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HERE AT RANCHO LA PUERTA in Tecate, Mexico — the only fitness resort I’ve ever been to, and the only one I ever care to go to — there’s no need to exercise that gratitude muscle I referred to in my last post. I’m exercising every other possible muscle, but the surroundings are so exceptionally beautiful that gratefulness for simply being here comes easy (that’s my casita, below).
This is my 10th visit to Rancho since 1989, but my first in spring. Now I wouldn’t know chapparal from sagebrush, but I do know that the hills surrounding the ranch, thoroughly explored on the early morning hikes that are the linchpin of the fitness program, have usually been dramatic but brown.
This time I am thrilled at the greenness and the abundance of wildflowers in the hills and the rustic outlying areas, as well as in the more central gardens surrounding the dining hall, gyms, pools, and guest cottages, most built from the 1980s onwards in vernacular Spanish Colonial style
I took it relatively easy the first day — only did four classes. I hiked, stretched, lifted, and tried Bar Method, which nearly did me in. It’s the hot thing in California, apparently (it promises you’ll become 5’9″, with the posture of a ballerina).
Aside from that, I’ve been mostly walking around open-mouthed, taking pictures of the monumental plantings: gargantuan agaves, entire beds of nothing but calla lilies, things we consider houseplants (geraniums, kalanchoe) and minor annuals (alyssum) used as bedding over vast areas, fragrant rosemary and sage as architectural shrubs, sheets of blanket flower and ice plant, pergolas laden with my formerly reviled wisteria, perfectly well-behaved and in its glory.
The current grand, sweeping design is mainly the work of Sarah Livia Brightwood, daughter of Deborah and Edmund Szekely, who founded the ranch in 1940 as a bring-your-own-tent operation. The gardens have matured a bit since I was here five years ago. The team of 22 gardeners is entirely on top of things, I’m glad to say: all is perfection to my eye.
Later in the week, after a Landscape Garden Walk and a Nature Walk, I’ll know more about what things are.
For now, I’m content to try to identify those things Baja California has in common with the Northeast. I even blew off Hula Hoop at 2:00 just to walk around and take it all in.
OH BOY, I’m all over the Internet today. Remarkable, not having left the house in two days, to feel so widely published, and instantaneously, too.
Two pictures of my snow-logged backyard, taken yesterday at the height of the blizzard, are up on Curbed Hamptons, the real estate website focused on the high end of the spectrum (“Most Expensive Summer Rentals,” for instance. I don’t know a soul who could afford them.)
And I have another guest post on Garden Design magazine’s website, a version of yesterday’s post about terrariums.
To understand my excitement, you have to know that, over the course of my long print journalism career, it has sometimes taken TWO YEARS for a story I’ve written to be finally published.
I heard Loudon Wainwright on NPR today talking about his father, who was a writer for LIFE magazine, and why he himself chose not to become a writer: “It seemed hard, boring, and above all, lonely.” Spot on! I would add sedentary and not particularly good for one’s mental health. Music is far more joyful.
But this Internet thing has eliminated the terrible sense of isolation. And even some of the “hard” part, since the ephemeral nature of the medium diminishes the pressure to sweat and struggle over each word (maybe it shouldn’t, but it does).
Back to the snow. A few days ago, gazing out at my backyard, I was musing a statement made by landscape designer Piet Oudolf ,“Brown is a color.” What he meant was, embrace the dying phase of plants, and skip that pesky fall clean-up in favor of leaving dried perennials and grasses standing through the winter. I didn’t have any to leave this year, not having been here long enough to plant them; all I had was the brown of dirt and fallen oak leaves.
So today, I’m reveling in white. It’s worth staying in another day to watch the long shadows creep across the snow, and the birds flit around the back porch, pecking away at my seed bell and suet.
IN ANOTHER LIFE, I might be having lunch at Balthazar. In this life, I am sculpting with leaves.
Using a hose or rope to lay out the curve of a path hasn’t worked for me. They just didn’t stay put, or make the kind of curve I wanted. I tried neon paint, below; that was a disaster. The line I managed to draw bore no relationship to the sweeping, natural curve I had in mind.
So I’ve been working a kind of negative space thing, building up future planting beds on either side of a projected flagstone path — which will run from my future parking court to the front door, then onward to the back, a distance of about sixty feet — with piles of scavenged oak leaves, leaving bare what will be the path. (The leaves, I hope, will be the basis for soil by next spring. I know I’ll have to add loads of amendments.)
Not having many leaves left on my own property, I’ve been dragging a tarp and stealing from my neighbors’ roadside piles, left out for the town to pick up (luckily, not for another 10 days). I dump them roughly where I want them, then fine-tune the line with a rake, contemplatively, like a Zen monk.
Amazingly, the leaves stay more or less where I put them, through wind and rain.
Today I brought in from outside a few tender garden plants I think might survive the winter in a corner of my unheated porch, above. I have an old storm window and plastic sheeting at the ready if the temperature really drops.
“BACKYARD” IS HARDLY ENOUGH WORD for the gorgeous green acre my friend Stephanie Reit been lovingly tending and tweaking for the past 13 years. It’s more like a private park.
This is an artist’s garden. Stephanie is an accomplished painter and maker of collages — go here to see her work — and a very able landscape designer as well. There’s much to admire here: the seamless flow of the long, curving borders; the creative mix of trees, shrubs, grasses, and perennials, all in tip-top shape (she used to do everything herself, now she hires help); the painterly arrangement of colors; the horticultural variety; the charming collection of birdhouses; and how good it all looks this late in the season. (Yes, it’s fenced against marauding deer.)
One of my favorite aspects is the architectural approach Stephanie has taken to carving out special areas. At the far end of the long lawn, abovve, there’s a gravel square with four Bradford pear trees in each corner. She calls it the “chuppah” (Jewish wedding canopy) because it would be a perfect place to get married — but, failing that, it’s a serene spot to sit and contemplate the plantings.
There’s a rustic wood bench tucked into a euonymous hedge, below; a shed with its own shade garden; and three ornamental flowering cherry trees, below, anchoring one end of the pool. A striking deep mauve color, Stephanie planted them in memory of her late parents and sister.
The stately cedars that stud the lawn are among the few things that were there when Stephanie bought the property in the mid-’90. They cast giant, dramatic shadows on the sweep of green.
Go here to see Stephanie’s wonderful collection of birdhouses — some that she collects, and some that she creates.
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.