by Mary Jasch
Walking through the maples on Judy and Michael Steinhardt’s property in Bedford, New York, I could swear I’m in nature’s open woodland. Spread out mostly as understory shrubs, the maples flourish among typical East Coast forest of pine and hemlock, sugar maple, oak, birch and liriodendron with mixed groundcover illuminating the forest floor among autumn’s fallen leaves.
But these maples are not the usual sugar, red or silver – not even black or mountain – that one encounters in our northeastern forests. They are Japanese maples in these woods – all 400 of them. They are part of a collection of six Japanese maple species with over 350 varieties. And that’s not all.
Other rare and juicy trees abound: Chinese native allspice (Sinocalycanthus chinensis) with luscious green, late dehiscing leaves and hanging bat-like fruit capsules, a Weeping Scholar Tree (Sophora japonica 'Pendula') that dangles its leaves over the edge of a pond, blooming Franklinia and really funky cut-leaved alder (Alnus glutinosa ‘Imperialis’).
Groundcovers of bright green mosses and delectable rarities, among them collections of ariseama, podophyllum and tricyrtis and so much more like selaginella and Japanese shrub mint (Leucosceptrum japonicum 'Mountain Madness’), gorgeous rabdosia, and asters fluffing delicate daisies over lichen-covered rocks and mosses that naturally occur.
Even the rocks are a treasure. Great flat slabs acquired from the Hutchinson River Parkway have morphed into luxuriant forest steps with black mondo grass streaming down the hill alongside them.
Shanti Bithi Nursery, the property’s landscape designers, creators and maintainers, have built bridges, each one artful and more fun than the next. Among them: an arched red bridge, a moss-covered bridge that demands bare feet, another of perfectly straight chiseled stone planks over the lotus pond, and great slabs of irregular rock among tall grasses and iris over the pond to the grass garden. But the best bridge ever? One of rope that swings with every step as you cross a frothy stream.
Shanti Bithi horticulturist Myron Porto says of the maples in the fall light: “They’re the last trees to retain their leaves and the first trees to color up in spring. Everything else that’s deciduous will drop first. It’s a little unusual looking because it’s the end of the year, late fall on its way to winter. The next thing you see is this maple garden filled with trees in shades of red, orange and yellow. It’s a real contrast. It’s quite spectacular.” This is reason for a Japanese maple garden.
A grove of Acer japonicum turn fiery orange-red. Japonicum leaves tend to be larger than other Japanese maples including palmatum.
Down by the lotus pond, Franklina grows on the water’s edge. Porto says it is tempermental regarding soil, moisture, light and temperature and the pond is the only place they’ve managed to grow it.
In open patches, miniature evergreen azaleas stay only a foot or so tall and pinellia, an easy substitute for arisaema, blooms. A thick bunch of Lady in Red fern with red stems is very pretty. Porto says in spring, as they start to unfold, they’re bright red.
Across the rope bridge, a well-pruned climbing hydrangea twines around the ropes taking the place of a wild vine.
Stepping onto a soft pine needle path, my feet are suddenly massaged. “It’s a real nice feeling walking through here,” Porto agrees. The garden here has moss all through it and the maples will turn red. “The sunlight comes through behind them and it looks like a stained glass window. All different shades of red and different shapes of leaves,” Porto explains. Fallen leaves look like gold stars on the moss.
White colchicum and white tricyrtis grow around the widest two-foot tall Japanese maple I’ve ever seen. It’s an Acer palmatum ‘Kiyohime’ dwarf – like a large mushroom, just a couple feet tall but many wide, and totally umbrella shaped, weeping down to the ground all around. I love this tree. If I were a kid and had this tree I’d sit inside of it and imagine. If I had it now I would sit underneath it and read.
On the way to “The Westport Maple,” the tree that started all this, blue gentian blooms. Bright red and blue woodland peony fruits are a standout. “There’s a lot of things to see all the time,” says Porto. “There’s always something to look at.”
But where are the weeds? Weeded, Porto assures me.
One maple grows crinkly leaves in tight bunches like witch’s brooms. And one area contains maples with linearilobum leaves. One is harp strings maple (A. palmatum ‘Koto no ito’).
The differences of cut leaf maples can intricate or outright obvious, such as the linearilobums. An area of weeping dissectum varieties grown from seed display subtle differences. ‘Filagree’ looks corrugated. The leaves on Dancing Peacock (A. japonicum ‘Maiku jaku’) are cut on the ends just like a peacock’s tail when he struts. Everything's a picture.
“What’s really nice this time of year is the lighting. It’s very soft, diffuse with long shadows in late afternoon,” muses Porto. “The light lights up the reds and when they start to change color it’s like looking in a stained glass Tiffany window. It’s a living Tiffany Forest.”
Black mondo grass splashes downhill as do two colors of hakonechloa. Lady slipper orchids dominate another area in another season. Clumps of Rohdea japonica, Sacred Lily, seems to belong in a tropical greenhouse. Colchicum pops up everywhere.
Vertical spikes of bright yellow shoot upward. They are the leaves of climbing hydrangea on the tall, straight boles of liriodendron. Porto calls them No. 2 pencils set on end.
We reach The Westport Maple, the genesis of these Tiffany woods. It is underplanted with ‘Green Sheen’ pachysandra with glistening leaves and yellow tricyrtis. Even though this is a planted garden it looks darn natural.
“That’s the whole idea. What we try to do here is make everything look as natural as we can,” Porto says. “We don’t have formal beds as such, everything kind of grows into each other and naturalizes over time.” It still gives me a feeling of going for a walk in nature – a walk in the woods.
“When you’re standing down there looking up through the light it’s like someone flipped a switch and turned the lighting on,” Porto dreams. “It is really incredible. They’re all different and it varies from year to year, too. Some years you have more yellows, more oranges, reds… That’s the great thing about it – it’s a little unpredictable. One of the great things about a garden is it’s not static and it’s not the same every year. It’s going to vary a little. It’s one of the things to really look forward to. Look how beautiful the rocks are. It’s like art work on the rock.”
In early November, when the Steinhardts share their garden with visitors on a Garden Conservancy Open Day, all trees and shrubs have dropped their leaves except 400 Japanese maples when their full glory blazes forth in the autumn sun. It’s their show.
Beyond the maple garden, beside the stream, a weeping katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Pendula’) keeps company with blooming Paris, tricyrtis, blue rabdosia, and Japanese tree peonies. Japanese primula seed themselves along mossy rock and the lake.
Across the stream, a garden of hardy camellias is coming into bloom. Someday they’ll be big enough to have their own woods.
Even if you only have one acre, I say plant it all in Japanese maples to create your own jewel-esque woods.
This garden is an exploration, a discovery with every step, excitement, surprise and inspiration that stays.
Come see it on an Open Day, when the Steinhardts share their garden in early May and early November: www.opendaysprogram.org
**All photos copyright 2012 Mary Jasch
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published November 06, 2012