Through The Seasons At Planting Fields:
Locust Valley, New York
The gardens are in full glory! My walk this afternoon began at Coe Hall. Mounds of red, white and pink azaleas (Kurumes and Kaempferis) are festive against the great dark cedars. The green of the lawn has deepened and the encircling trees are almost in full leaf, but still have the magical fresh green color of spring.
| Coe Hall and azaleas
Photo by Martha Prince
I photographed only two rhododendron species today. Lovely yellow R. wardii is here in the Bovee form, perhaps not as rich in color as some but rewardingly hardy, which matters for Long Island. Gordon placed three big hollies protectively around it, even so. Nearby is the related R. callimorphum, also a Campylocarpa. Callimorphum means "lovely shape" and is an appropriate name, I think, delicate, rosy, bell-shaped flowers are set off by glossy, dark and rounded leaves. Bluebells edge the bed.
| R. wardii, Bovee form with hollies
Photo by Martha Prince
| R. callimorphum
Photo by Martha Prince
Across the grass, R. yakushimanum, in several forms, is sweetly pink and white beneath a dazzling dogwood. I took no pictures, as I have succumbed to "Yak" too often.
I next circled Coe Hall to the rose arbor. The beds of evergreen azaleas are here, including a test bed of Morrison's brilliant Back Acre hybrids. I noted 'Habanera', 'Saint James', 'Folksong' and 'Cora Brandt', all in happy bloom, but only snapped the bright red-orange 'Stewart Armstrong'.
The deciduous azaleas have just been moved, from a rather rigid and regimented arrangement along the rose arbor. They are now nicely placed in curved beds near a sheltering white oak. Planting Fields' collection was started in the early seventies (many plants came from the Coleman nursery in Georgia). The three I photographed today were the sunny yellow R. austrinum, pretty pink R. periclymenoides (still R. nudiflorum to me) and the lemon-fragrant white R. alabamense. I love these plants!
| R. austrinum
Photo by Martha Prince
Most of the collection of Dexter rhododendrons here at Planting Fields (numbering forty-three different hybrids altogether) is in South Rhododendron Park, but some are in the North one, and some are scattered elsewhere. First, I photographed the wonderful 'Wyandanch Pink' growing, picture perfect, against a grey board fence near the Arboretum Center. Then I photographed, again, Planting Fields' own 'Mrs. W.R. Coe', deep pink with a dark throat. Some of the hybrids are still unnamed and are listed only by number; one, Ross #1, is a nice pink, all petals peppered with red. Other pictures I took today were 'Accomplishment', 'Skerryvore Monarch' and 'Gigi'.
| Dexter's 'Wyandanch Pink'
Photo by Martha Prince
As it was a bit chilly and I was tired, I detoured for a rest in my favorite "sun trap". Just south of Coe Hall, centered in a grass circle and enclosed by walls of pierced brick, is a small round pool. One of the marble benches is always warm and breeze free on a sunny afternoon! I sat for twenty minutes or so, watching the sculpted cherub astride his goose (or is it a swan?) in the middle of the pool.
| Dexter's 'Mrs. W.R. Coe'
Photo by Martha Prince
A favorite walk this time of year is down the main drive toward the gates. Here is a riotous parade! The wonderful old Kaempferi hybrid azaleas, most in shades of salmon and orange, are bursting with bloom. Contrasting with them are beds of snowy 'Mucronatum' and literally hundreds of mounded R. carolinianum, our beautiful southern native rhododendron. Today, with Gordon s permission, I tagged some of the prettiest of these - the largest, clearest pinks - for seed next fall.
The whole drive is lovely, but there are some very special places. Near the bird sanctuary the azaleas climb the hill under a canopy of great white pines. Further on, billowy R. carolinianum along a bank reminds me of the Blue Ridge area of North Carolina. The drive curves and dips through fine woodland all the way.
