DISPATCHES FROM THE HOME GARDEN - A FATHER-DAUGHTER GARDEN HERITAGE
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In our last "Dispatches from the Home Garden", we heard from a young gardener experiencing her first garden dislocation/relocation. This week – in many ways in honor of Father’s Day, we hear from another home gardener, this time in New Jersey and this time on the same land her grandparents cultivated and which she and her husband – with the steady help and mentorship of her father – became the fourth generation of her family to steward after her uncle died and the property went on the market.
The twenty years since taking on the family farm has seen a lot of hard work, the restoration of some elements of the homestead and the re-envisioning of other elements. Some things have changed: Barns have been stabilized, old rose borders are now mixed perennial beds, and what was once an outbuilding is now our home-gardener's writing studio. In 2014, her father died.
Other things – including the legacy and spiritual presence of her father – have remained reassuringly similar.
Sometimes our gardens are adventure stories in which we are on a vision quest to find out who we are, sometimes they are our anchors to windward in reminding us who we are and where we came from. Sometimes they are both.
Ryder Ziebarth is a writer and gardener based in Bedminster, New Jersey, which she likes to point out is known as the Garden State! She has spent the last 21 years restoring, gardening and writing on this farmstead that her grandparents purchased, her great grandparents spend summers at, her father grew up on and now her own daughter Lizzie grew up on. Lizzie is the fifth generation of her family on her mother's father’s side to live and tend their Cedar Ridge Farm.
Twenty-one years ago, after 20 years of living in New York City with her husband, the couple and Lizzie - then 5 year -returned to the family farm. While Ryder had always been close to her father, it was the restoration of the historic parts of the farm with her father’s help that rooted their relationship even more deeply in a shared love of the land and their legacy there.
I’ve always liked the concept of layered memory – how similar memories layer themselves through our lives and add meaning each time. For instance, the sound of the guy rope makes knocking gently against a flag pole returns me to visiting my grandparents in summer on the coast of Rhode Island as a young girl, and then returns me to my own first home with my daughters, an old farmhouse in Colorado where the rope on the flagpole tapped with that same sound. For Ryder, the layering of memory in one home and farm and garden is like an archeological dig of the earth’s layers over time, and many of those layers bring back her father.
Like any gardener I know, Ryder has worked thoughtfully and diligently to steward this land. Her journey on this land with her husband has included getting the land remaining with farmstead officially protected from development for the next 100 years through a New Jersey Land Trust. This lengthy process was completed just before her father's death.
Listening to the story of Ryder Ziebarth’s life journey with her family’s Cedar Ridge Farm in Bedminster New Jersey also brings to my mind that universal concept of those things we take with us through life, whether symbolically or actually. For instance as I have traveled through more homes and gardens around the country than I care to count, I have a millstone that moves with me that was my paternal grandfather’s, likewise, I’ve almost planted roses and peonies and coral bells symbolically representing some of my mother’s favorite flowers. For Ryder, the whole of her farmhouse, garden and land has moved with her through life, and now through the life of her daughter.
I think of the things we take with us in our travels through life – stories, emotions, values and even things and I can see Ryder sitting on that bench given to her by her mother and father, under the Chestnut tree that was planted before her and will outlive her, and I am reminded of Ryder’s words from some point in the interview: “the land on which you live is a living member of your family and needs to be treated as such.” The people who have grown us as gardeners are part of every garden we cultivate – whether they are there to see them or not. I think her father would be proud, don’t you?
Below are Ryder's thoughtfully written answers to the questions I asked during the course of our interview:
1. Name- age - location - hardiness zone:
My name is Ryder Ziebarth, I’m 62 years old and I live on a beautiful hay farm called Cedar Ridge, just 42 miles west of New York City in the small, pre-revolutionary town of Bedminster, in the Garden State of New Jersey. We are a zoned for level four hardiness and have lots of open space, orchards, hayfields, horses and cattle farms.
2. What do you do for a living?
I’ve done so many things…but I began my career after college as a writer—a journalist for a few years, but later, slipped into public relations writing until I had my daughter in 1991. About eight years ago, I took up creative nonfiction writing and recently graduated with my MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vermont, in July of 2016. Currently, I am working a memoir about living on our 17th century farm, which has been in my family for five generations; our daughter Lizzie, being the fifth to live here.
My manuscript is centered around the farm, and seen through the lens of its many gardens, and my father’s recent death in 2014; the garden references and metaphors within my writing refer to the cycle of perennial life. Dad and I had such a mutual love of place and the natural world and we were both spiritual. He loved history, legacy and family, and instilled that love and interest in his three children. His family originated from Coburg, Germany in the 14th century, and first came to American in 1855. His family bible is many inches thick.
