In his woods, a Nantucket gardener creates a fairyland with imaginative planting, whimsical artistry—and an appreciation for nature’s wild side.
What is it about woodland gardens that stir our feelings of enchantment? Perhaps it is some magical attraction that appeals to our collective unconsciousness, something buried deep in our childhood memories. The play of light and shadow in trees and shrubs; the fascinating movements of birds, butterflies and bees; the mystery and allure of nature all combine to create a feeling of wonder.
Thom Koon’s odyssey creating a famous Nantucket woodland garden was pure happenstance. Although his father was an avid gardener, he did not ask his son to help with planting or maintenance. “I never really gardened,” says Koon. “I lived in New York City for 15 years before coming to Nantucket in the late 1970s. All I can remember doing with plants was to buy an occasional orchid for the apartment, or grow herbs on the fire escape.”
Even after purchasing a two-acre plot of wooded scrubland off Nantucket’s Polpis Road with his partner Bart Cosgrove, it was another 12 years before Koon’s enchanted woodland would take shape.
It all began when Koon noticed a tree had fallen in the woods, not far from the house. He decided to hack his way through the underbrush to either right the tree or cut it down. After completing that chore, he noticed that he had created a path and opened up the canopy to a vision of blue sky and dappled sunlight.
“It reminded me of an overgrown horse path I loved to hike, that ran between the Milestone and Polpis roads,” says Koon. Excited by the bit of open sky, Koon decided to expose the nooks and crannies of his unusual property further.“It was like taking baby steps for me,” he says. “Together with Bart and a dear friend, Sean Browning, we would clear a ‘room’ at a time.”
Within a few years of moving to Nantucket in the 1970s, Koon and Cosgrove opened up a hair salon, The Hair Concern. “Creating the woodland garden is a lot like cutting hair,” says Koon. “You keep working at it and then you stop when you know it’s right.”
The woodland terrain was perfect for Koon’s exploratory approach to gardening. Small inclines and depressions set each area off as a vignette distinct from surrounding plantings. “What started out as a path became more involved each week,” says Koon. “We moved slowly, 10 feet at a time as we cleared and planted. We gathered large rocks and boulders from places around the island. I had a friend who gave me ferns from her garden and that started things off nicely.”
The enchanted woodland has been evolving for more than 15 years now and it is still a work in progress. The property is fanciful and sophisticated without being flashy. A large swath of Asian butterbur and bright chartreuse Japanese Aureola grass are visually magnetic. Benches line the paths, prompting contemplative resting places. Brightly colored wooden frames of red and green hang from trees outlining views into one room or another. Classic statuary, country style furniture, fountains, antiques and modernist sculptures—all are placed harmoniously in the natural landscape.
Moving from room to garden room, the only indications of a border are the masses of native plants, including rosa rugosa, beach plum, high bush blueberry, and viburnum.
Native pines, scrub brush, and some unusual favorites survived Koon’s surgical eye. “An important aspect of my woodland garden is the poison ivy. Lots of poison ivy,” says Koon. “It is a beautiful glossy green in summer and yellowish gold and crimson in the fall. There are a few paths that can’t be walked in the summer because of the abundant poison ivy. But in the winter, after a snow fall, you’d think you were in Siberia.”
Koon always works to create year-round visual interest in his woodland. “I get excited by each element and how it contributes to the overall experience,” he says. “A recent revelation was opening up the flowering dogwoods, which I never really saw until I cleared out that portion of the property.”
The digging of a koi pond was in keeping with the couple’s urge to try new things and enjoy the fun of unexpected discoveries. The pond was a major effort, shoveling and cutting through a deep tangle of roots and vines. About a foot below the surface, Koon, Cosgrove, and Browning came upon a layer of pure white sand. Rather than cart it away, they deposited it along the edge of the pond, creating their own private beach. “On a hot summer day, we’d set up beach umbrellas, dig our toes in the sand, and drink cocktails,” says Koon.
As is the case with all koi ponds on Nantucket, this one is a magnet for blue herons. Even with a six-foot depth, it is a favorite fast food stop for the huge wading birds. Other uninvited poolside guests include deer, an issue for many island gardeners.
For years, the deer would forage at Moor’s End Farm, across the street from Koon’s garden for dinner, and then amble over to the woodland for a little dessert. When the farm erected an electric fence around the property, the woodland hideaway became much more popular. Koon gazes skyward, rolls his eyes in frustrated acceptance, and says, ”What can you do? Anger won’t stop them. You have to live with it.”
While the natural look of a woodland garden might suggest a less intense need for maintenance, Koon says the opposite is true. “Over the years, trees come down, branches fall off, and suddenly shade gardens have become sun gardens,” he says. “I spend a lot of time moving things around to find the best spots for growing. I’ve transplanted some specimens two or three times. I also try to space out and extend the blooming periods with lots of perennials.”
This garden that began as a path is well known amongst Nantucketers and its fame has spread far beyond the island. It has been photographed for the Smithsonian Institution’s archives as an exemplary woodland garden. With this kind of fame, it is not unusual for people to drop off plants they think Koon might like to add to his woodland. “I have to be very diplomatic,” he says.
Koon’s labor of love begins in the early spring and extends through the summer into fall. He is up by 5:30 every morning to inspect the garden and hand-water before heading off to the hair salon.
“By mid August, I’ve had it with the garden,” says Koon. “I generally give up and enjoy it for what it has become that year. It changes every time I look at it. But it is always a thing of beauty.“
Nantucket’s Terry Pommett is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.
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