HOW’S YOUR GARDEN LOOKING as summer winds down? Is it full of visual impact, with the promise of weeks and weeks more excitement ahead, or is it…pooped? I traveled virtually to an unexpected place–a park in the City of Yonkers, just north of New York City–to harvest some important lessons on garden design with staying power from Timothy Tilghman. We also talked about how no plant is too common or lowly to be a garden star—something in this age of the quest for “newest” and “rarest” that we often forget.
Since 2011, Timothy has worked at Untermyer Park and Gardens in Yonkers, New York, which is becoming a horticultural destination for keen gardeners wanting inspiration–and a getaway for anyone just wanting to be surrounded by bold, contemporary plantings in a dramatic, historic setting. The Untermyer Gardens Conservancy is a non-profit organization collaborating with the City of Yonkers to facilitate the garden’s restoration (details on tours and how to visit otherwise are at the bottom of this page).
In case you’re wondering: that garden has many vivid miles to go before it sleeps for winter. I even saw the phrase “floral fireworks” (such as the crape myrtles and hydrangeas in the right-hand photo below) used to describe it at the end of August, and there are plenty of foliage fireworks, too.
Timothy and I worked together for years at “Martha Stewart Living” magazine, and he has been a gardener at the famed Wave Hill in New York City, and at the Garden Conservancy project called Rocky Hills in Westchester. We caught up in September 2014 on my public-radio show, which is transcribed below:
Q. Who was Untermyer?
A. Samuel Untermyer bought the property in 1899 from a New York State Governor, Samuel Tilden, who was was actually the first candidate to win the popular vote, like Al Gore, but lose in the electoral college. This garden is so full of history.
Q. So when you came there as horticulturist in 2011, you were the first person to garden there in how long?
A. I became the first fulltime gardener in coming up on 75 years. Untermyer had the property from 1899, till his death in 1940. He tried to leave the garden to his children, who thought it was too big to handle. He then went to the state, the county, and then to the City of Yonkers—and all three turned him down.
He went back to the state one more time, and Robert Moses evaluated it and said it would be a great resource—if a bunch of money was being left; an endowment. But Untermyer was not leaving money with the garden, so the County of Westchester refused a second time, too. Upon his death, he left it to the city with no formal relationship set up, which then took time to organize.
For eight years it sat sort of fallow, and then the city started working on it—but with limited resources over the years, because of all the other parks that they have in their system. No horticulture has happened and no gardener has been here fulltime since 1940.
Q. And we should say that besides the literal history, this garden has many architectural artifacts that the City of Yonkers had to keep standing, too—miraculous, and a real backdrop of history visually.
A. And what a backdrop it is. The main garden is a 3½-acre, Indo-Persian themed walled garden appointed with a study in Greek architecture [photo above, with cushions set out for visitors to an evening program]. I wouldn’t even care to look at it when I hear it described that way—but Untermyer really pulled it off.
He hired William Welles Bosworth, who also designed Kykuit for the Rockefellers, and we know from Bosworth’s notes that Untermyer walked into his studio and commissioned him to create, “The grandest garden in the world.” That was his stated ambition.
A. And it’s a perfect juxtaposition to the formality of the Indo-Persian walled garden with bisecting canals. Just a few hundred yards away was this Romantic folly with 30-foot tumbling waterfalls. That feature alone could sustain a garden of this size, but to have both, paired with vista steps, leading down to ancient Roman columns, flanked by color gardens, an old sundial garden, an old gatehouse, an old rock garden….I’m missing gardens, I suspect.
Q. While doing your work there lately you’ve sort of unexpectedly exhumed some of them, right?
A. I’ve uncovered entire gardens—it’s ridiculous. And it is a national landmark site; the City of Yonkers has worked with the state historic preservation office over the years to re-imagine and refurbish some of the deteriorating hardscape, as resources were presented.
So selfishly, to be the first gardener back in after almost 75 years with this amazing canvas to work with, is just beyond anything I ever hoped for.
Q. So we all face architecture and hard lines—whether there at Untermyer, or in our home gardens, with houses and patios and driveways. Does this mean you always have to go with that, and think “formal” as you design?
A. This is the largest Indo-Persian walled garden in North American, if not our hemisphere, but as I arrived, Untermyer’s original horticulture had rather subsided. You could drink in the whole thing at once. That sort of took away some of the mystery and intimacy and human scale.
Ironically, when Untermyer built this garden with Bosworth’s help, he left all the major shade trees in that 3½-acre area, and imposed this formal overlay on top of it. So looking at old pictures, there was a big shade tree right in the middle of one of the central axes of the garden—and they left it there until it senesced, and was removed, and then they were able to re-establish some of the formal design schemes.
But with that as inspiration, and just because that architecture to my eye is too much to drink in all at once, I’m putting our young shade trees in the same random areas.
We have borrowed some of Bosworth’s intentional rhythmic plantings along the canals, which sort of adds to the formality–but from then on, I’m doing everything I can to soften those hard lines, and create smaller spaces, and interrupt views. It forces you to move through the garden to be able to see it all, rather than just walk through the gate…
Q. …and have a full reveal right there.
So even with such formality, we don’t have to plant just clipped boxwood; we can have effusive, voluptuous plantings, which is one of your signatures, yes?
