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Bunny Williams on How to Train Your Garden

The Renowned Interior Designer Shares Decades of Knowledge, Necessities, and Lessons Learned

BY // 04.15.24
photography Annie Schlechter

The heartfelt new book, Bunny Williams: Life in the Garden (Rizzoli, $60) has been 40 years in the making. That’s how long the renowned interior designer has spent cultivating her gardens at the 19th century house in the Connecticut Berkshires she shares with her husband, antiques dealer John Rosselli. The 12-acre estate features sunken, parterre, woodland, and vegetable gardens, along with a mature apple orchard. There are also a working greenhouse and aviary, along with a year-round conservatory filled with plants.

Williams designed these remarkable gardens, doing much of the digging and planting herself. Five years ago, she enlisted expert help from head gardener Robert Reimer and his wife, Tricia Van Oers, who nurtures the vegetable and cutting gardens. It wasn’t until photographer Annie Schlechter photographed the grounds for Veranda magazine that Williams decided to do a book about the gardens.

“When I saw all her beautiful images, I realized how the property had matured after years of planning and hard work,” she says. “Annie’s eye brought the gardens to life for me.” Williams’ selfpenned stories open each chapter, and she also gives advice on planting, flower arranging, decorating, and entertaining.

Bunny Williams riffs on pruning tools, gardening books, bugs, and how to start your own garden.

bunny williams house book garden 059 LifeInTheGarden_p102-103 (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
The parterre was inspired by a design by English gardener Rosemary Verey. The conservatory, at right. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

Pictures Worth 1,000 Words

This was quite an emotional book for me, because I bought this house 40 years ago when there was no garden. I didn’t have much money, and I started gardening in the most plebeian way with two perennial borders. So, this has been a journey over many years. It was very moving to sit back and look at these pictures. My nephew-inlaw wrote a highly personal essay about it for the book; the house and the garden have become a refuge for my family.

 

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The Best Gardening School

When I bought the house and started gardening, I realized I just didn’t know anything. I went with a friend to England to look at all the classic gardens. We visited Sissinghurst, which was like the Holy Grail. Then we went to Italy to see Gamberaia. When I realized that you have to see gardens to learn how to garden, it was monumental.

bunny williams house book garden 058 LifeInTheGarden_p060-61 (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
Towering yew topiaries frame the house. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

The Four Seasons of Gardening

Many garden books suffer for the fact that they only have two sets of shots: one taken in spring and another in late summer. All the individual flower photographs in my book are taken by my nephew, who lives across the street in our guest house. He comes over and takes pictures of the flowers every morning in different seasons when they are perfect. A garden is never the same every month, and luckily photographer Annie [Schlechter] was not so far away. There were times when I said, “The apple trees are in perfect bloom,” and she flew over with her camera. There wasn’t a list of things to shoot; she shot whatever caught her eye.

 

Bunny Williams’ Lightbulb Moment

Gardens, like interiors, must have structure — you need a room, you need a wall, you need a hall to get from one place to another. When I first started gardening, a light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to create spaces, and I have to create the connections to them.’ The great gardens of the world are a combination of a great plan and great plantsmen. Somebody can be an amazing gardener, but maybe they’re not a good designer. Often a great designer isn’t the best gardener.

 

On Dealing With Bugs…

Bugs, bugs, bugs. You have these plants that you care about and they’re growing and thriving, then you go out and there are holes in the leaves from slugs. It’s my least favorite part of gardening. We try to be an organic garden, and it’s boring to deal with bugs, but, boy, do you have to.

Bunny Williams' vegetable garden.
Bunny Williams’ vegetable garden.

Bunny Williams on Gardening Lessons Learned

One of the stories I always tell is that when I started my woodland garden I thought, ‘Oh, I can grow anything here.’ Mountain laurel grows well in Connecticut, but it doesn’t grow where I live because I’m on lime deposits, and mountain laurel hates lime. I must have planted 40 mountain laurels, and all of them died. So, I learned to test my soil, see what it needs — you know, get to the basics. Every garden book tells you that, but you get impatient; you don’t do it.

