Photos by Rob Cardillo
A mature Westchester County garden with a past gets feisty new owners promising insightful stewardship for the future.
Barbara and Rick Romeo went into ownership of Mount Kisco’s Rocky Hills garden with eyes wide open. They were initially daunted, for sure. After all, supervising the 13-acre nationally celebrated garden would be no small feat. But they were neighbors of the legendary Rocky Hills, having lived only a half-mile away for more than 30 years, and were involved with the garden before acquiring it. So, they had a keen idea of what would be entailed if they purchased the land.
The property’s original stewards, the late husband and wife William and Henriette Suhr, had sown their legendary masterpiece with an artistic flair. Henriette (an interior stylist) and William (an art conservator for the Frick Collection) planted the garden soon after purchasing the property in 1956 as a weekend home and for years maintained a lush landscape. Masses of color-saturated azaleas set the pace and an Impressionistic, wall-to-wall, blossom-suffused scene soon became Rocky Hills’ signature. In the decades that followed, the landscape continued to be embellished with the Suhrs’ vibrant vision, and in 1977, the property became their full-time home. But the Suhrs often traveled in the summer, so the garden’s primary season of splendor occurred in the spring, when the Suhrs were there. Although spring remains an integral season for the garden, the Romeos are dedicated to extending the term of the floral glory.
After William passed away, in 1984, Henriette continued to garden the land in the hope that it might ultimately become a public garden, anticipating that one day she might not be able to tend to it herself (though she would wind up caring for the garden until her death, in 2015). Barbara became involved with Rocky Hills while Henriette was still alive. Barbara joined the Friends of Rocky Hills in 2007 to offer support and serve as a docent, while Henriette partnered with the Garden Conservancy to search for a park or organization that might take the landscape under its wing.
When Henriette passed away, at age 98, the Romeos kept an eye on the garden, as did the Garden Conservancy. A year and a half later, after it became apparent that Rocky Hills was not destined to find a sponsor willing to turn it into a public space, the Romeos stepped forward to purchase the property — an undertaking they have yet to regret. “It’s tons of work, but we love it. It’s so unusual to take over an important garden like this; most people would find it too intimidating,” explains Barbara.
Rocky Hills remained cared for throughout the process. The same landscape crew that provided upkeep during Henriette’s tenure continued to provide basic caretaking. However, any garden requires intensive supervision and daily TLC. Fortunately, the Romeos’ forward-thinking goal goes far beyond maintaining the status quo. They are investing in the future. Gradually yet meticulously, they are including elements that are intended to extend the garden’s fruitful season and bring Rocky Hills a longer duration of glory. As year-round residents, the Romeos now focus on the entire growing season.
Extending the garden’s performance after the lushness of a spring that romped with forget-me-nots, columbines, Spanish bluebells, lilacs, and tree peonies required insight. The property already had a strong infusion of roses to push the emphasis into the hotter months, with blooming rhododendrons adding summer interest in sections of the garden that become shaded. When the days lengthen, hydrangeas begin to flower with their plump umbels of blossoms. In thickets of sun, lilies spread. Daylilies planted decades ago now swarm to form a major midsummer statement. In addition, a meadow hosts ox-eye daisies, liatris, rudbeckia, echinacea, eryngium, iris, foxgloves, and other pollinator-pleasing summer performers. To this mix, Barbara added her personal favorite, dahlias, to extend the season into autumn. Meanwhile, green, in all its many hues, is omnipresent, thanks to an extensive fern collection. “By the end of summer, the garden has many different shades and textures of green, and the green serves as continuity,” explains Rick.
The Romeos’ first move when they bought the landscape was to watch. Of course, stewardship required action — including nursing and removing imperiled trees — and they performed the necessary duties of conservation. But they had the wisdom to spend a year observing the flow of the seasons firsthand. “We went very cautiously,” explains Barbara. “We continually walked the property and took notes.” In fact, they were following a long tradition of recordkeeping at Rocky Hills: Henriette kept receipts for every plant she purchased, and notes on blooming cycles were updated by Garden Conservancy volunteers.
Many of the Romeos’ duties after the initial period of “fear and trembling” have focused on the redistribution of wealth in the garden. As Rocky Hills is rich in mature shrubs and trees, the Romeos moved 22 azaleas this past year that required more room. They also dug and relocated multiple dogwoods, hellebores, and other plants that needed more space or a more suitable location. Plus, they labored tirelessly to eliminate invasive plants.
The Romeos share that Rocky Hills has consumed their focus as retirees. Barbara, a former investment advisor, and Rick, a former tax lawyer, had assiduously gardened their previous home in Chappaqua, however Rocky Hills is a larger undertaking. “There’s not a day when we have nothing to do,” says Rick, “but there is so much beauty and tranquility here; it’s like living in a park. The sense of feeling daunted was gradually supplanted by excitement and exhilaration.”
The projects at Rocky Hills definitely surpass the daylight hours, and there is always a sense that the world is watching, due to the garden’s local prominence. But the Romeos also enjoy a massive sense of purpose caring for Rocky Hills. “There’s a sense of history here, and we feel like custodians rather than owners,” Barbara explains.
On Saturday, June 5, 2021, the Garden Conservancy plans to have an Open Day at Rocky Hills. Please visit www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days for details.