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

Garden Inspiration: Hudson Valley Cottage


HERE’S WHERE I LEARNED WHAT I KNOW about country gardening: a hillside in northern Dutchess County, N.Y. My wasband and I bought the 20-acre property in 2002 and set about to create garden beds on a couple of those acres (the rest is virgin woods). Some of the existing plantings are as old as the house — late 1930s, according to newspaper insulation found in the mudroom wall: a 50’long row of peonies that does its exuberant thing every June, a stand of vigorous old lilacs, a long privet hedge that lines the driveway and glorious trees: flowering cherry, apple, and pear, dogwoods and Japanese maple.


Entrance to driveway, above, with spirea in bloom.


Close-up of the island bed in the middle of the lawn pictured at top. Hakonechloa (Japanese forest grass) in foreground, a shrub rose in middle, lamb’s ear and catmint and many other things beyond.

But most of what you see in this post is all us: designed from nothing and maintained with great effort, by both of us at first and now by Jeff, who continues to expand the gardens and with them, his never-ending labors (he has a John Deere tractor/mower/plow, which helps a lot).  I was there this past weekend, dividing a few perennials to take back to Long Island and doing what I could to help keep things in check. And taking pictures, of course.


A favorite combo in island bed, above: yellow-flowered euphorbia, spiky purple speedwell, good old nepeta (catmint).


Lady’s mantle, above, so successful here, such a flop in all my other gardens.

Around the back of the house is a mudroom, below, alongside which are a few concrete steps, now extended with slate steppingstones up the hill toward the vegetable garden.


There’s lamium, ferns, and hostas…



…more hakonechloa, lady’s mantle and spirea, to name a few.

This is called the $5 garden, because nothing in it cost more than $5, at farmstands and church sales.


Below, one of many rocky outcroppings on the property, on which Jeff has planted a variety of dwarf species, overlooked by a yard-sale Buddha.


Shade lovers along the front porch railing, below, include big-leaved ligularia and chocolate- colored cimicifuga. In the foreground: evening primrose in bloom.


Astilbe and ferns on the other side of the fence, below.


Totally out-of-control ‘square bed,’ below: the wild rose at left (multiflora rose, I believe, often found on lists of invasives), if not hacked radically back every year, grows like mad and has obscured one of four boxwoods in the corner of what’s meant to be a tidy little showpiece. It has agastache and flowering chives, and there’s a concrete birdbath with two or three different succulents set in gravel.

IMG_1950    IMG_1953

Above: Japanese maples in pots and in the ground, and a variegated miscanthus (ornamental grass) in the raised box that struggled for years in too little light but finally triumphed. The log bench, made by Jeff, was suggested by those at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton.


Above, a mysterious concrete rectangle — possibly a greenhouse or garage foundation from years past — which we filled with low-maintenance gravel (after trying a water feature that was a disaster) and rimmed with pieces of slate. Sometimes referred to as the Zen Litter Box.

Up on the hill, below, the homemade vegetable garden fence is of a mixed metaphor: Fort Apache with a Toro gate.


View from the top of the property, below. That’s the Taghanic range in the distance.


Breathtaking, isn’t it? To see more photos of the same property in other years and seasons, go here and here.

My Little Eden

THINGS ARE SO GREEN AROUND HERE after a couple of days of heavy rain… well, all that’s missing is the serpent.

I can’t stop taking iPhone snaps of my humble Long Island half-acre, from so many angles you’d think it was the Parthenon. Top, what looks to my eye like a classic border, with the requisite curving path and conical evergreen for structure. The perennial cranesbill geranium is flowering as never before, thanks to a free hand with the Deer-Out. Mustn’t relax my vigilance, especially after such a deluge — which washes the repellent away, despite what the label says. The deer are wily creatures.

See the results of yesterday’s photography walk below:

Plenty of free parking


A new view of my place, from the next door neighbor’s yard. Looks rather sweet from their POV


Above, not my shed. I had gone next door to check out theirs. I’m planning a shed myself, for garden tools and equipment. It won’t be as elaborate as this one. This is practically a guest cottage; if I had such a structure,  I’d use it for more than bike and junk storage.


