Leaning back in a chair with coffee cup in hand, Alejandro Saralegui looks right at home in the Madoo Conservancy’s circa-1740 barn. He explains the Sagaponack estate of the late artist and writer Robert Dash, which is made up of not just the barn but also between 15 and 20 individual gardens, feels like home because it has all the same problems that every fervent gardener has at his or her own home.
“We’re not fully fenced in. The irrigation breaks down. We don’t necessarily have box blight, but we’re concerned with it,” says Saralegui, the Madoo Conservancy’s executive director. “We have weeds. We allow dandelions in the spring because they are a really good source of early nectar for the bees. We’ve had overgrown privet. It’s like a two-acre home.”
But when the garden gates open on May 11, which happens to also be National Public Gardens Day, the Madoo Conservancy will have polished up all the pieces and readied its new features for patrons. The 2018 season is the first full season that members of the public will be able to visit Madoo free of charge, thanks to a five-year grant from the Charlotte Moss and Barry Friedberg Family Foundation. Saralegui called the grant, which came in August 2017, a “game changer” for the conservancy.
“You could tell immediately there were more people in the garden the minute that word got out,” he said. “Everyone thinks that everyone’s wealthy in the Hamptons, but ten bucks a person starts adding up.”
The boost from the foundation allowed the conservancy to stay open through Columbus Day last year instead of closing in mid-September. That’s going to be a regular occurrence now.
“We’re working on a concept that Madoo doesn’t close anymore per se,” Saralegui says. “It used to have a very open-and-shut feeling. We’re trying to increase programming, the availability of this garden. Easy things that we can do for our community, and adding on things that expand our mission, that sort of idea that Madoo is going to be much more of a center for the community. In creativity, horticulture and learning, we can start making a difference.
The gardens at Madoo are always changing — “not just through the work we do, but nature is changing it all the time,” Saralegui says.
Madoo’s longtime resident, Dash, died in 2013. During his life, Dash exhibited his work, which was strongly influenced by the abstract expressionists, in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands in addition to many major American art galleries. The Madoo Conservancy itself has often been called an “encyclopedia of garden design,” drawing influence from garden styles around the world.
Newly open to the public this year is Dash’s own “secret garden,” in an outdoor alcove where he would often have coffee, a space that was fenced-in for his Norwich terrier, Barnsley. The “secret garden” has been restored and partly reimagined as well. Its fountain has been returned to function, its whimsical topiaries reproduced, and its major plantings remain, and those have been supplemented with exotic plants including bananas, abutilon and Australian tree ferns.
“It’s a really dramatic space,” Saralegui said. “It was Bob’s lair. He would just make his coffee and head out there with Barnsley. That was his morning thinking moment, and then he’d come back in, read the paper, start writing, read books.”
Madoo has also joined the Hamptons Arts Network (HAN), a group of 19 arts and cultural nonprofit organizations on the South Fork that partnered together to strengthen their collective missions. Through HAN, relationships have bloomed in the gardens. Film screenings with the Hamptons International Film Festival and concerts with the Bridgehampton Chamber Musical Festival are planned.
“That’s a really great, really important development for the area culturally,” Saralegui says. “We’ve been all of these little fiefdoms, but we’re essentially a new generation. Before, the people who started these gardens or these museums were very competitive about their donor base and these grants, and they all thought we were against each other, rather than creating a community that enhances each other’s offerings.”
Dig in the garden for details, and you’ll find sweet peas germinated from seeds that came from England. (“They seem to be growing so much better than other seeds. Last year they didn’t do nearly as well,” Saralegui says.) And you’ll find a new-to-Madoo “brick rug” donated by former East End resident and artist Margaret Kerr, whose 20-foot by 3-foot installation of intricately cut-and-patterned brick now adorns a walkway in the Sunken Terrace.
The late architect Luis Barragan once said, “A garden must combine the poetic and the mysterious with a feeling of serenity and joy.” He may or may not have been talking about Madoo.
“It’s a good escape. There’s a big trend toward exhibitions and this and that in the garden, and studies have shown that people actually like to go to a garden for the Zen atmosphere,” Saralegui says. “They want to get away from their world and be in nature. That’s one of the things about Madoo. It’s really a slice of old Sagaponack and we’re working very hard to keep that. You still see farmland here, you see weeds, plants that your grandmother may have grown alongside something that was hybridized in the past two years. That’s our little world.”
Three Ways to Bring Madoo Home
It’s not uncommon to walk away from a visit to the Madoo Conservancy feeling inspired to freshen up your own garden. Here are three ways you can adapt the gardens at Madoo to your home.
1. Give your garden a pop of color with a brightly-colored structure such as a gazebo. A focal point of the Madoo Conservancy is the lavender gazebo set among the plantings. A benefit of an installation painted such a hue — even if it’s not something as large as a gazebo — is that there is still color in the garden even when flowers aren’t in bloom. “Everyone’s so accustomed to dark green or white in the garden,” says Alejandro Saralegui, the organization’s executive director. “You come to a place like Madoo and you see a lot of color. It’s happy, it’s exciting. Just pick a color and go for it. If you don’t like it, change it.”
2. Plant an ornamental vegetable garden to combine form, function and style. Saralegui describes the one at Madoo as having a strong French influence, known as a potagergarden. Instead of crops in rows, an ornamental vegetable garden starts with a tall, main focal point, such as a raised container overflowing with a particular edible, surrounded by other plants in thoughtful patterns and contrasting colors.
3. Madoo’s quincunx gardens draw their style from ancient Roman gardens, and are easy to replicate at home, Saralegui says. The shape of a quincunx garden is a square with one primary plant in each corner and the same one in the center. At Madoo, these are tall yews. They are connected by lower hedges around the perimeter and are filled-in in the center with a variety of flowers and other plantings. The quincunx gardens at Madoo each measure 20 feet square, but at home, they can also be done