To Lawn or Not to Lawn?


THAT IS THE QUESTION uppermost in my landscaping mind right now. Last year my thinking was anti-lawn, pro-groundcover and other plantings. I’ve tried to minimize turfgrass up to now (I don’t own a mower, or want to), but found that, in many cases, sprinkling grass seed was the cheapest, quickest way to get green. But now, the second of two garden-professional friends (one a writer/editor, one a designer) has nixed the notion of an island bed in the middle of the yard. They’re both in favor of a continuous greensward with plantings around it.


A wider view of the yard as it looked in mid-April. The existing free-form island bed is an accidental central feature. The other brownish areas are where I’ve sprinkled wood chips to hold weeds down while I decide what else to do.

True, the existing island bed has virtually nothing growing in it at the moment. The spot is not as sunny as I originally thought and I haven’t focused on planting there. And design-wise, it never did make much sense. The free-form island bed in the center of my ‘shy’ half-acre is there only because previous occupants of my house, a cottage in Springs, Long Island, which I bought in May ’09, had created a huge compost heap in the middle of the yard for reasons known only to themselves.

That first fall, it seemed easier to re-shape it and re-conceive it as a flower bed than to move it entirely. The raised bed also served the purpose of concealing a concrete octagon about 3 feet wide — the cap over my septic tank — which is several inches above ground level.


This concrete octagon, which covers the opening to the septic tank, is now buried under a few inches of soil in the existing island bed.

My garden-designer friend suggested re-grading the property, so that the level of the entire lawn would match the level of the septic tank cover, which as it stands is not a desirable design feature. That would involve a truck with some cubic yards of topsoil, men with rakes and perhaps power tools, a proper re-seeding of the area, and money. It’s not a bad solution; I just wasn’t thinking of doing any significant earth-moving back there this season.

Then my neighbor from across the road, who has lived in this arty, woodsy hamlet full-time for 30+ years, came by and, as we sipped tea on the back deck, gave me her take on the re-grading idea. “That’s very south of the highway,” she said, the big, high-maintenance lawn being a feature of prime Hamptons real estate, which this is not.


I told her I had realized I could shovel and/or rake out the soil in the existing bed and deposit it along the western property line, above, an open, sunny area in which nothing is presently growing except some mullein, below. I could plant herbs there, and flowers (deer-resistant, of course). Maybe even tomatoes. But that leaves the problem of the concrete cap.


Perhaps the cap could be re-set to sit on level with the present lawn? If not, said my across-the-road, neighbor, how about using it as a pedestal for a birdbath, or a tub of annuals. That, she pointed out, would be “very Springs.”


GARDEN VOYEUR: The Barefoot Contessa’s Garden


TAKE A PEEK behind the massive privet hedge at the Barefoot Contessa’s East Hampton garden. I did that on Wednesday. It was open to the public for a few hours as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, to benefit the organization’s work in preserving exceptional private gardens (usually of people who have died) that would otherwise be lost.

I generally find these Open Days fairly intimate affairs. Rarely crowded, they often feature eccentric and highly original gardens. Many times the gardeners are older women who have earned their stooped backs, cracked hands, and vast horticultural knowledge by dint of years of effort. Usually the homeowner/gardener is present to greet visitors and answer questions.


This garden is different. It’s the home of Ina Garten, the celebrity cookbook author and TV personality also known as the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve never seen the show or read her books, or even tasted her famous brownies, but I did enough research to discover that she was born in Brooklyn [applause] and is self-made, having worked up from modest beginnings to this impressive, sprawling estate. Her husband Jeffrey is the former dean of the Yale school of management.


It is a striking example of what can be done when money is no object. Here’s the description from the Open Days directory:

This garden features design work by Edwina von Gal implemented about fifteen years ago at Ina’s house, and new garden areas designed by Joseph W. Tyree at the barn Ina designed and built on an adjoining piece of property two years ago. Edwina’s original design at the house is arranged in squares like a kitchen garden, but is planted with perennials, annuals, roses, vegetables, and herbs. It includes a crabapple orchard and rose and hydrangea gardens, and is designed to feel like a traditional East Hampton garden. Joseph’s work at the new barn is set up into three distinct areas: the lawn, a walled garden, and a Lagerstroemia walk. The lawn connects the house by a series of low, broad, stone steps to the barn’s main terrace which is bordered by a low hedge and shaded by two great Linden trees. The sun-filled walled garden is planted with beds of lavender and herbs and has fragrant roses trained on the walls. The lagerstroemia walk is planted with only the white ‘Natchez’ variety of Lagerstroemia, boxwood, hydrangeas, and perennials and wraps around the walled garden and barn.