Above, the area where I’ll be putting the shed


Lilies of the valley and May apples at the rear of the property. I’ve helped them out a bit by clearing garlic mustard from this area.


Above, a peony, one of two I planted three years ago, finally asserting itself, maybe to bloom a few years hence.


Something I like: a variegated pieris putting out colorful foliage.


Planted three weigela ‘Bristol Ruby’ by the roadside — still working on that ‘tapestry hedge’ for screening in a light-challenged, deer-challenged area


Dead boxwood and other yard waste, ready for the dump


That delicate sweet woodruff, a flowering groundcover so charming in a shady Brooklyn backyard, became thuggish in this area under the magnolia. I ripped it out by the fistful to prevent it taking over the pulmonaria (spotted leaves, lower right)


Been moving things around… the Korean boxwood just arrived in this corner from nearer the front, where it was outgrowing its space

All is freshened up by the long, much-needed shower. Sun breaking through!

Garden Envy in Amagansett


The heavenly tented pool pavilion

I COULD GO IN AND OUT of grand oceanfront estates all day long, then come back to my humble cottage and still be happy with the place. I can wander five hedged, manicured, topiaried, statued, fountained acres and admire them, but not care a whit that they don’t belong to me.


Anthropomorphic boxwoods greet you at the gravel parking court

But Sunday I visited an Amagansett garden newly added to the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program and came away wanting to weep.


Perennial beds on a central axis of brick pathways near the property’s entrance

This one is a mere one-third of an acre, surrounding a cedar-shingled cottage with muted green trim.


Tall, columnar Leyland cypresses are dramatic punctuation marks

Yet it has so many nooks and aspects, separated by specimen evergreens and Japanese maples, and blooming profusely in mid-July with tropical-colored cannas, day lilies, fuchsias, and more, it seems much larger, and decidedly un-boring.


Poolside cannas in bloom


A shady back corner with Solomon’s seal, white hydrangeas

The design works such popular cottage-garden features as rustic arbors and a brick-paved entry patio centered on an iron urn, to magical effect.


Day lilies, a dwarf Japanese maple on the pool patio

Masterminded by Victoria Fensterer, a garden designer based in East Hampton, it is dense with plants, but with such a clear structure that it feels not overstuffed but simply abundant.

There’s a small, irregularly shaped lawn, surrounded by tall evergreens and old cedars, so that the edges of the property are blurred and seemingly non-existent.


Dense shrubbery visually expands the boundaries of the small lot

Steps made of massive slabs of stone lead to a naturalistic pool with river stones in place of the usual coping.


Stone steps lead to a free-form pool

And then there’s that piece de resistance, a pool pavilion in the form of a draped, circus-like IMGP9664tent — a festive bit of exoticism on Long Island’s often terribly-traditional East End.

Montauk’s Second House


“SECOND HOUSE” IN MONTAUK, out at the tip of Long Island, is so called because it was — you guessed it — the second house built there, when Montauk’s 15,000 acres comprised America’s first cattle ranch. First House, built in 1744, burned down long ago. Second House, now a museum maintained by the Montauk Historical Society, went up in 1797 — the oldest parts of it, anyway.


It served as an inn for travelers, fishermen, and hunters, later as a summer home for a family named Kennedy. I’d driven past it many times but never found it open.


Today I went inside for the first time (it’s open every day but Wednesday in summer) and can report that Second House is filled with furnishings in styles ranging from Colonial to Victorian, along with displays of old tools and framed photographs of local scenes.


There’s also an array of Montauk-abilia, including an arresting portrait of Stephen Talkhouse, below, the legendary 19th century Montauk Indian and Civil War vet said to be able to walk from Montauk to Brooklyn (a distance of 100 miles) in a day.


There’s a fine cottage garden surrounded by a picket fence, and an interesting rockery/herb garden alongside one of the outbuildings.


For the $4 price of admission, it’s definitely something to keep in mind for a rainy day at the beach.