I crossed the sloping west lawn and rounded Coe Hall through the big trees. I wanted to see which of the older hybrids are in bloom, in the area known as the Collins Collection. Years and years ago this is where I first met, with surprise, the then startling 'Blue Peter' and 'Sappho'. Under a big old sweet buckeye (Aesculus octandra), 'Van Nes Sensation' is still fresh, in pale lavender delicacy. Gable's wax-enpetaled white 'County of York' has perfect flowers, though it rained on them last week. The only other truss I photographed was Hardgrove's 'Golden Star', so much used by Long Island hybridizers. It is in North Rhododendron Park.
| 'Golden Star'
Photo by Martha Prince
It is impossible not to be impressed with the old Waterer R. catawbiense hybrids. Frilly lilac 'Album Elegans', deep wine 'Old Port', soft lavender 'Lady Grey Egerton', purplish red 'Charles Dickens', rich purple 'Purpureum Grandiflorum' - all were introduced more than a hundred years ago! Fashions in landscaping change, I suppose, and these belong in bigger gardens than most of us have today.
I found one pretty Dexter still in bloom, Moseley #53-14, with ruffled flowers in palest pink, dark buds and a pattern of maroon dots.
Sun lit daylilies (Hemerocallis) march informally along the edges of lawns and the new roses are in fragrant bloom. I searched for the scattered plants of R. prunifolium, open now. I like the selected form 'Hohman'. A yellow swallowtail butterfly hovered over one, but I was not fast enough with my camera.
There was the faintest touch of autumn in the air this morning. At about nine-thirty Gordon Jones and I left from the courtyard outside his office for a brief tour. I wanted to see my favorite gardens through his eyes.
The first plant to catch his attention was a sorrel tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) beyond the courtyard gate. This gracefully flowered small species has delighted him ever since he was a student at Cornell. Most of the ones at Planting Fields he has placed so that they are effectively displayed against dark conifers. I first knew the distinctively drooping white flower clusters and the wine red fall color of the leaves, in our Southern mountains. I love these trees too.
As we peered under the lacy arch of a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) into the shaded azalea walk, Gordon told me that many of the handsome old Kurumes here had come from W.R. Coe, Jr.'s garden. I noted 'Yaye Giri', 'Pink Jewel', 'Daybreak', 'Flame', and 'Peach Blow'. Further on, where the walk goes behind the Camellia House, there is a large group of Glenn Dales. These were planted back in 1961. Oliver Nursery helped Gordon choose them, as a then representative collection. Included are such stand-bys as 'Allure', 'Cygnet', 'Geisha', and 'Memento'.
I asked him about the still blooming crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) flanking the Camellia House door, plants that are another bit of Southern nostalgia for me. I have always loved the exfoliating bark and crushed-organdy flowers. A few years ago a bad winter killed to the ground the whole semi-circle of watermelon pink ones in our Georgia garden (planted long, long ago by my grandfather). I was curious about the seeming hardiness of these, they are quite large and look happy. Gordon said that these came from the National Arboretum.
Along the curving drive leading to Coe Hall, he noted the splendid mounds of old Waterer hybrid rhododendrons banked against the house and a handsome pair, 'Purpureum Grandiflorum', beside the great doorway. Rather inexplicably these are thriving, while in the North Rhododendron Park, just opposite, many of these grand old plants appear stressed. In front of the house he pointed to a tall Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica) which I would have guessed dated back to the Coe days; no it was one of "his" trees. Gordon laughed, "How fast trees grow!"
Trees are his great love here. In August of 1956, Gordon first saw Planting Fields when he arrived for an interview with Carl Wedell and William Coe, Jr.; they were seeking a director for the newly public gardens. On that warm summer day, it was the trees, the unbelievable trees, that made the happiest impression on Gordon. After more than thirty years, the memory lights a smile.
As we skirted the North Rhododendron Park, he spoke of the original Coe collection there being entirely of elepidotes, except for one R. carolinianum. In the 1960's Gordon cleared out an area in the center, where many lovely lepidotes now grow, the ones I visit with delight each spring. The shade is becoming too dense again, as he remarked, but he hesitates to prune too drastically. Some years ago, the beeches along the drive edge were too heavily trimmed and suffered.
