Cod Life and now works for the publication as a staff writer and digital media coordinator. Born in Florida, Allyson has been a lifelong summer resident of the Cape. She is a recent alumna of the College of Charleston, located in Charleston, South Carolina, where she completed bachelor’s degrees in both English and Spanish. In her free time, Allyson is an avid sailor, beach-goer, and—like her fellow Cape Cod Life colleagues—a dog-lover.