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Eden by the Sea

Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and her husband, Paul, could have chosen any exquisite corner of the globe as the summer holiday retreat for their growing family.

Photography by Dan Cutrona

This is welcome news to property manager and longtime employee, Chris Harvie, who vividly remembers the gargantuan job of weeding these rows as a teen. More than two decades later, Harvie can still point out the weed-prone spots and rattle off the vegetables he planted for the Mellons: “Peas, eggplant, carrots, radishes, hot peppers, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, five kinds of lettuce, but no butternut or yellow squash, and no pumpkins or watermelon, just Sweet 100, Better Boy, or Big Boy tomatoes, and she loved lima beans. A lima bean sandwich was her all time favorite.”

Though she has never met Mellon, Allen says the clear intent of her vision is noticelable everywhere around the property. “Here was a place for her to stop and reflect and enjoy family. An enormous amount of genius came out of that kind of stopping and reflecting and enjoying the beauty.”

To preserve that vision, Allen has created an inviting seating area in the midst of the garden. “Guests will feel invited to sit and let out a sigh—the sigh none of us ever has time for anymore.”

Allen used Mellon’s own plans to restore an herb garden within reach of the Putnam House kitchen. “We’ve made a small, but replicable herb and (flower) cutting garden,” Allen says. Behind the basil, Rainbow Swiss chard, and leafy vegetables, an antique pump drips water into a wooden barrel from the Virginia farm’s old barreling shop. In a nod to the future, tags that can be scanned with a smartphone link to a tailored website with information about each herb with a further link to possible recipes.

This, too, fits the Mellon legacy. “She was always ahead of the curve,” says Bob Hoxie who supervised the gardens for 17 years. “Her secret was incorporating history with art and craftsmanship.” Hoxie, who now runs Great Hill Horticultural Services in Sandwich, credits his former boss with teaching him the importance of the eye being able to “move through a landscape,” whether on the grand scale of the trails through the woods to the beach between Putnam and Dune House, or through the escalating drama of a carefully plotted small garden.

For Hoxie and all who worked there, Dune House holds a special place. “It’s her,” he says. “It’s where [Mrs. Mellon] found peace. I love the way it sits in the land. It’s where she liked to draw, paint, and write.”

Current projects at Dune House include restoration of the walled courtyard garden in view of Mellon’s painting table as well as plantings around the pool and pool house. In the contemplative garden, two elements have been preserved: the espalier tree on the garden wall, representing years of focused labor, and the well-established lavender in the tradition of the French gardens Mellon loved. Allen describes any new additions as “subtle blossoms . . . pastels, blues, pinks, purples, and whites that are calming to the senses,” complementing the aromatic, calming effect of the lavender. Abundant Knock Out roses add color. A roofed structure for tea adds coziness to the space.

The pool reclamation has been a longer process. In addition to repairing leaks, Mellon suggested her family add a “beach area” within the new fence required by law. When it came to blending the fence with the landscape, the family turned to Ron Brumfield, a local painting magician, who for a lifetime, has perfected the natural look of every building and board on the property. Brumfield’s alchemy with a paintbrush, blending yellows, creams, grays, oils, masonry lime, and vinegar did the trick. Afterwards, sand was spread on a 400-square-foot area sporting simple lawn furniture. MacMullan supervised the planting of 2,400 beach grass “plugs” to restore and enhance the natural look of Mellon’s beloved dune grasses. In addition, he and his crew planted an array of native berry bushes: blueberries, bayberries, bearberries, and beach plums around the perimeter.

There are plans for a new guesthouse and careful landscaping on the site of the wildflower field where Mellon celebrated her 90th birthday in a pink and blue sea of poppies and cornflowers. But for now, the deepest desire of those who have worked this land and loved its owners is for the family to spend more time here. Says Allen, “The more it is used and shared and loved, the better it will thrive. They can all recharge here.”

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