A Scarsdale Garden That's Perfect in Every Season

Only a maestro can make a garden that’s beautiful even in winter.

It all starts innocently enough. Your first views of Southlawn, a stunning Sanchez & Maddux Scarsdale garden, command a sweeping panorama of greensward hemmed by a linden allée. Neatly trimmed, joining branches at their shoulders to hug their arboreal brethren, bedded in hostas, and given a tidy stone dust and bluestone path, the initial allée and its upper lawn deliver a smart presentation, to be sure. But they divulge no hint of the diversions in store.

Suspense is intentional in all the gardens that Jorge Sanchez and his team from Palm Beach, Florida, design throughout the country. He is a master at keeping his cards close to secret the further thrills in the landscapes that he creates, as well as keeping the “wow” coming nonstop throughout the year. So there is more than just what waits around the bend (although there is plenty of that) to turn the sense of adventure up a notch, but also the expectation of intrigue in future seasons to maintain the steady beat. When Jorge Sanchez says, “Everything in this landscape does double duty,” it is, of course, a commentary on the multifaceted scene. But he is also alluding to the great lawn that moonlights as a playing field for the kids, as well as the summer garden terrace/badminton court that does double duty as a skating rink, and the wildflower meadow that morphs into a toboggan hill. It’s all part of keeping ahead of a family who links with their land on a regular basis.

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In this garden, plenty of obstacles obstructed his path. First was the lay of the land. Like many Westchester landscapes, it has a steep grade. Originally, the nine-acre property was set up as a subdivision, but when Sanchez took a look at the components in 2005, he saw the ideal setup for one majestic parcel with all the fixings. “This will be the house of your dreams,” he explained to his clients. And to prove his point, he drew up a schematic plan, adding stables, paddock, and grazing fields, along with a tennis court, badminton court, conservatory, pool, stream, and woodland areas. Those are just the predictable ports of call, because he went far beyond the obvious. This property also has a stumpery (we’ll get to that later), fernery, amphitheatre, and riding trails. There are follies, belvederes, and pavilions. But none of those elements are revealed at first glance. In fact, nothing is given away until you happen upon it. This garden is all about discovery. Until you slip into the white garden or catch a glimpse of it from above, it’s a hidden secret. To make that happen and keep it totally uncontrived, Sanchez harnessed the generously curved terrain while creating gently arching retaining walls to ease the trek.

The journey begins at the upper terrace with its scalloped veranda etched in white when snow flurries land in the crevices to accentuate the stonework underfoot. Lookouts direct your glance beyond the immediate surroundings, sending attention toward the playing field of a school next door. That is the only borrowed view outward that Sanchez could incorporate; the rest of the garden is devoted to screening. Still, views from the local streets into the garden are neatly presented and community-spirited—the family was keen to partner with their neighborhood. Gates from the street frame peeks into the property that are powerful, eloquent, and meaningful rather than the usual furtive and blocked glimpses. They say volumes about what this family treasures—their pastoral grazing horses, their wildflower meadows, their native shrubbery, and so much more. 

The first of many discoveries is the stumpery. What is a stumpery? The concept was originally born in 1856 at Biddulph Grange in the Victorian Era when ferneries, shrubberies, and all such things came into vogue. More recently, Prince Charles ignited a new wave of interest with his version at Highgrove House. Basically, a stumpery is a cunning contrivance for  transforming what remains when a tree succumbs while weaving it into an art form with an accent on the darker side. In this case, stumps of felled trees are stacked as twisted fencing leading the way—via a stump-surrounded portal—into the fernery on the trail down to the bridal path. Project manager John Lubischer (who also worked with Jorge Sanchez to create the 2010 Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Garden) has overseen the not-particularly-simplistic installation of a moss carpet underfoot. Indeed, Lubischer keeps his finger on the pulse of all that goes on around this multifaceted Scarsdale estate, maintaining an immaculate presentation. When everything in residence is blanketed in snow, the dark tree stumps stand out. And when the thaw arrives, the moss is waiting, emerald green underfoot.

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The theme of nature’s cycles does not end here. Throughout the property, fallen trees are placed where they become sculptural. Rather than reading as debris, they are elevated to beauty, especially when silhouetted starkly against snow. It’s all part of an initiative to honor what came before as well as investing in the land’s future. That declaration is made at the entry drive where trees that are no longer living are covered in vines and allowed to remain proudly standing to support nesting birds and other wildlife that need a home. Sharing is part of this land’s mission statement.

Yes, there is wonderful stonework incorporated throughout and thoughtful use of accent focal points, but nature itself is the central figure. Copses of viburnums and other native shrubs surround and meander between the more formal and traditional areas of the walled tennis court, pool, and other recreational areas, softening and feathering the impact of the flat recreational areas, merging formality into the local vernacular. And they give each season a strong statement. In spring they bear blossoms, in summer they form berries before bursting into bright autumn color. Winter finds them forming a twig structure etched in icicles. Although Jorge Sanchez tiptoes around the concept of streams for fear that they might feel contrived, he made an exception here and incorporated a brook together with several ponds around the periphery of the property. It’s a major triumph in a tricky arena. The water features feel absolutely comfortable with the land and echo the sense that everything has always been in place. Meanwhile, the stream also eases the drainage issues that any sloping terrain presents.

The stream also offers another opportunity for seasonal drama. In autumn, it reflects the fiery colors of shrubs specifically selected for their fall blush. In spring, bulbs emerge by its banks to give the season verve. And come winter, the water makes its way between the frosty streambed. No matter when you visit the garden that Sanchez & Maddux created, it is riveting and warm, a place of never-ending pleasure and a garden for all seasons on many levels. 

A frequent contributor, Tovah Martin also focuses on sustainable practices in her own gardens. In addition to digging the earth outdoors, she writes about all aspects of gardening organically indoors in her latest book, The Unexpected Houseplant, and she is an accredited Organic Land Care Professional. Plus, she lectures throughout the region on all things green (her schedule can be found at tovahmartin.com) and she blogs at plantswise.com.

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