A. Absolutely. It would be very easy in this garden—and I think this is something I struggle with when I work on a home scale, too—it’s very easy to start repeating those formal patterns you see in your hardscape and your house and look for symmetry.
I’ve always been very hesitant to use symmetry, and instead look for balance and scale and asymmetry where I can. If it’s balanced it’s still pleasing to the eye—but trying to fight against all that formalness.
Q. Use the plants to create intimacy.
A. Yes: to let the plants fill in the container that is this walled garden, and soften it.
Q. I had a good laugh, knowing you, to learn that amid all this history and formal architecture, this year you’d picked…drumroll!…marigolds for one of your major major plantings. Not exactly a fancy plant. You don’t have to stick to formal or historic or even grand choices?
A. Working with the state preservation organization due to the landmark status, all our woody plants have to be approved. With perennials and annuals, though, I have carte blanche to do anything that I think would be exciting.
Q. And not content to use just orange marigolds, you also used white ones.
A. I basically went through the wholesale catalogs and picked up any rooted cutting of any marigold cultivar that I thought would be interesting. I had a lot of help from our mutual friend and mentor, Marco Polo Stufano, the founding horticulturist at Wave Hill —who is also the pro bono adviser for Untermyer. His mentor—T.H. Everett—actually started here gardening at Untermyer for two years, before he became the dean of American horticulture, at New York Botanical Garden.
There was another thing about using marigolds: From the Indian cultural references, and using these big, bright colors.
Q. So the marigold connection goes all the way back to T.H. Everett’s influence? Wow. I didn’t know that.
A. Marco always taught me to use common plants in uncommon ways, and he has said that T.H. told him: “There is no such thing as a bad plant, and no room for plant snobbery.”
Q. So how did the white marigolds, which are sort of a ribbon through the planting, get in the mix?
A. It wasn’t as thought-out as you might think, but sort of a happy accident in gardening. I got all these colors, from yellows and reds and oranges and whites and the bicolors, and when I went to plant them I saw that the white reached 2 feet tall—the tallest of all—so I put a ribbon of white marigolds down the middle (though they have all grown together by now). The white just gives all those other plants more color, which I was looking to do, but because of the height difference, it just became obvious where to place them.
Q. Do you restrict annuals like marigolds to certain beds?
A. If I do my job right, and they let me stay, I’m going to have 25 years of annual schemes to come up with, and I’m happy to explore that. The fun of annuals: If it’s a huge mistake, it only lasts a few months.
And yes, beyond that: I grow annuals for other plantings as well, certainly not confined to these two ribbons that go on either side of the walled garden’s bisecting canals.
In my perennial and mixed borders, whether I’ve left holes on purpose or not—which I have—there’s always some failure from the winter, and holes here and there. We’ve only been at this garden three years, so while it’s fairly established for that period of time, we’re not finished in spots. I haven’t found the right plant for every place.
To put in some annuals to really give it a punch of color and much stronger contrast than I’d do with a perennial order or shrub border It gives it more excitement or instant impact that lasts till frost.
Q. So strategically leaving pockets is another way to have islands of long-lasting color.
A. I think that’s mandatory, to leave yourself room to add seasonal interest every year. And it’s a way to tie in—to the marigolds, for instance, to bring that color out into the other borders to it’s not so isolated and alone.
Q. Thinking “no plant too common,” what are some other good choices?
A. Punctuated all through our west border, which is by far our blowsiest, more vivid, most fun border at the moment, are Knockout roses I bought from Home Depot.
One of my favorite plants I use whatever I go to, whether it belongs there or not, because they belong everywhere: the straight oakleaf hydrangea. A great plant. Sun, shade, water, dry; four seasons of interest; persistent flowers.
These are all plants we’re all aware of—and for good reason, because they just keep giving and giving.
Q. You sent me a snapshot to show me where the giant cannas I’d sent you from my garden ended up…and it was in pots! [Photo above.] Let’s talk about the role containers have, especially in a garden with a long season of interest.
A. By using pots, I am emulating what Untermyer had done—and those cannas are in the central axis of the main garden, by the way, so they’re the rock stars, thank you.
With his 60 greenhouses and love for color, he had containers all through the Ionic amphitheater, and in the Corinthian rotunda; big displays of pots that he would change seasonally.
Again: It softens some of that hard architecture. We can bring color out—and get instant color and instant contrast, in very bold plantings. They’re really the first things that get finished in the garden, and then they last all season long. I can use them to create focal points, to create intimacy, soften the hardscape, add vertical interest.
That and the ability change dramatically a big theme of the garden every year, with tropical plants or annual plants in pots. It gives us so much flexibility.
I’m not doing it here yet, but in other gardens I’ve put pots right in the middle of borders, even.
A. We have tours every Sunday from spring through late fall, and we have the details on our website. We vary them in time, and we ask for a $10 fee for a 90-minute tour.
UNTERMYER GARDENS is at 945 North Broadway in Yonkers, New York. Besides guided Sunday tours of the property, the walled garden is also open to visitors Monday-Saturday, 7 AM to sunset year-round, and on Sundays from April to October, noon to dusk. The rest of the park is open daily, dawn to dusk. Details on tours and other visiting.
(All photos courtesy of Untermyer Gardens Conservancy.)