The Madoo Conservancy is a garden created over a period of almost forty years by the artist Robert Dash. Located in Sagaponack, New York, at the eastern end of Long Island, it is a destination garden, described as a magical oasis that evokes delight. It is a garden praised by many, including Rosemary Verey, the former doyenne of British gardening who designed gardens for Prince Charles, Elton John and the New York Botanical Garden. I’ve even heard it described as a masterpiece.
So why did I find it a disappointment? More than that, why did I find it so irritating?
Believe me, criticizing the Madoo Conservancy isn’t easy. Going against received wisdom makes you question your own judgement. Did I fail to recognize something significant about Madoo and its design? Or is the Madoo Conservancy’s reputation a case of the emperor’s new clothes?
I visited the garden in June 2015. I was eager to see a place I’d read about in magazines and in Dash’s book, Notes from Madoo: Making a Garden in the Hamptons. I knew I’d see lots of colour. And I did.
How could I fail to see it? Colour was everywhere, sprinkled with abandon throughout the 2 acre site, not in plants as much as in painted posts, fences, benches, doors and windows.
Don’t get me wrong. I like colour and the primary colours that I greeted me on arrival were exciting. Walking along the pebble path, I knew this garden would go on my list of favourites.
And at first, all my expectations were met. I walked from bright sunshine into shade along a hosta-rich path that led to a grove of ginkgo trees. Underneath boxwood balls were arranged seemingly at random. It was a quirky planting that made me smile.
The pond with its Chinese style bridge, one of the most photographed places in the garden, was a delightful place to rest.
But other areas of the garden made me hesitate. The salmony pink and turquoise used on a patio near the house didn’t feel cutting edge. Far from it — the colours felt as out-dated as the decor in an old maid’s living room.
Nearby, glass cloches on metal shelves were arranged around a bust of Beethoven. This wasn’t quirky, it was downright odd, particularly since Beethoven seemed to be rising out of a compost heap.
Poor quality materials and haphazard maintenance were evident throughout the garden. A water feature said to be a tribute to the rill in the Generalife garden at the Alhambra was a crooked, wobbly disaster, with uneven brickwork that was downright dangerous.
The planting beds around the crooked rill were colourful but the plants used were unimaginative and the roses that I expected to see climbing the hoops were barely in sight.
Near the rill was a dogwood (Cornus florida) pruned to mimic the shrubs nearby. In an interview with P. Allen Smith, Dash says the garden “celebrates the art of pruning,” but this is a celebration I can do without.
The garden as a whole was over-crowded, with plants and people. On the day I visited, a special event was taking place and vendors selling up-market products occupied areas that otherwise would be open space. At the end of the rill a private luncheon was taking place under a large marquee, and waiters pushing past my travel companion and me made us feel like intruders in a garden we’d paid to visit.
Without doubt this adversely affected my experience of the garden. The marquee blocked a vista and the vendors cluttered the lawn and the path to the potager. Even so, I found Madoo a disappointment. A garden I expected to be a rising star felt like a garden in steep decline.
And then there were the paths. So many different materials and patterns were used that I lost count. Brick was set on edge,
inserted in dotted lines …
and cleverly arranged to make walking the path treacherous.
Stones of various shapes were used, close-set…
and widely spaced.
Dirt paths appeared in some areas, occasionally inset with slices of telephone poles.
Overall, Madoo feels like a garden that has lost its way, a garden that either lacks money or attention to detail. Yet it appears to be well-loved by the people who know it, and judging from its website, well-integrated into its community.
Madoo is an old Scottish word meaning “my dove,” and while I saw or heard no cooing birds while I was there, I do not doubt that the name encapsulates the love Dash felt for the spot and his place within it. Madoo is a very personal garden, created by an individual with a particular mind-set who lived at a particular time. So I end by asking myself, once again, if I missed something. Is the Madoo Conservancy a garden that needs to visited several times, in different seasons, in order to be appreciated? Or is it simply a period piece that has lost its edge?
Reluctantly, I conclude it is the latter.