A short distance off Main Street, the garden is so insulated by hedges and 40′ tall cypresses it could be somewhere in the Tuscan hills. It is undeniably beautiful, yet it feels somewhat impersonal and not particularly imaginative. Maybe I’m just being a grouch, or suffering a case of sour grapes, when you consider the dramatic contrast to my own humble weed patch.

Ina Garten is a fabulously successful entrepreneur, and by all accounts a delightful person, but she’s not a gardener. Even when you can hire the best to do it for you, somehow it’s not the same.

GARDEN VOYEUR: Same Designer, Different Styles in Park Slope

HERE’S AN ILLUMINATING EXAMPLE  of how a professional landscape architect, working to address clients’ unique needs and properties, comes up with totally individualized solutions.

The professional is Liz Farrell of Park Slope, who has degrees in environmental science and landscape architecture, and has been in business since 1994. The clients are, in the first case, a family with three teens, two dogs, and a small budget; in the second, an empty-nest couple with an 800 square foot, excessively shady backyard.


Sunny, tiny (18’x35’) and cost-conscious, this Park Slope garden was originally a rectangle of struggling lawn with a concrete perimeter.

Four years ago, the homeowners called Farrell to rethink it. They wanted an area for entertaining as well as space for their two yellow Labs to let off steam; they also had a desire for a cottage-style garden full of herbs and flowers.


Today, they have all that. Farrell divided the space into two functional areas: a paved half of Belgian block and a symmetrically planted garden centered on a circular area made of salvaged slate. To save money and raise the back and sides of the garden up a few inches, Farrell re-used the original concrete curb that rimmed the lawn. An arched trellis at the entrance to the planted area and a metal tuteur with clematis in the center provide vertical structure, along with two tall junipers at the back.



Bold primary colors on the house extension (a mud/utility room) provide cheer in all seasons.


Japanese holly divides the paved and planted areas. Summer-flowering shrubs (spirea, astilbe, honeysuckle, azaleas, climbing hydrangea, barberries) border the perimeter; perennials (geraniums, clematis, and more) and herbs are toward the center. Pink roses climb the fence on either side of the garden in early June.


11#2 ZEN

This 800 sq. ft. garden behind an elegant row house was a “real shade challenge,” in Farrell’s words. The homeowners wanted privacy while sitting on the deck and a focal element they could enjoy from the kitchen’s square bay window.


Farrell designed a spiral-shaped water feature of pebbles from Long Island Sound, with a simple, low fountain made by drilling a hole through natural rock. The stacked stone bench and bamboo fence, made from rolls of bamboo threaded with copper wire on a wood frame, give the garden a meditative, somewhat Asian feel.



Plantings include white paper birches, wood hyacinth, ferns, liriope, oak leaf and climbing hydrangeas and rhododendrons. The irregular paving stones have moss joints. A stand of bamboo under the metal deck and tall taxus in corners provide additional privacy from surrounding neighbors.


A Bed for All Seasons

Sedum in close-upONE OF MY FAVORITE FLOWER BEDS upstate is a 4’x4′ square outlined in cinderblock, with foot-high boxwoods in each corner and a concrete birdbath bought for $40 in the center. I think the term is “pocket garden.”Crocus time

Self-contained and visible from the house, this micro-garden is ever-changing and very satisfying. You can stuff all kinds of things into it: bulbs, herbs, annuals, perennials. It’s different from year to year, season to season.

Right: Early days: boxwoods in each corner, wooly thyme, crocuses in April

april1Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s gaudy. For a few years, I filled the birdbath ——————————————– —————- frequently with clean water, but the birds never seemed that excited about it. So I put a bit of soil and some pea gravel in it and planted it up with various types of sedum.

Left: Daffodils leave a whole lot of browning foliage to deal with – not the best idea in so small a space.

Below: Easy-to-grow annual cleomes (spider flowers) are a new discovery for me. Blue lobelia, an annual, is beneath. I love the delicacy of this look.

June with cleomes

Bottom: Flamboyance in August, with perennial globe thistles and annual cockscomb and marigolds, bought as starters from a local farm stand.