We next dipped into the Synoptic Garden. The neat, brick enclosed "foyer" is brightened this month by beds of yellow and orange marigolds, edged with ageratum. In a few days these will be replaced by chrysanthemums. We paused to examine the big Franklinia alatamaha, at whose base is a dedicatory bronze plaque to Mr. Coe. The wide white blossoms, centered with gold, are too high up for viewing nowadays, and some of the multiple trunks aren't doing well. Despite recent pruning, there are more branches needing attention. Gordon fears the treasured tree won't last much longer. Happily, there is a sturdy new franklinia not far away.
Our next "medicinal" stop was to check on the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) which also needs further surgery. I've always admired this special little June flowering tree with its panicles of wispy white flowers; I am saddened to see it in decline. It was revivifying to put my nose into a nearby Daphne caucasicum, as Gordon suggested and enjoy the tiny white nosegays of sweetness. As we stood there surveying the curving paths and the wealth of plantings, Gordon reminded me that this area was once only hard clay tennis courts, surrounded by a chain link fence. Hard to believe!
There is a wonderful - and enormous - European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) here at the edge of the east lawn. Gordon told me that it had gradually shaded out the deciduous azaleas along the grass, which I remembered. He expressed rather dubious hope for the new bed of evergreen hybrids with which he has replaced them. Of course, nothing at all can grow under the tree, but I have always liked to stand beneath it, admiring the view across the lawn. To one side of the hornbeam is a thicket of startling purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) with intensely colored berries clustered tightly along the stems.
There was not time for much more of the Synoptic Garden's alphabet. Gordon did point out a happily-berried Euonymus americanus ('Hearts abustin' with love') rather hidden away from the path, and surprised me by saying it was one I had brought from Georgia years ago. The startling scarlet and orange "broken hearts" - and the gingham and calico name - have always been special to me.
We made the briefest of stops at the dwarf conifer garden, which comes just past the "V" for viburnum of the Synoptic Garden (Actually the alphabet goes to "Z" for zenobia). Gordon has been personally, even physically, involved with a surprising number of the plants; he told of helping dig the sprawling Pinus flexilis pendula some years ago at "Skip" March's garden, and moving it here. I spoke admiringly of the varied colors and shapes of the conifers (blues and greens and yellows, and mats and cones and spires), but added, "Many aren't really dwarf anymore." He agreed and said some will probably have to be taken out and are too big to move. A rather sad necessity.
Our next pause was at the bed of ornamental grasses, a recent addition with which Gordon is pleased. I had never really looked at it from below (it is on a slope) and the varied plumey and spiky textures are indeed attractive. The heather garden lies just beyond; it is a sort of "secret garden", for the entrance to this pretty little dell is almost hidden amid the shrubbery. More people should visit it, there is interest all year round. The muted colors of the heathers are contrasted with dark conifers and there is even a tiny stone edged pool.
We wound back among the lustrous dark conical shapes of the English holly collection, beautifully set on the grass among old spruces. The first English holly Gordon planted, in 1961, was Ilex aquifolium 'Favorite'. He placed it in a protected nook near the entrance to the Synoptic Garden, for in those days the English hollies were not thought to be hardy on Long Island. All of the many cultivars in the Planting Fields collection now are in splendid shape, tall, thick and glossy. Our last excursion for the morning was a quick trip in his car down the main drive to the Carshalton Gate. I walk the drive often, but as it is "For Pedestrians Only", this was my first motoring tour. Passing the banked Kaempferi azaleas (which were so gloriously in bloom last spring), he said he had been too busy this season to start propagating them. His idea is to bring some into the North Rhododendron Park. "Kaempferis are too much neglected."
