Through The Seasons At Planting Fields: Part One
Locust Valley, New York
Spring finds the gardens mounded with flowers. In summer bumblebees hum drowsily above the roses. Bright leaves and brighter berries bedeck fall branches. A winter snow cloaks the festive hollies in white. There are more than four hundred acres here at Planting Fields Arboretum, on Long Island's rolling North Shore, and in every season there are beautiful things to see. Planting Fields is the headquarters of our New York Chapter, ARS, and it is my favorite place.
The Arboretum has an intriguing history, which I will only touch upon. Hundreds of years ago there were indeed "planting fields" here; the Matinecock Indians grew maize and pumpkins in the beautifully rich soil. By 1650, Dutch farmers had succeeded the Indians in tilling the fields. They in turn were replaced by the English. The early nineteen hundreds saw the end of the long farming era and the beginning of the brief, but glamorous, time of the great Gold Coast estates.
| Coe Hall, Planting Fields Arboretum
Photo by Martha Prince
A wealthy New Yorker, James Byrne, acquired most of the farmland now comprising the Arboretum and in 1906 built an imposing brick home here. In 1913 he sold to English born William Robertson Coe, president of a firm of marine insurance brokers. After a disastrous fire (1918) destroyed that first house, Mr. Coe built the splendid sixty-five room Tudor Revival limestone mansion we now know as Coe Hall; he hired Olmsted Brothers of Boston to design new gardens. Most of the dark brick accessory buildings are legacies from the Byrne era, as is the formal pool garden and the fairy tale tea house presiding over it. The Coe days brought a more romantic and flowing style to the landscaping, a style which bears the distinctive Olmsted signature.
Coe Hall itself is very English in feeling and would seem quite appropriate to Sussex or Kent. The intricate brickwork of the many chimneys, the leaded windows, the carvings, the massive beams of the dark wood ceilings, all speak of a different world and time. Some of the huge fireplaces and mantels were actually imported from Europe, as were stained glass windows in the dining room (from Hever Castle). The most splendid English import was the Carshalton Gate, a filigree in wrought iron which guards the now closed main drive entrance.
Mr. Coe wanted great English gardens to match his great English house. The expansive lawns, the rhododendron parks, the specimen trees, could well be somewhere in southern England. He spared no expense; the mammoth Purple Beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Atropunicea'), which stands in solitary splendor just north of the house, was brought from Mrs. Coe's childhood home in Massachusetts. It travelled by barge across Long Island Sound to a specially built pier at Oyster Bay. Seventy-two horses were needed for the hauling! It is supposed to be one of the largest trees ever moved. The Weeping Silver Linden (Tilia pet́olaris) nearby, and the group of Fernleaf Beeches (Fagus sylvatica 'Asplenifolia') just west of the house, are of equal glory, and would do honor to the park of any great English manor. Centered on the lawn before the camellia house is the gigantic dark mound of a Sargent Weeping Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula'), the largest in the New York area.
The history of Planting Fields' rhododendrons will interest ARS readers. As early as 1917, several thousand plants were imported from John Waterer Sons and Crisp, Limited, Bagshot, Surrey. Mr. Coe had an enthusiastic commitment to rhododendrons, and the collection grew and grew. In 1931, 550 plants arrived from Holland. By 1939 he was patronizing American nurseries, first Hickory Hill on Long Island, and later (for tender and newer things) Henny and Brydon and Irving B. Lincoln of Oregon.
In 1949, the eighty-year-old Mr. Coe deeded his cherished Planting Fields to New York State, primarily for educational and horticultural purposes. Its first custodian was the state university system, with a fine Department of Ornamental Horticulture at nearby Farmingdale. (The Arboretum now belongs to the Long Island State Park and Recreation Commission.) Mr. Coe continued to live at Planting Fields and the gardens were open to the public on only a few special weekends in the spring, when the great gates were unlocked. (My husband and I can remember one of those weekends; we were not yet dedicated gardeners, but were quite awed.) Mr. Coe died in 1955. Planting Fields then became a truly public arboretum.
Many exciting things were taking place. A bit earlier, in 1951, Mr. Coe's superintendent, Everitt Miller, had planted the garden's first Dexter hybrid seedlings; nine plants were obtained from the Parker estate on Long Island. An interesting note, he paid $150 for the biggest and $50 for the smaller ones. Two of these were later named 'Mr. W.R. Coe' and 'Mrs. W.R. Coe', plants many of us grow today.
