I hadn’t been to Robert Jakob and David White’s garden since it was last on the Landscape Pleasures tour in 1997. I know I had felt then that it was probably my favorite garden on the East End because it seemed so intensely personal and idiosyncratic.
I remembered seeing a David Austen apricot-colored rose called Graham Thomas which had quickly grown to the size of a small tree. I added one to my garden where it never grew to more than a spindly shrub.
This time on entering the garden, I realized that since that first visit most of the low foliage in the garden had become vegetables. The property which was purchased over 25 years ago started out with a small spring garden at the entrance which still exists. The two owners ( Robert Jakob, an artist who has lived full time at the house since 1990 and David White, the longtime curator for Robert Rauschenberg) didn’t really plan a garden, they just cleared little plots one at a time and planted very romantic flowers. Cleome, delphinium, and climbing roses covered the rear of the small white cinderblock house in blowzy beauty. There was no structure to speak of. The two arrived every Friday night at the property and gardened by flashlight and daylight until Sunday arrived. Foxglove, coreopsis and daisies poured down the slope to a locust grove which was soon blown over in a hurricane. When the newly cleared area revealed itself, the garden began to take on structure and the cinderblock was changed into the present-day shingled house.
Now a series of latticed areas define mixed flower and vegetable beds behind the house. A melange of spring bulbs, perennials and annuals resides next to the house, and the remains of the original garden can still be seen at the entrance. A vine-covered pergola provides a shady seat from which to view the spring flowers and magnolias. However, the grapes and Mirabelle plums from a nearby tree never have a chance to ripen to human taste because they suit that of the neighborhood’s raccoons so well.
Robert and David learned to garden by doing. Although Robert had an uncle who designed and wrote about public and private gardens, he had little practical experience with growing things. Raised in Germany, he was surrounded by agriculture which gave him some ideas of how to proceed when he started to grow vegetables. He knew he wanted to grow them without pesticides. He and David love to cook things straight from the garden, so they grow beets, chicory, arugula, leeks, beans and tomatoes. He intersperses herbs both edible and decorative throughout the garden as well. When asked about the typical Hamptons vegetable abundance, Robert said they don’t plant zucchini or many of the other summer vegetables that seem to get out of control in these parts. They grow carrots in raised beds and rhubarb and leeks as decorative corners in their mixed beds. There are clematis ranging over pole beans and Rosa alba semiplana (the White Rose of York) alongside of cardoons. Heavy mulching takes care of the watering problems of mid-summer with the grassy areas browning out naturally. The artichokes and other tender plants will survive the winter, Robert says, if covered with leaves and wood ash to protect them from snails. Rabbits, voles, and pheasants are a different matter, however. The deer have been discouraged by the trellises surrounding the different garden areas.
Robert is developing a new garden on the eastern side of the house which consists mainly of grey-green foliaged plants. A double hornbeam hedge leads to this area which didn’t have naturally rich soil. Here are an assortment of species: tulips, irises, and oriental poppies, plus a perennial salvia “Dear Anya” which is slightly iridescent. Surrounding the grey-leafed plants are bushes of edible berries (mainly currants and raspberries.) The passion for organic horticulture has even extended to the many boxwoods dotted throughout the garden. When they are attacked by mites, trimming down provides them with new healthy growth. Circling back to the main area behind the house, one passes under a canopy made up of five rows of five hornbeams. The resulting tiny forest becomes a folly within the larger forest surrounding the garden.
Robert’s drawings have an affinity with the garden’s natural forms. He finds that gardening and art take a similar sort of concentration. David’s comment that putting tulips in a pot is akin to having put a frame around them sums up the attitude these two art-smart gardeners have toward their garden.