Second Fall in the Country

IMG_4324IT’S MY SECOND AUTUMN IN EAST HAMPTON, and life is good. I’ve planted a few more shrubs, done a bit of fall clean-up. Things are shaping up, landscape-wise, though I’ve been a little lax on the photos. How many times can I show pictures of the same property? Actually, though, I saw a shot of how the roadside area, which is where I’ve been working lately, looked a year ago, and there is an enormous difference. How quickly one forgets.

<-Dump find

What else have I been up to, for continuity’s sake? I was in Philadelphia last weekend, getting a trinity house ready for a renter. I’ve been eating vegan for the past 2 weeks and I’m getting used to it (just made a yummy tofu/spinach frittata). I’ve written several magazine articles, two for Garden Design‘s Nov/Dec issue  (one on the new Brooklyn Bridge Park) and two for Hamptons Cottages & Gardens‘ holiday issue. I spent yesterday in Bridgehampton with my friend Diana White, who sells extraordinary vintage furniture from Biedermeier to Art Deco to Steampunk, helping her with a photo shoot for the website Vintage and Modern.


Home #1

And now, to shake things up a little, I’m entering the ranks of those who “divide their time” between two homes. I’ve signed a lease on a 1-bedroom garden floor-through in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and just 3-1/2 weeks from now, I’ll be busy getting set up there and settling in for much of the winter — I guess. I’m really not sure where I’ll be when or how I’ll decide when it’s time to stay and when it’s time to go. It should be the easiest move ever, since all the stuff I’ll need for that apartment has been in storage for the past year-and-a-half. It’ll be delivered, and all I’ll have to do is unpack.

Consequently, I was very taken with a column in last Sunday’s New York Times, called “Home is Where the Stuff Is.” Boy, did it resonate, especially this passage, in which the author, Thomas Bellers, describes his feelings on returning home to New Orleans after a summer in Sag Harbor and seeing

“a million details of my life as it had been three and a half months earlier. Pocket change on a mantel, two cans of dog treats for the neighbor’s dog, a three-taper candlestick with wax melted over some Mardi Gras beads…

Nevertheless, I greeted these objects with ambivalence. Part of me felt exhausted by their presence. They exerted a kind of lunar pull, tugging me out of the present and into the past. It was like seeing an old friend after a long interval and being overcome with the sickening feeling that one of you has changed beyond recognition, that the old magic is gone.”

Is that how I’m going to feel, unpacking 35 boxes of books I didn’t look at before I moved? Clothing I haven’t needed? Pottery and dishes I easily replaced at yard sales? Music I’ve re-bought on iTunes?

The thing I’m most looking forward to re-acquainting myself with is my super-comfortable Englander mattress. Experientially, there’s more: Seeing friends I haven’t succeeded in luring out to the Hamptons. Volunteering at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Taking a few catch-up swing dance lessons. And coming back here, with the distance that I expect will make me appreciate country life all the more.

Below: Roadside with evergreens in place.  On my way to a ‘tapestry hedge,’ I hope, planning to fill in with looser, deciduous flowering shrubs.

Midsummer Update, Random Pix


Dusty road, Amagansett

I’VE BEEN A LITTLE LAX in the blog department lately. Maybe you’ve noticed? Blame it on the heat in this depressing summer of the oil spill, that last month was an unprecedented catastrophe and now is not so bad after all, to hear the authorities spin it. Feel better? I would, a little, if anyone could be believed.

Life is good here in Springs, the “Brooklyn of East Hampton,” as my friend Jill calls it. By that I think she means a few miles from the epicenter, lots of artists, and long stretches of beach (though ours lacks a parachute jump). I just found out that Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson bought a house last summer on Old Stone Highway. That clinches Springs for hipness.


Outside the Old Stone Market: even our delis are arty here in Springs

My garden is nothing to crow about — it looks much the same as it did in June. I haven’t planted anything new. I’m waiting for end-of-summer sales to fill in the bare spots.