It was Carl Wedell, then head of the Department of Ornamental Horticulture at Farmingdale, who had helped steer Mr. Coe to his bequest of Planting Fields. He was active in the early planning and growth of the Arboretum. Gordon Jones, enthusiastic and omnipresent director for over thirty years, tells me of an advisory committee consisting of Clement Bowers, Donald Wyman and Henry Skinner. What a distinguished group! Gordon remembers Dr. Skinner suggesting the Synoptic Garden concept, a comprehensive shrub collection of plants suitable for Long Island, to be arranged for study. Dr. Bowers saw the intriguing possibilities for a truly great rhododendron garden and visited often in the early years.
| Gordon Jones and an old Kaempferi azalea
Photo by Martha Prince
I can't catalogue all the happenings. Gordon Jones, with Wedell, and later Bob Titus (then the Assistant Director), began the five-acre Synoptic Garden, designing an alphabetical arrangement. With looping and curving paths and fine trees, it is in itself a beautiful garden, not stiff beds of plants for study only.
The rhododendron collection expanded greatly and so did a now first-rate holly collection. I will numb you with a few figures. Gordon hazarded a guess of 25,000 when I asked "How many rhododendrons altogether?" There are 85 rhododendron species and 320 different hybrids and cultivars. For azaleas, 27 species and 218 hybrids and cultivars. The plants that can't be inventoried and counted include the many R. carolinianum along the main drive; Gordon guessed 350. For the same area along the drive, he ventured 2500 for the Kaempferi azaleas!
In the holly collection are 592 individual plants. There are 38 different cultivars for Ilex aquifolium alone. Thirty-six is the number for I. opaca and the printout of the complete collection is twelve pages long! Assistant Director David Barnett gave me a copy. Holly was not an interest of Mr. Coe's, when he died there were a meager three, all I. opaca.
Statistics don't make good reading, I know. Perhaps the best way to show you the gardens is to invite you to come along on some of my frequent tours. I usually keep careful notes when I wander the gardens with my camera. I have also redrawn for you the map which is given out to visitors. I hope it will help in following my excursions. The map is not accurate as to distances, but is compressed by necessity. Carshalton Gate is shown as much too near Coe Hall. I know, for it takes me exactly half an hour to walk briskly down to the gate and back. The sloping, oak studded west lawn is far more expansive than the map would suggest. There are 160 acres in the shown gardens and lawns, but the rest of the land (wonderful oak, beech and laurel woodland, and sweeping fields) is not on the map at all.
A gardener's year begins, of course, with spring. On an April day, enter the Arboretum through the curving avenue of old beeches (Fagus sylvatica), silvery grey and solid; beneath the trees are drifts of yellow and white narcissus. Park your car, and come with me.
I crossed the velvety east lawn to the Dwarf Conifer Garden, a ritual early spring stop for me. A Swiss Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo) serves as a backdrop for a colony of tiny, bright yellow narcissus 'Small Talk'; there are starry windflowers (Anemone blanda) snuggled here, too, in white, soft pink and cobalt blue.
My goal was the rhododendron species beds. There are four beds (on the map, the numbered areas at the center right), set informally among great conifers and hollies. The garden slopes gently to the north with grass between the beds. I hurried to the Fortuneas, to see if beautiful R. calophytum was blooming yet. Yes! Several forms are grouped together; my favorite is the white, with a large and startling deep burgundy stain at the base of the upper lobe. The neighboring pale pink is lovely, too. I photographed both, very close up, looking deep inside the flowers.
Next I snapped a frilly white R. praevernum ("before the spring") and moved on to beckoning R. fargesii (now listed as R. oreodoxa var. fargesii). Of the forms here, the star is 'Barto Rose', with rich, deeply colored bells on a very handsome plant. Every spring it is reliably clothed with a profusion of flowers, visible from far away. When I asked Gordon Jones to list the choicest of the species he has here, he included this one. I quite agree; 'Barto Rose' is very special. To me, this and the R. calophytum are signals that it is truly spring. R. mucronulatum and R. dauricum seem a bit ephemeral and only say, "Spring is coming"; these say firmly and decisively, "Spring is here"!
| R. fargesii 'Barto Rose'
Photo by Martha Prince
On to the Magnolia Walk, which is not a path but the curving edge of the west lawn. There is a set of three benches at the top, facing down the hill, a favorite picnic place for me. I brought a sandwich and an apple in my purse. Today I photographed three M. loebneri crosses, 'Ballerina', 'Spring Snow' and 'Leonard Messell' (an exquisite pink).
