Tuesday, July 22, 2014

You Can't Go Home Again

Six years ago this week I left the woods at Altamont House in High Rock Park on Staten Island.  They say a garden dies with its gardener, but in some cases all you have to do is move away.  It’s probably the same with a house you have loved and left behind.  The new owner invites you over to see what she has done, and when the visit is over you wish you had never gone.

I returned to Altamont House recently, only to find that four years of hard work had disappeared, eaten up by the return of the forest and benign neglect.  I wish I could show you the difference, but all I have is pictures of the work as finished in 2006.  The few taken recently show nothing but dense green forest, underbrush and debris.

The Backdoor Garden - 2006

The Backdoor Garden - Today

When I arrived, I was to be the new caretaker of this 1910 house, brown shingle and yellow trim, empty and waiting.  The plan was to fashion it as a revenue-producing source for the park.  My job was to plan, oversee and help support the restoration of the house and the landscape. This was in August 2002, and I had a day job in lower Manhattan, a few short blocks from the Staten Island Ferry.  A logical, easy commute.

What I found was a site that had once been farmland carved out of a forest, and was now scrubby woods.  The land that was cleared to build the house was now covered in weeds.  A gravel courtyard had all but disappeared.  The old skating pond alongside the house had become a bog choked with waterwillow and buttonbush.  Fallen branches and dead trees littered the landscape

I wanted to make a garden, but or most of the first year I sat on the back steps, waiting for the site to speak to me and tell me what to do.   When we finally got to work, all we did was clear.  English ivy and giant spruces blocking all views and light were removed, and widespread Devil’s walkingstick and poison ivy cleared.

Looking Towards the Path to Boyle St. 

We opened up the footpath from Boyle Street to the house and planted Amelanchiers, underplanted with astilbe, turk’s cap lilies, ferns and tiarella.  All that is left are the Amelanchiers.  But I’m sure that if you walk in the neighboring woods in early spring you’ll still see Canada mayflower poking through a winter blanket of oak leaves.  And if you walk down the road to Altamont Street at around the same time, you’ll still find stands of marsh marigold in the damp areas.  Our daffodils were glorious and are probably still there, if you know where to look.  We planted hundreds of them up the hill from the Boyle Street footpath, just below the neighboring inland lighthouse.

We did pretty well on the shady side of the house.  We lined a six-foot wide path to a bog with a few Catawba rhododendron, highbush blueberry, hostas, bleeding heart, wood violets, columbines, lacecap hydrangea  and Jacobs’ ladder, all flanking an old mountain laurel and an equally venerable snow azalea. The path to the bog, beautifully edged with intertwined whip-thin branches, and all the plants, have disappeared completely.

Bog Path With Edging

We left behind our first steps in restoring a rock garden dating from the 1920s. We excavated the levels, but had not yet planted.  It faced what was once an orchard, but had now with the encroaching residential development become a second bog.  It was a very pond-like bog, and we thinned the edge to provide glimpses into its depths from the shoreline. The collapse of two large oaks opened up a path to the bog, and the following year we planted Ironwood and American Cranberrybush, all now devoured by the returning forest.

The Second Bog

All that remains on the site are the trees we planted and the mature shrubs that were there when I arrived in 2002 – a Japanese maple, an ancient pieris, an old mountain laurel, a large white azalea.

I expect that turtles still nest in the driveway, and that every spring Peepers call out to each other through the night.  I’m sure birds still visit; when the bogs were full there were ibis and egrets, a Great Blue Heron, and a family of mallards in permanent residence.

To leave a garden behind is to lose it, but Altamont House gave me more than I gave back.  I had been without a garden for 25 years, and I had never lived alone in the woods.  Without Altamont House I would not have become a garden columnist for the Staten Island Advance, writing first Woodland Diary and then The Weekend Gardener.  And perhaps I would not have gone on to other gardens.

