Touring by the Book

The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Directory encourages snooping in the interests of a good cause  

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.

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