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Journal American Rhododendron Society

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Dr. Glen Jamieson ars.editor@gmail.com


Volume 45, Number 4
Fall 1991

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Spring On Long Island: The Hess Garden
Martha Prince
Locust Valley, New York

        On a wooded hill above Long Island Sound, a curved drive leads up to one of our area's prettiest, and most hidden, gardens. It is part old, part new, and entirely relaxed and charming. Nat and Marge Hess built their shingled contemporary house only 12 years ago, but it is on part of the Sands Point land belonging to their previous home next door. The big and handsome older rhododendrons and hollies were planted in 1952. From the two decks, and the soaring windows, one overlooks both a mature garden and a mature woodland (principally oaks and Liriodendron). Above the flowers there is a glimpse of white sailboats on blue water.
        We visited twice this spring, once early and once late. Nat, clippers in hand, greeted us near the front door, where he was weeding and pruning among glorious mounds of Satsuki azaleas. He planted these only in the last three years, on what he calls berms; to me "berms" are those ugly, stiff builder's devices for piling extra excavation dirt in front of a new house! In the Hess garden these berms are curving, gently contoured ways to show off the low and happy azaleas, against backgrounds of either large rhododendrons or the house itself. The bright colors say a cheerful "Welcome." Nat volunteered that the raised beds are very good for the plants, too - lots of organic matter worked in, and good drainage. The rainbow of colors shades from palest lavender, through soft bi-colored pinks to apricots and oranges co-existing in a gaily embroidered pattern.

Hess garden
Hess garden
Photo by Martha Prince

        Marge (small, dark-eyed and vivacious) came out to say hello, but begged off from the complete tour we wanted. We planned to go through the garden with Nat, as he might lead a tour next spring for the ARS Annual Convention. After I took a few pictures, close up, of the quite irresistible Satsukis, it was time to get out my pen and start taking notes.
        I asked first about the large white rhododendrons behind some of the azaleas. Several are R. discolor hybrids, and one is among Dr. Bowers' R. maximum crosses. At the corner of the house is a most interesting form of fastigiate English oak, Quercus robur, and against the grey shingles of the house is something else I have never seen — an espaliered pink azalea. It turns out to be a Glenn Dale 'Epilogue'. Also against the house is a lovely white rhododendron to be introduced at the convention, 'Long Island'. I can't tell you much about its ancestry, except that it is an open-pollinated 'Scintillation' seedling, and most unusual.
        In this garden one is lured onward by beckoning curves of clipped green lawn, or velvety grass paths. The planting invites one first to go around the house, pausing en route to admire the purple, lavender and white puffs of Clematis climbing toward the deck. As we walked, Nat whacked away with vigor at some of his rhododendrons he thinks are getting out of bounds.
        A small wooden gate opens onto a flagstone terrace and a stone-edged freeform pool, tinted a soft blue-green.
        In New York it is the law that a pool must be fenced; Nat solved this beautifully — an unobtrusive fence is far away, hidden among trees and rhododendrons, and faced with cool-looking ferns. Not for the Hesses the white, fenced-in "bathtub" of too many suburban homes. At the far side of the pool a waterfall tumbles over the grey stones of a rock garden, backed by conifers. The terrace is gently shaded by oaks and a starry Kousa dogwood, and a tree-sized rhododendron, 'Cadis', adds a bit of color. In the rock garden stands one of Nat's best rhododendron hybrids, 'Margalit', which is 'Cavalcade' by Guy Nearing's hardy R. fortunei. I am not sure how to describe the color - a pale, creamy apricot, deeper in the bud, and with a touch of faintly speckled yellow in the throat.

R. 'Margalit'
'Margalit' ('Cavalcade' x Nearing's R. fortunei)
Photo by Martha Prince

        We crossed more sun-dappled lawn, and then turned into a twisting woodland walk. Along the way we paused to admire the lovely exfoliating bark and fat buds of a Stewartia, and then a true Southerner, Magnolia grandiflora. Trying to grow this is usually an unrewarding and frustrating challenge for a New Yorker, but this handsome tree has enough protection to have both glorious glossy leaves and genuine flower buds. As a Georgian, I appreciate such a treasure. The shaded path has one stretch with only white rhododendrons, among them 'Madame Masson' and 'The Bride'.
        Further along Nat led us, with much fanfare and twinkling smile, into an enclosed circle. "I never allow men in here — only women! It is a secret place." Indeed, it is a strange little hideaway, perhaps 20 feet in diameter, completely hidden by tall rhododendrons. There is a tiny bench, backed by a row of rhododendron 'Bagshot Ruby' and facing the best 'Sappho' I've ever seen. 'Sappho' has a lovely, strongly blotched white flower, but is usually gangly in form. This one blooms right to the ground. There are some more of Bowers' R. maximum crosses here, too, and Nat was whacking away mercilessly at offending branches.
        One of the most recent innovations here is the Japanese garden, just beyond. On the hill above this pretty dell, which is complete with waterfall and some handsome stones, are three already-large Cedars of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) and a fastigiate form of flowering cherry. An especially handsome and dense holly (probably Ilex aquifolium 'Ciliata Major') is nearby, and Nat said, no, he has never pruned it. I wish the many Japanese iris in the bottom of the dell were in bloom. To see them will be an excuse to return.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden
Photo by Martha Prince

        Another rhododendron we especially admired is an as yet unnamed one he calls 'Late Brown Throat', rosy-edged, with pale center and a deep stain. I think it simple and elegant. Nat said he is considering naming it for Metropolitan Opera singer Marilyn Horne, a recent visitor to the garden. A most appropriate idea! This lovely plant grows at the edge of what will be a summer wildflower meadow, and he cut a big branch of it for us. (I photographed it later, at home, with several different lightings.)

'Late Brown Throat'
'Late Brown Throat' to be registered as 'Marilyn Horne'
Photo by Martha Prince

        Next we stopped at the propagation area, with his greenhouse, frames, et cetera. A titmouse serenaded us as we then walked onward through more pretty woodland; the canopy of trees here includes walnut as well as oak. Our shady path leads to yet another informally shaped and altogether delightful lawn. This one is surrounded by some of the oldest of the rhododendrons ('Wheatley' and a R. fortunei seedling Nat calls 'Blue Cloud', among others). Edging the grass is the perennial border - even roses and peonies - but what I love most are the masses of white foxgloves (Digitalis). It must be magical to visit this area of white spires in the twilight.

Nat Hess and 'Wheatley'
Nat Hess and 'Wheatley'
Photo by Martha Prince

        We exited between two handsome hollies (an Ilex pernyi and an I. cornuta f. burfordi), and emerged into the wildflower garden, where the ground is strewn with trilliums, bleeding hearts, campanulas, aquilegias and jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema species). Several of these were amazing - huge and exotic. One Nat calls his "cobra," and another was brought from Japan by Harold Epstein. We were now back at the house, after what seems a really long and meandering exploration of a big garden.
        New visitors often ask Nat how many acres he has; he smilingly replies "You tell me. You've just walked through it." Guesses vary. 'Ten acres?" "Eight acres?". Everyone is invariably surprised to discover that there are only three. That so much variety, so many changes of mood and ambience, can be had in this space expresses Nat's philosophy of gardening far better than could any words. He and Marge have created something special here. Convention visitors next spring have a lovely afternoon awaiting them.
        Tours of the Hess garden will be featured during the ARS Annual Convention, May 13-17, 1992, to be held on Long Island under the sponsorship of the New York Chapter.

Martha Prince, a member of the New York Chapter, is a writer/artist/ photographer and a frequent contributor to the Journal ARS.


Volume 45, Number 4
Fall 1991

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