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The Self-Taught Gardener: The most ruthless sport

Gardening is not for the faint of heart – it is a ruthless sport that involves everything from Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest standards for selecting plants to the willingness to take out something that isn’t working.

I have been a fan of garden writing since I first started planning (and planting) my own garden. But for me, it was not the soft, gentle, reassuring voices of gardening articles in so-called lady’s magazines or pretty picture books that were of interest. Rather, it was the unabashed bullies of the garden world, swollen with opinion, who appealed to me. One could call them the Christopher Hitchenses of the garden world. These men and women, from Eleanor Perenyi and Henry

No one in the world could combine color with such confidence as Henriette Suhr.
No one in the world could combine color with such confidence as Henriette Suhr.

Mitchell to Christopher Lloyd, were unafraid to say things that others dared not, whether it was their detestation of the color purple or white flowers in the border, or their love of a plant that was viewed as common, such as the standard geranium. However, it was not their bragadoccio that appealed to me, but the fact that they knew what they liked and what they wanted. Gardening is not for the faint of heart – it is a ruthless sport that involves everything from Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest standards for selecting plants to the willingness to take out something that isn’t working and ending its life for no other reason than that it does not belong.

For some reason, gardening is not viewed in this manner. We like seeing it as soft and gentle, a ladylike pursuit, but the best gardeners I know, have the inner strength of a CEO (and one of them, Martha Stewart, managed to take on that title as well) and the fortitude to stand behind their decisions. And the most important influence for me in this regard was my dear friend, Henriette Granville Suhr, who truly taught me what it means to be a gardener.

For more than fifty years, Henriette worked on the creation of Rocky Hills, her 12-acre property in Westchester County replete with flowering trees, rhododendrons, woodland plants and babbling brooks that called to mind an idealized version of the natural world, and as she stated proudly throughout her 98 years on this earth, “I have no training as a gardener.” And this was not her admission of weakness or false humility, although it was often read as this by visitors to the garden, but her understanding of her strength. Her knowledge of gardening came not from books and classes, but through the development of the most powerful skills a gardener can develop: her ability to observe, to experiment, and to respond.

This path at Rocky Hills was transformed through careful editing over the years.
This path at Rocky Hills was transformed through careful editing over the years.

Her garden, which was once to be preserved as a public garden by Westchester County and the Garden Conservancy, was a study in the evolution of a garden. When I first met Henriette, less than a decade ago, Rocky Hills was a lovely site, filled with tree peonies, magnolias, azaleas, and many of the spring blooming plants she and her husband had planted over the decades, but it is not the garden that I remember and cherish. For in the last decade of her life, she came into her

The fern garden, created in the later years of Henriette Suhr’s life with the aide of fern expert Dr. John Mickel, demonstrates how gardens can continually evolve and also tells us when it makes sense to seek advice from neighboring experts.
The fern garden, created in the later years of Henriette Suhr’s life with the aide of fern expert Dr. John Mickel, demonstrates how gardens can continually evolve and also tells us when it makes sense to seek advice from neighboring experts.

own as a gardener on another level; she recognized the need for a garden to evolve – not only because of changing conditions of shade and sun, or even the effects of global warming, but because good gardeners continue, like good writers, to edit and refine their work (a skill I could use in both of these arts and which I envy in others).

Good gardens are storytelling at its very best, and one’s ability to weave a good tale – and to create a great garden – improves with age. The garden which existed when I met her was filled with many of her signature elements: a room of artfully grown dwarf blue spruces, azalea borders, and fern gardens – all of which were beautiful on their own — but they did not feel connected to one another nor to the larger story of Henriette. And like the terrace from which she eventually tore out mounds of forsythia to replant it with lady’s mantle, columbine and dwarf conifers that

The paths at Rocky Hills evolved over time and, while they seem as if they have always been there, many were put in place and refined by Henriette Suhr over the years.
The paths at Rocky Hills evolved over time and, while they seem as if they have always been there, many were put in place and refined by Henriette Suhr over the years.

opened it up to the gardens below, the point of view for the garden was established and its story flowed forth. As she worked in her last years, her work as an interior designer came forth and gave the garden what my mother called “flow” on a much-cherished visit to Rocky Hills when she met my good friend Henriette, 50 years my senior and a peer nevertheless. Spaces revealed themselves artfully and traversing the garden became effortless as new paths or borders simplified the approach to the various areas of the garden and seemed to lead one forth, like the transitions the most avid of storytellers use to foreshadow what is next.

These changes did not come easily. For each plant, such as the conifers that she and Billy had planted out after using them as balled and burlapped Christmas trees in the house, was also a memory. Some stayed, of course, because they were critical to her story or could be worked around, or provided great imagery, but others, such as the tree peonies behind the house, lovingly planted forty years ago, were moved because the site had been changed by storm damage. But for Henriette, these moments were not about getting rid of past memories but an endless effort to make room for new ones and to improve the tale of her life and garden. And for this, and for everything she has taught me and so many others about gardening, she will always be remembered.

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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.

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