I am also an associate editor for the Tiferet Literary Journal, and I recently co-hosted my first short prose nonfiction workshop for the magazine. I work with a literary book festival on Nantucket Island every summer, helping to attract authors to the event. I also write book reviews, and interview authors for pre-and post-public relations for the festival, plus I help host the authors when they arrive on-island. I particularly love this work.
I’ve also had an antiques business for a while and housed it in one of our barns, and I rode horses and showed; I had a decorating business for a short time—I like decorating for myself, really; and am an active Zone 4 member of the Garden Club of Somerset Hills, with a special interest in the corner stone committee of Garden History and Design, which I chaired for many years and was recently asked to chair again. But being Lizzie’s mom, gardening, and writing really are the jobs I love and do the best, pretty much in that order.
3. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on Cedar Ridge Farm—this farm, where I live now. My grandparents bought the property in the 1940s. It was a 300 plus -acre estate then, part of a 1000-acre farm, once owned by Richard Whitney of the New York Whitney family. He was a financier, and one of the first presidents of the New York stock exchange, but was caught embezzling money shortly after the Great Depression. He was forced to step down as president, and eventually sold his farm in Bedminster. My paternal grandfather, who worked in New York and lived with his family in nearby Montclair, bought a piece of Whitney’s estate, as a weekend retreat to hunt and fish. Eventually, he moved his wife, my grandmother, and his mother-in-law, and three children onto what was a fully working Black Angus cattle farm at the time, and became a gentleman farmer.
When my parents met in the early 40’s, then married in 1950, my grandparents gifted them the farm’s granary—where the cow feed was stored—located just off the back of the main cow barn. My dad, a mechanical engineer, and my mother, an artist, re-built the granary into a two-bedroom cottage, where they raised my brother Rob, me, and my sister Liz, for fourteen years.
In 1967, we moved to Connecticut for Dad’s work, which is where my mother, and my brother and his family still live. But the farm stayed in the family, owned by the three Sollmann siblings, Dad, my aunt Elsie and my Uncle Carl, who lived here until he died. At Carl’s memorial service here at the farm, my father offered the place to Michael and me, within days of the trust listing the house on the real estate market.
Michael and I were 20-year city dwellers at the time. We had four-year old Lizzie, and we lived in an Upper East Side apartment in Manhattan and were quite happy there. Michael worked as a stock specialist on Wall Street, and I was raising Lizzie and doing special events—weddings mostly by then. But Dad argued Lizzie ought to be raised in the country; given the same fresh air, barefoot, independent life that I had been so lucky to have as a child growing up on the farm.
He loved me, the values I held, and my love of nature. He knew I would take good care of this beloved family treasure, one that was important to the entire family. No one wanted to see it sold to strangers. I badly wanted to be the hero. Michael was also a born and bred in New Jersey, in Bernardsville, just one town away from Bedminster, in fact. It really couldn’t have been a more natural move for us, in the end.
So, after some quick calculations, a brief inspection of the more than two centuries old house, eleven crumbing outbuildings and 30 weed infested acres, we said, “Why not?”. Twenty-one years later, a lot of paint, plumbing, rewiring, tons of elbow grease, and multiple pair of Felco pruners, here we are. I remember Dad’s parting words after we signed the deed:
“Don’t strive for perfection.” These were words, of course, I could not heed.
4. How long have you been gardening - what/who brought you to it?
I started gardening when I realized not only did the entire estate need a makeover, but so did the long-neglected grounds. There were about thirty acres of land attached to the house when we bought it, and every inch was completely overgrown and untended. Beds were lost to weeds; trees were dying and un-pruned. The hay was of poor quality. We were just seeing by with the farmland assessment. My uncle, Carl, was infirmed for years leading up to his passing. He did what he could, but the place really hadn’t been touched, other than to cut the grass, in decades. My great-grandmother, who spent summers on the farm, along with my grandparents, and both of my parents, were all gardeners when they lived here. They loved colorful flowers, old established trees, orchards, and built many garden rooms, long before that was a popular concept.
There were fishponds, and rose gardens, and huge beds of gladiolas, peonies, iris, dahlias (some of which continue to bloom in my beds today) and hollyhocks here. And always a huge vegetable patch. I don’t ever remember eating vegetables from a supermarket, or an egg, or slice of beef, for that matter.
Dad loved to be outside. Gardening was a huge part of his life both here and in Connecticut. It was his weekend therapy and exercise. Where we moved off the farm when I was twelve, he tended a beautiful seven acres property at our home in Redding, with flowers beds, raspberry patches, apple trees, rock gardens, and a large vegetable garden.
Ruth Stout, a very famous organic gardener who pretty much brought the hay bale seeding method to light, lived a few miles from us, and taught dad to sow seeds right into hay mulch. He was very successful at it.
