The urge subsides during the winter, but then, as regularly as the arrival of March, it takes hold like an undertow, dragging me outdoors, even out of state. It's time to poke around gardens. I don't mean only my own, where by now I've already sifted through frozen leaves in search of the scillas' first sapphire bells, and turned over forkfuls of wet soil to sprinkle lettuce seeds, as fine as ground pepper. Other people's gardens, too, draw me. Horticultural expertise and strong design should be reasons enough to study a landscape, but my appetite is less practical. I'm on the lookout for the gardener's spirit.
Beautiful or bizarre, sometimes both, the gardens I find most intriguing are strewn with clues to personality. Picture, for instance, the regal reach of 200-year-old live oaks in a garden I visited recently in Austin, Texas. Gigantic exotic seashells hung from the branches, twisting in the wind. Glittery chandeliers strung with loops of pearls and crystals dangled from trees near the house, in which a second-floor window framed a pair of white knee-high go-go boots. Upright under a bush sat a bigger-than-life bald and naked baby doll—not an abandoned toy (the owner, Jane Schweppe, a philanthropist, has no children) but a carefully placed ornament. Silver and blue marbles sparkled in the paths, and the dry borders were rife with the foliage of a rare and wonderful collection of South African bulbs that in spring burst into color. The sensibility that warbles in this garden is unlike any I've encountered back home in New England.
The way into hundreds of fetching private gardens around the United States is The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Directory, an ample paperback published each winter that lists gardens open to the public on specified days from March to October. Modeled on Great Britain's wildly popular Yellow Book (which I discussed in this magazine in March of 1996), the directory is arranged by state—gardens in twenty-four states are listed this year—and includes maps, dates when the gardens will be open, and descriptions, written by the gardens' owners, of almost 400 gardens. The Open Days program was launched in 1995 to help fund the conservancy's primary mission: the identification and preservation of American gardens so exceptional that the organization deems them part of the nation's cultural heritage. So far The Garden Conservancy has taken seventeen properties under its wing. The Open Days gardens (they earn money for the conservancy by way of sales of the directory, which costs $15.95, and also by way of coupons for admission to the gardens, six for $25) are a separate group, chosen by volunteer representatives scattered across the country and making up a kaleidoscopic assortment; no uniform standard is applied for inclusion. Arbitrary though the selection may be, people flock to take a look: Open Days gardens attracted more than 54,000 visitors last year.
The only national publication of its kind, the Open Days directory has guided me from Narragansett Bay to Pebble Beach. One of the richest troves of lovely gardens on our continent lies in the rolling countryside north of New York City. In Westchester County for a family wedding last June, with a sunny, free Sunday before us, my husband, Bill, and I pulled the 2000 directory out of the glove compartment. We skimmed the text for gardens that promised something in addition to roaring, robust plant life. Why, there was Ice Pond Farm, owned by my childhood figure-skating idol Dick Button, which was said to include a bocce court in an allée of crab apples. Another listed garden belonged to Page Dickey, a garden writer whose book on landscape designers I had read with interest. We were assured we'd find world-class statuary on the property of Barbara Israel, a dealer in antique garden ornaments.
That Sunday the hedged enclosures of Page Dickey's Duck Hill, in North Salem, New York, were completely captivating, the beds of phlox, peonies, foxgloves, roses, and bleeding hearts all in crisp nurse-white bloom. Clematis clambered through the fruit trees, and the smoky-blue branches of rosa glauca arched gracefully over mounds of sweet, tiny-flowered amsonias. Here and there spikes of yellow mullein had toppled into the gravel paths that defined the herb beds; these overflowed with unruly mints, thyme, and fragrant miniature pinks. Sprawling cranesbills, nepeta, and wild marjoram had been allowed to blur but not quite subvert the tidy lines of outdoor garden rooms that complement the old farmhouse at the heart of the garden.
When Bill and I came upon Dickey herself, she was sitting outside the kitchen door under a crab-apple tree with the unread Sunday New York Times in her lap. Visitors surrounded her. She couldn't identify every one of her hundreds of plants, but she hazarded that the perky-faced annual tucked into a corner of the perennial border was nemophila "Pennie Black." "Once, I could list every plant by heart," she said, "but somewhere along the way I lost control. Still, my favorites will always be the charming, old-fashioned flowers, species before cultivars, and especially the fragrant ones." Later, in a lull between waves of inquiries, she surveyed the garden and mused, "I hope something will be in bloom next month. I'm getting married in the white garden on July first."
I could envision an enchanting Tasha Tudor-like scene, with dewy rose petals fluttering down on the perfect bride, her groom, and a squad of doted-on dogs (Dickey owns three). Strolling through a garden, for me, is like eavesdropping on a life.
I'm not alone in this. On the same day, last October, when I toured Jane Schweppe's garden, in Austin, my first stop was the home of James David, a landscape architect, and his partner, Gary Peese. Visitors were everywhere: wandering the aisles of a greenhouse filled with containers of forced bulbs, clucking at hens in a chicken coop, resting on limestone steps, peering through the glass doors of the modern house, built at the top of a steep ravine. I overheard a woman pressed up to a window say to her companion, "Oh, look! It's that chic new kind of bathroom with no doors. All tiled with a drain in the middle of the floor. And there's a bed and desk, right in the same room."
