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A Purposeful Confusion

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A Purposeful Confusion

 

In Duncan Brine’s big, beautiful garden, it’s hard to tell the difference between nature and nurture

 

By Lynn Hazlewood  •  Photographs by Philip Jensen-Carter

 

 

When Duncan Brine talks about his garden in Pawling, Dutchess County, he often uses the words “mystery,” “surprise” and “drama.” And if you stroll around the grounds that he has cultivated over the past 17 years, it’s clear that it was those notions, rather than the usual horticultural esthetics, that were the driving force behind its design. The place is by turns mysterious and surprising, with a dash of drama for good measure.

 

Brine, who grew up in Rye in Westchester and on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, began his career in the theater, intending to be a director. A stint in Los Angeles doing film production work was “a pause along the way,” he says. What turned out to be the prelude to a much more lasting pause came in the early 80s, when Brine met Julia, a botanical artist who is now his wife.

 

Julia lived in a floor-through Brooklyn apartment with a little patch of ground behind it.

“It was a semi-junkyard back there,” Brine remembers. He decided to transform the junkyard into a garden in order to film it — and that first encounter with horticulture evolved into his life’s work as a landscape designer.

 

“I sifted the soil, needlessly,” Brine says, recalling his first efforts. “What did I know? I followed my instincts. I planted a lot of things by seed, something I don’t bother to do now. One of the predominant plants was the amaranth, Love-lies-bleeding.” (That variety of amaranth — a five-foot-tall, old-fashioned annual with melodramatic foot-long drooping red tassels for blooms — was a hint at Brine’s taste for offbeat plants that make a big statement.) “It was a very sensual, atmospheric place,” he continues. “We called it Red Gardens because of all the red brick surrounding us. It was next to an auto body shop, so it was a pretty idyllic setup,” he jokes.

 

Friends who admired the little garden asked Brine to design city and rooftop gardens for them, too. By 1984, he had a new career as a landscape designer. He and Julia launched Horticultural Designs and city projects soon gave way to suburban and then rural ones.

Brine’s exuberant design style is hard to pin down. He admits to loving the Japanese esthetic, but after designing just one Japanese garden, he “cut his ties,” he says. “I’m an American, I have to have an American look. In the early days here in Pawling, I had Japanese ornaments, but they’re now hidden away. Granite lanterns, birdbaths — goodbye. You’ve gotta be strict about this sort of thing. I don’t want to be identified with anything other than nature.”

 

His desire to find the “connection” with a site dictates his landscapes. “It doesn’t make sense to do arbitrary things,” he says. “The plants, the buildings, the site are all connected. You can’t go in with preconceived ideas because ultimately it isn’t satisfying.”

 

Duncan and Julia lived in Brooklyn for seven years and married after they moved to the Hudson Valley in the late 80s. “It was a very thorough rehearsal,” he remarks. The couple spent a year each in Garrison and Hopewell before moving to Pawling in 1990. There they bought a circa 1920s house on two acres with a lovely view of a forested ridge. The property had mature trees but was otherwise undeveloped.

 

“The space needed structure, but I wanted to preserve as deep a view as possible from both the house and the garden,”?Brine explains. Early plantings included a sweep of Miscanthus giganteus, Chinese silver grass that grows about 10 feet tall and serves as a hedge to screen out houses nearby, but also focuses the view toward the ridge.

Nearby, an allee of bald cypress (Taxodium) is one of his few straight-line plantings, though one side is long and the other short, and one plant is “a bit off,” Brine says. “Make it perfect, then screw it up for the fun of it, so it’ll be mysterious as to where it came from.”

 

When the couple first moved in, they brought along more than just their domestic belongings. “We had more plants than furniture,” Brine remarks. “My dream was to have a large garden, and part of my philosophy was to have a nursery.” Of necessity, that was an immediate project — the plants had to go in the ground. But Brine turns out to be passionate on the subject.

