Perennials on Parade + Shopping for an Instant Cottage Garden

The morning after I got back from my Italian vacation — April 3rd, I think it was — I called my plumber out on the East End of Long Island and said, “Charles, would it be jumping the gun to turn the water on now?” It would be, he said. “There was ice in the bucket this morning.” I don’t know what bucket he was referring to, but never mind that.

Point being, I had to wait another week before heading out to my mostly-unwinterized glorified bungalow. When I did arrive, car full of bags and boxes, the water was on and the toilet flushing, but the landscape was decidedly wintery. I hunkered down in my only insulated room, known as the great room, where I kept my new wood stove cranking, and slept there on an air mattress for a month, venturing into the rest of the house only for quick trips to the bathroom or kitchen to heat up a bowl of soup.

April’s delights, including a new rustic cedar gate (or arch or trellis), separating the lower garden from the upper garden, two kinds of epimedium, solomon’s seal and those very satisfying purple muscari along my impromptu wood-chip path

But I wanted to be out there, rather than in my city apartment, to catch the unfolding of the garden from the season’s beginning. It was the first spring I could expect some early bulbs, like muscari (grape hyacinth) and tiny hybrid tulips planted the fall before, and I didn’t want to miss anything.

May’s offerings, including the annual azalea and rhodie shows, plus rodgersia, the big-leaved brownish thing everyone always asks about, enkianthus, broom, flag iris

In the past, I’d never been able to start my season before mid-May, so the sunniness of my wooded half-acre in early spring, absent its dense canopy of leaves, was a revelation, as was the speed with which things came out of the ground.

The greening happened visibly day by day, almost hour by hour, once it got started, helped by the extra-abundant rains of May and June, said to be 50% more than normal for the period.

June’s white alliums, rose campion, astilbe, ladies mantel, and my instant cottage garden. One impulsive day I decided to do something with the four raised beds in the sunny center of the property, which up till then had been filled with catmint from years past, aggressive evening primrose, and some cottage favorites from upstate (rudbekia, obedient plant, coneflower). In two trips to the nursery, I added yarrow, delphinium, mallow, coreopsis, nicotiana and more — mostly perennials purchased in bloom. I’ll keep adding to it.

Yes, I worked, but not like a demon. Not like in the old days, when I was first clearing the property and establishing the garden. An hour here, two hours there, which leaves plenty of time to appreciate what Nature, with a bit of help from me, has wrought.

Lilies, day and otherwise, lead the way into July, along with hydrangea, drumstick alliums and later-blooming native rhododendrons

Season’s End on the East End

IMG_4968I’VE CLOSED UP SHOP in East Hampton for the winter. Had to. My house has no heat, and the nighttime temperatures have dipped into the 40s and even 30s. Yes, I have a fireplace, a space heater, down comforters and cashmere sweaters and fuzzy slippers. But all that can only take a body so far. So I’m back in my Brooklyn brownstone apartment for the duration, having come to terms with the fact that my Long Island house is a five-month-a-year proposition (though I pay the mortgage twelve).

Below: New late-season planting areas

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The beginnings of a pinetum (conifer collection), above.

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A new experimental bed filled with odds and ends I don’t know what else to do with, above.

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Raised beds now containing about 300 bulbs (allium, Queen of the Night tulips, Pheasant’s Eye daffs), above. A flower farm: something to look forward to come May, for sure.

I tore myself away, as always, with regret. Planting bulbs, walking along the beach, gazing at sunsets (below, from the jetty at Maidstone Park), watching the autumn colors come on day by day — those things sustain me in a way traipsing along city sidewalks does not.

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Moving forward, from afar, on two major projects this winter: the installation of 11 new windows, and the demolition of a storage room and two closets at one end of the great room, below, to create an unimpeded open space, about 400 square feet, that will eventually become a (heated, insulated — though not this year) “winter studio.” Don’t you love the sound of that? I do.

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My last week at the house was spent packing, weeding, winnowing. There’s no end to it. Two IKEA bags full of books off to the LVIS thrift shop. Three more cartons of random items into the shed, marked ‘Yard Sale.’ As hard as I try, as much I pare down, stuff just… accumulates. OK, I confess: I went to a couple of yard sales on my last morning.

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Off to the shed with ye… or the “rubber room,” above, passed along to me by my friend Diana.

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End of season yard-sale find, above. How could I pass those up? 

Close the skylights. Close the fireplace flues. Strip the beds. One last laundry. Clean out the refrigerator. Roll up the rugs. Push the furniture away from the back wall and cover it with drop cloths, for protection during demo and construction. Dump the annuals.

