Spring arrives in North Salem with fervor ever since the Perrin family went natural. But that’s just one of many perks.
By Tovah Martin
Every room in Sheila and Charlie Perrin’s North Salem home has a garden view, and that should tell you something about this family’s priorities. From the beginning, they wanted to connect with their land. But initially their scope focused on gardens tightly surrounding the house. Ultimately, that vision expanded outward, to farther vistas. Now, springtime bursts forth as far as the eye can see. Engage Sheila in a chat about her property, and the meadows are going to figure into the conversation sooner rather than later.
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The Perrins have a year-round commitment to their gardens. In addition to the usual high-summer suspects, they installed plants such as hellebores, which perform in late winter. Plus, they put autumn on the map with berries and bright foliage. But in spring, something very extraordinary happens, and it expands to encompass a sweeping footprint of the land. When the meadows get the Midas touch of a zillion golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) all performing in concert, and the apple orchard bursts into blossom to form a lacework of limbs overhead, the scene is nothing short of divine. In spring, all of nature combines to thank these land stewards for taking the route that they pursued.
Originally, the Perrins had a very different idea for their landscape. When they bought the 12.5-acre parcel in 2000, they were strongly wedded to an English-garden aesthetic, complete with traditional borders skirting the house. They don’t regret installing the structure that resulted from their fascination with British style — the terraces and borders that were created in keeping with the manorial modus operandi do a tremendous job of framing the view outward. But now they’ve broadened their scope to embrace a much bigger picture. Not only does their breadth sweep beyond former boundaries visually, it also involves stewardship of a vast habitat for creatures great and small — from wildlife to insects.
In retrospect, if Sheila could start from scratch with the project, she wouldn’t shoot out of the starting gate so rapid fire, she says. “I should have waited until we were living in the house before tackling gardens. It’s a whole different climate straddling the top of a hill.”
Although the Brits are known for their stiff upper lips, their plants apparently are not equally steadfast in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, many traditional garden perennials failed when pitted against the extreme sun/drought/desiccating winds on their Westchester hilltop perch. “I became weary of making something work that wasn’t meant to be here,” she says. Sheila was groping for solutions, reading, researching, and attending lectures when she found Larry Weaner, a landscape designer based in Pennsylvania who specializes in naturalistic design and meadow plantings. His approach was perfectly in sync with the Perrins’ commitment to nature.
Rather than doing a drastic flip-flop from the formality in residence, they decided to keep the structure of boxwood and soften it up with natives that would not require a lot of handholding. Nuisance factors, such as the non-native wisteria that never blossomed but took over the scene, were removed. The lilies and slug-attracting hostas were also escorted off the property due to their difficulty. But the peonies, iris, and several other favorites were allowed to stay. And natives were plugged in wherever a slot could be found — always with good design tenets in mind.
Moving away from the house, Weaner recommended a transition garden with blueberries and other natives populating the borders. But the major daring step was installing the meadow, which has taken on a life of its own.
Actually, the meadow wasn’t such a vast leap, considering that the North Salem Open Land Association’s largest parcel of preserved land abuts the Perrin property. Plus, as Sheila points out, meadows have historic roots entirely appropriate to the type of house they created. Most 19th-century and older manors boasted a sheep pasture within view. Although the Perrins’ version would be an entirely American composition woven of native plants, the look was similar.
The garden surrounding the Perrins’ home begins in February, when the witch hazel bursts open within easy view of the house and moves right into the hellebores planted at the front entrance. Fast on their heels, the orchard begins performing with a lacework of blossoms overhead along with hordes of wildflowers planted around the bases of the trees. The meadow is equally precocious, becoming a sea of golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), and false indigo (Baptisia australis) in spring. And the fields of flowers and grasses continue throughout the season, with an evolution that varies each year, to keep everyone enthralled and guessing. Meanwhile, the Perrins are forever experimenting with mowing schedules, invasive dissuasion methods, and extra accent fillers to ramp up the vision. The result has been an odyssey that the Perrins would not miss for the world. “It has given us so much pleasure,” Sheila says. And her family will agree. “We’re all outdoorsy types,” she explains.
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For a family who is dedicated to having a garden with a beneficial environmental impact, gardening on the wild side poses the perfect solution. And the positive impact for all inhabitants promises to bless the neighborhood into the wild blue yonder. When Sheila says, “I could never move to a house without garden views; they are important to my psyche,” she is describing a picture that stretches into the distance and extends into the future.