As we wheeled around before the splendid black tracery of the gates, he told me a story I didn't know. After Mr. Coe imported the gates, he bought eight acres of land across Chicken Valley Road from what was then the boundary of Planting Fields; he then persuaded Nassau County to move the public road, so he could place his new treasures where he (or Olmsted Brothers) wanted them. The main drive, as it is now, seems to have been here always. A majestic battalion of beeches parades along both sides, until the drive curves up the hill between the azaleas and rhododendrons.
Gordon left me by my car in the courtyard. It had been a very pleasant morning!
A crisp morning, with cascading yellow leaves; there are still roses and some purple and lavender clematis. It was a day for walking, so I turned into the woods. My favorite trail I call 'The Owl Path", for a Great Horned Owl I've seen there. Today it was strewn with leaves in brown and red and gold, for a papery crush underfoot. I emerged into the champagne colored fields beyond just as a wedge of raucously honking Canada geese flew overhead.
Last night's small snow left a white and magical lacework of twigs and branches. No one had yet made footprints on the soft white carpet, so I traced out some circles in the snow.
In the Synoptic Garden two bejeweled hollies, deciduous Ilex verticillata and Ilex serrata, are a smoldering red. Further along I found the little winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) lifting bright yellow faces and green ruffs above the snow. They are tucked in against some rocks and small conifers and bravely hint of spring.
A cold day in winter is just right for visiting the lushly colorful Camellia House. Several tubbed Vireyas just inside the door greet visitors first; I snapped a nice one with golden trumpets. Then, a breathtaking display of camellias, now at the peak of bloom. Gordon lists one hundred twenty-two cultivars and three hundred individual plants. Most are C. japonica but there a few splendid C. reticulata - big old plants of 'Captain Rawes' are impressive - and a few C. sasanqua. Today I admired especially C. japonica 'Lady Van Sittart', prettily striped in pink and white.
| Camellia reticulata 'Captain Rawes' in greenhouse
Photo by Martha Prince
I could not leave Planting Fields without stopping in the main greenhouse for a glimpse of the beautiful moth orchids (Phalaenopsis). They make a graceful midwinter display in soft pastels. Mr. Coe started the orchid collection himself and he would be pleased with how it has grown. There are almost twenty-five hundred plants now, including the De Tomasi collection.
Visible from the greenhouse door is a bright witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'), clothed in wisps of gold, a promise of spring in a still snowy garden.
With this diary entry I complete an abbreviated year at Planting Fields; I hope these ten brief visits have given you something of the ambiance of this very special place.
There are, of course, some problems even in a paradise. Visitors from the Northwest or Britain must not expect to find Grandias or Maddenias here, the climate is not to a tender rhododendron's liking. The summers are hot, the winters are cold, and rainfall is inadequate. This past year the temperatures ranged from a high of 97°F, in July, to a low of 2°F in December. The thermometer has been known to register above 100°F, and the lowest reading Gordon can remember was -8°F. Annual rainfall is only about 40 inches a year. Without adequate natural water, irrigation is essential, yet for the past three years (for technical and financial reasons too complicated to explain here) this has been impossible. Some plants have suffered.
Planting Fields has staffing problems, too. New York State theoretically has an authorized level of twenty-six people (office, greenhouses and grounds), but budgetary restraints have imposed a hiring freeze. There are only fifteen State employees now, supplemented by eight others funded by Planting Fields Foundation. Gordon needs more help. Luckily, devoted volunteers do many useful chores that would otherwise go undone.
I asked Gordon for his "wish list" for the future (beyond just the solving of problems of water/money/staff). He said first priority would be a new visitors center; next, the enlargement of the rhododendron species collection; and finally, the addition of more good modern hybrids useful for gardeners in the Northeast. The Arboretum must continue to grow and improve if it is to serve more people.
In 1992 our New York Chapter will host the ARS National Convention. Planting Fields in May will be in brightest bloom, and will welcome visitors, I hope you can come. Here, less than thirty miles from the noisy bustle of Manhattan, you will find a tranquil garden of great interest and great beauty.