‘nature into art:’ lessons in gardening the wave hill way, with tom christopher
WE CAN LOOK at great gardens as works of art, being delighted purely by the visuals, or we can dig a bit deeper, too, as we tour these landscapes and look for clues on how to become great gardeners ourselves. Now a new book about Wave Hill, the world renowned public garden in New York City, does just that.
“Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill” lets us feast on the design daring, the color plays, the garden pictures captured in its extravagant photography by Ngoc Minh Ngo, but at the same time it tells us how they were accomplished, teaching us the tenets of the Wave Hill way of gardening that we can put into practice at home.
Tom Christopher, a graduate of New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture and longtime garden writer and friend, wrote the new book, and along the way even Tom, with all his prior training, enjoyed a sort of insider’s advanced course in garden making and maintaining. He shared some of the many Wave Hill aha moments gleaned along the way, from the Wave Hill mantra of “plants first” to working with microclimates and the use of borrowed scenery and more.
Read along as you listen to the September 23, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of the book by commenting in the box at the very bottom of the page.
the wave hill way of gardening, with tom christopher
Margaret Roach: The book is wonderful, and I say that as someone who’s been there many times, of course, and even used to live across the street for maybe 10 years. It brings it to life and, we should credit, of course, your colleague, the photographer, yes?
Tom Christopher: Right. Yes. Ngoc Minh Ngo.
Margaret: Yes. And really the pictures and… But the approach you took in teaching us, as I said in the introduction, not just going, “Oh, how beautiful. How beautiful,” but really digging in. So first, for those of us who have never visited, maybe just a little quick background about Wave Hill. Tell us what it is, for those who don’t know.
Tom: Well, it’s a really remarkable landscape. It’s just about the last country estate left in New York in the 1960s, and the family that owned it, the Perkins, were going to develop it. And the neighborhood got together and spoke to them and said, “Can we preserve it?”
So they donated it to the city and that was when, after a couple of years of sort of benign neglect [laughter], or maybe not so benign, they brought in Marco Stufano, just a real genius by anybody’s standards. He created the gardens on this 18-acre site overlooking the Hudson River.
Margaret: It opened to the public in 1967, think.
Margaret: And when you say overlooking the Hudson River, I mean, it’s breathtaking, the view. You face the Palisades across the river, and those are unspoiled; the view you see is unspoiled. It’s not a bunch of apartment buildings across the way or anything.
Tom: No. It was actually one of the real challenges of making a garden there, is that the view could steal the show at any time, and they had to incorporate the views into the garden and also at times direct the visitors’ eyes away from the view for a while.
Margaret: So that’s one of the lessons, maybe then.
Tom: I think so. How to really make use of a view.
Margaret: Of borrowed landscape, huh?
Tom: Exactly. And there’s an arbor along the edge of the ridge overlooking the Palisades [photo below], and in fall, they always make sure to include flowers and foliage that recall the foliage colors across the river and establish a link. So it feels like the Palisades are just a part of a backdrop for the garden.
Margaret: Right. To really tie in even the near view with that borrowed landscape farther-away view.
Margaret: So let’s dig into some of the other lessons you learned about gardening in the process of creating this book. I guess one that struck me—I think it was right in the introduction—was this overarching mantra of the gardeners. Marco Stufano, whom you mentioned and was the founding Director of Horticulture—he’s no longer there, but even the subsequent Directors of Horticulture, including Louis Bauer, who’s there now-
Tom: Yes. Great, great gardener.
Margaret: …said the mantra is: “Plants first,” right?
Tom: Yes, absolutely. It’s very much… The gardens are arranged for, well and also based on, the needs of the plants and the very clever use of microclimates.
Margaret: Yes. So we can talk about that in a minute. But I think with the plants, it’s not just, “Oh, look. Let’s get that. It has a pretty pink flower.” It’s not that at all. It’s shapes and texture. All these different qualities of plants are taken into account. Yes?