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Wait — scratch that last item: “Dump the annuals.”  I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The coleus and Swedish ivy and other plants in my deck containers continued to thrive. I didn’t have the heart to dump them (though the clay pots they’re in will break over the winter if I don’t). But I’ll wait until the cold does them in, then do the deed on one of my upcoming quick visits ‘just to check on things.’

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A stay of execution for the container plants, above.

So it’s last call. Shutting down the joint. Bartender’s gonna throw me out. Pack the car. Unplug the modem. Look around one more time. Go room to room, say goodbye. Around the garden. A few more iPhone pix. Peer into the shed. Why must the day I leave have to be so beautiful?

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Maidstone Park,  above.

1920s Sarasota

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I’M JUST BACK from Florida’s Gulf Coast, where I attended Sarasota Mod, a conference aimed at educating the public (and hopefully saving) the city’s stock of innovative post-WWII housing and public buildings. But before I delve into all that — and delve I will, on this blog and in a piece for Architectural Record — I couldn’t resist a post about another, earlier love: 1920s Mediterranean Revival-style cottages. Sarasota developers built them to meet the needs of people beginning to discover the charms of what had been wilderness a few decades before.

Top, not a cottage — that’s Ca’ D’Zan, an over-the-top Venetian-style palazzo built for circus impresario John Ringling and his wife Mable in 1926, now restored and re-furnished down to the original china and silver. We were treated to dinner on the terrace there, below, sunset included.

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One lunch hour, I strolled the back streets of Sarasota’s business district and found, in the shadows of condos and parking garages, a few 1920s buildings that have survived the relentless march of commerce. Can you spot one in the photo below?

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What fun it was to come across Burns Court, below, a rare, intact street of stucco cottages, each painted and decorated with Florida flair. Built in 1926 by developer Owen Burns (who also built Ca’ D’Zan), Burns Court is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Just east of Orange Avenue, in the streets around Laurel Park, there’s a whole neighborhood of wood-frame 1920s bungalowsBelow, a small apartment complex in that red-tile-roof, arched-windows ersatz Spanish style so beloved in the Twenties. Most, though not all, of the homes in the Laurel Park area are well-maintained, with landscaping that is beyond lush, sometimes obscuring the houses from the street.

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Must add this guy to my mailbox archive:

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Last Suppers

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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.

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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.

photoI’m enjoying my last spring at House #1 though not, all things being equal, my last in East Hampton, where they do daffodils really well (not either of my houses, left).

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.

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I’m also busy sketching ideas for a new deck and new configuration of rooms at House photo_3#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.

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Paint Ho!

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FIRST THERE WAS AEGEAN OLIVE, a green-brown (center top), as well as a brown-brown and a purple-brown. I stared at those three patches all summer. Then it became September, and a friend suggested we get on with it, and paint the exterior of my mid-century house in East Hampton, N.Y. Ourselves.

A date was chosen, texts exchanged, trips to the paint store made. I wanted the house to remain low-profile and blend in with its surroundings, in keeping with the brown tones of the houses in Japanese gardening books. The house already was brown, and I liked it in concept, but the paint job was ancient and I  wanted a prettier brown. I sampled two lighter shades: Country Life (left top), immediately adjacent to Aegean Olive on Ben Moore’s color strip, but disconcertingly much lighter when actually applied, and Tate Olive (bottom right), from Ben Moore’s Historic Colors line. That was lighter still.

Longtime readers of this blog know I can sample up to dozen colors for a single room, really make a fetish out of it. But the time was now and short (getting colder, busy schedules) and a decision needed to be made. So Aegean Olive it was, and the job began.

My friend is meticulous, enjoys painting, doesn’t mind ladders. I am more of the “let’s get it done” school, happier down low than up high. Together, with her guidance, we finished the job, neatly, in a marathon Saturday. Everyone should have such a friend.

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In progress…

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Next day…

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In the morning light…

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It needs touch-up, and the rafters still need painting. I’m planning to do the door and window trim with colors from those leftover sample quarts before too long. But heading into winter, it feels great to have the bulk of it done.

Belatedly — two weeks after our big painting push — I came upon this image, which I’d photocopied from a book called The Garden in its Setting by Noel Kingsbury. It reminded me of my own place, with the vertical siding and awning windows. Note the color! I guess I did, subliminally. And there’s the Japanese-style landscaping I so admire. Amazing how our minds file things away, even as they forget they filed them.

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