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This Wild Garden Breaks the Boundaries of Everyday Landscaping

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Pathways lined with peonies, deciduous azalea Nova Zembla, lilacs, and viburnums entice explorations into the woods from the driveway.
Photos by Andre Baranowski

A garden was a natural for Dr. April Benson. Even when the psychologist and her family were renting a summer house in Chappaqua, she yearned for a place of her own to plant. A weekend house on Fire Island gave her the opportunity to dig in on a limited basis but left her hungry for more space.

When Benson and her husband, Jim, decided to leave Fire Island and return to Westchester, she knew exactly what her dream property needed: room to grow. But she didn’t necessarily want the typical flat swath of land for a few prim beds. Even back then, Benson was stretching the rules.

Benson hangs a basket of petunias from a robust mature kousa dogwood behind the house.

If you paid attention, clues that the Benson garden would veer off the typical path were everywhere. In fact, Benson now traces the evidence that she was destined for the location to the time when her son attended day camp at Teatown Lake Reservation, keying them in to the wealth of natural resources in the area. When the 2.6-acre property across the street from Teatown Lake Reservation came up for sale, she and Jim bought it.

Benson made the most of her ledge, planting grasses at its base and sculpting flowering cherries and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Grandiflora’ as accents.

Benson doesn’t just dabble; she takes things seriously. She enrolled in the gardening program at the New York Botanical Garden to supplement the knowledge she picked up as a child from watching her mother putter around gardens. Her mother grew the standard fare of the time — most memorably dahlias and peonies to feed into flower arrangements.

Similarly, the Benson garden features masses of those flowers along with with irises, roses, hollyhocks, and deftly clipped shrubs flowing bountifully in immaculately cultivated beds throughout the landscape. Teatown was also making an impact. In fact, the more time Benson spent at Teatown — and she eventually became a tour docent for the wildflower preserve — the more she began edging toward elegant informality with a native accent.

Neatly edged pathways host both shrubs and perennials, providing access to the plantings for maintenance while luring everyone to become immersed in nature.

Most gardens evolve gradually, and this was no exception. The fact that the Benson home sits on a ledge has a lot to do with the plant selection — and what survived, though amending the soil with compost gave everything a fighting chance. While building a fertile base for planting, Benson went big into spring bulbs. We’re talking thousands and thousands of bulbs — back then, when Benson did something, she did it big. (Now a recovering bulbaholic, she counsels clients with compulsive buying disorder.)

But it wasn’t just about bulbs. As soon as the couple knew the lay of the land’s deeper pockets, they also began planting trees, including a dawn redwood purchased as a 6-inch sapling. The redwood now looms 25 feet tall — a dramatic testimony to the success of their soil supplement program.

Heuchera ‘Delta Dawn’ adds texture and color beside carex and Taxus repandens.

Even before the soil was up to speed, the Bensons were going for a highly unique landscape. They laid out curvaceous island beds while renovating the wooden deck to a stone terrace with a pool to get outdoors and access the beauty that was newly up and running. On that terrace, containers of passion flowers held Benson’s collection of passifloras.

They also laid out a flamboyant and creative circular garden in front of the house at a time when most gardeners secreted their plantings in back. They went for color wherever a fence or outbuilding gave them an excuse to use plants as anchors. Plus, the Bensons followed their own drummer in sculpture, commissioning Peter Beerits of Deer Isle, ME, to create whimsical, primitive artwork composed of recycled materials that depicts people and animals at work in the garden. Particularly arresting is Beerits’ larger-than-life moose staged on the upper lawn. Not only does the moose lend personality to the garden, but it inspired the name Moose Crossing for the property.

Even when groundcover Pulmonaria ‘Mrs. Moon’ isn’t in blossom, the spotted leaves have a dialogue with the variegated dogwood.

Shade was never lacking at Moose Crossing, but as the garden began to expand beyond the land immediately around the house to spill down the driveway, Benson added groves of shrubs and trees to soften the scene and provide a prelude to the plantings above. In her selection of plant material, she was way ahead of the current trend to carpet ground with greenery rather than mulch.

Even more radically, fueled by her interaction with the native plant movement, Benson experimented with bloodroot, trillium, twinflower, mayflower, heuchera, tiarella, Solomon’s seal, and other native wildflowers as ground cover. They perform amazingly well, especially given a many-zone watering system. Now the garden is a rare composition of mature wildflowers romping around with the more traditional stalwarts of the mixed border.

Not many flowering plants would survive on a ledge, but Geranium sanguineum, campanula, and sedum thrive.

True gardeners keep growing, and April Benson continues to develop the landscape. Cultivating wildflowers might sound like a snap, but they can be tricky. The secret lies in matching the right plants to the site. The established garden runs beautifully and the results are impressive. Envision a scene with wall-to-wall color and creativity orchestrated to delight pollinators and creatures great and small. This is a garden for the future.

The driveway is lined with wildlings, such as ferns, Solomon’s seal, leucothoe, skimmia, mahonia, and tiarella.