Tom: Yes. You know, Marco’s background was in art history and the history of architecture, and he spoke to me—I was able to interview not just Louis Bauer, the current director, who was tremendously helpful in creating this book, but also Marco. And Marco said repeatedly that architecture came first in all the gardens, that you’d start with the architecture of the trees on the site and then the shrubs, and even down to the form of the plants, and the color was something… It’s funny because I’d always thought of color as the defining characteristic of any garden, but he said it was a secondary characteristic with him.
Margaret: Huh. Interesting. He talks about—not in the book but in general and in person— he talks about things like, “You need a blob over there,” he’ll say. [Laughter.] So some of it’s not formal architecture-speak, but you get the idea.
Tom: No. He’s a remarkably unpretentious person. All of the gardeners at Wave Hill were, which was one of the joys of working with them.
Margaret: But “You need a blob,” like a hummocky-shaped round thing, or “You need an exclamation point;” you need something columnar. You know what I mean?
Tom: Right. A vertical or a horizontal, or something spreading.
Margaret: Yes. So you brought up another one of the things that you learned before, about microclimates, speaking of plants, and that’s an unusual lesson. And it’s a hard lesson to learn from a space until you’re there for a while, isn’t it?
Tom: I think it is. We all talk about microclimates, but how many of us have actually made really skillful use of them? And they grow things at Wave Hill that, for instance, they can’t grow at New York Botanical Garden a few miles away.
Margaret: And that’s because…
Tom: There’s a microclimate that they’ve identified and they’ve made use of. There’s the breezes that come from the river, which keep it somewhat drier in the summer. And then there’s… Oh, they pick a south-facing slope and put in perfect drainage and they could grow Mediterranean plants that aren’t supposed to grow in New York City.
Margaret: Right, right. And when you say “grow,” you mean even overwinter them?
Tom: Oh, absolutely. They’re hardy and flourish.
Margaret: Right. So there’s that river exposure that may be part of it. Some other examples, I think… They grow those and then they grow a lot of tropicals and so forth, but those, I believe, they bring in, right, and shelter.
Tom: They do. They hide the tropicals inside over the winter, either in the greenhouses or semi-dormant in a glass porch.
Margaret: But when you see it in the active growing season, there’s this Mediterranean stuff and there’s this tropical stuff, and you almost are fooled as to where you are. [Laughter.]
Tom: Yes. Well, that was one of the things they told me at Wave Hill, that New York City has the climate of Siberia in the wintertime, but is a lot like Sumatra in the summer. So why not grow tropicals?
Margaret: Right. So learning to read our spaces within our space is really important to developing a plant palette that can be more daring than we might think at first if we just go by the, “Oh, I’m in zone 5B,” or “Oh, I’m in zone 6B,” or… You know what I mean?
Tom: Yes. For instance, I’ve always had trouble growing… Well, I took care of, for 10 years, a garden on the Palisades, across the river from Wave Hill. I had tremendous trouble growing lavender. It was just too humid in the summer. But [at Wave Hill] they found a spot along the western wall of a stone building and the top of a slope, so the drainage is really perfect. Lavender just does beautifully there. It looks like Provence.
Margaret: It’s interesting. I’ve never succeeded with it so…. [laughter].
So some of these other ahas… I mean one of them that I remember reading about in the book is… We should backtrack a second and say there are different gardens within this garden. It’s not just one garden. Wave Hill is a series of… they’re even more than rooms. They’re really separate spaces. Yes?
Tom: Yes, whole separate experiences. There’s a series of inspirations, really.
Margaret: And so, one of them is called the Wild Garden [below].
Tom: Right. That’s possibly my favorite garden there. It was one of the few gardens that survived from the days before Wave Hill became a public garden. It was a rock garden in the old days. And then Marco and the gardeners redeveloped it as a wild garden, meaning that they brought in plants from foothills and mountainsides from all around the world and grew them together in this sort of cosmopolitan, wild, natural-looking space. But this composition is very difficult, tricky to maintain.