Those years changed my life, as houses and gardens tend to do if you let them.  Occasionally, I dream about Altamont House.  In the dream I am sitting on the steps, still waiting for the landscape to speak to me and tell me what to do.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Return of the Lawn

There is nothing quite as calming as a long, cool and green lawn.  In my dreams I see protective borders, portable chairs and tables, arbors and croquet sets, a writer’s hut at bottom of the garden -- all very Virginia Woolf.  Then I wake up, plagued with the larger question. 

Is it wise to plan an ambitious garden for a property I don’t own?  Why not? What is ownership anyway?  A capitalist construct at best, I tell myself.  My charming landlady, H.S., will of course have to agree to a plan, but I will make a strenuous argument about improving her property and, furthermore, she can come and stay whenever she likes.

The Lawn at Bellefield

I don’t know anyone other than myself crying for more grass and a larger lawn area.  The thinking seems to be in the other direction, removing as much grass a possible.  Most gardens are developed by the occupant with this in mind: eliminating grass and then planting bed by bed, pocket by pocket, as the mood strikes. 

Instead, you can turn to a garden pro to help you out, but that can be disappointing if you are new to the site.  The most successful merger of occupant and pro occurs when the occupant has sat in her garden for a year or more, observing and making note of the shifting light patterns, base conditions, and habits of use.  It’s also a good idea to look at what other people in the neighborhood are planting, to see what works.

After a year of this, my thinking has grown stale, and I’ve turned the backyard over to Gail Wittwer-Laird.  You might remember her from the August 30, 2011 post “Growing for the Table.”  To help her get started, I asked the Village for a block and lot plan, but it did not locate the house on the site correctly.  Nor did it locate the aging cesspool, a discovery that fortunately came early enough to avoid problems. 

Gail Wittwer-Laird & Maxwell

Gail began by measuring, photographing, and laying out a plot plan with the major features correctly located.  While I tinkered with the side border shared with my neighbor, Gail was charged with coming up with a simple, elegant plan for the back. 

I currently use three different areas for sitting.  The first is a sunny spot on the western property line.  The second is at the rear of the property, in front of a recovered bed, now in its second season. The third is under maples on the eastern property line, where a children’s worktable is set up for August visits, and where I can escape the cascade of falling black walnuts.  The most important sitting area – off the kitchen, does not yet exist.  It is presently a doormat of small concrete slabs, wet with run-off from the roofline.  The entire backyard is enclosed with a 5’ tall hogwire fence, a surprisingly elegant solution to corralling dogs and small children, while eliminating grazing deer. 

The Blank Backyard at Livingston Street

If a lawn is to invite you to linger, it has to be intimate, to have a sense of enclosure.  Unless you are blessed with a river or a lake you will have to build your enclosures – buildings, walls, shrub borders.  On Livingston Street, most properties are uniform – long rectangular plots, the house close to the street, perhaps a barn, shed or garage at the end of the driveway or tucked in the rear.  We have none of the above; instead there is a gated and fenced portion of the driveway for tools, trash, etc.  No beauty here. 

Happily, there are only a few rules to remember about lawns:
  1. Locate the septic system before you put a shovel in the ground.
  2. Think about your lawn as a green garden.  No matter the dandelions and oddly appearing groundcovers, just mow them as you would grass.
  3. All gardens should provide privacy and bit of seclusion.  Your green garden is no different.  Start at the boundary lines and work inwards.  Borders should be generously deep.  If there are views worth capturing on neighboring property, leave openings to capture them.
  4. Plan your seating areas carefully.  Here on Livingston Street most of the shade trees are black walnuts with a few maples on the eastern property line.  By the fall of my first year here, I learned my favorite seating areas were in war zones and I was hammered by falling walnuts.  I moved to the maples, where I safely spent the cooler months. 

At the moment, just to have something to grow, I’ve planted out the existing oval bed at the rear with hosta, fern, astilbe, hellebore and hydrangea.  The front door garden is in its second year and with a few changes has settled in happily.  This spring we’ve added the companion border to our neighbor, doubling the size.  Respecting the established color palette, we’ve stayed with her blues and pinks, and added several whites.  We’re gambling on a predominately phlox border, ordering older varieties from Perennial Pleasures in Northeast Vermont, and filling in with newer varieties from local nurseries.  We’ve tucked in a few meadow rue for stature and left spaces for peonies.   

