Gardens by the Sea beckon from the borough

A backyard fountain on Main Street with a view of Little Narragansett Bay is part of the Stonington Garden Club's garden tour.
A backyard fountain on Main Street with a view of Little Narragansett Bay is part of the Stonington Garden Club's garden tour. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

In Stonington borough, where sidewalk-bordered streets are so thin in some places that drivers pull to the side to let others pass, the old adage stands true that good fences make good neighbors, and especially good gardens.

At no better time is this displayed than every third year when, on a weekend in June, a small selection of gardens in the borough opens their gates wide and welcome residents and visitors from all across the Northeast for the Gardens by the Sea tour. This year's tour takes place Friday and Saturday, June 13 and 14.

Gardens by the Sea serves as a fundraiser for the Stonington Garden Club. For each tour, a committee of garden club members visit the gardens of their neighbors and select new gardens to place on the tour. Each tour usually brings close to 3,000 visitors to the borough.

"June is a good month because there are a lot of things in bloom," says Candice Stanford, a member of the Stonington Garden Club. Stanford said visitors can expect to see roses, hydrangeas, irises and peonies in the gardens, in addition to unique plants and planting patterns.

"Every year we try to have a variety (of gardens) so every visitor can relate to their own needs," says the tour's co-chair Deborah Kotchen. "We try to have something new and different."

Visitors this year will be able to see 10 different gardens, seven of which are normally hidden from view behind the walls and fences that surround private homes. The tour also will feature a market, expanded from years past, which will be held under a tent at Wadawanuck Square. Items up for sale will include gardening gadgets, home accessories, handmade jewelry and other finds fit for a high-end tag sale. Visitors also may drop by a tea tent in one of the gardens, which will offer complimentary tea and homemade cookies.

The tour

The garden tour begins across the street from the square at a marigold-yellow colonial. Here, a thick carpet of grass is edged by gerbera daisies, lily of the valley, and a doublefile viburnum tree whose branches of layered white flowers and green leaves reach in all directions with geometric grace.

"This garden is a strong garden because the plants are integrated well in terms of texture and color," says Kotchen. "There's also a wide variety."

Visitors will continue down Main Street past colorful, column-laden 18th- and 19th-century homes. On the side of a tall brick house, the entrance to another stop on the tour begins in a deeply shaded plot of geraniums, hostas and spirea bushes before leading to the back of the house, which opens into a sunny, hourglass-shaped space with a fountain at its center. Looking to the end of the yard, visitors can view the slow rolling tides of Little Narragansett Bay and long stretches of sandy beach on the nearby Rhode Island shore.

In many of the hidden yards of the borough, gardening is a neighborly effort, said the owner of the home, whose name was withheld per garden club policy.

"Having great neighbors with (great) plants is not something you can plan for," she says, gesturing to the tall rhododendron peaking over a wooden fence from her neighbor's yard to the right side of the house. She has even made efforts to cut back overgrowth of wall-climbing plants, revealing not only hidden details in a brick wall, but also creating a window into the garden of her neighbors.

Given that the borough is so small, each garden is located close to the shopping and dining area on Water Street, which, when filled with a flood of visitors, almost triples the borough's population.

"It feels like walking around in New York City," Stanford says. "I think (visitors) enjoy walking around the town."

Kotchen agrees, adding that while the gardens are the main attraction, the tour gives visitors an excuse to "have a day in Stonington, see the boats in the harbor and have lunch" at one of the many small cafes and lunch spots that line Water Street.

"Stonington has changed a lot in the past 50 years," says Stanford, who grew up in the borough. "It was just a fishing village. It was not very fashionable."

The area has become so picture perfect, it has served as the backdrop for major motion pictures, notably "Mystic Pizza" with Julia Roberts and "Hope Springs" with Meryl Streep. Both movies had scenes shot at what Kotchen called one of the most picturesque gardens in the borough, which also happens to be a stop on the Gardens by the Sea tour.

Set on top of a small hill, the large white house with its wide sea-facing windows overlooks a panoramic view of Long Island Sound. While this garden focuses less on its plantings and more on its views, it is a rarity among the other tour gardens in that it is not walled in or kept hidden behind fences.

"It doesn't get much better," Kotchen says.

Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story, the day-of-tour ticket price was reported incorrectly as $25. Tickets purchased on the day of the tour actually will cost $35.

This garden with a view will be part of the Stonington Garden Club's annual garden tours.
This garden with a view will be part of the Stonington Garden Club's annual garden tours. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
A backyard of poppies on Church Street. The house was a setting for the movies
A backyard of poppies on Church Street. The house was a setting for the movies "Mystic Pizza" and "Hope Springs." Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

If you go

What: Gardens by the Sea tour

When: Friday and Saturday, June 13 and 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Stonington borough

Tickets: $30 before the tour or $35 on the day of the tour; tickets available online at www.stoningtongardenclub.com or at Toms News on Water Street and Bank Square Books in Mystic.

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