Margaret: So wild does not mean unmanaged.
Tom: No. And in fact, that irked the gardener Gelene [Scarborough]… because people come in and they think she does nothing. And in fact it’s very, very difficult to maintain a garden at just the right degree of wildness. It takes a lot of editing and a lot of care to keep it at the edge of wildness without going out of control.
Margaret: Right. It has that spontaneity, and spontaneity can’t be forced [laughter], yet in a way, you have to use the gardener’s hand to edit it a little bit and yet still have it look spontaneous. And that’s tough, right?
Tom: It is tough. One of the tricks they’ve used, and they use it in a lot of the other gardens as well, is a very enthusiastic use of volunteer seedlings. They let some of the flowers go to seed. And they scatter their seed on the ground, and the next spring they come up as volunteer seedlings. They let some of them grow up, and some of them they pluck out and edit out. But it means the garden is different every year, and it gives it that feeling of spontaneity. It’s also useful as a horticultural technique because when the seeds find their own spot, they tend to grow best and grow where the conditions are just right for them. So you get very vigorous, hardy growth from the plants.
Margaret: I’m closing my eyes as we’re talking and I’m thinking about the Flower Garden, another area on a kind of lower level nearer to the main entrance. The Wild Garden is up on a hill above parts of the rest of the garden. I think of the Flower Garden, which is a little bit more formal, but still has things spilling out of the beds onto the path kind of a feeling as well. And I’m thinking that’s a place where, for instance, self-sowns like larkspur, might be. Yes?
Tom: Yes, and the delphiniums. Or not the delphiniums, excuse me—the digitalis, the foxglove, is largely self-sown. In fact, even when they weed out some of them in the early spring, they set them aside in pots and grow them in case a hole appears later in the summer. They can pop them back in.
Margaret: Right. So it’s not that… You were saying about how it’s different each year. But the signature plants are always there from year to year, and there are some new ones, of course, from time to time. But they’re in a different concentration or undulation, right? I mean, they’re not in the exact spots where they were.
Tom: Yes. No, it changes every year, which is one of the wonderful things about that garden and Wave Hill in general.
Margaret: Right. I do love how the Flower Garden has paved paths and the beds are in a grid kind of, but there is that a effusion, that stuff sort of spilling out and touching the pavement. Do you know what I mean?
Tom: Yes. It’s a very, very formal layout, but a very informal kind of planting within. It’s just very sensual and luxuriant, the planting. It makes a wonderful contrast with the severe formal layout of the garden.
Margaret: Right. And it also is very different from when you walk up the path and then up the steps into the Wild Garden, which doesn’t have rectilinear beds at all. Correct?
Tom: No, not at all. They just followed the topography and the contours of the garden.
Margaret: Yes. Was that inspired maybe by William Robinson?
Tom: Yes that, and there’s also, I think, a garden near the Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, an Olmstead garden, that was one of the inspirations for it, too, which is another wild garden in New York City. Not as a beautiful, I don’t think, as the Wave Hill garden.
Margaret: O.K. So some other of these kind of ahas. There’s one in the book about native plants, and that was a bit of a revelation. I don’t know. I mean, you can tell us what it was, but it seemed like you were surprised almost a little bit by it, too. [Laughter.]
Tom: I was continually surprised through this experience, which is one of the wonderful parts about it. I was always learning and always having my preconceptions challenged. With the native plants, they decided that, well, a lot of people don’t grow native plants because typically they’re grown in a naturalized setting. It was a sort of simulation of a wild environment, and that a lot of people, particularly in suburban areas, don’t want to do that.
So they thought, well, we’ll use native plants in a formal setting. They took all these native plants, native North American plants, and created a very formal garden, and it works beautifully.
Margaret: Which garden is that at Wave Hill?
Tom: The Elliptical Garden [below].