 

Sofas Don’t Sprout Weeds

When my design clients say, “Oh, I want a garden!” I ask, “Are you sure?” You can dust and vacuum your living room one day a week, and even if you don’t get to it, it’s okay. The sofa doesn’t grow; the rug doesn’t get mildew, doesn’t have to be mowed. The garden is a living thing that never stops. You’ve got to be prepared for that, because it can get away from you easily.

bunny williams house book garden 271 2274_V_BW_SunkenGarden_010 (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
View from the sunken garden into the birdhouse village (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

Bunny Williams’ Go-To Gardener 

I’m still a weekend gardener — I don’t do this garden by myself. I’m very lucky to have a head gardener, Robert Reimer, and his wife, Tricia Van Oers, who does the vegetable garden. When I’m at the house, I walk through the whole garden. In the mornings, I’m in the vegetable garden working, and it’s where the greenhouse is. I’m cutting flowers and picking vegetables. It’s enjoyable work, getting out the twine and tying up the tomatoes and cutting the flowers and repotting things. In the hottest part of the afternoon, the sunken garden is too hot, so the woodland garden is where you want to be; the birdhouse village has a lot of shade. So, if I’m taking a walk with the dogs late in the afternoon, that’s where I might be. My husband loves his fish, so in the evenings we might sit by the koi pond with a glass of wine in the sunken garden.

 

Bunny Williams’ Gardening Necessities

Chairs and benches. You’ve got to have places to sit down everywhere in your garden. You need a place to relax and really enjoy it.

bunny williams house book garden 065 LifeInTheGarden_p328 (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
Bunny Williams’ garden shed. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

Bunny Williams Gardening Tools to Live By

My Felco pruners are the most solid. I have bought more beautifully made pruners, but they’re not as tough, and they don’t stand up. Another important tool to have is a broadfork to aerate your soil. Right now, my whole vegetable garden is covered with mulch. Once the mulch comes up, you don’t want to till the soil because it breaks it up with all the worms and things you need. So just aerate it.

I love handmade tools and have a collection. Wilcox All-Pro Tools and Hudson Grace have some beautiful ones. I started this event in Falls Village called Trade Secrets. It’s a garden tour, and there are always people there selling plants and ornaments, and it’s where I sometimes buy beautiful old tools. Beautiful handmade ones take a lot of care, because they’re not stainless steel and they have wooden handles, so they’re not practical for everyday use.

 

bunny williams house book garden 062 LifeInTheGarden_p246-247 (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
The flower arranging room in the main house. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

What Should Be on a Gardener’s Shelf? 

From a design standpoint, Russell Page’s gardening book (The Education of a Gardener, 1962) is amazing because it really talks about design. I still love to read Vita Sackville-West and Rosemary Verey and Christopher Lloyd and the English gardeners, because my gardens are more like theirs. If you have an arid climate like Texas, you should be reading Piet Oudolf and the people who are doing more native dry gardens.

 

How to Get Started Gardening, According to Bunny Williams

Visit the botanical gardens closest to you to see what grows, to see how they deal with your climate, your soils. Then there’s The Garden Conservancy. If you become a member, you can see what private gardens are open to the public on certain days in your state. It’s so important to see what’s growing where you live.

bunny williams house book garden 276 LifeInTheGarden_BookCover_3D (Photo by Annie Schlechter)
“Life in the Garden,” a new book by Bunny Williams. (Photo by Annie Schlechter)

Bunny Williams’ soapbox.

I’m obsessed with water conservation, because although I might not have quite the water situation that Texas does, we’re going to have it; the whole world’s going to have it. And we’ve turned a lot more of my property into fields, and I’ve reduced the amount of lawn to absolutely the minimum. The whole birdhouse village is all a native grass. I’ve introduced more native things in the woodland garden. Think about your soil; make sure it can hold moisture but still have drainage. And think about what plants tolerate less water. Water in the morning or evening for less waste. It’s hard in an urban area, because if you’re the one who gets rid of your green lawn, everybody’s going to scream. Community groups should get together and sit down and have this conversation.

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