Opening the Garden Gate

A tour of Bridge Gardens. Photo courtesy of Peconic Land Trust
A tour of Bridge Gardens. Photo courtesy of Peconic Land Trust

By Michelle Trauring

Three years ago, the directors of LongHouse Reserve, Bridge Gardens and Madoo Conservancy decided it was time to join forces. They would participate in National Public Gardens Day, opening their properties for a free public group tour.

They decided not to cap the registration.

They quickly learned their lesson.

Nearly 100 people descended upon the three gardens, moving together from one to the next. For LongHouse Reserve and Bridge Gardens, it was manageable, as each garden has 16 and 5 acres to play with, respectively.

But LongHouse horticulturalist Alex Feleppa said he’s still not entirely sure how executive director Alejandro Saralegui managed at Madoo.

To be perfectly frank, Mr. Saralegui isn’t particularly sure, either.

“It was a madhouse,” Mr. Saralegui laughed, noting the garden is just 2 acres. “But what was amazing was, we asked them, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve been here before,’ and out of all those people, about two raised their hands. And that is what this day is all about.”

Founded in 2008 — and held the Friday preceding Mother’s Day, as per tradition —National Public Gardens Day seeks to raise awareness of the role local public gardens play in their communities, the importance of environmental responsibility and, for some, that they even exist.

“People are still learning about these three places. Even when I was living in the city as a student at the New York Botanical Garden, that’s when I first learned about LongHouse,” said Mr. Feleppa. “I had no idea we had all these amazing public gardens, and I’m from Amagansett! When I moved home, that’s why I was passionate about trying to figure out how to get on board with LongHouse and share it.”

Over the last three years, Mr. Feleppa has watched LongHouse Reserve grow and evolve, just as it has since the grounds opened to the public in 1992. However, its founder, Jack Lenor Larsen, has lived on the property for almost twice as long, playing with the land as he pleased.

In addition to the beloved spaces for which LongHouse is known — including the azalea-filled Red Garden, the flowering pink cherry trees next to Peter’s Pond, and the garden’s annual bulb displays, all of which will be in bloom this weekend — the reserve is introducing two new elements: a moss garden called “The Haven,” and an apple arbor featuring six red delicious trees growing in the shape of a tunnel, adjacent to Yoko Ono’s oversized chess set, “Play It By Trust.”

“As everything is with LongHouse, it’s all sort of an experiment. It’s a case study in living outside the box,” he said. “We just have fun with it.”

At Bridge Gardens, visitors will catch the tail end of the daffodils, summer snowflake and lilacs, according to garden manager Rick Bogusch, who will also point to what’s coming up next: the herb and vegetable garden, roses, poppies, foxgloves and ornamental onions.

“Sometimes, visiting a garden is more than the sum of its parts, more than just what happens to be in bloom at the particular time. It’s the overall feel of the garden, how it’s put together, how it’s composed —j ust the landscape itself, rather than the individual plants,” he said. “What strikes me about Bridge Gardens is the amount of topography that it has, the elevation that it has, and its majestic trees. It’s about serenity here. There’s a magic to the site that I think people sense intuitively.”

A walk through LongHouse Reserve reveals the garden as a true labor of love and can transform people, Mr. Feleppa said. And for a few hours on Friday, “they can come and live the dream” at each of the three properties, he said.

“We want to educate and excite and empower people,” he said. “For us, Jack turns 90 this year. It’s really amazing all that he’s been able to achieve from his time as a weaver and textile designer to creating this place and seeing how it’s evolved into such a magnificent place for the East End. For Rick, the organic gardening he’s doing at Bridge is great, and for Alejandro at Madoo, he’s keeping Bob Dash’s spirit and vision alive.”

The tour at Madoo will start at the summer house and studio, which is currently under a completely restoration. It is where the garden’s founder, the late artist Robert Dash, lived and worked for decades when he wasn’t walking through the rambling property that reflects what was his whimsical personality.

“You see trees that have been trained into really wonderful shapes. You see trees that are completely natural. You see trees planted at an angle just for fun, to make them look old from the get go. That’s totally Bob,” Mr. Saralegui said. “Some people will look at it and say, ‘That’s a shame that tree’s not straight.’ And you’re like, ‘No, that’s the whole point.’”

Each season gives the garden a different feel and, by next month, the property will be an explosion of color, he said. For now, visitors can see the tail end of the spring bulbs, hellebores, the renovated Asian pond garden and the exhibition of Mr. Dash’s paintings on view in the winter house and studio.

“I think Bob would be really proud of the garden. I think he would see his legacy. I think he would see people, very happy, appreciating his legacy,” Mr. Saralegui said. “It’s really a teaching moment. Bob called it a museum of garden design, or encyclopedia. He liked the idea it was this very approachable garden. Irascible and difficult and all those words could be used to describe Madoo, but also Bob. Regular visitors to the garden always have fond memories of Bob and [his dog] Barnsley at the gate, and he enjoyed it. He may have complained about it, but he enjoyed it.”

The gardens have a way of inspiring and invigorating the senses, Mr. Bogusch said, and provide recreation in the truest sense of the word: re-creation. People feel renewed and refreshed after visiting, he said, and outside of bringing new feet in, it brings all three gardens together.

“It’s great to be working with Rick and [LongHouse executive director] Matko [Tomicic] and Alex on this,” Mr. Saralegui said. “Our founders weren’t necessarily great friends — that’s the truth of the matter. But we’re all really good friends. It’s all about supporting the environment and gardens on the East End. And I’m really proud that we’re working together.”

As part of National Public Gardens Day, three East End fixtures—Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton, LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton and The Madoo Conservancy in Sagaponack—will be free and open to the public on Friday, May 12. The guided tours have sold out, but visitors are welcome to lead themselves through the gardens. For more information, visit