The pine-framed view across the road from my house demands to be a part of my shared landscape.

The Self-Taught Gardener: Pining for privacy

Why is an experienced gardener like Lee Buttala intimidated by evergreen conifers? He discovers he is not alone.

As summer comes on and spring tasks get checked off of the list, I try to take moments, while moving hoses around and praying for rain, to look about the garden and decide what improvements need to be made for the seasons ahead. These moments of reflection in the garden are critical. They allow me to see how a garden might evolve over the coming years.

The taking down of an old, overgrown hedge across the front of my property and the subsequent removal of the cedar stumps has left me — and my house — feeling exposed. I enjoy seeing neighbors while working outside, especially in this socially distanced time where serendipitous conversation is rare, but I know that, post-pandemic, I may want a bit of privacy from the road. The purchase of a relatively mature horizontal beech from Windy Hill Farm will quickly provide a barrier on one side of the driveway. It will even hold its dried and golden-toned leaves over the winter, so that I will have some privacy for most of the year with the exception of the moment when the old leaves abscise as the new ones break bud. I think this moment of transparency is not only okay, it is desired, as the backlit chartreuse new growth will distract the attention of passersby. It will also be a moment, after a long winter’s sequester, when I may even be pleased to catch up with those passersby, a reminder of how we have come together in the pandemic to see ourselves as a connected community.

The entrance to Windy Hill Farm in Stockbridge is filled with a colorful combination of conifers.

But, as to how to address the other side of the driveway, I am, despite having removed dozens of them, quite stumped. A set of French doors into our library makes me want to have some privacy from the road, but I do not want to look out at a formal hedge or a fence, and I do not want to lose one piece of the view, which overlooks the old flooded marble quarry across the street. When I took down the old hedge and discovered this quarry, framed by a stand of old white pines on my neighbor’s property, I was amazed that anyone had ever hidden it from view. I have now come to realize that I want to link my property to the neighbor’s by using some pines to manage the view. In this way, I hope I to connect the two sides of the street and frame this newly revealed view.

The colorful twisted stems of this Japanese white pine draw me in, but they also intimidate me in selecting what to place with it.

With this in mind, I headed off once more to Windy Hill to look at conifers. I wanted to use pines, but instead of simply a stand of white pines, I was after something more interesting to look at from the library sofa on a long winter’s day. In searching for a solution, I realized that, despite having spent a lifetime gardening, I have always been intimated by evergreen conifers and unsure of how to blend them together. I knew how to use the foliage of perennials, deciduous trees, and shrubs to contrast with one another, but always felt that the melding of coniferous textures was overwhelming. At my old house in Connecticut, I tended to plant Korean pine, cryptomeria, and hemlocks in monocultured stands. A grove of deciduous dawn redwoods was also a part of this coniferous planting and would shed its leaves each fall after they turned to pure gold. If I could effectively pair the willowy leaves of a variegated Japanese spirea with the bold foliage of a giant fleeceflower and an azalea, why was I intimidated by mixing pines and spruces?

As I spoke to others about my design conundrum, I found out that many gardeners are similarly intimidated by such coniferous pairings. Perhaps, because their form does not come and go with the seasons, but stays with us throughout the year, these evergreens feel like a bigger decision. There is a permanence to the decision that I never felt when choosing to combine rosemary willows and Korean lilacs which changed with the seasons. One gardener made a great suggestion: find a conifer planting that you love and copy it. But, I must admit, it sounded like cheating. As I gave it some thought, I realized I have known one gardener who seemed to be fearless on this front, and was wildly successful at moving the needle forward, so to speak. My dear friend Henriette Suhr gardened in Westchester County until her death at 98 several years ago. As an interior designer, she seemed to understand conifers in two ways — as textures or fabrics to be interwoven, and as sculptures to be placed about the garden. She used a variety of blue spruces to create an area in her garden that was nothing shy of a living sculpture garden, and this part of her garden was lionized (and copied) by many gardeners and landscapers. But she also had a second skill, and that was to look at the colors and forms of the needles and to place blue junipers next to yellow and green striped pines, almost as if throwing a colorful two-tone linen pillow on a comfy old blue-green mohair velvet sofa.

Henriette Suhr’s use of blue spruces as sculptures at Rocky Hills was admired and often copied.
Henriette also combined textures of various evergreens with confidence and aplomb.

But as simple as Henriette made it all seem, much thought went into her design and I hope to learn from that. I am still working on which conifers to include in my front hedge. I am considering a combination of Korean pines, a soft blue concolor white fir and an umbrella pine. I have a lot to learn, but perhaps lying on the daybed in my library, looking out the French door with a colorful pillow beneath my head, is the best way to proceed.

The blue-green of this concolor fir seems to be calling to me, but what should it be combined with?
The simple green needles of this umbrella pine seem like a neutral that would be good to add to a mixed conifer planting.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.