Over the past 20 years, Fellow and Garden Conservancy Board member Fred Landman has transformed his Greenwich, CT, property from a quaint suburban backyard into Sleepy Cat Farm, a multi-faceted garden experience. Visitors can't help but become enchanted with Sleepy Cat Farm as they meander the pathways amongst the woodland grotto, traverse the Japanese spirit bridge through the iris garden, or contemplate the reflecting pools and koi ponds among the 13.5-acre property. Sleepy Cat Farm's mission is to instill public awareness of horticulture, landscape architecture, and the value of plants in our lives, welcoming visitors into its inspiring gardens. Fred resides at Sleepy Cat Farm with his wife, Seen Lippert, a professional chef who spent over a decade cooking at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, who plans the extensive planting of the vegetable gardens and is also the beneficiary of the fruit orchard and the berry wedge. We asked Fred about the process of creating this oasis and the upcoming book Sleepy Cat Farm: A Gardener's Journey (Monacelli, October 19, 2021).
After retiring from a career in business, you went from a weekend gardener to a full-time gardener. What inspired your passion for gardens and what prompted you to immerse yourself in this venture full-time?
I think the answer is in your question: “after retiring.” For 35 years, I had been all in on business, from heading a start up cable channel in the 70s to becoming CEO of a global satellite communications company.
Moving into the house in 1994, I first set out to renovate the interior, which was dated to a different time and lifestyle. When this was complete, I turned to the outside, which desperately needed attention. I started with a pool house and the surrounding grounds.
Enter my longtime landscape architect and friend, Charles Stick, from Charlottesville, VA. I asked him to design a series of projects including landscaping the pool house, a new entry drive, and a series of boxwood edged planting beds around the base of the house. I had a good feeling about working with him and have continued to work with him to develop the garden as it has grown in size and complexity.
Sleepy Cat Farm vegetable garden beds
Tell us about the process of transforming your property from a suburban backyard to an enthralling 13-acre landscape. How did it start and where are you now?
The original property was six acres. During the initial planting we covered about two acres, concentrating on the driveway approach and the immediate area behind the house and around the pool. There were another four acres to develop, which consisted of a woodland, a ridge, and wetlands. The goal was to make these areas accessible and interesting.
Charles Stick drew a master plan with a "golden path" and this became the cornerstone, the roadway to experience the extended garden. Over the ensuing years, the garden grew to eight acres, ten acres, and, finally, 13.5 acres. Each additional stage of growth allowed for new garden experiences and offshoots from the golden path.
My earliest garden inspirations came from visiting Frank Cabot’s Quatre Vents in Canada and Valsanzibio in the Italian Veneto. For me these gardens provide the visitor with a total sensory experience—where you walked, what you saw, and the scents you encountered. I continued to visit private gardens in Europe and elsewhere, always keeping in mind my own garden’s possibilities.
Top to bottom: The Golden Path; Wisteria over the cat maze
Any favorite spaces or species you’ve cultivated over the years?
My favorite spots in the garden depend upon the time of year. When the wisteria are in bloom, I sit on the curved green bench smelling the blossoms and looking beyond the cat maze to the reflecting pool, to the pebble terrace and fountain beyond.
In the fall, it’s being in the sacred grove. I go in the late afternoon and listen to the birds and rustling leaves in the trees.
There is a covered garden seat in the meadow which provides some shade and a great framing of the Limonaia when the climbing Eden roses and Himalayan musk roses are in summer bloom.
You’ve been a Fellow with the Garden Conservancy since 2007 and recently joined our board in 2020. You and Seen have opened your garden gate for us many times through Open Days. Tell us about your experience of working so intimately with a like-minded community of garden enthusiasts and welcoming them to your garden over the years.
We have tried to facilitate two Garden Conservancy Open Days each year. I make a point of personally greeting everyone when they arrive, provide them with a map and give some advice on how to best traverse the garden. I also see all the guests when they are exiting. Sometimes they just nod with a smile, sometimes it’s a nod with a few words, but often it’s an explosion of thanks for a memorable garden experience. I encourage everyone who works at Sleepy Cat Farm to be here for Open Days. The visitors' reactions are a great reward for all their hard work.
For garden enthusiasts who haven’t had the chance to visit your property, they’ll now be able to wander through the garden rooms and pavilions, pathways, pools, and flowerbeds on the pages of Sleepy Cat Farm: A Gardener's Journey (Monacelli Press, October 19, 2021). What do you hope readers will gain from this book?
The book tells a story of how one person, with little experience, becomes a gardener. I hope my story will inspire others to take their own journey, to create and build something personal and beautiful, with passion and patience.
During the difficulties of the past year and a half, many have emphasized the power of gardens for their psychological and health benefits. How has your garden provided solace during this time?
My wife and I, under normal circumstances, travel six to seven times a year. During the past 80 weeks, I have spent 78 in the garden. I got a chance to experience the seasons fully, to edit and fine tune several areas of the garden.
On June 6, we opened the garden for the first time in almost two years. It became clear from the 300+ people who visited that day, that there was pent-up demand for a day in a beautiful garden.
Oliver Sacks noted the beneficial effects of being in nature, “Wandering through a lush garden...one is calmed and invigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit."
All photos by Curtice Taylor
If you'd like to learn more about Fred's journey creating Sleepy Cat Farm, please join us in person on October 23 for an exclusive conversation and book signing celebrating the launch of Sleepy Cat Farm: A Gardener’s Journey (Monacelli, October 19, 2021) with Fred and landscape architect Charles J. Stick.
We also hope you'll attend our November 18 virtual talk with Fred and garden photographer Curtice Taylor as they take us on a tour of the gardens with imagery from the book.