Margaret: The Elliptical Garden. And that’s in a whole different area of the property.
Tom: Yes. It’s on top of… It’s down the hill from the Flower Garden and the Wild Garden on an area that was originally the estate swimming pool. That’s why they got the oval shape of the garden.
Margaret: I see. That’s funny. Yes, so. And you’re right. Mostly natives are planted in sort of these naturalistic… a woodland garden with woodland natives, wild flowers or a meadow planting or whatever. I remember, just to digress for a second, talking to one of the gardeners at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. Have you been there?
Tom: Yes I have, and they’ve done some similar things.
Margaret: Yes. I remember when I first spoke to him [Travis Beck] and he was saying, “And then we used natives this way,” and I was looking at the pictures and I was like, “Wow. Of course. It’s all native.” It also looked like a formal English garden, certain parts near the estate house—a similar kind of thing where Wave Hill has these old houses, these beautiful old homes on the property, two of them I think. Yes?
Tom: Yes. There are two old estate houses.
Margaret: And Mt. Cuba’s like that, too. So you wouldn’t want to have just meadows going up to the door of these places. You would want some formal plantings to be contextual and appropriate. But at Mt. Cuba also they used natives for it, because it’s a center for native plants, and it’s surprisingly… It works so well.
Tom: And it also is, of course, much, much better for wildlife and pollinators.
Margaret: So it has double, triple benefits. I feel like one of the things about Wave Hill whenever I visit is that I always see the little details have all been tended to. Do you know what I mean? The extras—and I guess obviously in a professionally maintained public garden, you would sort of expect that. But there’s a flourish. There’s a little bit of an extra signature in the way the gardeners there do things.
Tom: Yes. They referred to it, and then this became a chapter title, as “The Edges of Everything.”
Tom: They basically said that if you really want to dress up a garden, a very time efficient way to do it is just make sure the edges of all the beds are neatly cut and swept, so that it makes everything look so much better. It’s sort of like the frosting on the cake.
Margaret: Huh. So real finishing touches, right?
Tom: Yes, a lot of attention to finishing touches, and a lot of… It’s interesting, it’s a very self-sufficient space, really. They use a lot of… For instance, most of their stakes come from twigs that they’ve either collected from pruning or from the perennial gardens in the fall, stems of tall, more robust perennials, and use those as stakes the following year. And most of the mulch is not… They don’t bring in bark. They use leaves collected around the property and chop them and age them and then use that as a mulch, and it makes a beautiful, very elegant mulch.
Margaret: It is. And I seem to remember from having been a neighbor to the property that in the fall each year, when all the other neighbors were putting out bags of leaves, there was a certain delight among the gardeners with the Wave Hill truck going around, before the garbage men would come, and taking them. [Laughter.]
Tom: Yes. They said that the couple of landscapers also deliver stuff from the… They vacuum up the leaves and just chop them as they do it and then deliver the piles of leaves to Wave Hill.
Margaret: Yes. Leaf mold or crumbled leaves and aged leaves are really… because they don’t glare, they don’t look unnatural. They look like they’ve just fallen and decayed in place. So they are a beautiful mulch.
Tom: And a very effective one, too.
Margaret: Yes. And what you said about the supports, reusing twigs and so forth… I also feel like the gardeners there have a real talent for supporting plants in a way that… Sometimes it’s meant to embellish—there are formal supports that you’re meant to notice. And then in other ways, sometimes, the sort of, I don’t know, I would call it like “trussing them up,” making something not flop over when it’s too top heavy but not having it be so obvious, like some gadget was purchased at the hardware store.
Tom: They’ll collect twigs and insert them in around the perennials or the annuals in early spring and let the plants grow up and over them, so you don’t even see the supports.
