Sundial Gardens

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on June 24, 2001

It sounds a little like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale—one with a happy ending.

A young German woman, daughter of a professor of ecology and granddaughter of a botanist, was interested in art. In the early 1960s, she visited a museum in East Berlin and was so disturbed by the eerie political tension surrounding “the wall” that she decided to move to New York City. There she met an American artist, they fell in love, and eventually found their way to the town of Higganum, Conn., (pop. 1,692) where they bought an 18th-century homestead with land enough for planting. Ragna Tischler Goddard, creator and proprietor of Sundial Gardens, soon turned the homestead into a living work of art.

The Sundial, as she calls it, reflects Goddard’s exacting tastes in gardens, herbs, and teas, tastes grounded in history and myth. Two bay laurel trees, emblems of honor and protection in Roman mythology, sit astride the entry to her formal gardens. Once a group came to visit just as a storm was approaching. “‘Here,’ I told them, ‘come here under the laurels.’” Sure enough, the storm cleared up. “After that,” Goddard smiles, “they called me the good witch.”

Beyond the laurels are the formal gardens, laid out on the basis of the old—and often ignored—idea of the garden as an extension of the home. As one looks out the windows of Goddard’s restored 1750 New England cape-style home, the overall structure of the elegant landscaping, based on an ancient Persian four-fold pattern, creates long and beautiful views.

The gardens aren’t actually large, but as their patterns unfold, they create the illusion of distance. They include a Persian-style knot garden, an 18th century-style garden with geometric walkways, and a topiary (a garden in which shrubs are clipped into ornamental shapes) that contains boxwood, roses, and ivy garlands. Goddard calls them her “outdoor rooms,” and they feel that way for visitors walking through them on brick paths. The emphasis is on structure, not colorful flowers as in most American gardens. Visitors, she contends, wearing colorful shirts or dresses, become an organic part of the landscape.

Because of the emphasis on orderly structure, the formal gardens are soothing, whether lightly snow-covered or glowing with sunlight. Photos in a garden calendar, one of the items for sale at the Sundial, offer vivid proof of this.

Not only does this energetic woman maintain her elegant gardens, she hosts a formal tea and gift shop, located in the converted barn, a little museum in itself. The tea section contains an elaborate array of fine, loose imported teas and herbal tisanes (infusions), prepared on the premises. These, as well as fine teapots, including the Yixing made in China and known for its tea brewing quality, are for sale.

During the summer, Goddard offers tea parties and teaches about tea—such things as the fact that all teas, whether from Assam or China, grow from one essential plant; or the concept of developing one’s taste from black to green to white tea—which is a beautiful, rare, and delicate treat for the connoisseur. As the hostess of the Sundial lifts the lids from blend after blend, exotic aromas fill the room.

Goddard’s European background includes the medicinal use of herbs, and she also has books and herbal formulas for stress reduction and health. Her aunt was an herbalist, and Goddard tells the story of how her aunt ran a boarding home for students near a college in Germany. Much like students everywhere, at times they created commotion, and so, one night, they were offered a relaxing herbal blend and the house quieted down.

Goddard herself drinks tea through the day and feels that its less powerful but more sustained caffeine content, as opposed to the quick hit and fall of coffee, is a great stimulant for the brain. She’s certainly evidence of that: a woman of ambition, determination, and knowledge whose passions and interests have led to the creation of a unique home—and splendid gardens—which she gladly shares with others.