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ACS Garden Tour of Hudson River Valley

No sooner had the American Conifer Society’s National Meeting concluded than a contingent of ACS members boarded a motor coach for four-day, three-night garden tour throughout the historic Hudson River Valley. Led by Melanie Wyler (NER/CT) it included a big plus this year in that all travel was a series of day trips from the meeting’s host hotel in Mt. Kisco thus avoiding all the issues surrounding check-in and luggage at different stops along the way.

While many of the locations were not conifer-centric —we had visited some spectacular ones over the weekend — the excursion featured glorious views, great gardens and impressive architecture. The food arrangements were exceptional.

Our first stop Sunday was Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, NY, an open-air museum and the largest sculpture park in the US. It celebrates the relationship between art and nature with works by many of the twentieth century’s most influential sculptors displayed on 500 acres of landscaped fields and woodlands.


The colossal 28-foot-high, 12-ton sculpture “Three Legged Buddha” by Chinese artist Zhang Huan isn’t right for most gardens but Storm King’s 500 acres easily accommodates it. Photo ©2013 Bob Bergey

Later that afternoon we visited, Innisfree Garden, in Millbrook, NY, a powerful icon in 20th-century landscape design, over fifty years in the making, largely under the direction of Lester Collins (1914-1993). A renowned landscape architect who had studied in the Far East, which shaped his minimalist vision of garden design, Collins used Innisfree as his research lab (he was dean of the landscape architecture school at Harvard) for his ideas and those of his graduate students before transitioning the 185-acre American stroll garden into a public space.

An early evening gourmet dinner was held at he Madava Maple Farm where we got a peek at state-of-the-art maple syrup production. The farm has 100 miles of food grade tubing, gravity feeding the sap to the maple sugar house below. In the sugar house a reverse osmosis process is used for water removal rather than boiling.

Monday found us at Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY, an area called the Hudson Highlands, a 1,100 foot plateau overlooking the river. Its rocky terrain and Zone 5 climate dictated its design and initial planting scheme, largely alpine plants like sedums (stonecrop) but Anne and Frank Cabot, who acquired the property in 1958 as country retreat, gradually transformed it into 12 acres of display gardens and 50 acres of fields and woodland.  It became a non-profit public garden in 1992. A school for practical horticulture followed shortly thereafter.

While the name of Frank Cabot may not be well known, The Garden Conservancy that he founded certainly is. In that same spirit of preserving the best examples of horticultural design, Stonecrop comprises a diverse collection of gardens and plants including woodland and water gardens, a grass garden, raised alpine stone beds, cliff rock gardens, and an enclosed English-style flower garden.

Weeping hemlock

A graceful weeping hemlock with stacked troughs for miniatures at Stonecrop. Photo ©2013 Bob Bergey

A short drive took us to Boscobel Restoration, an elegant early 19th-century Federal-style mansion. Its gardens include a formal rose garden an apple orchard, an herb garden, an orangery, and a woodland trail. A large lawn in front of the Federal period mansion offers a dramatic vista of the Hudson River, and it is where we had our picnic lunch.

Bergey lunch

Picnic lunch on the lawn at Boscobel. Photo ©2013 Bob Bergey

Tuesday we stayed closer to our hotel when we visited two private gardens. A 13-acre estate in Greenwich, CT, a work-in-progress, that is a collaboration between a passionate gardener and a renowned landscape architect. It includes massive rock outcroppings towering above a natural stream, world-class sculpture, a Chinese pavilion and a secret grotto, all tied together by a “Golden Path” meandering through the woodland landscape. A walled vegetable garden, greenhouse, and both formal and informal plantings dazzle the eye.

Greenwich private garden

A 13-acre private garden in in Greenwich, CT. Photo ©2013 Bob Bergey

The second garden in Pleasantville, NY is lovingly tended by its owner, Jean Nonna, who designed and planted the garden and maintains it herself. After years of collecting she has acquired a large and varied dwarf conifer garden, as well as a Japanese maple collection, and a varied selection of shrubs. Divided into theme gardens that include a miniature, white, fern, and hosta and Asian garden, the natural rock formations and garden ornaments lend interest and beauty to her work.

Tuesday afternoon we traveled south to the mouth of the Hudson and made a brief visit to the city it made famous, New York. Our objective was the newly opened High Line, a grass roots community garden literally inspired by the wild grasses and other plants that invaded a long abandoned elevated rail line that once ran down the west side of the city, skirting the Hudson, at at time when the city still had a manufacturing base and shipping docks that needed rail transport. Most of the line has since been been torn up and built over but there was a just over a mile-long elevated stretch that threaded between old factory buildings and above commercial avenues that local residents fought to repurpose starting in 1999.

This section of the High Line was planted with many varieties of grass, some species of which had come in naturally over the years that the rail bed had been abandoned.
This section of the High Line was planted with many varieties of grass, some species of which had come in naturally over the years that the rail bed had been abandoned.

It was amazing to walk along a downtown green belt, looking out on skyline and water views, but being above bustle and clamor of street traffic. Later than night, there was a dinner cruise on the Hudson and East River; great weather made for breathtaking views of the New York skyline.

Wednesday was spent enjoying the largesse of the Rockefeller family near Tarrytown, NY. Completed in 1913, Kykuit (KEYE-kut, Dutch for “lookout”) is the main house and gardens we visited. It was largely built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., with his father “John D” the legendary oil baron of the late 19th-early 20th century. The original landscape plan was drawn up by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted (the father of landscape architecture in the US) but John D. wasn’t pleased with the result and supervised a redesign that required moving mature specimens and constructing some 70 new roads.

The terraced gardens include a Morning Garden, Grand Staircase, Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, Japanese-style brook, Japanese Tea-house, large Oceanus fountain, Temple of Aphrodite, loggia, and semicircular rose garden. The estate is some 3,400 acres with many family members still in residence around the vast property but only “the park,” Kykuit, is open to the public on a limited basis.

This garden, one of many surrounding the house, is in the rear with a "lookout" to the Hudson.
This garden, one of many surrounding the main house, is in the rear with a “lookout” to the Hudson.

Since 1994 Kykuit and its immediate environs (250 acres), now a National Historic Landmark, have conducted public tours arranged through Historic Hudson Valley, an organization that John Jr. set up in 1951 to preserve and celebrate the region’s history and architecture. After John Jr.’s death the main house passed into the hands of Nelson Rockefeller (New York Governor and Vice President) an astute collector of modern art who installed parts of his collection in a series of galleries in the bottom floors. That is also open to the public.

Next was the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Once part of the Rockefeller estate, it was established by David Rockefeller as a memorial to his wife, Peggy. Its mission is to promote sustainable, community-based food production.

Lunch Blue Hill Stone Barn
Buffet lunch at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Photo ©2013 Bob Bergey

The site is also the home of the celebrated restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns whose chef, Dan Barber, is one of the country’s leading proponents of local, sustainable cooking. Our group had an intimate, behind-the-scenes tour of the fields and greenhouses in addition to a sumptuous buffet lunch.

Our tour bus, with Bob Bergey behind the wheel, took us back to the Holiday Inn in late afternoon. Bob was making pictures throughout most of the trip, which he pronounced one of the best he’s been on — and he’s in the business!!— but all the coneheads aboard nodded in agreement. Bob also revealed himself to be a skilled photographer and has shared some of his pictures here. Thanks, Bob. More are online at Bob’s web site.

Herewith, a gallery of ACS member photos:

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