But to return to New York State: A few horse pastures away from Duck Hill, along a winding stream and down a shady dirt road, Bill parked and we crossed a cattle grate and trudged up a driveway to Willow Green Farm. What immediately grabbed my attention wasn't the country garden, although the welcoming green fields flowed uphill to a gabled summerhouse like something out of an Ingmar Bergman movie, and wildflower beds melted seamlessly into the woods. It was the intensity of the gardener, the fiction writer Roxana Robinson, who was fervently instructing a visitor on the ways of organic gardening. "I only use soaps, never pesticides," she explained. "Wait—I'll get the catalogue." She dashed inside, returning with "Gardens Alive!," which offered kelp sprays, coconut-based anti-slug powders, and grub-devouring nematodes. Environmental education was a bonus at this garden. I am now a proud dues-paying member of an organic-gardening club sponsored by the publisher of "Gardens Alive!"
We missed Ice Pond Farm altogether (my scheduling isn't perfect) and stopped only briefly at Barbara Israel's garden, where price tags flipped in the breeze: $17,500 for a pair of large stone planters, $1,500 for a cast-iron grapevine seat. Lead urns, Romanesque wellheads, and spouting frog fountains were all on the block.
At Glebelands, in southern Vermont, which I visited later in the summer, there was another remarkable collection of statuary, but this was all part of the property's history. The garden's design is a curious combination of the rigid and the relaxed. Formal beds, exotic gazebos, fountains, and a reflecting pool are set on thirty acres that also incorporate woodland walks, two millponds, and a waterfall. The vision is partly that of Mrs. A.V.S. Olcott (as she prefers to be known), who bought the property in 1985, and partly that of one Pauline Hardy, who was the owner in the thirties. Mrs. Olcott has long served as the Garden Club of America's official historian, and she helped me to picture Hardy wrapped in a fluttering peignoir, a book of poetry in hand as she floated in a tin rowboat—the very boat I saw tied to a willow tree. This capricious creature, while digging and dividing irises in the heat of an August morning, would suddenly rip off her muddy clothes so that she could splash in a tiled pool.
In a domed temple at the foot of descending terraces brimming with blue baptisias, fragrant phlox, martagon lilies, and peonies, Mrs. Olcott paused to let me study a graceful statue of a maiden lifting her skirts to reveal a bare foot. Not just any bare foot: "Diane de Poitiers's, in all likelihood, because of the"—here Mrs. Olcott pointed—"fused toes." Unusual toe configurations cropped up regularly within the French aristocracy, my hostess informed me; the trait was regarded as a badge of noble birth. The pretty duchesse had sailed home with the Hardys from one of their trips "between the wars." Family heirlooms of Mrs. Olcott's on the property included an Italian marble table supported by winged lions, now placed in the apple orchard, and a statue of a small boy throttling a dove nestled under the ancient arborvitae. As we circled one of the millponds, which is bordered by a hundred-yard-long marble dam, Mrs. Olcott recounted a signal moment in local history, the day the dam broke: "September sixth, 1901." After a glance at my blank face she added, "The day, as you'll remember, President McKinley was shot."
Bill came with me to Putney, Vermont, about an hour's drive southeast, where Gordon and Mary Hayward make their home. Gordon is a professional garden designer who writes useful garden treatises; Mary is a forthright, friendly schoolteacher. I soon decided that this was a garden in which to find architectural lessons rather than to probe for eccentricity. It is a model of pleasing proportions, coherence, and engaging vistas.
Nine distinct areas reveal themselves coyly, around a bend, through an arch, or at the end of an allée, and each of these outdoor rooms provides specific growing conditions. I could have spent hours jotting down lists of the plants that thrived in the dry shade, the sun, the hedged herb beds, the boggy pool. From the garden's compelling main axis, a line from the front door of the 200-year-old house to a distant apple tree, side paths enticed us to explore beyond the geometric core. Along the way Gordon Hayward earnestly explained his carefully juxtaposed plant arrangements: "You see how the apple tree canopies the pyramidal evergreen chamaecyparis, itself silhouetted against the creamy curtain of variegated dogwoods?" He is a master of spatial relationships.
In a spasm of motivation when we returned home, Bill ordered two pallets of fieldstones. He would lay Hayward-inspired paths in our own wildish, unfocused garden to direct visitors' footsteps. Someday. Those rocks sit reproachfully in a hulking heap next to our compost pile.
The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Directory can be ordered from the conservancy by calling 888-842-2442 or by writing P.O. Box 219, Cold Spring, NY 10516. The last page of the directory contains an order form for the coupons required for garden visits. (Send a check for $45.95, which includes shipping, to the conservancy's P.O. box to receive the directory together with six coupons.) Information about The Garden Conservancy is available online at www.gardenconservancy.org.