Ask Maria Nation about the backstory behind Good Dogs Farm, her Berkshires garden, and she’ll launch into the history of its many iterations before coming to its current moment of splendor. She’ll talk about the 20-year evolution that started with the meager foundation plantings in place when she first bought the 8-acre property from Wanda Toscanini Horowitz (Vladimir Horowitz’s widow). The initial incarnations were willy-nilly, fed by the prevalence of perennials purchased from neighborhood garden centers. As Maria became more educated about her plants, the scene began to evolve into what it is today—a cleaner, more architectural configuration of big statements that depends more on large swipes with pruning shears and less on fussing around with weeding tools. But what really drives Maria’s garden could be distilled into a quick explanation: She comes from California.
Why are her roots so important? Because Maria is drawn to the outdoors. While most gardeners want to get outside whenever possible, Maria has a compulsion to do so that is of a different breed entirely. “I came to New England with the mindset that I would spend all of my time outdoors,” she says of her magnetic attraction to nature. And she is continually masterminding the means to further that bond.
Maria frequently invites friends to join her and partner Roberto Flores for gatherings in the garden. Even more often, four-legged members of the family can be found sprawled out somewhere verdant and lush in the landscape. In fact, Maria calls her property Good Dogs Farm, and the well-mannered animals all seem to live up to the name.
While the entire garden bears witness to Maria’s call to the wild, one of the first expressions of that penchant was the sleeping pavilion. The transplanted Californian had a history of dragging out rugs, a sleeping bag, and her dogs at night to slumber under the stars, so it was just a matter of time before she built the pavilion at arm’s length from the house. When the structure was completed, she realized that a garden was necessary to stitch it into the overall landscape. Starting with a double arborvitae that serves as a sort of tunnel of green, Maria created a series of outdoor “rooms.”
Strongly influenced by the Provence landscape of Nicole de Vésian with its flowing series of sheared shrubs tumbling one into the next, Good Dogs Farm is a more relaxed Berkshires version of that concept using clipped shrubs to segment the “rooms.” As time added girth to the spaces, the garden became more compartmentalized, including an alcove with an umbrella and table waiting for Maria to carry her computer outdoors and plunge into a screenplay alfresco. That niche sits beside what Maria calls her “garagerie,” a formerly lackluster garage that gained an addition and windows to support overwintering container plants while also housing a dream-worthy guest bed and bath.
When company comes during the growing season (and beyond), the gathering place of choice is invariably around the outside wood-fired oven. Maria hired local stone mason Mark Mendel to build the structure on a pea-stone terrace and then surrounded it with yew. Friends and neighbors especially enjoy the leisurely meals that Maria hosts in the cozy space. “Lunch will sometimes last until 9 p.m.,” she laughs.
Most recently, Maria added a succulent garden with some cuttings from her California-based sister. As the cuttings grew, they needed a place to be staged, prompting the sunny garden overlooking the horse/donkey pastures and the Housatonic River. Elsewhere, a modest alcove is tucked into the vegetable/dahlia garden, providing a place to enjoy the freshly-harvested produce. Immediately off the back porch, a terrace extends the floor plan with seating, container plants, and often a snoozing dog or two. Indeed, every space at Good Dogs Farm embraces nature’s talent for being an incredible host. As for Maria, she’ll be somewhere out there, soaking up the ambiance and sharing it with others.
The Sleeping Pavilion
Maria Nation does not think twice when describing the garden sleeping pavilion experience. “Womb-like” is the word that immediately comes to mind. Her favorite facet? The night music that floats into the unwired, unplumbed, and unheated room. “You can hear the peepers and also the distant coyotes,” she says.
Like many of the components at Good Dogs Farm, the pavilion was spontaneously designed, or as Maria says, “totally on the fly.” She wanted a summer bedroom, found some inexpensive windows, called a carpenter, and had an architect friend on speed dial. That architect designed a glass ceiling, and Maria says the idea was nothing short of brilliant. “We love to lie awake looking at the stars.” The antique bed is clothed in fine European linen sheets and draped in gauze for added mosquito netting; candles are lit for late-night reading. Yes, there are mice, and yes, Maria sometimes feels the wet repercussions of a sudden thunderstorm. But this nature lover wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Tovah Martin | Photography by Kindra Clineff