“End of summer.” Saddest words in the English language? Not because I love summer more than other seasons, especially this brutal one (I finally broke down and bought an air conditioner). But the passing of any season makes me melancholy. One less summer, fall, winter, spring… life draws in.


Awesome Rose of Sharon hedge

Well, we’re not quite there yet. Let’s call it height of summer. Anyhow, by way of excuses, and for the sake of continuity, here’s what I’ve been up to:

  • Watering, watering, watering, and praying for rain that never seems to come. From watering cans, I went to a hand-held hose, and now I see the wisdom of sprinklers. The process takes 1-1/2 hours any way you slice it, at least every other day. (Soaker hoses are too advanced for me.)
  • Dealing with damage from a freak wind/rainstorm — some call it a tornado — about three weeks ago. The storm lasted all of 15 minutes, and left hundreds of broken trees in its wake. The roadsides are still full of debris the Town hasn’t yet picked up. A big oak in my front yard, below, broke in half; I called Eric, the Tree Man of Montauk, to take it down and cart it away. My front area is getting sunnier — not a bad thing.
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  • Enjoying my house guests. What would summer in the Hamptons be without them? I’m delighted so many friends and relatives want to visit. They’re getting me to the beach more than I would go otherwise. Swimming in Gardiner’s Bay on an almost-daily basis is a joy.

    $25 rummage sale find: Victorian wicker dresser for the guest room (formerly owned by Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft)

  • Eating (lobster, steamers, mussels — don’t tell the rabbi), drinking, spending. Favorite home-made summer beverage: sangria, a great way to enjoy cheap wine. My favorite new restaurant: The Boathouse, overlooking Three Mile Harbor, with it’s $27 prix fixe before 6:30PM.

    Dinner party in Southampton

  • Speaking of early bird specials, I’ve been letting my hair go “natural” for a year, and now it’s  done. No more low-lights, maintenance, choosing between Golden Ash Brown and Medium Warm Brown. It’s just whatever comes out of my scalp, and there’s a lot of…silver. I may look older, but I feel chic. (No illustration for this one. I have yet to see a photo of myself with my new look, and I’m not sure I want to.)

    Rocks I covet

  • A bit of writing — three articles for Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, only one of which has yet appeared — and a new assignment for Garden Design.
  • Keeping my tenants happy. This apartment needs a new air conditioner, that one an exterminator for moths, here the stove ignition isn’t firing, and so it goes. All in a day’s work.
  • Making plans to visit my daughter in Maui in November. It’ll be the beginning of whale season. I asked if you have to go out in a boat to see them, and she said: “No, you can probably see them from my window.” Sounds more exciting than deer from my window.
  • Cruising Craigslist for a Brooklyn pied-a-terre come winter. Yes, I know I said that last year, 3n23k33od5T05P25S2a7tfcf73804bfa319e6ended up loving winter here in East Hampton and didn’t want to budge. But I am bothered that, for the first time in 32 years, we have no family base in Brooklyn. And saddened that what I still think of as the stuff of my “real life” — furniture, art, rugs, books, family pictures — is sitting in a warehouse. Will I ever see it again? Not unless I get a place to put it. I may not need an apartment in New York, but my furniture does. Something like this, perhaps? —>
  • Anticipating my new deck here in Springs, set to happen next week. I had measured and staked something out for bid purposes. Then my friend Jifat, an architect, paid me a visit and said, “Oh, no no no no no.” She helped me re-measure and re-stake, and now the scheme and proportions are much improved. Jifat conceived two decks. One will be a 6’x9′ shower platform three steps up, with an enclosure to be made of half-moon gates, below, left over from a previous project. As the outdoor shower is right outside the bathroom, I’m going to have the bathroom window replaced with a glass door. The main deck will be 16’x24′ off the back porch, with one wide step all the way around. I got four estimates, and chose the contractor Jifat recommended. Looking forward to the chaos and excitement of construction.
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The Waiting Game

Backyard Community Garden, Red Hook

Soon: Backyard Community Garden, Red Hook, Brooklyn

SNOW IS STILL BLANKETING THE GROUND — another few inches yesterday — but it’s getting nearer the day we can start gardening in earnest. I intended to do a whole planning thing with graph paper and templates this winter, as I did two years ago in Nigel Rollings‘ garden-design class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, but frankly, I can’t be bothered. I’ve got in my head what I want to do – must do – and when the time comes (next month, God willing) I’ll just get out there and do it.


