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THE ROLLER COASTER RIDE IS OVER. I’m officially in contract to sell my East Hampton, N.Y. cottage, after a long winter of offers, negotiations, anticipation and disappointments. Closing will be on or before May 15 — five years to the day since I bought the house in 2009. My real estate agent and my neighbors think I’m crazy, but I’m still gardening just as I would if I were staying — raking leaves off the perennial beds, top dressing with compost and mulch, pruning winter storm and deer damage.
Sign on David’s Lane, East Hampton
I want to leave the garden in tip-top shape (with no expectations that the new owner will be as OCD as I am). The house and garden have always been primarily a labor of love for me, though I admit to hoping I might be compensated for those labors in dollars someday. That’s not to be the case (no, I didn’t get my twice-reduced asking price), but I’m not changing the sub-title of this blog. I still believe in old-house real estate as an investment. But sellers have to be prepared to wait for the market to cycle round to a favorable position, and I wasn’t able to wait any longer, with House #2, a 1940s modernist ranch in the same community, bought last year, awaiting further renovation.
I’m no longer in need of furnishings for two summer rentals (in fact, I now have four sofas), but I’m still attending yard sales on Fridays and Saturdays just for the fun of it. See below for a photo of my latest acquisition, a set of six vintage wrought iron and wood chairs that are surprisingly comfortable. Do I need them? No, not at all. Do they work with the style of my new/old house? No, they don’t. Was I going to pass them up at $40 for the whole set? Of course not.
I’m also busy sketching ideas for a new deck and new configuration of rooms at House #2. Its renovation will be incremental and low-budget, once again, and will provide abundant blog fodder in months to come. In late winter, I took a five-session “Design Your Own Garden” class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, taught by Jim Russell, who was terrific — he had us all thinking about our gardens in new ways. The T-squares and HB pencils brought me back to my year at architecture school, and I was very happy drawing and erasing away, though I never got as far as spec-ing actual plants, like some of my classmates. I spent almost the entire course on a general landscape concept: organization around three courtyards; as well as possible designs for a new deck and a system of paths.
Though I’ll be there another few weeks, things have now taken on a wistful “last time” feeling over at House #1. Easter Sunday, a friend came for a late lunch on the back deck. We opened a bottle of Prosecco, as we have done many times before, and lay on the chaise longues looking into the woods, talking and laughing, as we have done many times before. Though I’ve been known to profess non-attachment to any house or apartment (having moved four times in the past eight years), this one is hitting me hard. At least it’s well-documented.
SEEMS TO ME THE FALL COLORS — peaking late after an unseasonably warm October — are more brilliant than usual this year. Here in Brownstone Brooklyn, there’s no sense one needs to go up to Vermont or the Hudson Valley to be fully satisfied on that score. Above, Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Below, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — my favorite urban refuge –in its autumnal glory.
ONE EVENING LAST WEEK, I attended the first-ever public lecture at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new Visitor Center — a helix-shaped, mostly glass structure with a planted roof that I had been prepared to dislike for its modernity, but have actually found welcoming. The talk was given by Glyn Jones, head gardener at England’s famed Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds, a 10-acre Arts & Crafts-era garden with all the classic English-gardening tropes: blowsy borders, ancient hornbeam hedges, bird-shaped topiary, a white garden, everything off the all-important “central axis.”
Can you tell from my tone that I’m slightly disenchanted with the classic English garden, having steeped myself in Japanese-gardening books all winter? It’s also a result of my trying valiantly and never succeeding to emulate those colorful flower borders in my own sun- and deer-challenged gardens. Yes, there’s an element of sour grapes here. My tulips have always been eaten, either by deer or squirrels, while Hidcote has 18,000 of them, freshly planted each year in varying color schemes. But I did enjoy Mr. Jones’ gossipy talk, and the experience of sitting with a like-minded roomful of people who love gardens.
Hidcote was one of the first properties to become part of England’s National Trust in 1948, though Jones had little good to say about the National Trust. He thinks Hidcote should cut loose, save the annual dues, and publish its own guidebook and website (it can’t be worse than the National Trust’s Hidcote page, which inexplicably has no photos).
Once weedy and overgrown, Hidcote is now restored to perfection, with 12 full-time gardeners and close to 200,000 visitors a year. It was purchased in 1907 by a Mrs. Winthrop, an American born in — of all places — Brooklyn! She was a theater buff who bought the property because of its location 10 miles from Stratford-on-Avon. Her son, Lawrence, went on to develop the gardens, going on ‘botanizing expeditions’ in the 1930s to China, Burma, and South Africa, and bringing back hundreds of hitherto-unseen (in the Western world) species.
Always anxious to cull tips and ideas for my own gardening efforts, I listened attentively for such pronouncements as “We hate bare soil at Hidcote” (for aesthetic reasons and also because abundant perennial plantings suppress weeds). “We hate corners. Fill them up with pots.” I’m for that. “Soften hard architectural lines with a ‘jungly style’ of planting.” By mid-summer, abundant perennials obscure the edges of Hidcote’s grass and gravel paths, though I wouldn’t exactly calll Hidcote’s plantings ‘jungly.’
I perked up when Jones described Hidcote’s “natural or wilderness areas with a different style of planting,” including astilbes, ferns, skunk cabbage, irises, rogersia, and candelabra primulas — things that thrive in shade and damp. I can see those things working at my new property on Long Island (closing three weeks from today!)
Unfortunately, I don’t think Jones’s photos did full justice to the place and, as I mentioned, the National Trust is no help. The illustrations in this post are from UGArderner’s Flickr photostream. Thank you for sharing, UGA.
A LOT OF PEOPLE (myself included) give up, somewhat, on window boxes and outdoor containers by the time November rolls around. Others keep going… like the owners of the swell Manhattan townhouse, above, who’ve created an arresting display with gourds and berries.
My go-to place for inspiration in all seasons, including fall and winter, is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, above (that’s a side view of the Brooklyn Museum as seen from inside the garden), where crews were busy on Sunday repairing Sandy damage. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to have been too extensive there.
Some go all out in autumn with mums. Usually that’s not particularly interesting, but I like the front yard planting, above, where the lavender mums are interspersed symmetrically with juniper, a yellow grass, and a deep purple leafed thing whose name is not springing to mind.
Sweet potato and coleus hang in through Thanksgiving, at least, the chartreuse of the always-satisfying sweet potato vine a vivid contrast against the brownstone.
A red annual grass is flourishing now in the concrete window boxes of a fine house on St. Marks Avenue in Prospect Heights. Is there anything being built today that matches the elegance of that hefty iron stoop railing and brownstone window ledges? No, there’s not!
SPECIFICALLY, IT’S THE Brooklyn Botanic Garden I’m talking about, not the whole borough in all its varied and often-gritty aspects.
I was at the BBG last night with my daughter for ‘August Garden Cocktail Night,’ a members-only event. It rained all day, and until the last minute it seemed the evening might be a washout.
But it came off, and I’m so glad we made the effort to go. The world was washed clean, and what a world. The evening renewed my appreciation for the 97-year-old Japanese Hill and Pond Garden and the Lily Pool Terrace, especially.
And I <duh> did not have a proper camera with me. These were taken with an iPhone 4S, which will do in a pinch.