 

“I urge clients to have a nursery in their garden. It’s a place to put stuff you rip out and don’t know where to put. What boggles people, and ties up everything, is when you have to remove and replant at the same time. If you have a nursery, it’s a storage place. You can use it for propagating. You can shop for plants and keep them in the nursery until you know where they should go. It’s vital, even in a modest garden, because you don’t want to move things endlessly.”

 

Brine acts on his own advice, avoiding the digging up and replanting frenzy that strikes many gardeners come autumn. “I think a hell of a long time before putting plants in place,” he says.

 

Some of the plants in his nursery are destined for clients. “It works beautifully,” he remarks. “I’m very spoiled — it makes a difference to have a range of plants that are appropriate for your palette.”

 

Brine’s own garden seems very much a man’s garden, which is to say expansive and bold. “Large spaces in the country call for a large treatment, a big gesture,” he believes. “Nature is big. Here, in addition to the scale of mature trees themselves, there’s the ridge, so I was designing to complement that. In short, I like big plants and big flowers for big spaces. And things in mass, because it gives them a natural feeling.”

 

Also, he points out, “Having large plants occupy the space makes it much easier to care for than if you have a whole bunch of small stuff.”

 

Trees, shrubs and grasses dominate and offer their share of color and texture, especially in autumn, but there are flowers in the garden, too. Many of them are vigorous varieties like Joe Pye weed, ligularia, ironweed, nepeta and golden aster — all in naturalistic sweeps, or alongside a pathway, or in large clumps here and there, rather than in traditional flower beds. Hellebores and ginger grow in profusion beneath the trees in woodsy areas. There are many native plants, though Brine welcomes robust foreigners, too (“it would be un-American not to,” he remarks). But even the immigrants are those that look as if they belong in a North American garden.

 

About 10 years ago, the couple purchased four neighboring acres (along with a house that they use for an office), and Brine was able to really spread his wings. The four-acre parcel slopes steeply from its crest down to marshy lowland with a small stream running through it, offering a variety of terrain to be experimented with.

 

Now, gravel paths and wooden walkways snake through the property and down the hillside, through plantings blending from natural to controlled and back again, so that it’s often impossible to tell which was Duncan’s work and which was the hand of Mother Nature. “I work hard for that,” he says, recounting how one visitor on a garden tour asked him if he’d planted the phragmites marsh grasses at the foot of the hill. “It’s a multi-acre area,” Brine says in wonder, and although the phragmites are invasive, it’s clear he was pleased the visitor couldn’t tell which of the grand gestures on his property he is responsible for. “It’s a very purposeful confusion,” he says.

 

Each area of the maze-like garden beckons and offers its own rewards. Follow the wooden walkway over the little bridge to the marsh area, and you find yourself in a tunnel of grasses towering over your head, with miscanthus cuttings forming a carpet on the ground. The jungle effect is so strong you could almost believe you’re in Cambodia. Then emerge, and you’re back at the foot of an American hillside planted with birches and mulberry trees, the autumn leaves of the ridge glowing in the distance.

 

Among his array of carefully selected plants, Brine counts such curiosities as No Mow grass, which, as its name suggests, grows low. Unusual berried shrubs or peeling bark invite inspection as you pass.

 

“Something I realize more and more is that, as you walk down the paths, you are actually in these various plants,” Brine remarks. “You’re underneath a tree, or there’s a shrub over your head, so you’re inside the plant world. That’s really cool. Some people might find it claustrophobic, all these branches in your face. But you see this leaf, that berry — it’s part of the fun. There’s a lot of mass, but a certain amount of detail when you have these encounters. Leaf to leaf, berry to berry — that’s how I spend my life. Not standing outside of it.”

 

Brine’s landscaping style is best suited to larger gardens, although he usually designs in stages. “I’m very plant oriented,” he declares. “If you’re standing on a street looking at a house, my proposal would be to plant from the curb to the house — have the whole thing planted except the walkways. That’s my basic approach. Not that there’s never a lawn. If you need a place to play, or an open view, then there’s lawn. But it’s basically plants.”

 

Clients have so far happily accepted his suggestions. “Once they get a great-looking garden, they say ‘why not extend it?’” he remarks. And that’s an idea Duncan Brine can understand. ?

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