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.