There’s a property overlooking the Mianus River Gorge where bees find a superfluity of fodder throughout the growing season. There’s a landscape in the North Castle section of Bedford where a fence excludes deer but allows the foxes, rabbits, and other critters entry. When Leslie Needham and her family bought the 16-acre farm adjacent to Mianus Gorge Preserve, the landscape designer knew the property was about to get a facelift. But she pledged to walk softly into the revamp. Her strategy included incorporating the land’s natural terrain into the vernacular and planting nothing that would obstruct the view. True to her promise, Needham’s mission has been to augment and work with the blessings she was given to thoroughly serve nature in the land’s fullest capacity.
As a landscape designer, one of the more important lessons Leslie Needham has learned is where to intervene and what should be left untouched. “Untamed is sometimes appropriate,” she often says. As a result, a stunning landscape has been uplifted where it needed some help from friends but left to glow where beauty already abounded. The results are a boon for everyone.
When it comes to preservation, nothing is small talk for Leslie Needham. At a dinner party 15 years ago, she heard that a historic house was in jeopardy of demolition and immediately swung into action. At the time, the Needhams were happily located two miles away from their current home, with no intention to relocate, but the 1800s house and bucolic farm spoke to them. In fact, it begged for a second chance. “Only five families have lived in that house over a period of two centuries, and we knew three of them,” she says. In a flash, the Needhams had purchased and were preserving the house. But the garden was Leslie’s personal baby, and she wanted to establish a relationship before making any alterations. “That time was spent getting my arms around it,” says the designer, who is more apt to choose the circumspect route rather than the brash course. She wanted to uplift the farm but also leave it alone. “I wanted to be gentle.”
Simultaneously, Needham was taking classes at the New York Botanical Garden toward a degree in landscape design, and she finished her accreditation not long after buying the property known as River Hills. The garden was where she really honed her chops. Infinitely sensitive to the property’s slope down from the house, her first allegiance was to preserve the commanding view. “The hierarchy of the land,” she wisely notes, “was to honor the dominant feature — which was the outlook.” The house restoration and additions were part of fulfilling that promise. An enclosed living room was converted into an outdoor porch specifically for admiring the land and its contours. Handsome brackets and columns were designed to frame the view, while a native Wisteria frutescens (Amethyst Falls) mounts the trellis-work to wrap the scene in vertical greenery throughout the season, with the bonus of purple flower clusters in spring.
From there, outdoor eating and lounging terraces move around the house, creating living space alfresco. Everything was configured to politely sidestep a massive boulder that juts out behind the house, proclaiming loud and clear that nature calls the shots in this domain.
Meanwhile, Needham began the process of blending the house into the landscape. In the outdoor living spaces, that translated into wooly thyme inserted between the terrace stonework as well as an espaliered apple gathering warmth against the house’s exterior wall, among other bits of botany brought up to the back door. But simultaneously, the designer was planning the bigger ecological mission, because extremely handsome rain barrels collecting roof runoff were also part of the picture
The stone retaining wall immediately below the house and its plantings were an early project, taken on as soon as Needham fully realized the pitfalls of a dry, very steeply sloped hill. She had always intended to diminish the lawn as much as was feasible, and the fact that grass fared poorly on the slope just below the house was all the incentive Needham needed to eliminate it in favor of a dry garden. Rather than fighting the conditions or wasting water with thirsty plant material, Needham went with the flow, planting drought-tolerant herbs and perennials. The garden is filled with rose campion (Lychnis coronaria), chives, nepeta, peonies, salvias, lamb’s ears, and viburnums. Her idea was to make broad gestures in a relaxed planting. Needham summarizes her maintenance mantra for that space as “tough love,” but the result is nonetheless dramatic. The perennials and shrubs bristle in the sun, delighting in their location despite the challenging conditions. No need to be stern when plants are adapted to a site.
Farther down the slope, rustic walls brace a series of steps down a slender path going to the lower orchard. Irises, herbs, and vegetables grow in the graduating terraces leading toward the orchard of apples, peaches, pawpaws, plums, pears, and mulberry before seguing into a path en route to farther meadows left au naturel. When the time came to renovate a pool, it was surrounded in a privacy hedge that discreetly keeps the vernacular intact. In adjacent areas, hay-scented ferns were encouraged to bully out invasives by pitting the bad guys against an energetic but more environmentally sanctioned alternative. Rather than a caretaker having to weed and mulch, “plants happily work together, and that’s my goal,” Needham says.
The garden is still in the evolution process, but Needham sees that as the status quo for the foreseeable future. “A garden is never really finished,” she has found when working in tandem with nature. Meanwhile, the Needhams are loving every moment of the process. “Our bedroom faces east, and we’re morning people,” she says. So every morning, she wakes up and breathes in the splendor that she has preserved, reinforced, and is stewarding. Bees buzz around. Other pollinators take advantage. Fruit trees blossom and bear.
“We feel so lucky to be in this house; there’s something very peaceful about it,” says the grateful resident of The Peaceable Kingdom. “There’s a stewardship that comes with this house, and we are so proud to serve as caretakers.”