From The Front Door

The “We” has changed.  Natalka is concentrating most of her work on the other side of the river, but stops by for an occasional tweaking.  Benito has taken over the heavy work, coming by on Saturday mornings for a few hours.  The beds have been heavily dug, prepared with a beautiful edge, extensively weeded and heavily mulched.  I’m hoping the maintenance has now been reduced to watering, deadheading and staking, which are all manageable tasks for me.

The overall plan is almost complete, and I will share it with you when it is finished, that is if it earns a seal of approval from H.S.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

An Artist Paints With Flowers

Gardeners run the full gamut of aesthetic inclinations, no subset more so than artists.  Monet gardened to paint, Jim Sullivan gardens in stone, Robert Dash gardens with painted doors and gates, Sarah Draney deploys rustic salvage and found objects. Only Linda Stillman grows flowers for their pigments alone. 

Linda Stillman With Flowers
I first saw her work at The Gallery at R&F in Kingston, housed within the factory producing R&F Handmade Paints.  I’ve seen endless photographs of flowers, and paintings of flowers, but I had never seen actual flower pigments used in the making of art.  Her interest in the direct use of pigments evolved from an early land installation, August Garden, a planting of annuals laid out in the form of a calendar for the month of August.  The garden was photographed daily from above and the passage of time documented by observations and drawings. The exhibition then moved on to a series of works on paper using colors derived directly from the flowers onto the paper.

Choosing Pigments 
Linda was not always focused on the ephemeral.  “1998 was the official start of my switching careers from commercial to fine art,” Linda says.“  I had been trained as a commercial artist and worked as a graphic designer and an art director.  At 50 I shifted gears, and earned an MFA in the Visual Arts from the Vermont College of College of Fine Arts in Montpelier.” 

From the beginning her work was centered on space, time and memory.  As she became more deeply involved in her art she worried about how she would find time to garden.  “That’s when I decided to plant for the August Garden land installation.  I converted my old vegetable garden into a planting of annuals in the form of a calendar for the month of August.”  She photographed the garden at various stages of growth, and then transformed her observation into art, abstracting the essence by creating the rubbings from the very plant materials she had been growing.

From there she moved away from the representational calendar and on to greater abstraction, using the petals from flowers and rubbing their pigment directly into paper.  Only freshly cut flowers would do; dried flowers would not produce the effect she is after.  The main concern in her art is how to remember.  “I select the flowers and rub the colors directly onto the paper as a way of remembering. Traces of plant matter often remain.”

A Typical Harvest Ready for Work  
I visited Linda in her beautiful garden and studio in a rural town in  Columbia County, NY.  She works out of a serene studio in one of pair of handsome barns.  There is a strong sense of calm; it’s hard to imagine interruptions. 

The flower drawings are only a small part of her concentration on ephemera, on the intersection of time, memory and nature.  She executes small sky paintings as seen from her the studio, from the same window in exactly the same spot, every day of the year.  “The idea, she says, “was to capture something ordinary and make art out of it.”  In 2008-9 she exhibited skylines by month at the Arts Club of Chicago

Studio View for Sky Paintings 
During a recent residency at Wave Hill, Linda made drawings using flower and plant specimen, and continued her Sky series by executing a small painting every day, but from a new location.  Her aesthetic is simple and austere; daily paintings are important if you are to capture time and memory.

Her garden is anything but austere, but it is composed with a painterly eye.  The vegetable garden is robust and immaculately organized.  The rows are meticulously maintained.  The flowers are clear and vivid, as is her body of work using plants.

Vegetable Garden
Everything grown can be utilized in a work of art, but there are problems still to be solved.  What is the life span of a pigment derived directly from plant materials?  Are fixatives necessary?  Will they change the character of the finished work?  Or is the whole point that the work is as ephemeral as the flowers themselves, and perhaps that is just as it should be.

