Garden Voyeur: Ingenuity in Sag Harbor


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


marvelous smokebush



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.


Garden Inspiration: Humes Japanese Garden


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.