Soon: Sissinghurst, Kent, England

There are so many steps to accomplish before I can put new plants in. The soil must be improved, first of all – it’s just sandy dirt at the moment, with a layer of oak leaves – and that will involve much purchasing of compost and manure and back-straining labor  – and then I have to move about 300 square feet’s worth of old ferns and astilbes, along with daffodil bulbs I put in rather thoughtlessly last fall (after they bloom and fade, in early May probably) to make room for a new deck.


Soon: Sissinghurst, Kent, England

Right now, I’m reading a lot. Garden books, naturally. I continue to mine the library and occasionally order something from My latest discovery is The Country Garden by Josephine Nuese, published in 1970. Sydney Eddison, another wonderful garden writer, put me on to her. Nuese wrote from Zone 5 in northwestern Connecticut, near where I used to garden, so the plants she speaks of all feel very familiar. Some of what she says is dated; painting tree wounds (cuts) after pruning is now discredited, for example.  What I wouldn’t have expected from either of these ladies is the conversational, chuckle-out-loud quality of their writing.


Soon: GRDN, Brooklyn

Nuese’s book is divided into chapters by month. February is all about seed-starting, for which I have neither the room nor the patience — not this year, anyway. So I’ve moved onto March, with its long list of “Don’ts.” In March, Nuese writes, “After months of mostly sitting, punctuated by purposeless walks, you have the figure of a woodchuck and the mentality of a stuffed owl; you can’t wait to get out into the spring and employ your mind and muscles in some meaningful work.” See how she understands me? It’s as if she’s been reading my blog…

Don’t whip off winter protection (mulches, burlap) too early, she warns; don’t attempt to work wet earth that still has frost on it. Do rake the lawn of twigs and branches; prune shrubs and small trees of storm-damaged wood; spread wood ash to add alkalinity to soil, which most perennials enjoy.

Meanwhile, tantalizing catalogues and e-mails continue to arrive from nurseries and gardening websites, the best of all being Margaret Roach’s A Way to Garden. She’s got an ambitious calendar of events planned for 2010, some in conjunction with Loomis Creek Nursery, all making me wish I lived a little closer to the Hudson Valley.

SPAIN: Day 1 – Madrid’s Museums


THE RAIN IN SPAIN, forecast for Saturday, never happened. My first day in Madrid was overcast and in the 50s. I felt a little disoriented, as I always do my first jet-lagged day in a strange foreign city. But that didn’t stop me from going to two museums and filling my sleepless eyes and head with fabulous art.

I didn’t do the Prado. That would have been too much. Instead, I went to the unpronounceable but world- class Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, below, and was wowed. Does Italy know how many Canalettos they’re missing? Does Germany realize all the outstanding Hans and Lucas Cranach portraits in Madrid? Aren’t the Dutch lacking a few dozen important 17th century landscapes? There’s even a room devoted to the Hudson River School.


The Thyssen-whatever is like Jansen’s History of Art (the college textbook) come to life. The museum is arranged chronologically, which suits my linear brain, starting with 15th century gilded German religious paintings – beautiful, but not really my thing. My intention was to zip through those early galleries until I got to the Fauves and Impressionists, and then I would linger. Well. So much for intentions. I found the humanity and personality of the early Dutch and German portraits, with the eyes that seem to stare you down and the individualistic costumes, so arresting that I slowed to a crawl, and ended up spending the entire afternoon.