5. How many gardens have you had in your lifetime?
I can’t even remember not being in one. But my very first memories are of the rose beds at the farm, smelling each one down the row, and looking up at the gladiolas that towered above me; I also remember playing “Here comes the Bride” with fistfuls of Bridal Veil flowers pulled from the big bush that bloomed near the lower driveway and the pool. I must have been a sight for the farm hands at about four or five years old, in my bathing suit, solemnly walking up the gravel drive from the pool down in the lower field, with a white towel on my white-blond head, and straggly bouquet of branches grasped in my hands, placed just so across my fat little belly.
6. How long have you been in your current garden?
Twenty- one years this August. I started by buying a pair of Felco pruners, loppers and a tree limb saw at Home depot, and I got to work. But I had never really gardened before—just some weed pulling for Dad. Michael bought a ride-on tractor. We kept the garden carts that were here when we moved in, and all the rusty tools in the potting shed. We hacked and weeded and cut back and pulled out. One day, Dad came down from Connecticut to help me. At the end of the day, we had cleared so much brush, it took fifteen Ford truck loads to cart it into the brush dump we were compiling in our back field. Lizzie spent that day watching DVD videos of Barney in the big cardboard box that our new refrigerator came in while Dad and I worked.
Dad scaled Cedar trees and pruned them for me, he fixed the split rail fencing, he showed me how to prune and tame the ancient wisteria that crept over the garage with abandon, and the rambling trumpet vine that had taken over the cedars by the ancient Sylvan cement pool. We ripped out acres of honey suckle to expose a beautiful holly tree, and poison ivy to let an old crab apple breath (he was not susceptible to poison ivy, luckily) and he showed me how to edge properly. I could not have done it without him, but eventually, he had to go home! We ended up hiring a wonderful couple, the Coleman’s, who drew us a lovely set of plans for foundation beds, and hardscape features. They helped us buy and install the foundation beds, and resurrect the old rose garden with the original stone wall, which we turned into a perennial bed planted with flowers in sunset colors, because it faces West— and suggested a shade bed under the Cedar that Dad scaled and pruned for me, near some ancient lilac. They created a child’s garden for Lizzie near the farm-hands bunkhouse, which would later become her playhouse. The Coleman’s were key into creating the basis for what we have now. After they left, I shared my sister’s gardener with her, as she lived only ten minutes away, and Joe worked here for many years, but he later decided to go big and hire his own crew. I chose one man from that crew, Mario, to work with me. He was Costa Rican and knew very little English, but taught me a few Spanish words. For five years, we gardened together every Wednesday and carried on a lively, on-going conversation about plant life, family, children—his and mine—marriage, more plant life…. He taught me so much about growing plants, as well as gardening basics—how to use a garden knife, and a proper pointed trowel, what kind of fertilizer to use on which plants and how much, how often.
At the end of every work day together, we’d spread our arms out wide at as if the behold all the hard work we had accomplished and we would say together: “Bonito! Hermosa!”
I also hired a supplemental man to prune for me, Stephen, who I followed around the property like a puppy when he came in the fall and spring. Pruning is a lonely job, so I’d pull up a portable shooting seat that belonged to my husband. It made a wonderful tri –legged seat to sit on and snip away at the boxwood with Stephen. We’d clip together for hours because I must have more than fifty of them—winter gems, Korean, American, English boxwoods. I love the variety in the shape of their leaves, their light to dark green colors. I do not try to stick to one kind, just many groups of the same kind.
He showed me how to give the box light and air by “punching holes “in them, and by never sheering them, but cutting each stem by hand--how each tiny stem grows in three fingers, and to pinch off just below them. Laborious, but worth it. Dad was a knowledgeable pruner, too. When we moved in, he gifted me his pruning book, circa 1950, still filled with good information today.
Now, I have a young landscaping team. I never take my eyes off them, because they are not gardeners. And there is a major difference between most landscapers and true gardeners. …So, each Wednesday, I don my rubber gloves, and my garden sneakers and I teach them. They laugh and tease me when I crawl under each bush and tree and scrape the mulch they throw down away from the tree bases. They repeat the names of plants with heavy accents and try to remember them.
Just recently, I had them dig up eight new box they had just put in, as they had not removed the burlap as I had asked; There are the moments they feign they don’t understand my English. They do now.
And I have Ken who comes once a week--my trusty Ken, who makes the most incredible compost for me, lifts bags of fertilizer, cement pots, and weed-whacks, and does all the things my back can’t take anymore. He keeps me company, but admittedly, he is not overly fond of finite gardening! He leaves that to me.
7. Describe your current garden:
Our house was originally a 17th century cattleman’s homestead, and a part of a much larger farming complex. During the revolutionary war, General Henry Knox, George Washington’s right-hand man, built an encampment just a few miles away, and all the land surrounding this house was used for military training.
