After surviving the snowiest and coldest winter in recent memory, Valleyites are breathing a collective sigh of relief that spring has finally arrived. And for many, the appearance of those first crocuses and daffodils inspires visions of a midsummer garden, overrun with blooming flowers and fully leafed-out trees.
Of course, we are not there yet. But Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley (The Monacelli Press, $65), a lush new book by Jane Garmey and photographer John M. Hall, is the next best thing. Garmey takes us on a tour of 26 privately owned gardens in Putnam, Dutchess, and Columbia counties; from formal spaces with box hedges and manicured borders, to fields bursting with wildflowers and tall grasses, each landscape is markedly different from the next. “Gardening doesn’t have to be picket fences and flower beds,” says Garmey. “Just like houses, we all want to live in different environments.”
A noted garden writer (she and Hall collaborated on Private Gardens of Connecticut in 2010), Garmey observes that the Valley’s “dramatic and majestic” landscape is “part and parcel” of most of the gardens profiled in this book. Compared to Connecticut, “there is more land here, and a great sense of space. And these gardens integrate into that landscape,” she says.
One theme that comes through in these pages is the amount of time — often many years — and effort expended by the property owners to create such memorable spaces; backyard gardeners can learn a lesson or two from this dedication. “Every gardener makes mistakes,” says Garmey. “Trust your instincts, and don’t look for the most convenient solution.”
Any advice for amateur horticulturalists now that the snow and bitter cold are (with any luck) gone for the season? “Cross your fingers and hope,” Garmey says with a laugh. “The snow is much better for plants than a lack of it — it helps keep them protected from the cold. But if you lose something, just move on.”
Here is a look at two of the private gardens featured in the book: an unusual city garden in Hudson and an expansive space on a hilltop in Clinton Corners. Click here for a profile of a third garden in which the plantings take a back seat to unique stone structures.
It comes as a surprise to learn that this lush garden — which is a riot of plants of different colors and textures — is located behind a house in the city of Hudson. The owner described his backyard as a “big long dreary space” before he began planting all manner of trees, shrubs, and perennials, including boxwood and yucca dug up at a local cemetery. “He wanted privacy,” says Garmey; indeed, the profusion of plants completely blocks the view of the street. “He didn’t want a neat conventional garden at the back of his house. This is completely different, and reflects his personality and interests.”
This peaceful gravel garden is sited at the far end of the property. “He’s not a grass fan,” says Garmey of the owner. “He loves to grow things in gravel, you have different options that you don’t have with grass. And esthetically, it is much more interesting.” The space came at a price, however: The 22 tons of gravel required was mistakenly delivered to the house next door, forcing the owner to cart it, one wheelbarrow load at a time, back to his property. “That was painful,” he says. The well-protected garden includes an ice juniper tree, a species that isn’t supposed to grow well in our area but nonetheless thrives here.
Sited on 200 acres atop a steep hill, this sweeping garden in Dutchess County’s Clinton Corners is “the exact opposite” of the property in Hudson, says Garmey. But the owners also faced their share of challenges in creating it. For one thing, the space is dominated by the ultra-modern house, which was designed by noted architect Thomas Phifer and makes “a major statement,” she says. The fields, woods, and surrounding hills that comprise the 360-degree view — what Garmey calls the “borrowed landscape” — is “unbelievably dramatic.” And determining the placement of the couple’s collection of artwork was a third limiting factor.
The firm of Oehme, van Sweden — which designed the landscape for Washington, D.C.’s World War II Memorial, among many other public sites — drew up the master plan for the garden. (Designer Peter Meyer took the reins in 2006.) “Small gardens just wouldn’t work in this setting,” Garmey explains. Instead, Oehme, Van Sweden’s landscape architects “humanized” the grounds by making use of passive or “negative” space (at left), planting large expanses of grass, and formal avenues of linden and plane trees. The firm also installed a solar irrigation system that brings water uphill to the site — a distance of 1,200 feet — without the use of electricity.
In a way, the imposing modern house is itself a part of the garden. “You are always aware of the house,” says Garmey, “which makes it hard to work with.” Pictured below are four bedroom “cubes,” which were designed with individual outdoor terraces — a lovely touch, but the terraces lacked privacy. Meyer solved this problem by planting flowering echinacea and plumbago plants underneath stands of bamboo on either side of each cube, framing the terraces’ view of a long bed of roses and, in effect, creating a miniature garden for each bedroom.
When the owners purchased their hilltop land, it was completely wooded. In order to construct their house, the trees and other vegetation was stripped away — along with much of the topsoil. Not long after, a freak storm took down even more trees, further wracking the land. Planting this field of black- eyed Susans and tall grass (below, left) allows the land to heal itself from this damage. Mass plantings such as this one also help to “make the connection between the natural landscape and the garden,” says Garmey.
After leafing through this book, this reader couldn’t help but notice the horticultural variety illustrated by these various properties; some had no flowering plants at all. So we asked Garmey outright: How would you define a garden? “The definition of a garden has gotten broader and more inclusive,” she says. “To me, a garden is an outdoor space that someone has tamed and changed and reclaimed from the wilderness. It’s a space upon which they’ve imposed their imagination.” And what does her own garden look like? “I’m more interested in the look and design than in really rare plants. It’s more formal that I think I intended, but that’s how it worked out. I’m trying to make it lower maintenance.”