Time for just one more stop on the walk back to my car, North Rhododendron Park for Nearing's Guyencourt hybrids. My favorite is 'Brandywine', dainty puffs delicately touched with pink. The shade cover here is mostly oak, tulip tree and white pine, and for carpeting, vinca, lily of the valley and (in one special spot) Trillium grandiflorum. Of course the trees are still nearly bare; there was a lovely, sifted light today.
The Pontica bed is a long crescent, anchored at one end by a great drooping Norway Spruce (Picea abies), and at the other by a Cedrus libani. The dogwood between them is just opening its snowy bracts. I came to photograph the R. degronianum (Award of Excellence), a compact, early-blooming form, dense with rosy flowers. Yes, I know the listing may now be R. japonicum var. pentamerum, but the labeling has not changed, and R. degronianum is the name by which we all know it. This is a beautiful thing; a honeybee was admiring a flower, too, so I snapped him. There is pale orange indumentum beneath small, narrow leaves. In the mixed bed there are dainty pink bells on R. campanulatum. I also photographed R. adenogynum, turning over a leaf to show the rusty indumentum. I love the paprika-red dots sprinkled on the upper lobe of R. pseudochrysanthum. I should have a pretty picture. Exploring a bit beyond the rhododendrons, I was especially entranced by the crisp, pure white of the Yoshino Cherry (Prunus yedoensis).
| R. degronianum (Award of Excellence)
Photo by Felice Blake
From the lawn I saw the reddening leaves of lacy and elegant Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum 'Ornatum', called Spiderleaf). Fresh new green is everywhere. The variety of deciduous foliage against the skyline is punctuated by dark spruces and pines. Set forward for display is a great blue Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlanticus 'Glauca'). I crossed the grass toward the Ponticas. My first rhododendron portrait for this morning was R. metternichii 'Tsukushianum' (I will not enter the taxonomic fray). The pink flowers are a deeper pink at the edges of the lobes and fade in the centers to almost white. Next, the handsome Wada form, and beyond, another attractive R. metternichii with a more open truss and a dainty air. R. hyperythrum, a pretty white with narrow re-curved leaves, has fresh new growth resembling soft grey-green candles. The snowy petals still glistened with dew.
| R. metternichii 'Tsukushianum'
Photo by Felice Blake
Among the Fortuneas is a special treasure, R. vernicosum, Rock 18139, from the 1929 expedition to Yunnan. Planting Fields got these plants from Gable in 1971. The trusses were only partially open today, but I really like them best when the buds show dark. I can't describe the color, a rich cream with tinges of raspberry and apricot, perhaps.
Across the grass the Trifloras are bright with color. Of the several forms of R. augustinii to choose from, I photographed the Lancaster hardy form, and 'Fair Sky'. Blues don't photograph well, so I experimented with a light blue filter, Trifloras have traditionally been considered too tender for us, so it is encouraging to see these young plants doing well.
| R. augustinii
Lancaster hardy form
Photo by Felice Blake
A bit east of the rhododendron species beds is a mound of our lovely American R. vaseyi. Though I love the pink form, 'White Find' is even more special. The sprinkling of green dots on the pristine white seems so cool!
I looped back through the Synoptic Garden in reverse, from Z to A. The spicily fragrant balls of white flowers on Viburnum burkwoodii invited a sniff. Beyond, a group of six R. schlippenbachii are clothed in blossoms like great pink butterflies. Magnolia x soulangiana is still good; I especially like 'Lennei', deep purple without and white within. Two tall and spidery Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are in bloom, too. Redbud is a fellow southerner and I felt at home.
| R. vaseyi 'White Find'
Photo by Felice Blake
The birds' favorite crabapple (Malus x zumi calocarpa baccata) is an unbelievable white puff, ringed at its foot with Kurume azaleas (I noted 'Salmon Bells'). Ducking under the flowering canopy, I peered out through the fringe of white.
I had to hurry a bit, but paused in shaded North Rhododendron Park to admire R. 'Windbeam' in handsome bloom. I think it is one of the most valuable of all lepidote hybrids. I then skirted Coe Hall to find the lilacs, fragrant in the warm sunshine. Nearby, a long bed of 400 new rose bushes has just been planted; against the dark and prim yew hedges, these will make a good display for summer.
This early spring has been so flowery it is hard to realize so much is still to come.
Martha Prince, New York Chapter member, will continue our visit Through The Seasons At Planting Fields in the next issue of the Journal.