Hello LDV readers, Stefanie Scheer Young here with an installment of Northeast Notebook.
Loi Thai had an unusual problem. Thai is an interior and garden designer, gifted with not only exquisite taste but also an extraordinary green thumb. With considerable care, over 17 years, he nurtured two myrtle topiaries to an astounding eight feet in height. But now a buyer had made Thai and his partner Tom Troeschel an offer they could not refuse for their lovingly cared for Silver Spring, Maryland home and they were excited about plans to downsize to a smaller place in historic Annapolis. But what to do about the larger than life plants Thai had nurtured for so long?
Thai and Troeschel had simplified and enhanced their Cotswold Cottage style home, inside and out, in Thai’s signature calm, ethereal palette. Though the house is small in footprint, Thai was able to create interior spaces that felt open, airy, and light-filled. For many years Thai operated a beloved Bethesda, Maryland shop “Tone on Tone” that carried Swedish and other continental antiques and accessories, carefully selected on Troeschel’s and his buying trips to Europe. (He closed the store in December of 2018 to focus full-time on design work.) With neutral colored upholstery, a palate of white and gray with lots of green accents (inspired by the garden), as well as a mix of Swedish painted antique furniture and garden-inspired collections, Thai’s and Troeschel’s home was infused with the same soothing, fresh aesthetic they had cultivated for the store. The setting allowed the favorite objects they had collected over the years to shine.
Although his style is spare, being a former dealer Thai can’t help but be a collector. He is a respected authority on Swedish painted furniture and his shop inventory had graced magazines from Architectural Digest to Veranda. One way he showcases collections in his interiors, while maintaining visual serenity, is by grouping like objects, whether it is massing antique botanical and bird prints, 19th century creamware, English Victorian saltglaze pottery with garden motifs, ironstone china or, of course, topiaries. There is something about the rich groupings that enhances and elevates the individual objects.
Thai’s signature look combines the sophistication of antiques with livable furnishings, against the backdrop of a neutral palette. He prides himself on his ability to combine pedigreed pieces with the everyday, creating spaces that are unique and approachable.
Built in 1926 the house was designed by the Washington DC architectural firm of Rodier & Kundzin (the firm’s projects included Arlington National Cemetery’s street system, Longworth House office building and the Federal Courts Building). It was the second home built in the historic Woodside Park neighborhood of Silver Spring. Beyond simply restoring the house’s storybook charm a large part of the allure of the home was the way Thai created a small compound on the grounds. He converted a garage to a design office and added another small building purpose-built to be the perfect potting shed. The enchanting parterre garden shown in the original sketch had long ago been replaced by a flagstone terrace. As the main house is just 1600 square feet, this walled terrace area functions as an additional outdoor room.
In a way the charming compound, on a significantly smaller scale, paid tribute to the home of a gardener Thai much admired, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. Oak Spring, the Mellon family home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its numerous architecturally sympathetic outbuildings achieved the feeling of a French hamlet. While Thai’s gardening interests are wide and varied, Thai, like Mellon, is best known for the tremendous success he has had with topiaries. As authors Linda Jane Holden, Thomas Lloyd and Bryan Huffman explain in their book “Garden Secrets of Bunny Mellon” trees were Mellon’s first horticultural love. She grew up in Princeton, New Jersey where her father transplanted a string of old apple tress to line the driveway to their home “Albemarle” and as a young girl she said she loved their “stability and peace.” When the gardener at George Washington’s Mount Vernon shared a clipping from a myrtle tree with her, Mellon became interested in, and ultimately highly successful at, growing topiary standards, which she referred to as “little herb trees.” Standards are shrub-like plants trained to grow as a small tree with a straight stem. Shoots are pruned or pinched back, leaving a top knot of growth. For Mellon her little herb trees became an art form, she observed, “A pinched leaf of rosemary, thyme, or santolina will bring the scent of a country garden into any room.”
With similar patience and attention Thai, like Mellon a self-taught gardener, found he had a particular affinity for and skill with topiaries. Given the chance Thai couldn’t resist creating the ideal potting shed to nurture his collection of myrtle “topes.” He maximized utility incorporating a skylight, recirculating air and running water. Thai added elegant touches, consistent with the style he used in decorating his home, a neutral, calming white palette combined with natural materials, displaying a charming collection of old terra cotta pots and silhouetting welcome pops of green. The layout allowed him to easily move plants outdoors, when weather allowed, into the courtyard created by the assembled structures and outdoor plantings.