Margaret: Right, exactly. The timing is everything sometimes, too. Like you just said, doing it in early spring means the plant grows over it, as opposed to trying to hide it later or get it up off the ground when it’s already fallen down, which is, as we know-
Tom: Right. That’s always my problem. I wait too late and then my staking looks like… Well, it looks like just that: Joan of Arc tied to the stake.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh, Tom. Maybe we should go get some lessons in that-
Tom: Yes. I think so.
Margaret: …before we’re too old to do it. So, some of the other things. Are there some other ahas that you want to share while we have a few more minutes?
Tom: Sure. One thing about staking is there was one of the gardeners who took care of the yellow border, and he really disliked stakes. So he would keep pinching back and pruning back perennials, which held them back a bit. They flowered later in the season, but they were bushier and stronger. And so he could grow the whole Gold Border without stakes at all.
Margaret: Huh. So by pinching.
Tom: By pinching, yes.
Margaret: Judicious pinching. And a lot of things really do get too tall for their own good, especially in an area where you may have a later summer rain and wind storms, thunderstorms, things like that, that are just going to make things flop. Yes.
One other thing I’ve always wanted to do, and I don’t know why I’ve never done it, is behind the conservatory at Wave Hill, they have this bed. It’s not gigantic. I think they call it the Paisley Bed.
Tom: Oh, yes.
Margaret: Tell us about that, because it’s kind of a tabula rasa, right? It’s like a blank slate every year.
Tom: Right. It started out as… Well, it’s a sort of paisley-shaped bed. That’s how it got its name. It’s like a curved teardrop, and they just do it with a fresh planting every year from the ground up. Every year there’s a different theme, whatever strikes their interest. One year, for instance, there was a fire, and when the building burned, all the copper flashing was bent and twisted, but it also took on this wonderful kind of iridescence. So they strung pieces of this copper through the bed and then planted copper foliage plants around them, and it was just spectacular.
Margaret: So it’s the idea here being: If you can, have a bed that doesn’t have a permanent signature, a permanent look, a permanent design, and let yourself be inspired each year to try something different. Right?
Tom: Yes. And that’s really the fun of annuals, that annuals work so well. They come on so fast that you can take chances with them. I mean, if you put in a perennial bed, it takes several years to mature, so you want to make sure you get it right ahead of time and do a lot of planning and calculation because you’re not… But with the annuals, if you do something like that and it doesn’t quite please you, well, you’re just going to rip it out at the end of the season anyway, and replace it with something else.
Margaret: [Laughter.] So I want to try to make myself leave one bed empty. That’s one of my personal goals, so that I can try new things. Any other ones that you want to add?
Tom: Oh gosh.
Margaret: So many.
Tom: There’s so many lessons. I’m trying to think.
Margaret: Yes. Did you go away from doing this project—and we should say the name of the book is…
Tom: “Nature Into Art.”
Margaret: Exactly. So, of course, that’s one of the hints right there: that it is like a living work of art. But were there any plants that, by the time you were done, you had to go have them in your own yard? Do you know what I mean? Like sometimes you’re around a place, or with another gardener, and they have something and then you want to grow it, too. [Laughter.]
Tom: Well, I think the Wild Garden really inspired me, and I’m putting in a meadow behind my house this fall. And that’s, I think, very much the influence of the Wild Garden. I just want to have that kind of look of sort of tousled but beautiful informality around the house.
Margaret: It’s funny. The Wild Garden had an influence on me years ago as well, in that it had a big cutleaf staghorn sumac tree/shrub in one bed. And that was one of the first shrubs I ever sought out to plant in my own garden, because of that one at Wave Hill back in the early days. So, yes. I can understand being inspired in different ways by that. So you’re making a meadow.
Tom: I’m just getting ready this weekend to till up about 5,500 square feet.
Margaret: Oh geez, Tom. O.K.
Tom: I don’t want to do things by halves.
Margaret: Well, I’m so happy to talk to you about the book, and it’s beautiful and smart. So thank you so much for making the time.
(Photos from “Nature Into Art” by Ngoc Minh Ngo; used with permission.)
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