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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.
….is maybe not such a great idea. It’s bigger than it looked on the not-to-scale map in the tourist brochure.
Pork-chop-shaped Block Island, Rhode Island, is about 15 miles off the easternmost tip of Long Island, where I live part of the year. I was bound and determined to get there on the last weekend of seasonal ferry service from Montauk. Unable to convince a friend to join me — admittedly, the night before — I went off solo, as I did last winter to Europe. I even wore the same trusty boots that saw me through Spain, France and Italy, and summoned up an echo of the old travel excitement as I drove the half-hour to catch the 10AM ferry on a perfect October Sunday, having done zero preliminary research. I had a vision of finding breakfast in a Victorian hotel, once I reached Block Island, on a porch overlooking the sea.
I had been to Block Island once before, in the early ’90s, and wasn’t wrong in assuming it would still be much the same — unspoiled and tranquil, with only 600 year-round residents and, by Columbus Day weekend, few vacationers left. I expected the ferry to dock in Old Harbor, immediately across from an old-fashioned high street with restaurants, bars and shops. All that’s still there, but that’s not where the new super-fast ferry from Montauk docks. It docks, after an hour-long crossing over pristine waters, in New Harbor, about two miles away from any hope of breakfast (or by now, lunch).
Leaving Montauk, above
First glimpses of Block Island, below
There was a stand renting bicycles (mopeds too), but I passed it by. Block Island is hilly, and I thought I’d be better off hoofing it. So I walked and took photos, arriving at Old Harbor to discover the grande-dame hotel restaurants mostly closed for the reason, and ended up at the Topside Cafe, a hippie establishment where I had my first-ever acai berry bowl.
Old walls made of huge stones, found throughout the island, are not why it’s called Block Island (it’s named after Adrian Block, an early Dutch settler).
I wanted to see a bit of the island’s interior and perhaps some of the vaunted ocean beaches. My rudimentary map showed 25 miles of yellow hiking trails, and I chose the Fresh Swamp Trail as a goal — it was the closest and shortest. I passed old farmhouses as I walked to the trailhead, some now used as inns, on roads that became increasingly less paved. The trail took me through woods and open fields and was serene and lovely, if not dramatic. By the time I emerged on the road at the other end, it was mid-afternoon. I had walked a total of five miles and my legs were tired. To get back on foot to New Harbor in time for the 5PM return boat, I’d have to head straight there, on perhaps the island’s least scenic road, past the airport. As I contemplated that walk, a taxi came along the otherwise deserted road, and my hand went up so fast I wasn’t sure I had even made a decision to hail it.
Because the driver had another pickup in that direction, we ended up on the unremarkable airport road, and I was now early for the return ferry. I had him drop me at Old Harbor again, thinking I’d do a bit of shopping and find a cocktail. Racks of cute, arty clothing at drastic end-of-season reductions lined the street, so I did that for a while, then found myself at Poor People’s Pub, crowded and cozy, eating the best pizza I’ve had since Naples — truffled mushrooms and goat cheese, and a Narragansett beer on draft. Then I had to move quickly to make that return ferry, or spend an extra 24 hours on the island (which wouldn’t have been the worst thing). By the time I’d hiked back to New Harbor, I was hobbling.
I never saw the beaches, except for those that could be seen from the ferry, or much of the island, really. But I saw enough to know I’d like to return.
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.
GUEST CABIN, SHE SHED, WRITING ROOM, LOVE SHACK…whatever it’s called, it’s the latest project to be (nearly) completed at my Long Island, N.Y., beach house, and I think it turned out pretty cute.
Here’s what the 14’x17′ cedar structure looked like a month or two ago:
In the two years I’ve owned the property, the shed had become a very handy storage unit for leftover lumber and bits and pieces of furniture I didn’t know what to do with. I had a yard sale in June and got rid of most everything. Then, the same two-man team who painted the house last spring and whipped up bookshelves and a closet for me removed the trio of aluminum windows, above, replacing them with a pair of French doors left behind by the previous owner.
A casement window went into the side of the building where no window had been before (above). In this photo the French doors are merely primed; I later had them painted brown to coordinate with the house. I was going to have the shed painted Aegean Olive to match the house as well, but after it was power washed, I decided I liked the look and would keep it that way, at least for now.
Naturally my little folly ended up costing a lot more than expected; the shed required a whole new roof, not just a patch job, including replacement of some rotted rafters. (The two skylights were salvageable, happily.) I sacrificed a deck for budgetary reasons, but I had the guys build three four-foot-wide steps leading to the French doors, using stringers from Home Depot.
The furnishings are all things I had on hand, including a rustic hutch from my previous house that had no place to go. It was all done in a feverish couple of days at the end of June, as the house is rented out for July. I hear the shed — no, cabin — was a great success with young visitors over the 4th.
THE MONTH OF LONGEST DAYS is drawing to a close, and I feel compelled to celebrate it with a blog post before it fleets by. The alliums, lush purple just two weeks ago, are already browned on their stalks. Those are not my alliums, above, though I have a few, or my lily pool; they are attached to an East Hampton oceanfront estate I toured as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program on June 21.
Young men in straw hats were stationed to direct mortals like myself through this sensational south-of-the-highway estate, pointing the way to wildflower meadow, cottage garden, woodland walk, vegetable garden, parterre and croquet green (pool and tennis court go without saying). Have a small look:
It was a month of yoga on the beach, lobster in Montauk, sunsets from the jetty, and the humble satisfactions of my own half-acre compound shaping up (as I type, two men are working by night to finish the transformation of shed to guest cottage; photos to follow).
I introduced two friends to one of the oddest and most photogenic places I know of on the East End: Multi Aquaculture Systems, an Amagansett fish farm, below, the last on Long Island. Besides tanks of striped bass and other fish, it has ducks and dogs and a cafe selling Provencal pottery and picturesque decaying buildings and wildflowers in abundance by the bay.
I swam a couple of times at my local beach, below. It was exhilarating, and that’s how I know it’s really summer.