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.

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