Monday, August 8, 2011

Visiting Gardens

      Gardens rarely outlive their owner. If Monet were to walk into Giverny today, despite the best of intentions of his successors, he would be lost. A garden, if left unattended or looked after marginally after the death of the gardener, will maintain its character for a brief time, but soon nature or new owners take over and it will be lost. Or a garden is opened to the public and increasingly more attractions must be offered to appease repeat visitors.

A visitor to the Kelsey Garden
This was not on my mind when I started out on a local garden tour last week, but it was when it ended. After the repetitious, overly ambitious, or just plain dull gardens, the most thoughtful was a small garden watched over by the recent widow of the gardener. The garden was a joint venture of Bryn and Sergio Kelsey, and the widow continues, “working on gut and instinct.” On a small lot, a warren of paths, barely wide enough for one to pass, is punctuated by fragments of ironwork gates tucked in among shrubs and arbors. There are surprises at every turn, probably to the gardener as well as the visitor.

At the other end of the spectrum of deceased gardeners is Naumkeag in the Berkshires. It is the home of the Blue Staircase, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Maintained intact after the death of the owner, it affords one of those lovely opportunities to pry without risking arrest for trespassing.

Round log retaining wall
There are small lessons to be learned in even the very grandest of gardens. Here, it is the value of a largely green landscape. The driveway and entrance courtyard are purely green with a variety of textures and shades: tall arborvitae hedges, banks of pachysandra, and deciduous trees in full leaf. The only color is the fading blooms of climbing hydrangea. The effect is immensely calming, especially when seen against a backdrop of stone, brick, gravel and weathered shingle.

Another small and valuable detail is the low retaining wall made of short lengths of round slender logs. Cut to uniform lengths and probably set below grade in a cement slurry, they provide welcome relief from the ubiquitous stone retaining walls, and are more elegant than railroad ties.

Back in New York City, wonderful gardens may be seen on Roosevelt Island. The allotment gardens are semi-private; you have to find a friend to take you in, or peer longingly over a fence and hope someone will take pity on you. Roosevelt Island’s allotment system gives each gardener 210 square feet laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike. You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best. No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until some one moves out or dies.

A mature garden
My guide was Kasia Pereira, who was fortunate enough to quickly acquire a space no one wanted -- a steeply sloped dumping ground at the edge of the garden. Kasia’s garden was only three years old in this photograph, but in that time she able to clear it, construct raised beds in planting boxes, paths and a seating area. Gravel paths separate narrow beds filled with hydrangea, hosta, annuals and a small angel. A mature peach tree and a rangy Corylus contorta provide scale.

A corner of Kasia's garden
Vaughan Anglesey's garden ready for visitors

Kasia was helped immeasurably by the garden’s presiding benevolent presence, Vaughn Anglesey. He is seemingly always on site when not at his day job, generous with advice and hands-on construction. As the original settlers on Roosevelt Island have grown frail and elderly, Vaughn has constructed raised benches and seating for them so that they may continue to garden. On my visit at the end of the day he had just settled into a chair next to his stepped water feature and his small grill, waiting for callers.

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the spaces. Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild. Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while others are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A non-gardener's garden

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