From Garments to Gardens
“It’s as simple as this: A garden is a lot like love,” writes Carolyne Roehm in her most recent book, At Home in the Garden. In fact, love has been the connecting thread in all of her endeavors—she left the Midwest at a young age to pursue her love for fashion in New York, worked side by side with Oscar de la Renta for a decade before starting her own line, and eventually closed her fashion house to further explore her innate loves for gardening, entertaining, and home design.
“The world of fashion can entertain and clothe us, but the home and garden create emotional and visual experiences for us that I think fashion doesn’t,” she says. “It was a natural evolution to go out into other related things that I think have a broader breadth and depth.”
As her résumé suggests, Roehm doesn’t do anything halfway. Since leaving the fashion industry, she has written 12 books on gardening and entertaining (two of which she also photographed); remodeled and designed her homes in Connecticut, South Carolina, New York, and Aspen; and transformed acres and acres of land into lush, elegant gardens, all while finding time to host extravagant dinner parties and play with her eight dogs.
A pre-celebration porchside tablescape design by Roehm. [Photo: Carolyne Roehm]
How did you develop your passion for gardening?
The seeds were sown at a very early age. I grew up in a small town in northeastern Missouri, and my grandparents lived about 15 minutes away at a small farm. My grandmother was the one who first exposed me to gardening. She had a big vegetable garden and flowers, and it was just part of going to see Grandma. Then I was lucky enough to have a mentor in Oscar de la Renta, who took my innate DNA and what Grandma gave me and exposed it to a much more sophisticated genre of gardening when I was in my twenties.
How did you transition from the fashion world to creating a multifaceted career?
Sometimes life throws you serious curve balls and forces you to change course. I was going through a very difficult time and an upheaval in my life, which included a divorce, and I decided to shut my business down. I was trying to pull my life back together, and I started to look further—I took cooking classes, I went to Oxford for a summer program, I worked in a flower shop in Paris, I traveled.
Shrubs in oversized porcelain pots line Roehm's redesigned pool area. [Photo: Carolyne Roehm]
Are there similarities in style between the clothes and the homes and gardens you’ve designed?
I think so. I’m very classic, but I don’t think I’m that traditional. I love classic design, I love the proportions, I love that architecture. I wasn’t interested in making clothes to entertain on the runway or clothes to be totally functional and have to last for a lifetime. Neither trendy, nor stuck in time.
I admire the structural aspects of the great classical garden. It’s harder to express that in plants in a way, only because they change so much in any season and any year. They’re always changing; that’s the nature of nature. It’s all based on something that has staying power, and yet it’s not dated.
Tell us about the creation of At Home in the Garden.
I got so carried away with taking pictures and everything that it was going to be an 800-page book, which no one would have been able to lift. I ended up splitting this large book into two smaller books. One is Flowers [released in 2012], where I’m focusing on the flower itself—how it’s used in the garden, how I used it in decorating my house. It’s basically a close-up view, whereas At Home in the Garden is pulled back and you’re seeing a larger scale and a larger plan. I also try to talk about the fact that there are failures and no matter what we try to do, Mother Nature will have the final say.
What’s your advice to new gardeners?
Start with what you love and find out if what you love will survive in your particular climate and soil type. For the most part, the Internet is an unbelievable source. Read local magazines and books on what to plant in your area, or join a garden club. Seek out people who are experts, and pick their brains. For beginners, I would go to some of the plant nurseries and ask what plants they would recommend for your space. If there’s an image you love, tear it out and say, “I want to achieve something like this. How can I achieve that with my budget, my climate, and my plot of ground or balcony of potted plants?”
What are some gardening mistakes you’ve made?
Putting plants in the wrong place, not checking my soil carefully enough. One year I planted 600 delphinium—I know it sounds crazy. I think the following year I found 42 plants left out of all of those. A delphinium is a perennial, but I have to treat them like annuals because they just don’t do well in my climate. I learned a very painful, expensive lesson.
Describe your homes’ aesthetic.
Even though my style is somewhat formal, it doesn’t stop me from having my eight dogs flop on the furniture and bounce all around. I live in my homes, play in them, and make messes in them.
What are your entertaining musts?
Finding a hook, theme, or idea is a great place to start for planning a party. A little seed is put with a concept, and then I flesh that out through entertainment, décor, and menu to create a whole sense of an event. A big thing I still struggle with is allowing enough time to get myself ready. I’m one of those people that loves to fuss, twiddle, and tweak, and as a result, I wear myself out and then I want to go upstairs and eat by myself and have a baked potato. I’m learning to take time to get rested before the event.
Any flowers you love as a table centerpiece?
A big vase of peonies is heaven. You can’t fail with that. If you want something that’s easy, go for big flowers: hydrangeas, peonies, large roses—things that have a lot of body. Look for alternatives; it doesn’t just have to be flowers. Maybe it’s stacks of books with candles placed around them or a beautiful bust. Don’t always think you have to do a bouquet.
You call your tablescapes a stage set. Is that a theatrical reference?
Yes, when you create a party, you’re creating theatre, and the sets are what’s on the table. You need to factor in guests and food. Set your stage with how you decorate your table, and then the guests are the audience and the actors are the food, because that’s what everyone is focused on.
CAROLYNE'S FAVORITE TOMES ON STYLE:
The Givenchy Style by Francoise Mohrt
Garden Mania: The Ardent Gardener’s Compendium of Design & Decoration by Philip de Bay and James Bolton
Geoffrey Bennison: Master Decorator by Gillian Newberry
Neoclassicism in the North: Swedish Furniture and Interiors 1770-1850 by Håkan Groth and Fritz von der Schulenburg