The original house to the farmstead was a square, center hall, four room structure, with wide pine floors, a hand dug cellar supported by hand-hewn beams with the bark still intact, and six over six, bubbled and wavy hand-blown glass windows, which we still have. After the war, men went into the gristmill business in our many rivers here, and became prosperous. In the early 1800’s, one of the owners of this house added fancy trim work--dormer windows, a bigger kitchen, a guest bedroom on the first floor, and indoor plumbing. As the years and owners turned over, each one embellished the house and property a bit more—additional rooms were tacked on, dentil molding was added to the outside of the house and Greek revival columns to a wide brick front porch, which faces North-West into the setting sun. A rooftop balustrade was put over the porch, and additional farm buildings such a well house, a smoke house, and garage were added. Eventually, when my grandparents and great grandparents came along in the 40’s they built the last addition before we moved in in 1995-- a wing to the southeast end of the house—two bedrooms with another cellar underneath them. We still call that the “new cellar.’
Cedar Ridge was largely a black angus operation, but we had an ornery goat named Spike, some pigs, duck’s, lots of chicken’s, pheasants, dairy cows, a horse named Patrick, who belonged to Dad, and what seemed like a hundred feral cats and two German pointers who loved to chase them.
But when my grandfather wasn’t hunting, fishing, or commuting to his job at Sollmann & Whitcomb, a family owned toy-manufacturing company on Fifth Avenue in New York, his passion were the gardens. That is where he was most hands-on. Today, I cultivate around the house, in all four directions, about three acres of land in all. The other 27 acres we bought with the house are hay fields, which we maintain and yield two healthy crops per season for us, giving us farmland assessment.
From the front door, we look out over a green lawn, dotted with old established Norway maple, several button wood trees, a very old crabapple that is now totally hollow and almost leaning onto her side but still budding and flowering. I used to play in its branches fifty years ago. Right in front of the house, there is a sweeping ten acres’ field of violet-tipped timothy rippling like the surface of a pond in a summer breeze. Deer nestle down in the tall grass just beyond the split rail fence, but rarely travel toward the house. Their paths are well worn and have served them nicely over the decades. I used to have pale pink new dawn climbing roses at every post on the fence, for 10 years, 18 plants in all, and they never touched them. Sadly, Japanese beetles took over, and eventually the roses had to be pulled out.
To the west side of the house is my favorite shade bed, full of fern I collected locally and in Connecticut, where my parents live. It was a favorite hobby of Dad and mine—to walk in the woods and dig up fern, trillium, trout lily, and jack in the pulpit, for me to take home to NJ for my then newly dug shade bed. I have since added wild ginger, Solomon’s seal, lily of the night, Virginia blue bell, a few potted tropicals from the sun porch, which I bring out for the summer, including a ginormous jade, two banana leaf plants a friend grew for her daughter’s wedding and gave to me, and a palm. Plus, there are clusters of hellebores—mostly Lenten rose,— bleeding hearts, red trillium, two candelabra primrose I just put in and hope live, a few may apple I am trying to get to self-propagate; Japanese red fern, cinnamon fern, lady fern, and lily of the valley, which of course, has completely taken over as an understory (there are lots of volunteers creeping out onto the lawn)—giant Hostas, several boxwood for structure along with lilac and rhododendron, neither of which bloom very well, but are there for winter interest. I plant all my winter-bought cyclamen here, and it blooms happily all summer. I hang pots of Boston and rabbit fern from the cedar branches; and a stone slab I found in the big barn rests on two wooden cedar stumps, and serves as a bench to sit on and look out at the hayfield. I inherited a very rusty Chinese pagoda, a cement frog that sits on another smaller pagoda, a huge purple pot—waist high, sits empty by the back fence…. It makes the shade bed a very Zen place to sit on a summer evening.
As we walk south around the corner to the back of the house, we pass a Miss Kim Lilac, which is blooming right now, just after the regular lilac. It is wickedly fragrant, especially at night. Heading southeast toward the kitchen entrance, essentially the back door to the house, you pass our 150-year-old sundial surrounded by a dwarf English boxwood circle. It’s near a Chokeberry tree, and just beyond are two huge cedar trees flaking our fence, near our dirt road. Underneath is a tremendous white Spirea, older than I am. When it blooms in May, it looks like a tsunami, crashing into the roadway. A bank of uncut forsythia runs along the fence, westward, just behind the shade bed, and serves as a road dust buffer.