A Flower-Stain Technique Demonstration 

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Late Start

From time to time, most of us grind to a halt.  Sometimes with good reason, often with none.  In October I moved yet again, this time just up the street in Rhinebeck.  After a summer in a backyard shared with various tenants and dogs that precluded a garden, a rental house became available with its own deep garden and extra room for guests.

Moving sucks up all the air available for breathing and almost all the available time.  Eventually, everything settles in place and it’s possible to focus on work again.  Fortunately, I’m not too far from the Catskills garden and the season is not too far ahead of me. 

Perennial Border Before Thinning
That garden is now well established and we are doing more removal and resettling than planting.  The climbing hydrangea has taken over a frame outbuilding and will have to be relocated.  The perennial border has been thinned and rethought. The baptisia was taking more than its fair share of space and has been reduced from three to two. The Siberian iris in the Peony Walk will be divided once again.  As a result of tree removal, the porch garden, once a haven for shade plants, is now in the sun. 

The new Rhinebeck garden is a different story.  It is a clean slate:  a long, deep, neglected garden typical of 1850’s village houses. A. J. Dowling in Victorian Cottage Residences (1842) lays out in detail how these properties should be used, accompanied by planting plans and maintenance expectations of family members.  In its day, the ornamental part of the garden would lie in front of planted trellises, with the working garden discretely in the rear. The latter would include a kitchen garden, fruit trees, berries, grape vines.  Varieties to be planted were specified and duly noted, while more routine vegetables could be purchased in the village. 

Dowling, 1842 Edition
All traces of that early garden are gone and now it is a plateau of lawn – a few shrubs on the perimeter, the brick outline of beds long abandoned to the easiest of plants to grow, hostas and daylilies. Tall trees, black walnuts and maples, are located on the neighbors’ side of the perimeter fence and pruned high.  The dappled shade is ideal for sitting quietly, but not best for planting.  No roses, perennials or vegetables here, or anything susceptible to black walnut toxicity.

As for the house itself, the first time I walked in it was immediately familiar.  It is an 1856 side hall cottage, identical in layout to a house I owned years ago in Roslyn, NY.  Coincidentally, I have a dollhouse made from the original plans for the Roslyn house, now in the Livingston Street living room.

There is light from all four sides, something you don’t miss in a city apartment until you have it again somewhere else. This house felt right from the very beginning, which does not happen that often.  

We’ve started our planting with the front of the house – the editorial “we” being Natalka and I.  You will remember her from earlier posts as the critical success factor in the Catskills garden.  Natalka cleaned out the bed, emptying it of desiccated boxwood, ubiquitous green/white hosta and a few oddities.  After soil testing and amending, we planted this week. 
71 Livingston Street, before
I dithered, as usual.  I started with a bold idea, a strict yew hedge centered on a jazzy ornamental something – an urn, an armillary, giant canna, but settled on a more neighborhood-friendly configuration.  At the same time, Natalka tried to avoid repeating what we see all around us and yet remain harmonious.  We settled on Carolina rhododendron, dwarf ‘Bombshell” hydrangeas (the people responsible for naming hydrangeas is a another conversation), ferns (probably Christmas or Ghost), a cimicifuga or two tucked in for surprise, and clematis for a little color on the porch railing.
71 Livingston Street, after

I share a semi-sunny property line with a neighbor and plan to mirror her perennial plantings and perhaps expand the palette somewhat.  This is a very neighborly neighborhood.  When winter is finally over, everyone emerges from confinement and stands about outdoors chatting. Neighborhood news and garden tips are freely exchanged, invitations proffered and accepted.

I think you can tell I’m smitten. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Roses of West End Avenue

There are few gardening conditions more dispiriting than the scrap of earth that lies between a New York City building façade and the sidewalk.  Passersby toss in candy wrappers.  Local Laws 10 and 11 mandate scaffolding to inspect and repair stone work which can take a few weeks, a few months, or what feels like forever. Nonetheless, a few building owners officially take on the task of managing these strips, and in some cases a sole volunteer will make a small paradise out of an unpromising plot.

