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28 May 2020

Caretaker of a Magical NY Hamptons Garden: Q&A Alejandro Saralegui

Alejandro Saralegui

Despite the fact that many public gardens are still closed, Alejandro Saralegui busily works within the provocative and artsy landscape that is Madoo, the garden of late artist Robert Dash. Alejandro is the executive director of the two acres in Sagaponack, New York, a panoply of all things flora. Madoo is, in a word, unbelievably magical, and it is Alejandro who makes sure the garden stays that way even during its closure. He started his love of gardens as a little boy growing Punch ‘n’ Grow tomatoes and flowers. You might say his space has become much, much larger.

Janet Mavec: We used to start our Q&As finding out a little bit about your work within the wild natural world. These days we launch into a more obvious question ... how are you coping with sheltering in place?

Alejandro Saralegui: I have been very fortunate with our living in place situation. Like most people my partner and I have been cooking up a storm. Not one recipe from the New York Times’ One Pot meals special cooking section has failed us yet. And I’ve been doing a lot of gardening at Madoo. 

JM: What’s the overall aesthetic of Madoo?

AS: Madoo is best described by founder Robert Dash as being “a garden with English bones and American flesh.” Ultimately it is a very lush, romantic garden that is often called magical by our visitors.

Alejandro Saralegui

JM: Have you changed anything significantly at Madoo since Bob Dash went to heaven?

AS: Robert Dash was very clear that he did not want the garden preserved in amber. That gives us a lot of flexibility. While we wouldn’t change major aspects of the garden, sometimes nature does it for us. That said, we’re working on a few things. The quincunx gardens, defined by low box hedges and five very tall taxus topiaries, have been renovated. And a formerly unused part of the garden is being designed by Michael Derrig of Landscape Details to create four more rooms. Eventually, the space will host outdoor art/nature exhibitions, almost like a small-scale Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival. The rill garden will also receive a major makeover this year.

Alejandro Saralegui

JM: What are some of your favorite outdoor rooms at Madoo?

AS: My favorite areas change by the season. But I would have to say that the Asian Pond Gardens are my favorite. The bridge designed by Dash is whimsical and it’s such a treat to see the goldfish and frogs in it. We renovated it three years ago and within three months of completion the peepers had already found their way there. The garden around it is still a work in progress, but the yellow Acorus (grassy-leaved sweet flag) ringing the pond gives it a cheerful aspect.

Alejandro Saralegui

JM: What are your top 3 favorite plants at Madoo and why?

AS: I’d have to start with Stachyurus praecox, a suckering shrub which has a beautiful spring flower that resembles butter-colored bullion fringe. Magnolia wilsonii is a lovely small- scale tree that is the only Magnolia with downward facing blooms. If you look up into the flower you see a beautiful burgundy center which is the stamens against the creamy colored sepals. It has a lovely fragrance, too. Finally, I would choose the Franklinia alatamaha (Franklin tree). Discovered in 1765 by botanist John Bartram, it was grown successfully at Bartram’s Philadelphia nursery after he collected the tree’s seeds in 1773. It was never found again in the wild. The story gives me chills. I love that our beautiful Franklinia at Madoo has such illustrious parentage.

JM: Okay, now ... What’s your favorite season?

Alejandro Saralegui

AS: Spring! After a Long Island winter, spring gets my blood going. We have a tiny greenhouse that I like puttering in, starting seeds and such. Before you know it, the Galanthus (snowdrop) are up, then the Hamamelis (witch-hazel) and suddenly spring is on.

JM: What’s one of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening?

AS: Russell Page’s “The Education of a Gardener” is practically cliché, but it really did help me form some of my ideas about gardening. More recently Hugh Cavendish’s “A Time to Plant: Life and Gardening at Holker” gave me confidence when I took over the gardens at Madoo following Robert Dash’s passing.

JM: What’s the one garden tool you can’t live without?

AS: Lately I’ve been loving a short 22-inch spade by Sneeboer called the Great Dixter Planting Spade. At first it looks illogical, but it’s great for when you are working on your knees. I have to mention the rose gauntlets from Foxgloves. I was just cutting back a giant ghost bramble and miraculously, I came away unscathed.

JM: What’s gardens have you visited that you loved?

AS: Whenever I travel, I visit gardens. At first I’m extremely jealous, then I realize that all gardens have something to teach even little ol’ Madoo. About a year ago I accompanied a group of Madoo donors on a trip to Morocco. While there we saw a very impressive new garden in the Marrakech Medina called Le Jardin Secret designed by Tom Stuart-Smith. It is a giant courtyard garden built within the restored ruins of a 19th-century riad. It was refreshing to see a new, beautifully planted garden in such an ancient city.
Also inspiring is Serre de la Madone on the French Riviera, a terraced garden overlooking the Mediterranean created by Lawrence Johnston—the genius behind Hidcote in the Cotswolds— it’s a bit ramshackle but the bones are great.

JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree?

AS: I’m not really that kind of Emo guy, but what really gets me is plastic. I am finding I can’t stand the use of plastic. Even the plastic cap on a milk carton makes me feel guilty. I am trying to love the earth by avoiding plastics and when necessary reusing plastic pots as much as possible.

JM: Is there anyway people can experience Madoo while it is closed?

Alejandro Saralegui

AS: We’re not sure when Madoo will be allowed to reopen, but for now check out our Madoo Moments on Instagram (@madoogardens) there’s a new one every weekday where we discuss, plants, garden design, and all the tribulations of gardening on the East End.

Alejandro Saralegui

Alejandro wearing a Janet Mavec Peace Dove Lapel Pin. A percentage of sales from this piece go to Madoo.