Once we pass the cedars, and the sundial, we find my favorite perennial bed. This bed is older that I am and has transformed many times over the course of seventy-five years or so, from rose bed, to cutting garden, to vegetable patch, back to a rose bed, and is now strictly a perennial garden. Its focal point is the farm’s pump house. A small brick structure with two tiny windows, and a tiny ivy-covered chimney. The structure is partially dug into a slope and literally looks like the dwarves from a Grimm brother’s fairy tale could live there. It is right off the entrance to our driveway and under one of two linden trees that flank the wooden gated drive. The roof is cedar shake and moss covered. British soldier fungus grows profusely in the moss all summer long. Inside is a 1000-gallon water tank fed by a very deep well. Fortunately, there is electricity in this house, so I have connected an electric wire here, which runs around all the important beds on my property to keep the deer out. It’s knee high, grounded by metal rods covered in dark green plastic piping—practically invisible to the eye, but the deer hear its low volt hum even before they get close. Works like a charm and very inexpensive. A literal pain, however, if I touch it and forget it is still turned on. Ouch.
In this perennial bed—and I am looking at it now-- I have a tons of bright green lady’s mantle, off-set by sage-colored sedum, and Cranesbill geranium border with its tiny bright pink flowers ; nine huge clumps of various species of peonies some of which are at least seventy-five years old, probably planted by my great-grandmother, Oma, in reds to pale pinks, seven clumps of Siberian irises behind each peony (because I love the two colors blooming simultaneously), two rose bushes, in the palest of yellow (the only yellow in the bed), and two rusty iron trellises for white and purple clematis to climb.
A rock wall my father helped to build divides all of this. Later, the blooms include fragrant, hot pink stargazer lilies, white and lavender flox, two Oak leaf hydrangeas, some very old variegated iris, bulbs that were my grandmothers, cone flowers, epimedium, Jacobs Ladder, salvias’, dahlias, giant chartreuse hostas, more fern around the shady western side directly under the Linden, loose strife, sweet William, and black-eyed Susan. There are several small and slow growing English boxwood flanking the small windows, plus a small leucothoe on one corner, mountain pink, in varying shades of purple to pink spilling over the rock wall, delphinium in the beds that doesn’t always come back. There are holly hocks against the north roofline, which is about three feet tall and a perfect height to support them, but our zone is not humid enough for successful hollyhocks—at least not mine. I am always planting new ones—and a late blooming butterfly bush at the wider end of the bed, near the pump house door, so we have lots of bee’s and butterflies for propagation. I have some white daisies, salvia and catmint as well. …. It’s a bit of a mishmash at times, and I am always moving things around and uprooting things out and planting them elsewhere on the farm with my perennial bed gardening buddy Gretchen
Carbury, a very knowledgeable gardening pal.
On the southern corner of the pump house is a huge, twenty-foot-tall snowball viburnum that is much older than I am. As kids, we’d pick the flowers and have “snowball fights” …
From here, we can look out over a small orchard of peach, pear, and a variety of apple trees near our small swimming pool, set into the grass with a limestone coping and surrounded by a split rail fence. It has narrow strips of grass on four sides and five-foot-wide beds of pachysandra, anchored at four corners by huge winter gem boxwood bushes, rescued from other beds on the farm. The pool house—a simple little changing room and a joining kitchen area with a sink and icebox- is surrounded on two sides by yellow day lilies that have been growing since my childhood. The same 1950’s Coca-Cola bottle opener is attached to the wood walls of the pool house. We drank tons of bottled coke during the summer in those days.
At the far end of the pool, toward the road to the southwest, is a semi-circle of cedar, and through those cedars a trumpet vine persists. All summer, red trumpet flowers dot the cedars and many, many hummingbirds enjoy their nectar. It’s hard to read a book because I so enjoy watching the birds flit from flower to flower. Just behind the pool is a pair of big pink blooming cherry trees—identical twins. I bought them, didn’t know where to tell the landscape team to put them, and said, “Oh, just dig them in over there, we can move them later” …and it turned out to be to the perfect spot. They thrive there.
Walking north now, up at slight slope toward the house, we see a pair of dogwood tri-phylum about where the old outhouse used to be; if I didn’t prune them annually, would tower over the top of the garage. Next to them is the ancient horse chestnut tree I climbed as a kid, planted next to the farm’s small brick and slate roofed smoke house, once used to smoke meats. This is probably one of the oldest structures on the property, according to the age of the brick. It now houses our generator. Under it, I built another shade bed, but this time, I planted early spring ephemerals I can see blooming from my kitchen window as I wash the dishes at the sink. A wonderful variety of tall snow drops that came from Tasha Tudor’s estate in Vermont, grape hyacinth, baby’s breath, many unique varieties of hellebore, plus white narcissus, and silver-leafed lamium anchored by pieris mountain fire for structure and color. We have a lovely cement stature of a Grecian goddess cradling a basket in her arms, and each year I plant a tiny piece of fern in the basket and a semi-circular cement bench nestled under the chestnut in this garden. Both things, my parents gave us for Christmas on different years.