365 West End Avenue in June
Carol Morton is one of these intrepid gardeners.  365 West End Avenue is a grand old rental building where tenants who stayed put still meander through what seems like vast spaces to anyone looking for an apartment today.  The garden, however, was not a joy; on either side of the front entrance ubiquitous yews wrapped in dusty ivy were left to fend for themselves.  The mandated scaffolding, supposedly erected only every five years, has occurred at 365  three times in eight years.  Each time it blocks light and air, causing plants to struggle.

'Sombreuil' with Clematis
Carol planted impatiens for starters, and removed the old plants one at a time.  The owners of the building, the Mehlon family, were skeptical at first, but have become enthusiastic supporters.  “They love the garden now,” Carol reports.  

In the early years nobody helped, which was fine with Carol.  A quintessential West Sider, she says ”I don’t want anyone else’s opinion.  I’ll make my own mistakes.”

 I don’t know what those mistakes might have been at the beginning, but there don’t seem to be any now.  Carol specializes in roses, if specialization is a reflection of passion and knowledge.  She selects roses only a daring gardener would risk; eye-stopping orange and purple, leavened with yellow and white.  “I want only the greatest roses,” Carol says.  She selects from the ratings of the American Rose Society, the official arbiter of commercially available roses, and purchases new ones only if there has been a fatality.  All her roses are versatile, adaptable, continuously blooming, and disease and pest free.

Carol’s inspiration has been her cousin Richard Katz’s roof garden in Brooklyn.  It was his roses that convinced her to try them on West End Avenue, and now she is returning the favor.  “I gave Richard ‘Dortmund,’ a climbing red pillar rose he planted at ground level.  It is enormous, covering the entire gate to the garage.”

Now to the roses: starting at 365’s southern corner, ‘Sombreuil,’ popular since 1850, has flat, creamy, very large white flowers, is mildew-free and ideal for training on walls.  It blooms vigorously in June then again in unexpected, unpredictable flushes throughout the season.

Next in line is ‘Westerland,’ a beautiful apricot-orange rose with big, three-inch orange flowers, semi-double and wonderfully fragrant.  It pales once the street trees leaf out, and it loses some of its orange cast.

‘Sally Holmes’ follows up the line northward.  The individual flowers are modest, but the cumulative massing on a plant is memorable.  Close up, the flattened form changes color with the season: white in early spring, apricot in later spring and early summer, and rosy pink with the cooler nights of fall.

The startling ‘Night Owl’ is next, sporting dark, reddish-purple blooms with prominent yellow stamens.  “I am not pleased with it;” Carol complains, “there is not enough light for it to flourish.”  She has only herself to blame.  When new street trees were planted Carol, a good New Yorker, took on the watering task.  The trees flourished, and now the roses that used to be in full sun are shaded most of the day.  Some gardeners are architects of their own demise.
Night Owl
Carol’s season doesn’t end with the fading of the roses.  In the summer the garden glows with the double white flowers of Rose of Sharon, which climb to the second floor.  Hydrangea ‘Endless Summer’ accompanies summer phlox.  “I’m crazy about tuberous begonias, and I planted eight this year.“

Spring Columbine at Ground Level
Like most generously spirited New Yorkers, Carol has a demanding day job; she manages money for individuals.  “I work in the garden on weekends, about three hours a day, and the building staff waters. Carol has been doing this now for ten or more years, and there are no hard and fast rules. “Gardens are very idiosyncratic,” Carol observes. “In this building heat leaches from the limestone façade and creates a microclimate that encourages even Cannas to winter over.”

As if the frequent scaffolding and the robust street trees were not trouble enough, passersby allow their dogs to pee in the garden, attracted by the Please Curb Your Dog signs. “If dog pee smells so good,” Carol reasons, “why don’t they let them pee in the house?”

Carol Morton in the Garden
However, there are many more appreciative passersby than abusers.  Recently, one woman walking with her ailing son said “ I can’t tell  you how much this means to us. We just can’t get to the park anymore.”

The roses alone are worth a visit in June.  If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, take a look, and please leave a thank you note.