Gardens are such personal things. As reflections of their creators, they can express intimate character traits: Do you prefer orderliness or spontaneity? Ostentation or restraint? Controlling nature or liberating it? To peek into someone’s garden is to catch a glimpse of their soul. Perhaps this is why it’s so interesting to visit the gardens of cultural icons such as Doris Duke, who lived at her mansion in Newport, R.I. during summer months.
Situated on a point of land at the tip of Easton’s Bay, the aptly named Rough Point faces the open Atlantic Ocean on three sides — and, by circumstance, all the weather that offers. Lying as if prostate to the sea and the sky, Rough Point has a very different character than Newport’s other Gilded Age mansions. Duke’s gardens here — at once both wild and tamed, succumbing to the coastal weather and other times defying it — mirror many of her idiosyncrasies and her sensibilities, and are also, to a degree, a commentary on the times she lived in. If the gardens at Rough Point are indeed a glimpse into Duke’s psyche, then here are its lessons: Design should be timeless, not fleeting; landscapes should be natural, not showy; and, most importantly, the joy of a garden should serve the desires of its creator.
A garlic plant is almost ready for harvest in Rough Point’s kitchen garden. Doris Duke, when she lived here, ate fresh vegetables frequently from the property’s garden.
With a well groomed privet hedge serving as a protector, a bed on the north side of the estate features dahlias and foxtail lilies, as well as other perennials such as globe thistle, nepeta, and peonies. Though Duke used this space as a cutting garden filled with annuals, for practical reasons, contemporary caretakers have installed more zone-hearty plants.
Instead of digging them up each fall, Rough Point’s gardeners cover dahlias with straw mulch and black plastic to overwinter, just like Doris Duke did.
Along the northern side of the estate, three beds — referred to as the tropical garden, dahlia beds, and east garden — and the rose arbor are protected by a thick privet hedge that creates a microclimate, a Victorian-era gardening technique.
American pillar roses, which bloom around the Fourth of July, climb up an arbor.
The east garden was filled with bearded iris in Duke’s day, but now has a more formal succession of blooms. While the layout here is classic English formal, the plantings are anything but. Yarrow, germander, astilbe, and more fill the space, which is surrounded by a clever limelight hydrangea hedge.
“Rough Point. It’s a rough place for plants,” says Joan Andersen, interim head gardener of the estate, which was originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, who aimed to enhance the natural beauty of the site. Today, the gardeners and landscapers use only organic products — soaps, oils, and Neptune’s Harvest fertilizer — to maintain the property. “Caring for the watershed is a big deal,” says Andersen. “We’re committed to taking care of things in a non-chemical way.”
Famous for her love for animals, Duke kept camels on the property. Today, three topiaries covered in sedum pay homage to her former pets.
To the south and east, Rough point faces the open Atlantic. Plantings here — which include black pine, Nippon daisy, groundsell, daylilies, and Rosa rugosa — must tolerate harsh wind, salt, and temperature swings. In his initial design, Olmstead planted more than 30,000 plants, knowing many would not survive.
The kitchen garden — slightly smaller than Duke’s original — is filled with flowering ornamental plants that attract pollinators and repel pests. Beds are bordered with stones that were used as ships’ ballast centuries earlier.
Photos by Meaghan O’Neill.