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THE NORTHEAST WINTER is long for us gardeners, hit with snowstorm after snowstorm when all we want to do is get out there and dig.
“The books” advise a season of assessment and planning (preferably with a hot toddy by the fire). It’s true, I realized last weekend up in New York’s Hudson Valley, on a property I know very well from gardening myself there in years past, it’s easy to see the big picture when there’s not all that green stuff in the way.
Above, the twisted canes of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick, a plant that’s all about winter interest.
Fallen needles under the gigantic white pine count as brilliant color this time of year.
Plumes of zebra grass stand tall (most of them) ’til their early-spring cutback.
Hydrangea and yucca along the privet-lined driveway, above.
The little yellow outhouse, above, by the 3-season stream, below, was built in the 1930s when the house was really rustic.
Above: Ain’t much to look at in mid-winter, but this area pops with crocus and other early bulbs in April. Burlap coats protect boxwoods from windburn.
A section of stone wall, probably 19th century, from a time when these woods were grazing land. Such stacked stone walls lace through woods all over the Northeast, revealed in winter even as you drive along the Taconic State Parkway.
The remains of last season’s ornamental grasses line a steep path to the fenced vegetable garden. I’m reminded of what garden designer Piet Oudolf said: “Brown is a color.”
Tag-sale Buddha presides over a stone outcropping planted with small Japanese maples and other dwarf species.
The mysterious concrete rectangle that came with the property, above, perhaps the floor of a greenhouse or other farm building, now filled with gravel and known as the Zen litter box.
To see this same property in summer, go here.
I LOVE THIS BOOK, but not because I needed convincing that the American lawn habit is an environmental disaster — a $40 billion dollar industry, writes Pam Penick, an Austin, Texas-based garden designer and blogger in Lawn Gone! Low Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard (Ten Speed Press). American lawns consume 300 million gallons of gas annually, and 70 million pounds of chemicals that do no favors for our water supplies. And it’s pretty much all for “show” (who uses their lawns, especially front lawns, anyway?)
No, the main reason I love this book is that the projects in it look accessible. Most garden books are so ‘aspirational’ they cause me to despair, along the lines of ‘I could never do/afford that!‘ Not so here. Check out the home-made patchwork path, below. I see that photo and think, “Yeah! I could do something like that…this weekend!” It’s creative and casual, as are many of the gardens shown in the book.
Photo: Pam Penick
There are other, more personal reasons for my lawn aversion, and that’s the maintenance involved. I don’t have a mower, or a partner to wield one, and I’m not a fan of loud noise (memories of having to clap our hands over our ears while Dad mowed our quarter-acre on a Saturday afternoon). Also, I recently bought a property on Long Island where a lawn would never grow — it’s wooded and shady, filled with tree roots, and the terrain is uneven. So why bother? Not gonna.
Photo: Moss and Stone Gardens
Penick suggesting practical, easy-care plants to substitute for lawn in all parts of the country. Though many of the photos seem to be from Texas and California, the concepts travel — ornamental grasses, ground covers in various colors and textures, expanses of mulch and gravel in lieu of plantings. And there is a hefty section of regional plant recommendations. The book even suggests ways of dealing with homeowner’s association rules and skeptical neighbors, who still regard a greensward plus foundation plantings as the way to go.
Photo: Michelle Dervis
Yay for Lawn Gone!, a book for people who want more than a monoculture.
Photos reprinted with permission from Lawn Gone! Low-Maintenance, Sustainable, Attractive Alternatives for Your Yard by Pam Penick (Ten Speed Press, © 2013)
HERE, TO MANY, IS WHAT THE HAMPTONS is really about — not the ocean beaches but the native oak woods and the gardening that is possible within them, with the help of a sturdy deer fence.
This green and lovely 1-1/3-acre spread belongs to Paula Diamond, a self-taught gardener who learned much of what she knows working at The Bayberry, a nursery in Amagansett. To my surprise, Paula only started gardening here in earnest in the late ’90s, which goes to show how much can be accomplished in a mere decade-and-a-half.
Paula’s garden, around a classic cedar-shingled cottage, is very much a shade garden, cool and romantic. I can imagine how spectacular it is in spring, when hundreds of rhododendrons and white irises around the pool are in bloom, but even in early September, it is lush and inviting.