On the other side of the smoke house, is a bed of old yellow day lilies from my childhood surrounding a tall, flat backed water fountain. I love hearing the water trickle from the lion head on the fountain’s back wall, his mouth spitting water into the bowl beneath in the summer. It’s a lovely sound and the only water feature on the property other than the pool.
Next to the smoke house is what was once the farm hand’s bunkhouse. When extra hands were needed for haying, we hired men on for a week or so, and they slept in bunk beds in this little twenty by twenty house with a sink in it, and as I mentioned, used the outhouse in the back of the bunkhouse. I loved that outhouse, it fascinated me, but grandmother was always furious when she caught my brother and I using it. Eventually, my grandfather took it down.
We turned the bunk house into playhouse when we moved in in 1995. My daughter, five-years old at the time, missed New York and the smooth sidewalks to ride her tricycle and the neighborhood parks and swing sets, so I decided to build her a child’s garden here to dig in. It’s a partial shade bed, set under a huge old Norway maple. I planted semi-shade to partial- sun plants like licorice, variegated small leaf hosta, baby’s breath. Foxglove, larkspur, morning glory, catmint, woodruff, lavender, snapdragons, bleeding heart, anything with a name that would appeal to a child. Lizzie would set-up tea parties with her dolls in the middle of it all …she believed the garden was magical and that fairies came and danced there at night.
Adjacent to this building is the two-car, concrete garage, where they slaughtered the angus. Yes, we’d watch, as curious children would. It was disgusting and we could not pull ourselves away. I trained a wisteria vine that had always been growing on one corner of the building to go around the entire garage propped up by metal supports and wire stays, up over the roof, and onto the bunkhouse, and around that roofline as well. It created a short ally through the two buildings, where I planted rows of rhododendron that bloom in vivid purples every spring. It is a joy to walk under. I put a garden seat at the far end. It certainly softened the memory of the slaughter.
The good news is not only did we eat organic beef, eggs, and milk, but my family were big vegetable gardeners, so we ate fresh (and what we now call “organic”) vegetables as well. We were pretty much all organic before that was even a thing, save for my grandmother’s sugary baked goods.
Coming full circle now and heading back to the front of the house, we pass on the right, what was once a four-stall horse stable, and has now been converted to a railroad style two-bedroom guest cottage. The bed on the back of this building is very wet, due to old ground springs, cisterns or maybe even old wells once used for the cattle. I had to plant carefully—inkberry bushes, some boxwood, pussy willows, myrtle as ground cover, a few hydrangeas toward the drier end of the bed…and peony clumps where there isn’t too much water. I have four, now huge, arborvitaes along the back wall of the cottage. I think I bought them at Costco fifteen years ago in gallon pots. They are now twenty feet tall and fortunately, love wet feet.
That very old crabapple anchors the western end of the bed, fully bent over, almost touching the grass if not for props underneath her; but has given me two lovely children off her truck. I want to see how long she will last, as I have picture of her in family photo albums before I was born.
All around the 3500-sq. foot house are foundation beds thick with azalea in hot pink, box wood, viburnum carlesii, pieris japonica, American holly trees, more Miss Kim lilac, and a ground cover of pachysandra with lots of Japanese fern, astillbe and hostas nestled in.
Finally, in front of the back-kitchen door, is the original lattice topped well house, or what we think was a least one of the original well houses that when we moved in was completely smothered and hidden by honey suckle, I have created an herb bed around it. A brick path allows me to walk among the herbs for cutting, and in the spring, I surround it with willow fencing. There is a birdhouse on the front of the lattice door and a pair of wren makes a fresh home there each year. An English concrete water bowl blocks one entrance, and a pair of mourning doves who we think have been with us now for about seven years, bathe there each evening, and of course other birds bathe there and the dogs drink from it.
I use the herbs all summer and freeze what I can for the winter for cooking. I plant all the usually suspects—flat and curly parsley, Russian sage, flavored oreganos, flavored basils, mint, dill, lemon thyme, which I love, lemon balm, cilantro, chives, rosemary, a few heads of lettuce for fun, strawberries, which the Westies eat before we can pick them, pots of cherry tomatoes, dill, etc.
8. Are there Native plants, wildlife or other natural history elements (stone, views, etc.) of your place included, invited or reflected in your garden?
