“I developed two great passions as a child — one for gardening and one for antiques,” says James Dinsmore, who recalls his eight-year-old self plonking down a 75-cent installment on his first antique, and buying discounted sick plants to nurse back to health.
These childhood passions persisted, and when Dinsmore became an antiques dealer in Manhattan, he coped with the other impulse by gardening like mad at his weekend house in Orange County. After eight years, the acre that surrounded what he calls “a tarted-up cabin” was stuffed. “It got to the point where if somebody gave me a petunia, I’d have to think about where to put it,” he recalls.
Dinsmore, who eventually took up landscape design as a profession, set out to find a larger space. “I wanted a blank canvas,” he says. The farmland he bought in Olivebridge, Ulster County, in 1990 fit that description: seven acres of fields with nothing but tall grass. “It took me eight years to fill the first place, so at eight years per acre, this will probably see me out,” he remarks, smiling.
A view down the great lawn is punctuated by a drift of graceful miscanthus flanking a latticed archway that, in turn, frames a statue at the far end of the vista
Dinsmore mowed pathways through the grass to delineate the plan in his head. “The layout is fully inspired by Vaux-le-Vicomte, a garden outside of Paris that’s very, very formal,” he says. “I never appreciated the French style of formal garden until I saw it, but it’s so brilliantly done, it’s the gardening equivalent of a Caravaggio painting. It takes your breath away.”
Vaux-le-Vicomte is such a vast, grand affair — even by mid-17th century Baroque standards — that it got its owner, the finance minister to Louis XIV, arrested when the king saw that its magnificence outshone anything he had himself. After throwing his minister in jail, Louis had the gardens at Versailles designed along the same principles. Dinsmore’s rural interpretation isn’t going to make any king flip his wig, but it does create a strong sense of structure, with Dinsmore’s neat Gothic Revival-style house (which he designed himself) situated at the highest point on the central axis — just as the chateau sits amid its moat in the original.
The Buddha garden (above) includes Tibetan prayer flags rendered in stained glass
Ornaments (like the gazing ball, Chinese pagoda, and large blue urn, clockwise from top left) play an important role in Dinsmore’s garden, and help keep it interesting in winter
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Dinsmore (who has no delusions of grandeur, in case you’re wondering) also incorporated elements from two other famous places: Hidcote, one of England’s most beautiful gardens, known for its hedged rooms; and Monet’s garden at Giverny. “I’ve combined those three, with a geometric layout, distinct garden rooms, and overflowing floriferousness,” he says.
With all the mature trees and shrubs, lush perennials, statuary, ornaments, and long vistas, it’s hard to picture this wonderful garden as the open fields Dinsmore started with. Once through the gate (six acres are fenced), you make your way up a curved driveway lined by mature Bradford pear trees that Dinsmore mentions were “scraggly little things with six leaves each” when he bought them for next to nothing 17 years ago — a recurring theme that suggests someone with equal amounts of patience and vision.
The central axis of the garden runs straight from an Italianate area behind the house down a long stretch to a hosta garden presided over by one of the many statues. Redbud trees and pollarded catalpas and lindens frame the first part of the walk, and then — despite the symmetry — it all starts to feel more like a maze. Grassy paths lead off to four large perennial rooms, each secluded by hedges and laid out in a different shape. The diamond garden has blues, pinks, and purples; the cross contains hot colors; the X-shape is full of blues and golds. The round garden is a clever interpretation of a fountain using plants: A weeping mulberry in the middle represents the fountain itself, the blue flowers of nepeta surrounding it are water, and a circle of boxwood trimmed like a giant bagel stands in for the architectural aspect.
Hemlocks (clipped into cones) line the walk toward the latticed archway that frames the temple at the head of the axis
At the point where these four gardens meet, Dinsmore created another faux water feature, a “pond” of stones laid in concentric circles to suggest ripples, with a dry stone fountain in the center. “It’s a decompression chamber,” he remarks of the shades of grey after all the colorful perennials.
The Buddha garden reveals his fondness for whimsy. It, too, is enclosed, with a teahouse, a small lily pond, and a stone Buddha head mounted on a plinth “at about the height it would be if he had a body,” Dinsmore remarks. A stone snail, a marble rabbit, a frog, and other creatures surround the Buddha. “I wanted it to be a shrine to what you find in a garden,” says Dinsmore, pointing out that the plants here are all Asian: Korean boxwood, Japanese anemones, azaleas, and peonies.
There’s more amusement in the wind garden — a colorful, pyramidal structure hung with dozens of chimes and spinners.
Long walks flank the main axis. At the head of one side is the “temple,” a little columned building where you can sit and gaze down the great lawn, through a lattice archway that frames an angel statue at the far end. Hedges of euonymous, forsythia, and hemlocks clipped into cones mark the edges of the lawn.
Far East flair: A hedge of euonymous separating the great lawn from the perennial gardens looks glorious in autumn (above)
Bottom left: Near the Buddha garden, Dinsmore added another Asian touch with a large gong (actually made by a local artist) set between junipers that he “cloud prunes” in classic Japanese style. Though it, too, was carefully planned, the koi pond (bottom right) offers a natural, wild contrast in the highly structured garden
On the other side is a shrubbery walk of 250 feet or more, bordered by a mix of hydrangeas, viburnums, hypericum, cotinus, and other flowering and berrying varieties.
Tall Norway spruces run parallel to the shrubbery. “It was supposed to be a hedge, but it got ahead of me,” Dinsmore remarks. Each December, he and a few friends brave an extension ladder to cut the tops off some of them for Christmas trees.
(Clockwise, from right): A small lily pond in the Buddha garden; Dinsmore’s wind garden, hung with chimes and spinners (“I like whimsy,” he says); and the long shrubbery walk overflowing with flowering and berrying bushes
Dinsmore planted the spruces as tiny specimens soon after buying the property. “They were $1 each,” he says. “I was doing a big garden on a limited budget, so I often bought in quantities of 50, and I bought bare root plants, which are much less expensive. You can get 500 in the back of a pick-up, but they need to be planted right away, so I’d lure unsuspecting friends from the city for a Tom Sawyer kind of marathon.”
Apart from occasionally recruited friends, Dinsmore does virtually all the work in this huge garden by himself. He adds mushroom soil (“by the truckload”) to enrich the flower beds in spring, and mulches heavily. New plants are watered while they get established, and then they’re on their own. A natural fish pond near the road is a low-maintenance area, where his chief activity is scaring off blue herons who come fishing for his koi.
As for the eight-year-per-acre plan — things seem to be moving along at a clip. In just the past 12 months, Dinsmore added a fruitery and a garden devoted to white flowers. He has plans for a “giant” garden using tall grasses and a big rebar spider web to make the observer feel tiny. And after that, he adds (and you get the impression he just thought of this), perhaps a garden where everything is tiny, for the opposite effect. “Gardeners live long because there’s always something to look forward to,” he says.