The free-form pool was conceived as a water feature as much as a swimming hole. Paula tells how “the plan” presented by the pool company consisted of a workman with a can of spray paint, who outlined the pool’s shape in one big sweep, and that’s how it remained.
Come along and have a look…
All the hardscaping choices are simple and unpretentious, including pea gravel and river stones used for steps near the house, and bluestone in the pool area. Mulch paths, lined with branches and logs, wend through the woods at the rear of the long, narrow property.
One of two gates, below, leading to the backyard. The fragrant flowering shrub behind is clerodendron trichotomum fargesii.
Above, ligularia in several varieties can be counted on for late-season color.
Rear of the house, above…
The gunite pool, designed and installed by Rockwater, is surrounded by boulders and has a gray-toned interior.
Carex Morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ used as a groundcover, above.
Above, an existing six-foot stockade fence was topped with a couple feet of wire as reinforcement against hungry deer. (This is very interesting to me, as my property is surrounded by similar fencing. I especially love how the plantings have come to pretty much obscure it.)
Views back toward the house, above, showing shade perennials (hostas, ferns, hakonechloa) as well as hydrangeas and Japanese maple.
Much of the property remains wooded, with shrubs and perennials profusely planted in semi-cleared areas.
A fiberglass cow in a bed of liriope surveys the back of the property.
DRIVING THROUGH THE HISTORIC VILLAGE of Sag Harbor, Long Island, recently, the creative landscaping on a smallish corner lot grabbed my attention. I parked the car and popped out to get a closer look at the curved metal planting beds, below, made of what look like galvanized feed troughs. I didn’t even have to trespass; I took these iPhone shots standing on the sidewalk.
Among the plants I recognized in this well-designed front yard: oakleaf hydrangea (in bloom in the background), abelia ‘Frances Mason’ (a type of honeysuckle, which I happen to know because we had it in Brooklyn years ago), various hollies and miscanthus…
a kousa dogwood…
Japanese blood grass…
and a spectacular river birch with peeling bark, growing out of a bed of liriope. I so want a river birch!
The brown-painted house, top, is pretty unusual too, partially screened by horizontal wood slats that shield the windows from passersby, but let light in. It has a sort of Japanese feel, as does the garden itself, in its generous use of gravel and overall simplicity. A fine example, I think, of what can be done in small space with a well-honed design sense and a heap of imagination.
THOUGH PHYSICAL GARDENING HAS BARELY BEGUN on the Long Island half-acre I bought last March, I’m incubating ideas. At one point, I fixated on the idea of a Japanese garden, but I’ve loosened up. It could be limiting: what if I want to plant lavender and white birch trees? Still, I’ll keep the Japanese plant palette top of mind, since it seems to lend itself well to a low modern home and wooded lot like mine — and I love irises and conifers and Japanese maples.
I also love the varieties of path material in Japanese gardens. It was the paths that struck me most about the John P. Humes Japanese Garden in Jay Gatsby territory on Long Island’s North Shore when I visited a few weeks back. The gravel, mulch and stepping stones, in various combinations, with log risers for steps, are totally in line with my thinking (they’re also some of the cheapest path materials available, and the easiest to lay).
Created in the 1960s by John P. Humes, U.S. Ambassador to Austria, and his wife Jean, restored and expanded in the 1980s, and now under the auspices of the Garden Conservancy, the four serene and shady acres are an “American adaptation of a Japanese stroll garden, reflecting a natural approach to garden design by responding directly to existing topography and vegetation.” All well and good. As is the idea of laying out paths and plantings to hide more than they reveal as one walks through the garden, imparting a sense of mystery and encouraging exploration.
Where Japanese gardens lose me is with their heavy symbolism: stones representing heaven and earth, the re-creation of a faraway landscape in miniature, and so on. I’m not going to make a study of the Edo period (1603-1867), and though I love the Humes garden’s tea house, top, and may borrow ideas from it to make my boxy shed more graceful, I won’t be conducting tea ceremonies there any time soon.
I am looking forward to planting my first Japanese maple, though.