Far Side of Summer in My Long Island Garden


THE PAST COUPLE OF YEARS, I’ve spent the better part of April, May and June, September, October and November at my quirky vintage-modern house on the East End of Long Island, N.Y., and rented it out in high summer.

I love missing the Hamptons’ seasonal frenzy, the crowded beaches and restaurants, the scarce parking. I hate missing my native white rhododendrons in midsummer bloom, and the lilies of July and August.

The summer was hot and dry. I don’t have irrigation, so I had the garden watered by hand once a week. It survived (with a few minor losses), needing just a few days of extra catch-up watering when I returned after Labor Day, before the deluges of September began.

Toward the end of August, I asked my garden helper to put in a few hours of hand weeding before I returned. The result was that I came back to a garden in such good shape, I wandered around with little to do and a strange lack of motivation for new plantings or projects.

That went away, and the month of October has been a busy one here at Dry Shade Half-Acre (still trying to come up with a name for my property; that’s not it).

I made three trips to the dump for wood chips and created a rudimentary meandering path through an unstructured area of tall oaks dotted with a few shrubs I’d stuck in here and there over the years. With this simple, cost-free gesture, I suddenly had planting areas…definition!

I planted 300 bulbs along the path (mostly small ones like muscari and Star of Bethlehem), aiming for an early-spring carpet. Elsewhere, I put in three white azaleas, filled in holes in my perennial beds with colorful heuchera (coral bells) and euphorbia, and moved things that weren’t doing well, like non-blooming Montauk daisies, in hopes of finding happier homes for them.

The most backbreaking task was dividing huge clumps of hakonechloa and epimedium and spreading them around. I ventured into parts of the property that have never been cultivated, where digging turns up roots and rocks, and the soil is just plain dirt. Back to the dump for compost.

The other night, I was in my “winter studio” (i.e. the great room, now with insulation and wood-burning stove), going through a pile of garden notes, clippings and plant labels dating back to 2013, when I bought this property.

I came across a folder from a three-session course I took at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in March 2014, where each student worked on plans for his or her own garden. The instructor, Jim Russell, was big on creative visualization, and he had us write up — in present tense, as if the vision was already realized — descriptions of our gardens five years hence.

It’s only been 4-1/2 years, but here’s what I wrote, and whether it’s been accomplished:

“My garden is serene, organized and thriving.” YES!

“A system of paths, made of loose material, with logs inserted for grade changes, winds through space that still has the feeling of the original oak woods…” YES!

“…with an understory of evergreens and flowering shrubs, and medium-small flowering trees like dogwoods and magnolias.” ON ITS WAY. NEED MORE PLANT MATERIAL. STILL LIKE THE CONCEPT.

“Shade-loving perennials line the paths.” YEP.

“The stockade fence is gone or modified beyond recognition — screened with a tapestry of lush plantings.” UM, NO. IT’S STILL THERE, IN ALL ITS GLORY.

“There is a new deck that provides for both sun and shade…” YES, INDEED!



“…and a fabulous outdoor shower.” YESSSSSS!

Perhaps it’s time to write my next five-year plan. This stuff really works!


Chasmanthium (Northern sea oats) leaning out of their scallop-shell bed along the front walk.


Mid-autumn view, with morning sun slanting in.


OK, not the most impressive path you ever saw, but it’s a start.


Emperor Japanese maple, one of three planted last fall and nicely settled in.

The guest cabin is being painted white, with a new pine floor, below.


Other home improvements of the past season: a DIY bamboo privacy screen for the outdoor shower deck…


eye-popping Mexican blankets for the guest room…


and a pair of irresistible (to me) S-shaped rope lamps.


Finally, I’d like to take a quick look back to the more floriferous days of late spring, which I neglected to fully document in these pages. (It’s also a look ahead to next spring, which in Nature’s infinite wisdom will be much the same.)


The rhodie show takes place every Memorial Day weekend.


The iris show happens around the same time.


Lychnis (rose campion) are prolific self-seeders, flinging themselves into all the sunniest spots. I’m letting them have their way.


First-ever prickly pear flower, transplanted from the beach a few years back.


New this year: window boxes, with coleus and vinca. ##

About cara

I blog (for fun) here at casaCARA, and write (for money) about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites.
This entry was posted in GARDENS & GARDENING, HAMPTONS, LANDSCAPING, LONG ISLAND. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Far Side of Summer in My Long Island Garden

  1. Dorothee van Mol says:

    So fun to read and wonder through your garden with you, that’s s great idea, the five year fantasy plan. And yours…so much done, amazing. Love the laying down of the simple path that gave you the direction where to plant inn between the trees, perfect! Cannot wait to see the bulbs come up in he spring!

  2. Marianne Davies says:

    I so love reading about your home on Long Island as well as your other adventures and projects!!

  3. Martha Kelly says:

    I’m so glad you blog – and blog beautifully. Your pictures are stunning. I’ve enjoyed watching your Long Island homestead get more and more inviting. A garden service and an interior decorator can make a property look pleasant, but nothing compares to the work of a loving owner. And congratulations on your prickly pear blossom. Does that make you a prickly grandma?

  4. Charlotte says:

    Cara, incredibly beautiful. It is indeed serene and yet, wow, we know how much work was involved.
    Hats off to you!
    xo Charlotte

  5. Pamela Gordon says:

    You are the best! A creator of serene and inspiring beauty. xoxoxo P.

  6. Jenny M says:

    Gosh your garden is looking so lush and I love the interest/contrast of your timber walkway & deck area.

  7. Julia says:

    Everything’s coming along so nicely.
    The springtime rhodie show coincides with Mother’s Day irises in my yard making for a colorful beginning to a Brooklyn summer; looks the same for you on Long Island.

  8. Wow! Fabulous photos! What a beautiful garden! I was on Long Island last month for the first time in my life (I live in Ireland). My show of 30+ paintings is still on at Mark Borghi in Bridgehampton until the end of the month, you might have seen Jennifer Landes lovely review in the East Hampton Star! Hope you manage to see it while you’re still there! Best wishes, Liz Doyle

  9. cara says:

    Why, thank you, Liz! To be complimented on my garden by an Irishwoman is extra-special — I know how spectacular Irish gardens can be, though I’ve only been to Dublin myself https://casacara.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/in-dublins-fair-city/). Your paintings look marvelous online; I’ll try to get to the gallery. Thanks again for reaching out.

  10. So glad to have found you and your blog! We live right up in the North West in Donegal. On an island (with a bridge) sticking out into the Atlantic. It is very windy and salty, so it’s very hard to grow much. We are persevering with lots of tree planting, especially native, hardy species like willow, alder, hazel and a few oaks.
    I really hope you manage to get to my show, let me know if you do, I’d love to know what you think! PS Mark Borghi is closed on Wednesday and Thursday, as it’s open all weekend! http://www.borghi.org

  11. Lori says:

    looks spectacular! i have been following your garden since the beginning and love seeing it fulfilling your vision. xo

  12. cara says:

    How nice to hear! Thanks, Lori, for the kind words and loyal readership:-)
    Stay tuned for the Spring 2019 installment of my garden’s progress, once I sit down and sort through all the hundreds of photos I have taken!

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