Kentford Farm – A Spectacular Spot, Especially for Gardeners
By Carolyn Battista / Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
When Bill Turner and Paul Coutu acquired Kentford Farm in Old Mystic, Conn., in 1997, their friends expressed alarm. “They said, ‘You’ve lost your minds,’” Bill recalls. After all, the 18th-century farmhouse needed a lot of work, as did assorted outbuildings. The grounds were an overgrown mess.
They had wanted an old house, but what really drew them were the grounds. Paul is a professional gardener, Bill is a gardening enthusiast, and they could see what was under the mess. Paul says, “As a gardener, I knew it was spectacular.” Bill says, “You could see the bones.” They set to work, clearing away mess and then building on the basic “bones” they had spotted. Their efforts have made Kentford a wonderful spot, with varied gardens, a pond and waterfall, gentle pathways and a garden shop. People who love gardening come (on scheduled tours or by appointment) to stroll, admire, visit the shop, and learn.
For decades, Kentford was a working farm, with chickens and cows, operated by the Dunn family. Thomas Dunn was a design engineer for the Nautilus, the first submarine to go under the North Pole. His wife, Charlotte, was a serious gardener who essentially laid the framework—those “bones”—of the present gardens.
Bill and Paul are grateful for her wisdom and expertise. She didn’t just plant something pretty “for instant gratification,” Bill says. “She left room for things to grow.” The property came with pines, maples, willows and other trees that had room to thrive. “There were a lot of flowering things—dogwood, weeping cherries,” Paul says, along with flower beds and other carefully thought-out plantings. But, he says, “Nature has a way of taking over.”
When he and Bill acquired Kentford from the Dunns’ estate, fields and gardens had been left untended for about ten years, during which nature had definitely taken over. So, with help from family and friends, the two men began cutting, uprooting, burning (with a permit) and hauling. Meanwhile they planned and launched new projects. Bill recalls “coming to terms with long-term bittersweet, with large-scale root systems.” Paul tells of laying down sod for paths, then carefully edging the paths with any nice plants leftover from elsewhere. (“I never throw anything away,” he says.) They put in the pond and waterfall, augmented Charlotte’s plantings with new ones, and kept going.
Today, the gardens include a rose arbor, a Japanese sitting garden, a fern walk, a “Lookout Point” and other features. A still-used root cellar is tucked into a hillside, old farm implements lean here and there, and bursts of color abound. “When people see our variegated willows, yellow and white, they say, ‘Oh my god!’” Paul says.
Everywhere, there is something different and interesting to see. “Paul has done a good job of designing garden ‘rooms,’” Bill says. Visitors go around a bend, then find another “room”—a different garden. “Oh!” they say. “There’s more!” Paul points out the sculptures in the gardens. “We have so many. I like to blend them; you have to look closely.” Otherwise, you might miss a graceful butterfly against the bark of a tree, or a whimsical motorcyclist, made of what look like motorcycle parts.
The pond is stocked with koi, and Bill sometimes tells visitors about baby koi, born right there. Unfortunately, birds of prey don’t need to be told. A grid of fishing line above the pond has deterred a resident red-tailed hawk. “It can tell that its wingspan won’t fit,” Paul says. However, the grid has not stopped blue herons. “Herons learned to walk in,” he says. Still, somehow, koi are still there, splashes of moving color in the water.
Farm buildings have also gotten attention, beginning with the removal of six-foot black racer snakes from the farmhouse basement. A crumbling old barn has been replaced by a new one, of traditional post-and-beam construction, that houses the Kentford garden shop. The farmhouse still looks much as it did when an area merchant built it for his son, a blacksmith, in the 1720’s. However, it’s a comfortable 21st-century home, with an architecturally compatible addition. Helpers around the place include a deer-chasing Doberman named Isabella and always, a cat or two to handle mouse control (the job the snakes used to do).
Whenever they can, Bill and Paul visit Ireland and England, where they admire the beautiful gardens and also the locals’ attitude toward gardeners. “They prize gardeners!” Paul says. “Gardeners are almost kings there!”
Bill, formerly director of external and legislative affairs for AT&T and its successors, now works for Market Realty LLC in Mystic. He jokes that his “meager” golf game helped him to become a diligent gardener. Paul is a certified nurseryman and a Master Gardener. (He and others in the Master Gardener program, along with Bill, started the lovely Garden of Hygienia behind the Hygienic Building in New London.) He’s been digging and pruning since his teenage years, when he worked in a cousin’s landscaping business. After a stint in the U.S.Navy, he returned to landscaping and, in 1986, launched his own business with $1,000. “Eventually, I had 12 people working for me,” he says, “but I was becoming a manager—just into the paper thing. I love the ground.” He cut back to fewer clients.
Kentford occupies six acres, with one acre (probably to be a wildflower meadow) added only recently. Those acres require time and effort, in large amounts. “It’s steady work; it’s constant,” Paul says. “Why do we do it? It’s in the blood.” There are always chores, from washing bugs off leaves to mulching leaves to putting back, one by one, the stones that leaping deer knock off the property’s beautiful old stone walls.
Weather takes its toll. For summer droughts, “We haul out the hoses,” Paul says, adding ruefully, “All my clients have sprinkler systems that I put in.” But at Kentford, he’s so busy gardening that he has never found time to install sprinklers. Winter storms cause damage; Paul still remembers one that felled beautiful old pines. But, he says, “When a tree comes down, it creates a whole different space.” Now, where the pines once stood, “It’s a sun garden,” full of hydrangeas and dahlias.
The garden shop (open when the farm is) offers plants and garden-related items like pots, gloves, and hydroponic gardening kits. Always, Bill and Paul offer information, advice, and lively commentary. “People ask questions,” Bill says. “Paul will be ‘finishing’ a tour, and then two hours go by. It’s important to share information.” Paul says, “People come, see what’s used. They’re on a learning curve. I’m happy to help.” He advises on color (“Yellow! You’ve got to have yellow!”), mixing (annuals with perennials, flowers with vegetables), and more. “Be creative. Use parsley as an edge,” he says.
For years, local gardeners and garden clubs have visited regularly, appreciating Kentford for its beauty and variety and for its owners’ good counsel. Bill and Paul often open the gardens for Garden Conservancy fundraisers, and they’re working to attract horticultural and historical groups from around Connecticut and neighboring states. “This is for real gardening enthusiasts,” Bill says.
Kentford Farm, open for scheduled tours or by appointment, is in the community of Old Mystic, Conn. Its address is 297 New London Turnpike, Stonington, CT 06378;
phone is 860-572-7299.