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THIS MAY DAY in Brooklyn is a drizzly one. Still, Brooklyn’s brownstone streets are exquisite in spring. Don’t tell anyone… they may decide to move here in droves.
Dogwoods have been in their prime these past couple of weeks, lighting up the fronts of dark-hued row houses with blossoms of pink and white.
P.S. It’s not just dogwoods. See below.
I FEEL DISLOYAL saying this, but I have a favorite public garden, and it’s not the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — as much as the BBG is a local treasure and a restorative for my spirit in all seasons. It’s Chanticleer in Wayne, PA, just outside Philly, a garden that exists for no reason beyond unabashed pleasure.
Chanticleer, which opened to the public in 1993 on 35 acres formerly owned by the Rosengarten family, heirs to the Merck pharmaceutical fortune, it’s probably the ‘artiest’ garden I know, dynamic and contemporary, framed by great trees.
It’s one delight after another, around a 1920s Mediterranean-style house: the Teacup Garden, above, around a fountain; exuberant perennial beds on the flat, sunny space once occupied by a tennis court; an Asian woodland; a sun-soaked garden around a brick folly known as the ‘Ruin,’ and all manner of other beds and borders, bleeding into native woodland at the property’s edges.
Chanticleer has evolved over the years and with the seasons, lovingly tended by a team of 15 gardeners who are not purely horticulturalists, but creative artists working with color and texture and shape, as a painter works with paints and a sculptor with stone.
The garden is stuffed with ideas for the borrowing. Now many of them have been incorporated into a big, luscious book, The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer (Timber Press, $35)
The book is a group effort by Chanticleer’s executive director, R. William Thomas, and its team of 15 gardeners, who have each written essays on their various specialties, from color schemes for container planting to using ribbons of grasses as a unifying element, planting in a native woodland and under mature trees, and designing meadows where once was lawn, as well as pruning and planting basics and plant suggestions galore.
What I love most, after the stunning photos by Rob Cardillo, which include many of Chanticleer in the months from November through March when it is closed to the public, is the encouraging “throw caution to the winds” tone. “We experiment in public view,” writes one gardener, and so should we, even if our experiments are not always successful.
The book is a tonic to Northeast gardeners like myself who need something to sustain them during the nearly half-year when outdoor garden work is normally impossible, and until Chanticleer opens for the 2016 season.
Read about one of my springtime visits to Chanticleer here: Sheer Pleasure: Chanticleer
ALL GARDENING ALL THE TIME… that’s how I spent September and October at my beach-house property in Springs, N.Y., before cold nights forced me back to the big city.
I devoted last spring mostly to home improvements, while my garden ambitions lay fallow. I rented in July, and August was broken up by treks back and forth to Brooklyn, to oversee work at my townhouse in Cobble Hill (now rented, happily).
Besides which, though I had done a lot of clearing and planting by this third season at the house, I’m still somewhat lacking in the overall vision department.
But Labor Day weekend, I had a visit from a garden-designer friend who never fails to get me thinking, and things took a conceptual leap forward. I’d had this grand new deck built the summer before last, but hadn’t done much landscaping around it. Mary-Liz suggested that if I enlarged the existing beds, which began a few feet away from the deck, with an expanse of wood chips in between, and brought the beds right up to the edges, you’d feel, while lounging on the deck, as if you were sitting in the garden and not just looking at it.
While she was visiting, we swam in the bay and drank wine and, except for one trip to the dump for compost and some watering, didn’t lift a finger. It was Labor Day weekend, after all. As soon as her car pulled out of the driveway, though, I sprang into action. Over the next few days, I outlined new, expanded beds with some of the bricks from the three huge stacks I inherited when I bought the house two-and-a-half years ago. Then I had more compost delivered and piled in the newly defined areas, where there was only packed-down dirt.
This is all still very ad hoc; the bricks are mere suggestions, not yet dug into the soil, and they don’t quite end anywhere. Things may shift later, when more permanent paths are built. But it was enough to get me going, and on to my next challenge: what to plant in these new areas without spending a lot of money I didn’t have?
As it happened, my friend Stephanie, gardener extraordinaire, had recently sold her East Hampton house and could quite easily part with a couple of hydrangeas, some Japanese silver ferns, hostas and other random things that would never be missed from her intensively planted acre. I procured these donations in late September, along with some pieces of slate for stepping-stone paths.
Then, my dear next-door neighbors were planning to move, too, at the end of October. They had been renting for several years, had done a fair bit of planting, and didn’t want to leave their fabulous weeping spruce, an Alberta spruce, a couple of other evergreens, some irises, etc., to the new owners, nor could they take them along. So these were dug up and brought over the fence to my property, where I carefully chose spots for each.
Finally, around Columbus Day, I made a visit to Lynch’s Garden Center in Southampton, one of my favorite area nurseries — it’s medium-size, not overwhelming, and always has an interesting selection. Even at that late date, to my amazement, they had a table of robust-looking shade perennials, including Solomon’s seal, rodgersia, astelboides and ladies mantle, at the giveaway price of $3 apiece. I bought almost all they had.
I also moved things I’d planted in the outer reaches of my own half-acre to spots nearer the house and deck, where I can enjoy them on a daily basis and where they’ll get more watering. A crape myrtle that was unhappy in the woods is now in a prime sunny spot, and three leather-leafed mahonia that were lost back there now have pride of place in a V-shaped area where two paths meet.
Oh, and then there were several buckets of liriope from Brooklyn, a grasslike groundcover, that had been hastily dug up, thrown into plastic pots and left to sit all summer with an occasional spritz. It was a tangled mess, but alive, when I got to it in September, and I spent two days teasing it apart and painstakingly transplanting what I hope will one day be a glorious carpet on either side of a new path from my brick patio to the… what to call it… well, to the area that still needs conceptualizing.
Add to this my renewed commitment to watering, watering, watering, which I did diligently by hand for approximately an hour-and-a-half each day, with fancy new watering wands and nozzles to make the job easier, and I have every expectation of a great gardening season when I get back to my little Eden next spring.
THIS AUGUST I’VE BEEN in and out and roundabout and back and forth. I’ve spent more time on the Long Island Expressway, it sometimes seems, than in my much-loved house in Springs (East Hampton), N.Y. And I’ve fallen down the job of documenting my garden. For that I have a novel excuse besides the fact that I haven’t been here as much as I’d like: the weather’s been too good! Decent garden photography on a sunny day, in the dappled shade of tall oaks, is near impossible. But the other morning, I woke at 6, stepped outside into a misty morning, and ran to get my camera.
IT’S BEEN CALLED the ‘crown jewel’ of New York City’s public gardens: see why. The plantings at the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th Street — different every year — are exuberant. Their unrestrained color combos feel like the tropics; the attention to textural variation makes nearly every spot an arresting visual. High summer is the time to go, though this garden — made up largely of annual plantings, with a backbone of hedges and perennials playing a supporting role — will be fabulous through frost. Combine with a visit to the Folk City and Paul Rand exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York across the street for an ideal midsummer outing.