A Terraced Hillside Garden
by Mary Jasch
Driving down Patterson Lane, just when you think you can’t get anywhere more wild in the State of New York, you come upon a white picket fence at the home and garden of Tamara and Joe DiMattio.
Around back, first sight is a spreading white oak with orchids and other epiphytes tacked to its supportive trunk and beyond that, the call of the river. That’s the way it is here, one vignette calling you to another.
Head right toward a copper-roofed gazebo built by Joe but dally as you pass the collection of succulents and bonsai in Tamara’s hand-thrown pottery on the patio and the fiery succulent on slate blue table. Architecture, color in foliage and evolution of ideas play large in this garden.
A vine-covered brick arch that began as a wall brings you into the rose garden and then to a silken pool that beckons and echoes the river and sky. Here, the DiMattios’ passions surround you: sculpted shrubbery, intricate pottery, succulents (Joe has been a volunteer at Wave Hill one day a week for 14 years in the cactus and succulent garden), and the mile-wide Hudson River.
The garden evolved since 1972 when the DiMattios purchased the 1940s house and a couple acres. Gradually they expanded the house and bought and cleared the steep forested slope down to the river.
From the deck, a view to live for – the river under powder blue sky and puffy white cumulus, manicured lawn paths to take you there and, along the way, garden after garden of individual delight. In the view, a tugboat escorts a barge downstream and the river calms after the wake subsides.
Off the deck, Tamara’s hedge of sculpted forsythia, spirea and boxwood slinks across the slope that now drops steeply to the river. In time its spring-time yellow haze will to stretch across to the trees across the land.
“I love hedges,” says Tamara. “I like that demarcation. When you have a steep incline it’s hard to maintain. It’s a way of having clean edging if the land has heavy inclines.”
Across the slope, perennials, flowering shrubs, Japanese maples and a trumpet vine dominate newer terraced gardens. “We are taming the slope with textures. We are under terrible attack all the time,” she says of deer. “You can’t tend slopes. In order to tend it you have to either mow it or plant it. I do like trimming hedges. you get a sculptural form as well as color when it blooms.” Tamara’s advice: plant shrubs and get a bigger bang for your effort.
Downslope, the land was forested but the DiMattios tackled and cleared it and made terraces. Here, a “canal” with koi, waterlilies and potted cacti extends from a pergola where this writer knows she would spend her time if she could. If it’s peace you want, build a canal with a simple pergola and put it under open sky.
Farther down, wide swaths of clipped lawn offer easy walking and easy upkeep through a maze of island gardens, each one unique. Small terraces with shrubs are tucked into pockets of the hillside; others display Mother Nature’s plant palette neatly constrained. Just above the river and its riverine accompaniments, a deck with two chairs and large potted succulents awaits “I like to have something to take care of when I walk around,” Tamara says.
Blue vitex, just beyond the deck, has been blooming for months unbothered by deer. Why garden all the way down this slope?
“We have these inspirations when you have the steam to do it but long-term you never factor that in. To be a gardener you have to be something of a romantic. This is not a practical thing in any kind of monetary sense but it is in a philosophical sense, then eventually you start reading the history of it and it opens up the world.”
The terraces have tamed the slope. The taming of the slopes has been a big issue for us. The frustrations of weather and animals are getting us to think more in practical terms rather than effusive terms. Now I’m looking to edit. Replace problem plants with shrubs. Tone it down somewhat.”
As time goes by, the DiMattios think of the future – theirs and the gardens’. “We are a Yin Yang team,” says Joe. “Tamara looks at the big picture. Me, I’m a pot person and plant person. I like to pick up a plant and examine it and it be my little friend instead of a giant landscape. It’s too much for me now but over the years it’s been great.”
Joe’s advice: “Define an area and put paving stones around it. “It says ‘this is the garden and this is the path.’ Then don’t allow any weeds in it. Your own ambitions have to be modified and measured as to what you can do. A little garden lowers your limitations and you work with it and work with exactly the piece of land you have.”
His new garden named “Two Ridges,” where he has put his new philosophy into action, is a gravel garden created around two elongated rocks poking above ground. It contains Kingsville boxwood babies of a baby Joe grew 24 years ago, one mugho pine to keep trimmed-no legs, one Chamacyparis ‘Snowflake’ which he might find to troublesome, thyme, three bird’s nest spruce to be kept perfectly round and flat and a Japanese maple. “That’s my goal.”
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published August 20, 2013