I use and encourage almost all native plants that were here in the farm, and bring in what is around me, and my views are very much a part of my landscape. This farm has neighboring farms that are at least ten to sixty acres up and down the road, so it’s still very open. We have black bear and lots of deer, coyote, and the occasional mountain lion, fox, many osprey and hawk, especially red tail; wood peckers including pileated; barred owls, many swallows—my barns are full of them-- blue birds, Canada geese, wood ducks, orioles and loads of other bird life. Our mourning doves, which nest in our wisteria, coo from the roof of the bunkhouse, and on top of the well house surrounding the herb bed. Bald eagles are making a strong comeback near our local rivers. Our trees are old and established—Norway maple, river birch, buttonwood, pin oak, crabapple, beech, maple, horse chestnut, a black walnut and tons of eastern cedars, ash. Flowering cherry trees line our front field and line the length of Cedar Ridge Road and across Lamington Road…a lovely site in the springtime. And as I have mentioned, each garden bed is anchored by one of the original old pre-war buildings. They act as centerpieces for each garden. I think I mentioned most of the native plants in my garden earlier, but I will add that we have several mock and Osage orange trees near and on the property, some honey locust, and too much creeping Charlie which I purposefully have given up on yanking out and let take over as grass in some places; and of course, honeysuckle. In the spring and summer, the entire place smells better than any perfume you can buy.
9. What are your greatest challenges or heartaches in this garden? Describe them using visual language if applicable. How have you surmounted them?
We have very heavy clay soil and layers of red shale. There are a lot of wet spots on the property where the water just can’t soak in. Our cedars, being shallow rooted, have been falling as they age, and that’s a huge heart ache for me. I hate losing trees and tree limbs, which with climate change, has become fierce lately. Big micro- bursts of wild weather in the summer are common now, knocking out power and tearing down trees. Our giant Norway are almost too old, and fungus has begun to appear on some of them. We are beginning to lose them, so I am starting to think about planting a few new one’s for future generations. There is a maple tree thatshades the back of our house, the south side. My father and mother planted it for my grandparents as an anniversary gift many years ago, and it’s beginning to go. A squirrel has made a nest inside a hole in it, and fungus has taken over. We are losing some of those flowering cherries I just mentioned. And we have voles in the winter time. Andthey love what’s called the subnivian layer—that little air space—that insulated little worldbetween the soil surface and bottom of the snow, where they crawl around and feed off the bark of my viburnum. I try to trap them in vole houses. Sometimes I am successful, other times not so much.
10. Do you have PAST gardens, gardeners, memories that you've tried to include somehow into this garden? What are your favorite life memories in THIS garden.
We had a fairly large fishpond on this property, that I often fell into. I’m still not sure if it was accidently or on purpose. Both my brother and I loved it. I think my grandparents took it out when my sister was born, she is almost eight years younger than me, so I think they realized what a hazard it could have been, even though we had moved the granary into another field at that point and lived further from the main house. They didn’t think about that stuff when I was young and living in the granary next door.
I mentioned some of my beloved gardeners already…Mario still calls me from Costa Rico every December to wish me a Happy Christmas….and we struggle with words of affection for a minute a two on the phone. His wife once sent me the bare root of a fern about fifteen years ago—about two inches of a plant…I still have it. It’s about five feet high and wide and I keep it on the indoor sun porch with my other tropical plants in the winter and I bring it in and out seasonally. It makes me think of Mario. He is a wonderful orchid grower in his native home. He sends me photographs of his collection, which is extensive. Someday I hope to go over and see him and his family. His daughter is a doctor. He helped put her through medical school by gardening here in the US.
11. Are you social in your garden/gardening or solitary or both? Describe the ways.
I am social in that I love to go out with the boys and Ken to garden. If they aren’t around I tuck my iPhone into my sports arm band and listen to podcasts—yours, specifically! I am on the occasional garden tour—the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of NJ and the Somerset Hills Garden club are both coming next week, and I have been invited to apply to join the Open House Days conservancy tour…which is both blessing and a curse. I need to finish my garden memoir about losing my dad first, and then I might join. It’s so much work and my book is my priority right now. Otherwise, I love to have my friend and family come and see my gardens. But I am careful not to be a garden bore… some people aren’t into it—heaven knows why not…but I am sensitive to keep a tour/talk brief.
My property is also listed in the Smithsonian Institute Archives of American Gardens in Washington, D.C., which currently documents more than 7,500 gardens throughout the United States.
The AGG at the Smithsonian keep photographs and landscape plans, along with extensive lists of hard and soft scape materials from garden designers and renown architects dating from the 1920’s forward. They have utilized this archive of plans, drawings, letters, journal entries, brochures and any other kind of documentation of gardens in a file, accessible to writers or researchers through a website. It helps keep America’s parks, urban landscapes and private gardens alive for future generations to view and learn about. Documenting my gardens was part of a project I did with Dad’s help for my garden club, as chair of the Garden History and Design Committee. Our club encourages all members to submit worthy gardens for archiving. Each state has so many that will one day be lost if we don’t remember them through archiving.