With the imminent move, giving up a dedicated plant house and downsizing would be a challenge for Thai, particularly in light of the size of the two largest topiaries. Thai had originally purchased these plants on a pilgrimage to visit famed nurseryman Allen C. Haskell. Haskell was a horticultural prodigy with an artist’s eye who grew up and spent his entire life in New Bedford, MA, ultimately assembling and curating a six acre property that was a rare plant filled garden, nursery and urban oasis. Haskell became an epic figure in American gardening, sought after for advice and inspiration and known as the grandfather of topiaries in this country. (Haskell died in 2004 and the former nursery has become a public garden operated by The Trustees, a group dedicated to preserving properties of exceptional scenic, historic and ecological value in Massachusetts.)
If Thai couldn’t bring the two eight foot tall topes along they really deserved a fitting home. Thai made a call to a friend connected to Oak Spring Foundation and he received some welcome news, the Foundation would be happy to adopt the two oversized plants and continue to nurture them in the ample greenhouses Bunny Mellon created for just such purposes.
Today Oak Spring Garden Foundation, housed at the Mellon’s former Upperville, VA estate, and funded by an endowment from Bunny Mellon (who passed away in 2014 at age 103), functions as a center of study inspired by Mellon’s love of plants. The Foundation aims to use the home, garden and estate for public benefit in supporting programs related to plants, gardens and landscapes, and especially for programs centered around the Library and its collections. Oak Spring Garden Library contains over 19,000 objects, including rare books, manuscripts, and works of art dating back to the 14th century. The collection mainly encompasses works relating to horticulture, landscape design, botany, natural history and voyages of exploration. There are also components relating to architecture, decorative arts, and classical literature.
The Foundation hosts residency programs for scholars and artists as well as horticultural interns. While not open to the public, Oak Spring holds symposiums and workshops and welcomes researchers. The goal is to capture the essence of Bunny Mellon’s gardening life.
Oak Spring continues to this day to honor Mellon’s sensibilities and spirit. The goal of the Foundation is to inspire public engagement and scholarship about the history and future of plants, including the culture of gardens and landscapes and the importance of plants for people.
The day had arrived to make the journey to Oak Spring. Thai and Troeschel removed the seats from their minivan to make room and carefully loaded the two plants for the sixty mile drive to Upperville. Thai was able to hand the two eight foot myrtles, now each trimmed to one single sphere that cleared his head, to skilled Oak Spring head gardener Todd Lloyd. Lloyd, having worked at Oak Spring since the 1980s knew Mellon well and could not be a better custodian. Of course Thai still maintains an extensive collection of topes and is happy to pass on the guidance he received from master plantsmen like Haskell and educate and encourage others in the joy of cultivating his favorite plant.
Thai advises that topiaries require a lot of light, so a sunny window, facing south or west is ideal. It is important to keep the plants away from radiators and remember never to let them dry out, make yourself a watering schedule if it helps you. Kept inside the plant will inevitably attract insects so it is best to treat the topiary with Neem Oil, an organic treatment sourced from Neem trees. Saturate the surface of the leaves repeatedly, administering a number of applications over a few weeks. Don’t be afraid to trim, it actually encourages bilateral shoots and keeps the plant tidy. It is best to snip one inch off the tops of the new growth. Thai only uses porcelain or plastic saucers as the terra cotta ones, even the glazed ones, are porous and can damage surfaces.
Thai has a favorite maintenance tool, English pruning sheers which come with a US converter for the charger. They work like a hair clipper for topiaries. Some of the best places to purchase myrtle and other standards (in some cases they can even be shipped) are New York Topiary in New York, Snug Harbor Farm in Maine and Atlock Farm (@atlockfarm) in New Jersey. Also look for the plants at fine garden shows like Ladew’s Garden Festival (MD), Trade Secrets (CT), the New York Botanical Garden Show and the Philadelphia Flower Show. But, in the end, Thai advises simply don’t stress, do your best and it is ok to treat the topiaries like fresh flowers that you can easily maintain for a month or two. There is not much better in the way of simple beauty.
As Bunny Mellon herself once said, and Loi Thai well knows, ” If once you fall under the spell of gardening, of growing things – of putting together colors, textures, forms, heights, materials – you will carry forever a cure that will serve you well in life.”