I also discovered Spain’s national decorative arts museum is right next door to my hotel in a five-story neo-classical mansion. The two lower floors are devoted to a temporary exhibition called “Fascination with the Orient” – a rich lode of 17th and 18th century material from China and Japan, blue-and-white export porcelain and other items, next to Spanish ceramics and textiles — showing quite directly how the East influenced the West.

The upper floors have period rooms and the permanent collection of furniture, pottery, and jewelry. My favorite was a 17th century tiled kitchen, the walls covered from floor to ceiling with trompe l’oeil ceramics showing hanging pots and pans, rabbits, pigs, and people.

The labels are only in Spanish. In fact, I heard no English spoken all day in either museum, though both were crowded with chic-looking people of all ages.


Madrid looks like what I expected Madrid to look like: low-rise late 19th century buildings with wrought iron gates and balconies, and architectural hedges everywhere – tall topiaries, big round boxwoods, stunning palms. There seem to be but four skyscrapers in the city, and they’re surprisingly unobtrusive – I saw them on my way in from the airport but haven’t noticed them since.

I’m in the poshest but not the liveliest part of town. Sunday I’ll head to Plaza Mayor, the oldest part of the city, and El Rastro, the famous flea market. And maybe squeeze in the Botanical Garden and the Prado.


This hotel, the Palacio del Retiro, above, is in a magnificent neo-classical mansion — until fairly recently, a one-family home — with curving marble staircases, elaborate plasterwork, stained glass windows, top, and wrought iron railings. Taken over by AC, a luxury boutique hotel company, four years ago, the 50 modern rooms carved out of the grand old space are high-ceilinged and trendily contemporary, but a bit cold (decor, not temperature-wise) for my taste. However, the service staff couldn’t be nicer.

My clever traveling companion, Irvina Lew, a professional travel writer, arranged this and other five-star accommodations to follow. She has several assignments on this trip, for a sailing magazine and others. I’m researching historic gardens of Andalucia for Garden Design magazine and will be posting on their blog (as well as on my own). On Friday, before leaving for JFK, I landed a last-minute assignment from Budget Travel magazine for a Seville shopping story. So this turns out to rather more of a working vacation than anticipated, but I can live with that, if it means five-star hotels.

Imagining a Landscape

MY FRIEND MARY-LIZ CAMPBELL is here in Springs, with her mighty arm and genius eye (not to mention her marking paint and tape in festive colors of neon orange and pink). Mary-Liz is a professional landscape designer based in Rye, N.Y., and she can see things about my future garden I can’t (take a look at her own gorgeous garden here).

While I have a hard time seeing beyond what’s already there — a straight-ahead driveway, narrow paths, and stingy beds — Mary-Liz sees a gravel parking court, generous planting beds, a circular flagstone patio, even a gate and arbor leading from the side of the house to the backyard.


She also sees more sun, with the removal of several large trees I hadn’t even contemplated, not wanting to mess with the forest (I also tend to see dollar signs as she outlines the grand scheme).

I’m timid where she’s confident. She took a lopper to my giant rhodies and overgrown andromeda, letting in more light and air. I’d be afraid it wasn’t the right time of year to prune, or that I’d take too much and kill them.

As we watched a deer munch its way across my property yesterday, I think we both saw a deer fence.


We’ve been inspired, on this visit, by a couple of fabulous gardens — one, a private estate on Springs Fireplace Road, by Oehme, van Sweden, the avant garde landscape firm known for sweeping drifts of ornamental grasses and flowering perennials. We went back there twice to drive around the perimeter of the property and spy what we could through the fence.

Last night in the Village of East Hampton, we ooh’ed and aah’ed over the Mimi Meehan native plant garden behind the 18th century Clinton Academy, in mid-July bursting with orange and yellow butterfly weed, day lilies, coreopsis, helianthus and more, all indigenous to Long Island.