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woodland garden conservancy rocky hills new york

Rocky Hills – An Avante-garde Woodland Garden

by Mary Jasch

There is a woodland garden in Chappaqua, New York, like no other planted with collections of Dawn Redwood and Japanese maple, collections of magnolia, conifers, rhododendron, azalea, and Spanish bluebells and forget-me-nots everywhere. The owner, Henriette Suhr, loves the color blue.

Suhr and her husband William first came to the property 55 years ago to find a weekend respite from the city. The house had a cow field then, just after World War II.

“We started gardening, cleaning up. The biggest things happened after my husband was here. (He died 30 years ago and from then to the present, Henriette, now 98, takes care of the gardens.) We were going to leave it as open space, but then the County Parks Department came along and said it was very different and they’d like to have it. The Garden Conservancy has an advisory committee. We hope they’ll be involved in the future.” Suhr gave her home and13 acres of gardens to Westchester County ten years ago to become a public garden and parkland forever.

As an interior designer, she looks at her new garden a certain way – as space. “I approach this in the way I approach my work. I put things together as to how they look good. Here they have learned to live together.” Indeed they have and Mrs. Suhr and her gardens have won many awards.

An autumn walk through Rocky Hills reveals a love for trees and evergreens – their shape, style, texture, color and structure. Hemlock towers next to Magnolia stellata , pink Saucer Magnolia and a giant tent-like Japanese maple that takes ten days to prune and turns brilliant red in fall. Rhododendrons and azaleas grow at their feet. “The hemlock – how these things survive like that…These things are miracles.”

A glamorous blue Atlas cedar glides across the view over ground-hugging juniper toward an imposing willow. Across the grass, terraces, rocky hills and islands of evergreens – beds of solid blue spruce in all forms heighten the colors of fall. “I have a preference when it comes to evergreens. When it’s not green-green, I use the blue.”

A phalanx of evergreens, now 50 feet tall, was once a planting of very gnarled saplings chosen by the Suhrs. “And now they’ve all straightened themselves out,” says Suhr with the tone and look of an Earth mother.

Up into native hickory, oak and ash, a black garden with black sambucus and a row of lilacs line the path next to the slope’s edge. The understory is holly and azaleas. Heading downslope toward a meadow, the trees become redbud, Japanese maple, magnolia.

Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ and other cultivars stand at the edge of the meadow developed 20 years ago. Brooklyn Botanic Garden Research Center developed and donated the trees when Mrs. Suhr offered the use of her meadow. “I said, ‘I’ll give you the meadow. Bring them over here.’ I consider myself the keeper of these trees.”

In the meadow in springtime, German iris, foxglove and bluebells accompany the magnolias and maples – as do the forget-me-nots that cover the woodland floor of Rocky Hills – plus gardens, meadows, lawns, shrub gardens, water gardens, conifer gardens, everywhere in spring. What could be more beautiful?

“Out of the meadows came the forget-me-nots. I’m very fond of bulbs. We have the very old bulbs. I’m practically covered with the Spanish bluebells.” In back of the meadow, a grove of Dawn Redwood invites.

Down stone steps toward the Roaring Brook. This is the newest area. It was a spring garden when the Suhrs first moved here, with hundreds of daffodils and cherry trees. “Then we got a daffodil disease.” Everyone said it couldn’t be, but then a man from Holland came to diagnose the misery and told them never to plant another daffodil there.

Up a dirt path into woodland, patches of 80 different kinds of ferns including Himalayan maidenhair surround.

And just when Mrs. Suhr thought she had planted enough gardens, Marco Polo gave her a Gold Rush Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Ogon') with foliage that emerges chartreuse in spring and turns golden in fall. “It took me a few months to decide where to put it. So I started a whole new garden – a yellow garden.”

The cliff – or ha ha – here was made from garden refuse and a visitor goes to the very edge to see the spectacular yellow garden rising from a gorge. Now, both Dawn Redwood and wild trees change to gold and yellow.

The path leads on through wild flowers – primula, cyclamen, perennial impatiens and 50-year old fruit trees.

Then on to the Roaring Brook, a boisterous stream that cuts through Rocky Hills. Here, the newest azaleas and Dawn Redwood flank the brook and bright green foliage of the metasequoia light up the woodland. Azaleas and rhododendron bloom here from April into July with all the sun they need in early spring and cover in summer.

Short black tufts poke through bouffant grasses resembling “Cousin It” next to all manner of miscanthus weeping over shallow ponds fed by the brook. Daylilies do their wanton dance with sea oats and black mondo grass.

Up into the garden in front of the house, amazing leafless trees sculpt the view. They tantalize and hypnotize until the visitor is turned around not knowing which way is front or side. But head left around the house to a sculpture garden where a pair of sphinxes, a gift from a friend, commands a hill.

Nearby, West Coast species rhododendrons stand in the sun since sheltering trees have died. A gigantic Norway spruce stands in one corner of the side yard. It was the Suhrs’ first Christmas tree at Rocky Hills. Mrs. Suhr explains that this side yard will be the parking lot in the future.

How hard is it to let a 50-year-old garden go? The future holds bright for this private garden, already destined to go public. But come see it now.

Rocky Hills is a Garden Conservancy project.
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published October 21, 2011

Photos to enlarge

Henriette Suhr by the Roaring Brook.

Hemlock points the way to a giant Japanese maple and magnolias

Blue Atlas cedar coloring up the garden

The sphinxes at Rocky Hill

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