East Meets West

An abundance of unusual plants thrive in sun and shade in this Asian-accented garden

There are three forces at work in the garden that Paul Arcario and Don Walker call Jade Hill. One is that Arcario is a self-described collector who loves plants and can’t resist an interesting variety — whether it’s a ground cover or a tree. The second is that the couple once lived in Thailand and “fell in love with all things Chinese,” Arcario says. And the third is what Walker calls “the family motto: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.” This combination might have led to an over-the-top, Asian-accented hodgepodge of a garden. But Arcario (who is the main horticulturalist) somehow keeps all three forces in full effect and in check at the same. The result is a series of lush theme gardens, where visitors strolling the pathways will be brought to a halt every few paces to admire some rare specimen or a particular combination of plants.

Arcario and Walker are weekenders in a now-roomy house near Amenia in Dutchess County. Back in the 1950s, the house was part of a lakeside community of cabins set on small lots. (The lake seeped away after a hurricane broke the dam that had created it, leaving the community bordering wetlands instead.) By the time Walker and Arcario bought their property 20 years ago, the house, already expanded, stood on three lots parcelled together. Over the years the couple added further to the house, and also purchased adjacent lots as they came up for sale, bringing the garden (so far) to about two acres.

Stone griffins on pillars flank the entrance. The Chinese characters on one pillar spell out Jade Hill, says Arcario, who explains that the garden got its name after visitors on a tour were invited to submit suggestions — and were obviously struck by its Oriental influences. “A lot sounded like entrées in a Chinese restaurant,” he says. “But the town librarian suggested Jade Hill, and that seemed not too ostentatious.”

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Shrubs and trees on the slope along the driveway reveal Arcario’s eye for color and texture: golden barberry, a coppiced smokebush, a blue spruce, and a weeping copper beech set each other off, with violet clematis entwined in roses adding highlights.

Arcario, who is dean of Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College, has been gardening since he was a boy growing up in Queens. “I shared the backyard with my grandfather,” he says. “He had one half for vegetables, and I got the other half. And I had an aunt who lived in Sayville on Long Island who had a greenhouse and a garden. She was my inspiration and gardening education.”

Don Walker, a retired Merrill Lynch bookkeeper, is from Florida — and every gardener’s dream helpmeet. “I just do what I’m told,” he says with a twinkle. (He’s also responsible for placing the statues of Chinese deities, pagodas, and other garden ornaments.)

A shady pathway lined with hostas leads from the drive to the side of the house, where a red-leafed euphorbia cotinifolia blazes in a pot on the deck overlooking a reflecting pool. “It’s a tropical that gets whacked and winters in the greenhouse,” Arcario notes, as does a white southern magnolia in another pot.

Because the sloping land was difficult to mow, Walker built winding steps from the deck to the magnolia walk behind the house. There, Arcario points out an unusual ‘Hayes Starburst’ hydrangea, and a fragrant star magnolia ‘Virginiana’ that blooms in July. A Heptacodium with peeling bark looks particularly vigorous. “It was supposed to have been 10 feet tall,” he says, looking up at the 18-foot tree. A ‘Floating Cloud’ Japanese maple and a tri-tone copper beech are underplanted with Hosta sieboldiana, whose pink-tinged blossoms complement the leaves of the trees.

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Golden bamboo — one of 15 bamboo varieties Arcario has introduced — gleams in front of a screened summerhouse. It’s in a container to keep the notoriously invasive roots under control. “But I have to watch it for escapees,” Arcario notes. Highbush blueberry and other fruit bushes grow next to the summerhouse. Just beyond is the entrance to the enclosed rose garden, where the shrubs are underplanted with ruffles of petunias. Beyond the rose garden, a big grove of bamboo whispers in the breeze. It was one of the first projects Arcario and Walker decided on. To keep its roots from spreading unchecked, they prepared a special bed, using a backhoe to dig a two-foot-deep trench, then adding a fiberglass barrier. “It was hard to get bamboo back then,” says Arcario, who journeyed to Pennsylvania to buy a small clump from a test grower. “I put the three little canes in the center of this huge bed,” he says with a laugh — but it took just four years for the whole area to fill in. Now, the grove needs only a minimum of grooming.

Lotus, another Chinese touch, flourish in a small pool, five feet deep to allow the roots to survive winter below the frost line. Walker dug the hole and added a pond liner to create the boggy pool. “The neighbors thought we were crazy,” he remarks. “First we dug a deep hole and then we filled in it again.” More color and texture come from a purple fountain copper beech, deciduous hollies with orange berries, a blue star juniper, yellow-stemmed dogwood, dwarf blue spruce, and a Japanese umbrella pine. Arcario points out what looks like brown wheat on a clumping bamboo — the plant’s blossoms. “It blooms every 100 years and then it dies,” he says, both pleased that he’s seeing it and sorry that it means the end.

An Oriental-style pavilion was inspired by Chinese carved windows that Walker found at Manhattan’s 26th Street flea market. “We asked the guy who built our fence to build it,” Walker remembers. “He said, ‘Have you got a plan?’ And we said, ‘Yes, our plan is that you should do it.’” The “fence guy,” armed with only the windows and a picture of a teahouse roof the couple liked, rose to the occasion. The pavilion overlooks another pond and a golden garden where creeping Jenny carpets the ground, and other gold-toned plants glow beneath the purple leaves of a forest pansy. It’s hard to believe the area was nothing but brambles just a few years ago.

Although they’re in residence only on weekends, Arcario and Walker do all the work in the garden themselves. “We don’t water much, and we buy mulch by the truckload,” says Arcario. The energetic pair have ambitious plans for a recently acquired wooded lot. “I want an aviary with Chinese pheasants,” Arcario declares. “But Don says I have to wait until I retire. Plan B is to make it a Japanese woodland stroll garden.” â—

Jade Hill will be open to visitors July 12 as part of the Garden Conservancy’s tour. Check www.gardenconservancy.org for more info.

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