A Briarcliff Manor Couple’s New Slant On Gardening

A breathtaking Westchester masterpiece on a precipitous slope provides lessons for anyone similarly inclined.

Leonard and Rita Lakin’s property leaves little doubt that a pair of avid gardeners are in residence. One glimpse at the graceful flow of gardens stretching around the contemporary house reveals the homeowners care deeply about their landscape. But only a hint of the story is evident from the road. Go behind the house—that’s where it’s really happening. Many potential buyers would balk at the sheer stone face that would make a mountain goat weak in the knees, but Lakin and his wife embraced their rocks. The result does the outcropping proud. 

Rita claims she didn’t know a pansy from a maple when they bought the Briarcliff Manor spec house 44 years ago. So she started with the basics when her sister called the property “simply boring.” Fortunately, her sister offered a six-pack of pansies in perky colors to remedy the monotonous colors previously in the yard, and Rita began digging holes. That’s when she discovered that the whole property was a ledge: They don’t call it Briarcliff Manor for nothing. 

Just as woodlands need to be cleared off to define the forest for the trees, rock faces are often hidden behind an accumulation of sediment. So the Lakins went to work. At first, “we just climbed up to dig the weeds out of the ridges,” she says. But the more they dug, the more rock they unearthed. As they cleaned the rock face, with the help of a neighborhood teenager, they augmented with more stone, creating terraces to combat erosion—an idea that dawned on them without professional advice. The result was perfectly dandy, but it wasn’t enough. They yearned for color and seasonal interest beyond the subtle hues that the rocks furnished. That’s where the shovel came in.

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The house was built with large windows to overlook the garden.

“Planting that first pansy started me on the life of an addict,” Rita says jokingly. She began with sedums, because they are readily available, low maintenance, drought tolerant, and cover ground. Then she began haunting local nurseries, which is how she discovered a display rock garden at Green Valley Nursery in
Hawthorne, and it served as inspiration to fill in her natural boulder formation. “Every day I would rock my infant daughter to sleep on the back deck and then go up onto the hill with my shovel, a bucket of peat moss, and fertilizer,” she recalls of the process made possible because the entire backyard has a bird’s-eye view of the deck where her daughter slept. 

Rhododendrons and azaleas made a colorful splash. Rather than buying a half-dozen of each color, Rita gradually bought one of each to create the tapestry and bulk she was striving to achieve. Those shrubs, with their expansive root systems, are the secret that holds the soil firm on the hill. 

Rhododendrons such as “Mardi Gras”open in succession.

The Lakins also had an irrigation system installed at the onset to remedy the dry conditions that are inherent to a steep bank. Amending the soil was something Rita learned to do from the get-go. Whenever she dug a hole (or handed Leonard a shovel to tackle the more difficult digs), Rita added peat moss to augment the soil base and provide the pH that her rhododendrons prefer. She also used Holly-tone as a fertilizer for her acid-loving plants (rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels). 

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Another lesson learned early in the game: Start small. Rather than buying mature shrubs, Rita went for bargain-priced versions. And since she did all the work herself, smaller plants meant smaller holes. She now chuckles about her $2.50 azaleas, but decades later they’re still growing strong. In fact, many of her shrubs have spawned seedlings.

Left: Ferns have naturalized, hostas  were planted, and moss is encouraged in the backyard ledge. Right:  Redbud Cercis canadensis, form spring clusters of flowers on its trunk.

After enjoying their property and its evolution for 31 years, the Lakins did a reality check. The house was becoming dated, and it no longer reflected their aesthetic. Their solution was to renovate to a contemporary house with numerous large windows looking out onto the landscape that had grown into a museum-worthy masterpiece. A cryptomeria hedge had gained girth, and they echoed that concept with layers of conifers surrounding the patios and buffering the house from neighbors. 

Simultaneously, they also rethought the plantings in front. Modern homes can be challenging to landscape. The Lakins went with a tapestry of conifers such as Japanese black pine, variegated pines, spruce, and chamaecyparis. Combined with spring flowering trees and a deftly sculpted Japanese maple that looks like living art, the result is muted majesty with just enough bulk to offset the lines of the house. No matter what the season, the garden performs. 

“It’s a project that never ends,” Rita says, without the slightest hint of regret. The evolution never stops. However, the pride and bond also remain strong. “When you do it yourself, it becomes part of you and your life.”

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Phlox subulata, one of the many moss pinks on the property, has a moment of glory. Dicentra nestles  into crevices between the moss. 

Dissuading Deer

The Lakins are proud that their neighbor behind the rock ledge is the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, but deer are one pitfall to having wide-open spaces abutting the garden. Unfortunately, those browsers think nothing of attempting the sheer drop down the cliff if they can nibble a rhododendron or hosta along the way. 

“Deer ate everything like lollipops,” Rita Lakin recalls. Fortunately, she and her husband, Leonard, came up with a solution in a series of sonic deer deterrents called DeerTech, by SavATree, which produce a sound that deer dislike. 

Punctuating the garden at regular intervals, the mushroom-shaped units appear as sculpture incorporated into the landscape. They aren’t 100-percent effective, but they work well enough to allow the garden to flourish without harming the animals.

Tips for steep slopes

• Choose plants capable of surviving with minimal soil.
• Select shrubs and trees that hold the soil and protect against erosion.
• When faced with a vertical wall, blend colors carefully. Although rhododendrons and azaleas both survive with minimal soil, their colors can clash.
• Tuck in clouds of white or tissue pink blossoming shrubs, such as viburnum, pieris, deutzia, and mountain laurel.
• Find plants such as rhododendron mucronulatum hybrids that bloom early for precocious color. They help stretch the season.
• Use conifers such as bird’s nest spruce, pines, and Hinoki cypress to create islands of green for year-round interest.
• Fill spaces between boulders with a tapestry of low-growing, rock garden perennials, such as creeping phlox, ajuga, hakonechloa grass, bleeding hearts, astilbe, and dianthus. 
• Repeat plants and colors for continuity.

Solution Plants for Steep Slopes


• Azaleas
• Bird’s nest spruce
• Cut-leaf maples
• Dwarf pines
• Hinoki cypress
• Mountain laurel
• Pieris
• Rhododendron
• Spiraea
• Viburnum
• Weigela


• Ajuga
• Astilbe
• Bleeding hearts
• Carex
• Creeping phlox
• Dianthus
• Euphorbia
• Hakonechloa
• Hosta
• Iris
• Sedum
• Yucca

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