Cultivating a Good Life

At home, it’s a nonstop busman’s holiday for the owners of English Gardens & Landscaping.

By Janice Randall Rohlf | Photography by Caryn B. Davis

In her diary, Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote: “Perhaps nature is our best assurance of immortality.” If so, Andrew Pighills and Michelle Becker can look forward to longer lives than most of us. Together, over 11 years, they have transformed a five-acre jungle of unforgiving land in southern Connecticut into a personal paradise of flora and fauna. As owners of English Gardens & Landscaping, based in Killingworth, the married couple enjoys a burgeoning clientele that appreciates the business owners’ “harmonious but playful” aesthetic, as Andrew calls it. At home, the two not only reap sustenance and adornment for the table from their land, but also benefit from the serenity that comes only from nature.

Foxgloves

“I’m one of those lucky people who enjoys what he does for a living,” says Andrew, and it’s clear that Michelle feels the same way.

The English gardens favored by them are unbridled celebrations of color, texture, form and fragrance. “[Our gardens] are much more floriferous than a French garden,” observes Andrew. “They’re exuberant, casual,” and, he might add, a world away from suburbia’s manicured lawns and symmetric plantings. “We understand and appreciate the tradition of ‘foundation plantings’ in the American landscape,” says Michelle, “however, we view these as backdrops or backgrounds at best. We like to extend the border and enrich it with flowering perennials and deciduous shrubs to create a more poetic, romantic, colorful cottage-garden effect.”

At Stonewell Farm, the name of their property, the modest ranch-style house they live in is almost incidental. Surrounding a woodland pond that was once strangled by overgrown bittersweet and phragmites, Andrew and Michelle have cultivated raised-row vegetable plots and robust flower gardens in soil that was mostly sand when they bought the parcel in 2006. The neighboring horse farm is a fortuitous source of fertilizer—60 tons per year, to be precise.

Andrew and Michelle grow 65% of the food they eat. Asparagus, potatoes, corn, beans, cabbages and other vegetables flourish alongside small orchards of nectarines, cherries, plums, apples, pears, peaches and quince. They have free-roaming chickens for eggs, and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Notable among the bevy of ducks, Caillou, a Muscovy breed, swoops among the treetops and acts as the de facto “mother hen” for the clan of feathered friends.

Planted to produce color in three seasons, the gardens abound in delicate heritage roses and vibrant peonies. Among dozens of other specimens, there is azalea, spirea, spider plant and agastache (hummingbird mint). Bright orange nasturtiums complement cool blue hydrangeas, and fragrant, pink damask roses perfume the air. Michelle has a particular fondness for weigela, including cultivars of the shrub that are chartreuse and one that has bronze-colored foliage. Then there’s ruby spice clethra, sedum, astilbe, foxgloves and columbine. “We actively encourage plants that self-sow in our own gardens,” explains Michelle, “but this is not always practical in in our clients’ gardens because of the mulch.”

Flaunting color, texture, form and fragrance, English gardens celebrate nature.

More than plant matter goes into a garden designed by Andrew and Michelle. Andrew, who grew up on a farm in Yorkshire, England, holds a certificate in horticulture with the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain, and he is also certified as a Dry Stone Walling Instructor. In England, he mainly did stonework and here he conducts stone wall building workshops twice a year. Although concrete and engineered stone are often less expensive than natural stone, Andrew and Michelle don’t cozy up to its “commercial look.”

“We prefer to incorporate natural stone into our garden designs,” says Michelle, who has a bachelor’s in liberal arts with a concentration in fine art. “Natural stone is more forgiving. One can plant creeping, draping plants into the interstices of a stone wall to create a softer, natural effect.” She believes her years of teaching, drawing and living in France, England and Italy have had a significant influence on her approach to garden design.

The owners and their guests enjoy dining al fresco on the European-inspired patio.

A natural stone pizza oven that took the couple “three years of spare-time work” to build has a place of honor on their European-inspired patio. Here’s where you’ll often find Michelle and Andrew at sunset, perhaps enjoying a black currant aperitif, zucchini pizza and banana ice cream, all made from scratch. It is a well-deserved respite at the end of a long day.

With gardens of this size, one would think the maintenance would be huge, but with judicious use of ground cover plants and mulch to keep down the weeds, plantings to encourage beneficial insects, and wild birds to control unwanted fauna, the couple’s time can be concentrated on pruning and dead heading to extend and augment the flora.

“Don’t be content with what is,” says Andrew, speaking for gardeners and non-gardeners alike. “Always be thinking what if.”

Allium

In their spare time, over three years, Andrew and Michelle built a pizza oven stone by stone.

Michelle Becker and Andrew Pighills

Grassy paths winding among the gardens are often populated with ducks.

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