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Exploring Stonecrop Gardens

by Mary Jasch

Enter the gardens on a boardwalk through wildflowers and ornamental shrubs and past the pond, where you can't help beelining to the Victoria cruziana water platters under hemlock. But wait until later to thoroughly investigate this garden of water-loving giants.

Onward, the mirage-like conservatory seems to float on the pond. This cool glasshouse holds non-hardy cacti and succulents and winter-blooming flora from Australia and New Zealand (they spend summer on the deck around the house). Even now the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine intoxicates. Step on through to the other side.

In front of the Potting Shed, small troughs contain alpines that put on a major display in early May. “We're famous for alpines here," says Michael Hagen, staff horticulturist. “Stonecrop is as good an area for growing alpines as anywhere in New York State." Alpines are short-lived here, for winter is wet and summer is humid. The trick, he says, is to plant them in a sunny location in well-drained soil. Snow is beneficial in winter and shoveled onto beds, providing water as it melts.

To the right walk under sugar maples and, in season, seven-foot tall ostrich ferns to the main house, the winter residence of Anne and Frank Cabot, who founded The Garden Conservancy in 1989. Follow the deck around back for a peek at an imperial hedge, a pleached row of Little Leaf Linden. Across the lawn, a sloping horse pasture leads the eye to the Hudson Highlands.

“We like big plants here at Stonecrop,"¯ says Hagen. “We like things to be gigantic."

Step into classic English mixed borders where dogwoods, shrubs, perennials, tender perennials, annuals and bulbs mingle in kidney-shaped beds. Canna, tall grasses, hydrangea, Cornelian cherry, and roses are background to dahlias, salvia, coleus, fuschia, asters, perilla, wild impatiens, tall ageratum, and tropicals set free for the summer such as Hypoestes phyllostachys 'Pink Splash.' They plant 40-50,000 tulips and 400-500 smaller bulbs every year.

At September's end, staff enjoys “the big dig" when they bring all tender perennials, including the Pink Splash, indoors every year to grow them large. Some plants, usually thought of as weeds, grow tucked among the fancy, for instance lamb's quarters and poke weed.

Enter the Black Garden with a variety of dark foliage and filigreed Enkianthus campanulatus, then walk through a gate covered in grapes and hydrangea into the sun where gardens of color are arranged like latticework.

See thick white dahlias, hot pink asters and chartreuse Mirabilis jalapa 'Limelight.' Everything is tall, hot, and voluptuous. Stands of Salvia miniata 'Scarlet' and Amaranthus cruentus 'Bronze' explode color. Beds of every yellow daisy-like flower, lavender, purple, and blue beds, fuschia, red, and pink, bedazzle the mind, and then suddenly, a cool green haven of veggies.

From the fury to the calm - alpine glasshouses with neat cushions of leathery Gypsophila and Draba. Choice cultivars and species live there, protected from winter winds when they flower. Lime lovers and acid lovers have their own houses.

The Pit House, a biospheric masterpiece, contains fussy alpines and a Mediterranean woodland plant collection that receive individual light and water needs. “Mediterranean woodland plants like our four-season cycle, but are just not hardy enough," Hagen explains. “We create microclimates to give woodland plants from Asia and other parts of the world what they need." Here, a succession of bloom begins in November with Moroccan Narcissus viridiflora, followed by mid-winter's snowdrops-under-glass, then flowers from Spain, Portugal, Italy.

Venture downhill past the gravel garden full of plants that like summer sun or dry shade and snow-cover. Hypericum, Epimedium, Baptisia, Lespedeza with its long tap root, Amsonia 'Blue Star.'

On to the Rock Ledge... “This puts the stone into Stonecrop," chuckles Hagen. In 1987, a stone mason created rock ledges, steps, pools and pond, stone bridge, and waterfall for water plants and alpines. “Alpines like glacial moraines and running water under their root zones."

At the bottom of the hill, 40 beds for individual plant families and a pergola comprise the Order Garden. In all other Stonecrop gardens, plants are chosen for height, color, fragrance, and bloom time, but here the only criteria is botanical relationship. “We're able to grow varied and wonderful stuff that we wouldn't be using anywhere else,"¯ says Hagen.

A path through old-fashioned and species roses chosen for fragrance and fruit (they don't spray) leads uphill through Potentilla and wispy willows, cut to the ground every year. Enter the shade of the Metasequoia Grove. “These are trees you can enjoy," Hagen says of the towering red boles and bright green foliage. “They're a fantastic look against a skyline."¯ Plant these Dawn Redwood near water if possible.

Adventure brings you down the Himalayan Slope with Himalayan and Asiatic plants that like dry rocky soil, such as the fuschia-colored marginally-hardy Harlequin Glory Bower.

A pond awaits at the bottom with DragonĆ¢ā‚¬ā„¢s Claw Willow (if your Harry Lauder's Walking Stick develops fungus, grow this says Hagen) and a Chinese Aralia with berries that resemble blue-edged lace doilies.

Saunter through a tunnel of Yellow Groove running bamboo and past the upper pond painted pretty with tall purplish Angelica seedballs and yellow Ligularia to the Wisteria Pavilion, the Grass Garden with papyrus, rushes and forbes, and Woodland Garden, which brings you almost back to the beginning. Every plant has its place at Stonecrop.

In the Woodland Garden, poke around for giant Brazilian rhubarb, Gunnera manicata, a tropical plant that looks like a living, breathing monster. A leaky hose winds around its base, constantly dripping manure tea. By mid-September it has grown to a size that requires more water than it can possibly get, so its leaves begin to brown. But it gets special treatment come winter. See in the leaf litter outlines of a double-lined wooden crate, 9 x 6 feet, that staff will build up to totally enclose the plant. They'll fill the crate with Styrofoam peanuts to keep the plant from freezing, but this tropical plant will remain where it is - outside, in Zone 5. And it will live.

After Memorial Day, staff will dismantle the crate. But not to worry if the weather turns bad or nights grow cold - this baby has a temporary cover just in case, tucked away in the woods.

Victoria cruziana, related to giant water platters, thrives in cool temperatures and produces a new leaf every day. Staff raise this annual from seed every year and feed it with tree fertilizer stakes. Hagen says that in just one month the plant eats what an oak tree does in a season. Giant appetite!

Frank Cabot began work to turn Stonecrop into a public garden in 1985, but it took seven years to design, plant, and develop the gardens to a size mature enough to present to the public. Stonecrop opened in 1992 to the public. Interns come every year to its School of Practical Horticulture to learn all aspects of running a public garden. “They have a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and abilities. They are a vital part of our horticultural staff here and are trained as such," says Hagen.

Stonecrop Gardens
81 Stonecrop Lane, Cold Spring
845-265-2000, Admission: $5/person
Hours: Open Monday thru Friday and the 1st and 3rd Saturday every month from 10-5 April through October.

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published September 22, 2005

Photos to enlarge


Trough Display

Hedge on Stilts

Hot Dahlia

Love Lies Bleeding

Closed Garden

Skinny Vista

Aralia chinensis fruit

Michael Hagen in Bamboo Grove

Wisteria Pavilion

Raised Stone Bed

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