12. Favorite time of year? Why – describe
It’s May. May into the first weeks of June. How could anything be more lush or beautiful in Zone 4? The grass is thick and emerald green, the trees have blossomed, the wisteria is out, the peonies are arriving, the iris stand sentry behind them, the chartreuse colored ladies mantle and the purple-pink flowered cranesbill geranium are rampant, and the shade bed—fern, lily of the valley, trillium, ginger, dicentra, rhodo, all are in their glory. My seventy-five-year-old snowball viburnum that punctuates a corner of my pump house perennial bed, has been ill and buggy for five years. I have been treating it systemically, and with careful pruning, it finally has made a full recovery. It is twenty feet tall now and about just as wide. It is a Garden of Eden here in May and June—absolute heaven. And the hay is just starting to come in…it waves and ripples…it’s so lovely. Friends ask me where I go on summer vacation, and I say, “Right here.” I couldn’t think about leaving this spot.
13. Favorite time of day? Why – describe
Early morning, when its quiet, and I can deadhead in the cooler hours, usually in my nightie, with a cup of coffee in hand…listening to the birds. And in the evening, when the land is sometimes backlit by an incoming summer storm and everything appears crystal clear and totally in focus. And, the evening hours of 6-8, because I am done writing, and gardening, and I can finally lie down under the shade of the front porch on one of my old wrought iron chaises and take in the view or read.
14. How does your garden reflect you as a person?
It is not too formal; it’s friendly, with a lot of character and some fun, artistic, sculptural elements. It’s good I have a set budget, or I’d go wild, and maybe not in a good way…I might over-do it and then regret it. I love my shade beds—they have a fairy-garden quality to them—with ferns everywhere, trillium, Japanese ferns, wild ginger, stepping thyme between old stones, and the like…little surprises abound, and volunteers each year popping up throughout them. This is the Pisces in me, very airy-fairy. The Secret Garden, by Francis Hodgson, has always enchanted me. It was my favorite book as a child, and even now, as an adult. But the rest of my gardens are all Libra, my rising sign, —tidy, immaculate, in order, not a weed in sight, and that is how the inside of my house almost always looks. Sometimes I find myself apologizing to friends who say, “Oh my what a clean and tidy house!”, But that is the German in me. I am my father’s child, and my gardens and property reflect that perfectionism streak I have. I love order, but without too much formality. After all, this is a farm, and I try to keep true to that…no fancy fencing or benches or water features. It wouldn’t fit.
15. What are your hopes for your garden/the garden community in the future?
This past fall, my husband and I reached the five-year conclusion to the process of donating our land to the Farmland Preservation Program administered by the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC), which coordinates with County Agriculture Development Boards, municipal governments, nonprofit organizations and landowners in the development of plans that best meet the needs of individual landowners. In our case, we wanted to preserve the twenty acres of hayfield we owned and the land surrounding the house. When landowners sell development easements, they still own their land but sell the rights to develop it for anything other than agriculture. Those deed restrictions remain intact for any future owners. This means we essential sold the development rights of our land to the SADC, County Agriculture Development Boards, municipalities or nonprofit organizations. The sale price is based on the difference between what a developer would pay for the land and what it is worth for agriculture. For me, personally this was a way to continue to honor my family’s legacy, and a gift to the town of Bedminster in preserving what we think is a beautiful view of a lovely hay field from Lamington Road, a main thoroughfare, topped by a 17th century farmhouse and old grey barns.
My hope is that young people learn to appreciate the natural beauty around them. When I go shopping at garden centers, I am a terrible snoop. I eavesdrop, and then I butt in. People usually are curious about plant product, but often don’t know what they are buying and often don’t reach out to the staff for help. I love to educate them: “Buy this,” I say… “It will come back again and again…its perennial. And you only must buy it once.”
They are usually happy to have the help. I’ve been guiding a lovely young gal who just bought her first home with her husband and is beginning to landscape, and a neighbor, who call and ask me for advice. It is my hope that my love for the legacy of my land will inspire others to look at their own settings with fresh eyes. Perhaps they will plant a pot of herbs, or set out a birdhouse, plant a butterfly bush to attract some pollinators, or buy something different the next time they shop at their local nursery; who knows, someday they may graduate to plantings trees, or digging entire garden bed!
The landscape you live on is an extension of your home; it is a living member of your family. It is a part of your external story and your history. It should be respected, tended and cared for just as much as any member of your family. You can’t just ignore it or close the door on it when you walk inside your house. My hope is that more home owners, especially todays millennials who seem to have a renewed interested in our earth, will keep that door propped open and invite the glory of gardening into their lives in whatever way they can.
My hope is that the land, the flora and fauna around these young people becomes a lens through which they always view their life. It is the biggest gift my father gave to me, and what I am in turn, passing onto our daughter.