The Enchanted Garden

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How one woman transformed a Victorian-era dairy farm into an estate of glorious proportions.
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Word by Tovah Martin
Photography by Rob Cardillo 

Zibby Tozer has strong instincts. And fortunately for Uplands Farm, she follows them. Through the years, the former floral designer and chairman of the New York Flower Show as a member of the board of the Horticulture Society of New York has overseen a series of additions to the 150-acre Dutchess County property that she and her husband, Jim, own to create an expansive spread. Not only did she incorporate additions into the 1855 Victorian house — with brilliant results — but she also inserted gardens and outbuildings into the landscape.

The resulting opus has become a property studded with gem-like gardens dense in a connoisseur’s collection of blossoming perennials.

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The combinations are carefully wrought — like a symphony for the eye. And the choices were solely Zibby’s domain — she insisted on selecting every plant on the premises personally. But the true genius at Uplands Farm is in what Zibby and Jim Tozer chose to leave intact.

When they first “met” Uplands Farm during a whirlwind one-day home-buying spree, it was the rolling pastures and the home’s beautiful bones that initially struck the deal. Wisely, they left the rural elements pristine while adding accents. The result is a yin/yang farm/estate so exceptional that it’s been included in The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days, where the public has access to private gardens on select days.

Artistically Adorned: Black tuteurs match the lattice that forms arches supporting autumn clematis and ‘William Baffin’ roses above nepeta beds; (Opposite) annuals in containers and edging the beds combine with perennials in midsummer.

Open space is what led the Tozers to the Dutchess County property in the first place. Looking for a weekend Manhattan escape, Zibby knew that her ultra-busy husband, who is chairman of a real estate and venture capital firm, could devote only one day to house hunting. So she smartly had her ducks all in a row. She knew the general direction in which he wanted to go — a Long Island commute was deemed too lengthy and congested, whereas traveling up the Hudson was more their speed. The kids crossed Westchester County off the list (“too suburban”), opting for full-blown rural instead. The Millbrook area seemed promising.

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Sure enough, it was love at first sight. “We were just overwhelmed by the beauty in Dutchess County.” Indeed, when they were shown Uplands Farm, with its acreage in pasture, they put in a bid posthaste. That was 30+ years ago, and they are still captivated.

The house had a strong presence. Only one problem stood in the way of the structure and simpatico the Tozer family wanted. “It had no light. Victorian homes were designed specifically that way to be cool in summer and warm in winter,” Zibby says. But technology had long since provided solutions to the cooling/heating quandaries. So she added wings to bring light streaming into the house. In particular, the conservatory wing makes the interior sparkle. It serves as a great family place — especially for their grandkids, who appreciate its generous size.

Without question, there would be gardens. For Zibby, that was part of the package. But with equal certainty, she wanted to design them personally. “It never occurred to me to hire someone else,” says Zibby, who has also authored a bestseller on flower arranging. Indeed, she sees her gardens from an arranger’s perspective — balancing color, texture, and form to achieve a confection that is a delight to the eye.

Initially, she hit the books, studying the tenets of garden design. But ultimately, she followed her own drummer: “I do it by whim.” Her experience helped dictate the color palette. “I focus on soft greys, pale blues, and corals.” It worked like a charm.

The pool is edged with a border of hostas, astilbes, and Nicotiana sylvestris beneath a spiraling Alberta spruce.

Meanwhile, in the process of prettifying the place, the Tozers did not want to obliterate the property’s dairy farm roots. They kept the paddocks, rebuilt the fences, and preserved the space that gives the gardens breathing room. In a way, Zibby took the same route as she did with the house renovation, and the resulting balance feels absolutely right. That ratio of field to flowers is the genius of the place.

In her capacity as a preservationist, Zibby followed the Victorian mood by positioning the floral gardens behind the house. The property already boasted a pool, so she framed it in stone and lined it with flowery beds. But what showed the most panache was the open-sided pavilion that caps the pool. A pavilion at Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate in Sleepy Hollow, served as rough inspiration. She took the concept and ran, adding open lattice siding, hanging lanterns, and a circular eternity portal looking outward. The pavilion functions as the perfect alfresco venue for appetizers or after-dinner drinks.

Detailed Design: A perennial border of Joe Pye weed, yucca, Shasta daisies, daylilies, and delphiniums runs behind the house.

Also following the Victorian lead, a circular garden seemed apropos. The concept was simply a romantic theme with a swirl of colorful perennials in shades of blue, purple, and pink. When Zibby chaired the New York Flower Show, several famed designers were invited to craft garden gates to be auctioned. Predictably, a few found their way to Uplands Farm; most notably, Madison Cox’s cobalt blue Moorish gate fit hand-in-glove with her Victorian motif. She followed the whimsy one step further by asking Cox to design matching benches. Charles Stick designed a Chippendale-inspired version for the New York Flower Show and that gate, with its ball and chain closure, also graces the romantic garden. Both gates are hung free-style, without an accompanying fence — but the suspension of reality is part of their magic.

The ornamental gardens infiltrate the pasture area with a series of lattice-work arches shouldering climbing roses and clematis. There’s a children’s playhouse with its accompanying floriferous beds, plus a garden embraces the tennis cottage. Everything is done with a flourish, but with respect for the land’s agrarian roots as well. Also honoring Uplands Farm’s past, livestock with an emphasis on miniatures now grazes in the paddocks. Currently, the inventory includes four miniature horses, two Baby Doll sheep, two miniature donkeys, and two fainting goats. “They fill the paddocks with immeasurable joy,” is how she describes their contribution.

Floral Decor: Zibby Tozer and her granddaughter set the table with orchids for an event.

Part of the beauty of Uplands Farm is that the Tozers greet the whole project with infinite good humor as well as good taste. Given the color palette, the ornamental accents, the children’s playhouse, and the resident diminutive flock, it’s everyone’s happy place. Nowadays there are grandchildren to delight in the scene. But truthfully, even the whimsical children’s playhouse was installed before they were born. You could say that Zibby Tozer has foresighted vision. But the truth is, the Tozers simply live a life of happiness and beauty. That mood overflows into their landscape.

Uplands Farms is open to the public on June 23, as part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days. For more information, go to

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