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Wildly Wonderful

by Mary Jasch

Ellen and Eric Petersen’s garden in Stanfordville, New York, is a gathering place of plants from friends and colleagues around the country. There, ornamentals mix and mingle with natives on an enclosed 6.5 acres with woodland as backdrop.

Experimental plants, the coveted and unusual and other, more common plants are placed and thriving together in stunning arrangements in this 31-year-old garden.

Much like a natural landscape, garden beds are arranged in bands around a nucleus – the house. Foundation beds and island beds emanate outward with manicured lawn as path and framework. Then, stands of shrubs and perennials grow exuberantly, melding into one another and then, behind them, into Nature’s gardens of wild forbes, shrubs and trees.

Welcome to The Garden of the Tame and Wild with a big nod to Nature, the power and partner of the garden.

Enter through a gate onto a dirt path that slips through tidy mixed beds with luxuriant arborvitae freed by the recent removal of storm-damaged trees, a perky border of Allium cernuun, asters from the University of Delaware and eastern baccharus from Wave Hill. Along a grey fence here, pokeweed dangles its white-flowered, soft pink stems over hot pink Echinacea. The entry garden is one of pleasing shapes, sizes and placement of plants – wild or no.

A nursery is straight ahead. Here, new acquisitions await a spot in the gardens, among them white-berried inkberry and white-flowered baptisia that grows like a fountain and clumps of Sum and Substance hosta. “To put plants right in the place where you think you want plants to go is not a good idea,” says Ellen. Other nursery occupants, she simply enjoys here. “Hollyhocks always look awful. What better place for them than in the nursery? And, of course, I had to have sunflowers.”

To the right, a wide swath of a mostly native, bold border flanks the road. The plantings tumble down the embankment in size from tall apple trees, dogwoods, and pine to plum leaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) that blooms in August, bottlebrush buckeye, a tree aesculus (slower growing and shorter than the shrub), hydrangea, tall lilies and bugbane. In front, soft amsonia, coreopsis and hoary skullcap (Scutellaria incana) with bright blue flowers, dark stems and chartreuse leaves.

Head toward the tall variegated pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), one of Ellen’s favorite trees. In July, old-fashioned pink and white garden phlox ‘Bright Eyes’ forms a mass of blossoms and, with iris, peony and nepeta, is the beginning of a perennial-shrub border. A sister border, across the walk that goes under a pergola, begins with a delicate-looking sand cherry ("...a gas station plant. I love it. I've never found anything else with as good color that stays small and also doesn't drop dead like purple Cotinus."), chartreuse Japanese maple, daphne, tall ferns, and the ubiquitous bugbane and feverfew that happily pop up everywhere.

To the left, a different type of meadow dominates the landscape. Its circular raised bed made of stone holds an orchard of 30-year old crabapple trees underplanted with a monoculture of prairie dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterolopis) with pink flowers and great fall color. “It has a delicious smell in fall, like caramel.” Ellen says she got the idea at Chanticleer.

A Vivian Beer steel sculpture Windblown Couch accents the meadow and a Robert Murray sculpture Willow defines the line between cultivated and wild. Just yonder, Nature’s sculptor/engineer of the wild beaver type, decimated six witch-hazels and two magnolias in the wild two-acre meadow.

Stewartia, another of Ellen’s pride and joys, dominates a dooryard garden with combinations so attractive and simple of lilies, meadow rue, Joe-Pye weed, white Japanese iris, delphinium, one red dahlia, phlox, sedum and peony in a handsome Israel Fitch peony support. These peony supports are scattered around and are the perfect foil to peony foliage.

Around the greenhouse, a water garden in a horse trough sports miniature water lilies, a Mothers Day gift from her son 13 years ago, hardy gladiolus and native narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia). Colorful succulents are not to be missed.

The Back Gardens take over the lawn, weaving around trees, pool, wetlands and paths. Viburnum, calacanthus, ferns and lilies, asparagus, raspberries and flowering raspberry – everything gone wild yet well-behaved. Even the mountain mint. It is shape, structure, composition, texture. Subtle colors make a bold statement. (Surprise!)

Take yellow honey-suckle next to blue blue spruce. Around the bend, grey-blue echinops, wild purple thistle, lavender nepeta, Betty Corning clematis blue bells, whitish-green mountain mint and pale yellow daylilies. Just a bit of each against the green trees, shrubs and bushy perennials that have already bloomed and those that will – and all this just across from Nature’s garden of swamp milkweed, asters and other bloomers.

Trees – weeping, peeling, large-leafed, saturated color, pruned and shaped, delicate, hefty…curly willow, rosemary-leaf willows surrounded by iris swords, flowering raspberries and fuzzy pink poppy blossoms and seed capsules that knock out the chipmunks.

Pass tall, tall Rudbeckia, thistle and poke and take a seat among the poppies. Beyond the band of culture, nature advances with her army of forbes.

Downslope from the pool, tall silphium and more Joe-Pye edge a band of planted chartreuse greenery including bald cypress and cut-back catalpa. Trees peak, swoop, then the flow rises to the house and a well-curbed weeping Norway spruce in the Terrace Garden.

Even among the wildy wonderful, Petersen makes room for the rare. She cleared space among the mayapple, sweet woodruff and witch-hazel to plant Magnolia ashei. When it grows, dark, delicate hemlock will set it off. Elsewhere, a special magnolia resides, a gift "from Polly Hill herself (pre-arboretum). We haven't discovered what it is yet. Probably a naturally occurring hybrid of M. hypoluca and M. accuminata".

Don’t miss this extraordinary garden. It is open to the public one day every few years in The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program. Now is the time. And enjoy the ride on the gravel road to the top o’ the hill.

Ellen Petersen has always been involved with plants and gardens. She was an art major in college and nursery school teacher by profession. "When I lived in PA, I took all the courses at Longwood and lots of others too. I got interested long before I got my garden at age 38, but I'm not really sure why or when."

Ellen is currently on the board of Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. She is on the Council of Advisors of Delaware Center for Horticulture and is very active in Garden Club of America and her own local garden club, The Millbrook Garden Club.

Open Day: Saturday, July 28, 2012
Click here for garden visit information. Garden Conservancy Open Days www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays/open-days-schedule

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