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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.
LAST MONTH’S ‘OLD STONE STROLL’ in Springs (East Hampton), Long Island, to benefit the renovation of tiny, unassuming 1881 St. Peter’s Church, below, was a revelation to me, even though I’ve had a home here for six years now. The self-guided tour of eight gardens, all located along what was once an unpaved road called the Springs-Amagansett Turnpike and is now Old Stone Highway, reminded me of the hamlet’s artistry and celebrity — not least because Springs’ best-known resident was abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who inspired a wave of artists moving to the area in the 1950s and ’60s.
One of the properties on the tour (the most modest of them) was musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson’s; she was outside planting vegetables and chatting with visitors. Another was the 18th century farmhouse of the late sculptor Constantino Nivola, one of whose house guests painted a mural on the dining room wall (the guest happened to be the monumentally important architect Le Corbusier, and it’s the only Corbu mural in the U.S.). A couple were places I’d already been wowed by on Garden Conservancy Open Days; you can see one of them here.
Everywhere, it seemed, there were vignettes of great charm, even (perhaps especially) where gardens were not manicured to a fault.
Below, the home of Charles Savage, who has put together three properties over a couple of acres with garden room after garden room, including arbors, statues, urns, a stone courtyard, etc. But I liked the backwoods “hills and dales” areas the best, and the driveway/breezeway. Why don’t more people do that? It’s like a picture frame for your backyard.
Below and top, a glimpse of the 7-acre estate of handbag designer Judith Leiber and her husband Gus , a painter.
Below, the onetime home of Constantino and Ruth Nivola. He was a sculptor known for his sand-casting technique; she made Etruscan-style jewelry in a little wisteria-covered cottage on the grounds. We peeked in the windows of the house (which was not open to the public) for a view of the Corbu mural. Wouldn’t I like one of those in my place…
Finally (for purposes of this blog post), the most evocative spot at “The Landing,” below, a 12-acre property on Accabonac Harbor owned by a member of the Bacardi rum family.
UPDATE 6/11/15: July is spoken for.
Looking for a Bohemian idyll à la Jackson Pollock and friends, mere meters from the water? Located in Springs (East Hampton), a five-minute walk from uncrowded, miles-long Maidstone Beach and a short distance from the Springs Historic District, on a secluded, wooded half-acre. Sleeps 6. 10 minutes East Hampton village, 10 minutes Amagansett, 20 minutes Sag Harbor, 25 minutes Montauk. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more pics and info, including great room, home office, guest room, studio and gardens not pictured here. Available for July and/or August, minimum 1 month.
STEPS — NO, REALLY — STEPS TO BEACH. Lots of real estate listings say it. In this case, it’s true. This is the third house in from the water at Maidstone Beach, East Hampton, below, a long sandy crescent on Gardiner’s Bay that I never get tired of touting as the Hamptons’ best-kept secret (actually there are a couple of other equally well-kept secrets, but it’s one of the top three).
The house (at left in photo at top) is a shingled cottage from the 1950s, probably, with a glassed-in front room that probably used to be an open porch, and a garage out back. Two bedrooms, two baths, a working fireplace, and a whole lot of clutter, which I hope you can see through.
It’s been on the market for about two months, which surprises me. I should have thought it would be gone by now.
You can see the listing, with more photos, here.
IT’S SPRING, and I like my life again. Winter is my time for serious worry. With spring come more lighthearted concerns. Instead of How the hell am I going to pay my bills?, it’s Are you supposed to cut above the leaf node or below?
Yes, the Felco has come out of its sheath and, as long as I still own my cottage on the East End of Long Island, I am working it – transplanting things from here to there, raking leaves off the perennial beds, spreading new grass seed in bare spots, feeding the daffodil foliage that’s beginning to poke up. Only just beginning: after our brutal Northeast winter, the season is very slow to start this year. Mid-April already, and the only forsythia blooming is the forsythia I forced in a vase.
With spring comes optimism that I will sell my cottage soon and be able to turn the full force of my attention to the other house I own in the same bayside community. There’s been a price chop on the cottage, to 435K, which immediately attracted a new offer. A pattern is emerging: people (young people, as it happens) fall in love with the house’s considerable charms — really become infatuated with it. Soon fantasy turns to the reality of all that’s involved in owning and maintaining a house. It’s a big decision, and some become convinced (in one case by a father/financier who was “not feeling the vintage thing”) that some other house, a house built more recently than c.1940, would be easier.
Maybe so, maybe not, but this time I’ll keep my own excitement in check until a contract is signed. Meanwhile, I’m thoroughly enjoying staying in the cottage — recently redecorated with thrift shop furniture and exceedingly bright and pleasant — and country life in general. Sitting on the deck on a warm day. Walking down to the bay at sunset. Morning yoga at the Springs Presbyterian Church, a meadow view behind the window panes. A multigrain fruit and nut muffin from the Springs General Store. It’s the simple things, said a friend, and that’s my motto of the moment.
I moved three miscanthus – tall ornamental grasses – from the backyard up to the front of the property to screen the parking court, since the ilex I chose not to wrap in burlap last fall has been nibbled bare, rendered useless as screening, by the resident deer. As I tucked the grasses into their new spots, I talked to them. Don’t they say plants respond to our conversation, or perhaps just to the carbon dioxide we exhale as we lean over them, blabbing away?
“Now you guys have about 30 days before the maple leafs out, so take advantage of the sun now and do all the growing you can,” I told them. “Okay? Okay. Conditions may not be ideal, but you’re gonna be just fine.” I reassured them and myself at the same time.