Michael Steinhardt calls his Mount Kisco garden “the single physical possession from which he derives pleasure.” Since the 1970s, the garden has grown to include 58 acres of stunning flora and a menagerie of fauna, including zebras, spider monkeys, and flamingos. The garden is open to the public only two days a year through The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program, and this fall it’s open on October 31. We caught up with Steinhardt to find out what visitors can expect on the open day and how he got started creating such a massive garden in the first place.
Q: Have you always been interested in flora and fauna?
A: When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I was interested in fauna in a certain sense. I bred parakeets. I had tropical fish and a dog. Any sort of live creature I could get I would. But it was very much constrained by living in an apartment in Brooklyn. When I came here in 1978 and bought this place, somehow I became really geared toward focusing on flora and fauna. I often say it is the single physical possession in my life from which I derive pleasure.
Q: How did the garden get started?
A: The people from whom I bought the place had a small—underline the word small—vineyard. So I tried to make wine, and I would say that I have the most expensive, not very good wine in the Western world. Then I really got interested in berries. We grow just about every imaginable berry, and we make jams and other things. I got interested early on in Japanese maples, and we probably have the largest variety of maples in any North American garden. Late October into November, when the other deciduous plants have lost their leaves, they have this incredible burst of color and energy. They really light up the sky.
Q: What sort of vibe are you going for with the garden? Is it inspired by other gardens?
A: No, in that respect it’s a little bit eclectic. Over the last few years I’ve gone out to Portland, Oregon, to wander through nurseries, because Oregon is probably the plant nursery center of the United States. I buy all sorts of trees and shrubs, maples and evergreens. And one might say we should stop growing at this point, but it’s a great pleasure for me. I’m amazed that I still find ways to get excited about it.
Q: So how did you get started with the animals?
A: I’ve always liked the aesthetics of walking around still water. This place had a stream running through it, and what I did was dam up the stream in several places, creating a number of small ponds. I heard about the possibility of putting all sorts of water creatures in them. So I found a place that supplied snails, frogs, crayfish, and the whole chain of fish from minnows to perch to bass. And I just got them.
The Steinhardt garden has one of the largest Japanese maple collections in North America.
Then someone told me about birds, and I got a pair of geese and a pair of ducks. Before too long, I had most of the different varieties of waterfowl. A few of years later, I built an aviary, and in it I have many, many waterfowl and some peacocks, some pheasants, and some other unusual birds. Before too long, I started to get a variety of mammals and larger birds. And I just didn’t stop. And the thing that we do that’s a little different is we keep disparate animals together in the same pack. So in one pack we might have cranes and wallabies and antelope and capybaras. But they basically get along because none of them are carnivores.
Q: What are some of the other animals you have? Anything exotic?
A: We have four different varieties of marmosets and spider monkeys, and I have a wonderful group of albino wallabies. And we also have some kangaroos, and we have three of the four South American cameloids. Not exactly exotic but, you know, llamas, alpacas, and guanacos. And we have, I think, three or four different varieties of antelope and many different varieties of cranes, which are beautiful and fun. We have zebras, and, besides zebras, we have zedonks. They’re a combination of donkey and zebra. They don’t reproduce, but they’re beautiful. We have three of them.
An African crown crane
Q: So what are the key things people should see on the open day?
A: The maple collection and there are all sorts of interesting and fun smaller collections. We have a large collection of hardy orchids and a large collection of day lilies. The families with the kids tend to focus a little more on the animals. We put some of the animals in the barns, because it’s very cold. But usually they’re mostly out.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the garden?
A: Probably the aviary, because it’s very colorful, and it changes from season to season. The birds have their own character and their own beauty. We have so many different varieties, and the colors change from season to season because the birds molt and respond to different weather. It’s a little bit of an emotional experience seeing the changes in the seasons and the beauty.