Forty Acres of Fantasy

forty acres of fantasy

 

A classically inspired Lewisboro garden provides surprises at every turn. But none astonish more than the 100,000 daffodils that riot in the spring.

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By Tovah Martin

Featuring Photography by Michael Polito

 

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 (Above) An amphitheater serves as a dramatic prelude to the front door.

 

There’s a place in Lewisboro that makes Alice in Wonderland seem uneventful, a garden around a Greek Revival house on a private estate that renders Through the Looking Glass drab in comparison. Take all of your wildest dreams, multiply them tenfold, and you probably still won’t come up with anything approaching the raptures in residence at this Northern Westchester oasis.

No doubt, the estate’s head gardener, Eric Schmidt, has to pinch himself periodically during his workday. When he’s walking through the subterranean grotto to the secret systems-control room hidden behind the faux-rock wall, Schmidt must occasionally wonder whether he’s awake or asleep. And when he’s weeding beside the immense swan boat on the shores of the ground’s pond, Schmidt probably has to perform periodic reality checks to make sure he’s still firmly on planet earth. Because, in the 40 meticulously cultivated acres where Schmidt works alongside two assistants, the line between fact and fantasy becomes blurred more often than not.

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  (Left) Some 500 varieties of daffodils are planted in an immense garden patchwork.

 

   
(Right) Eric Schmidt surveys his masterpiece.  
   

 

Imagine a labyrinth of clipped hedges hiding a larger-than-life terra-cotta chess set (each piece is about two feet tall). Envision looking down into what appears to be a circular wading pool, and instead, discovering a window to an underground cave with a dining table and chairs. Then imagine wandering down to a grotto, taking stepping stones through the koi pond to that cave, and watching whoever is cavorting in the pool through a full circle glass that gives a first-seat underwater view. Conjure up scenes of a moss garden with a fully armored Asian warrior standing guard, and an amphitheater complete with busts from a range of eras, and you’ve got just a sampling of the delights waiting at this garden, designed by celebrated landscape architect Patrick Chassé.

 

  (Left) A larger-than-life chess set, a gift from an artist friend.
   
(Right) In the amphitheater, busts of such notables as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Napoleon.  
   

 

So it should come as no surprise to learn that Eric Schmidt fell for the place in a heartbeat when he first came to work in the garden, a haven for its garden-enthusiast homeowners. “I had been living in California and just getting into horticulture,” he says. Before he set foot on the property, his intention was to try out the job for a week. That was 25 years ago.

Schmidt’s only regret, in fact, is that he didn’t come east a month or so earlier. He still laments that he hadn’t arrived until after Mother’s Day, when the daffodils for which the garden is renowned were in full bloom. So it wasn’t the oceans of daffodils—many thousands of blooms in spring—that caught his fancy. In fact, the place was only a shadow of what it is today. But it was already divine.

 

 

 (Above) The most recent addition, a moss garden, seemed easy. Turned out, it’s high maintenance.

 

And there was the delicious anticipation as he waited at the end of that first year to see the daffodils perform. “It was only one hillside then,” Schmidt recalls. Since then, he’s increased it many thousandfold, with a treehouse allowing visitors to survey the field. Another 10,000 to 20,000 daffodils are planted annually, so next time you moan about planting a few dozen daffodils, consider that Schmidt’s autumnal marathon entails putting down 1,500 bulbs daily. “I try to do a thousand before lunch,” he says. For the homeowners’ viewing pleasure (and because the gardener himself can’t resist an occasional wade amidst his triumph), paths weave in and out of the blossom-carpeted acreage.

 

  (Left) Underground grotto, discovered by following the stepping stones in a koi pond.
   
(Right) A fully armored Japanese warrior stands guard over the moss garden.  
   

 

But there’s more. Statues of every description punctuate the flaxen fields. Plus there’s a boardwalk leading through a wildflower dell that would make the average troll go ballistic with delight. Jack-in-the-pulpits are brandished by the thousands, as well as every other woodland plant you can imagine.

 

The goal for the garden from the get-go has been to provide thrills throughout the year. Toward that objective, structural elements—all designed by world–renowned landscape architect Patrick Chassé, with considerable input from the owner—provide a variety of venues so otherworldly that they verge on surreal. Beauty is always at hand.

 

 

(Above) The pool and pergola area, designed by Patrick Chassé, sets the stage for the Greek Revival house. 

 

Quirky statuary lurks around every turn. Take a certain route, and a pond awaits. Go for another spin, and you might encounter the rock garden or labyrinth of clipped hedges. Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy (if Mr. Darcy had an iota of humor, which he certainly did not) could easily materialize from the mists in any nook and cranny of the place. And similarly, accompanying horticultural highlights continue pretty much nonstop. Which means, of course, that there’s never a dull moment for Schmidt.

 

  (Left) Three rustic wooden footbridges lead through the garden.
   
(Right) Close to the house, a conservatory is filled with tropicals in autumn to furnish botanical diversions in winter.  
   

 

Following the daffodils and after a peony moment, the perennial ellipse kicks in full force in spring. Simultaneously, to ensure that there’s never a lull, tropicals and annuals are orchestrated to fill any gap that might occur. Riotous color is apropos here; not battalions of zonal geraniums and wax begonias, but arcane annuals such as Salvia guaranitica and Nicotiana langsdorffii.

All this adds up to a full schedule for Schmidt, who never takes a breather. Nor does he want one. Even in winter, he propagates tropicals in the greenhouse. If he has a spare second, he moves straight into pruning the viburnums to encourage new growth. “In February, I’ve been known to put down wood chips on the snow to let them melt down on the paths,” he says, explaining that this way he can get a jump on the season. He also takes the slow winter interlude to clear brush and generally prepare for the growing season.

 

 

Although this intrepid gardener knows the drill like the back of his hand, ample challenges invariably are afoot in the field. The moss garden, for example, tested his mettle, turning out to be surprisingly high-maintenance. “It has to be fed, it has to be weeded, and it’s in the middle of the forest, so the leaves from the trees have to be removed,” Schmidt explains. (Victory wasn’t won overnight, but triumph was finally secured.) Similarly, surrounding the pool with a garden of plants that the ancient Greeks grew wasn’t the piece of cake he’d hoped, (“Problem was,” he admits, “they didn’t grow much.”) But that’s what keeps this gardener on his toes.

 

Not that Schmidt needs additional thrills. He oversees the garden with modest help: there’s Mike, who’s in his 90s and has cared for the gardens for about 40 years, and Bob, a new trainee. Even without major projects, there’s plenty to keep everyone occupied. The crew has waged scores of battles, including the skirmish with the mink that used the koi pond as a buffet station and the ongoing standoff with the heather that consistently refuses to survive on the hill. In general, with such extensive property, Schmidt’s personal doctrine is to grow what survives willingly and to reject anything that fails to thrive. Not much room for ugly ducklings here, although he’s always experimenting with rarities that show potential to grow into swans.

 

Schmidt is just as overcome by the garden as anyone who happens onto the property during Garden Conservancy Open Days, the semi-annual occasions when private properties such as this one are open to the public. Granted, he clips the shrubs, digs the holes, lays the mulch, and pulls the weeds daily. But the spell, the wit, and the illusion of the garden are never lost on Schmidt. The work is laborious, the chores are unending, but he loves it.

 

Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, including View from a Sketchbook: Nature Through the Eyes of Marjolein Bastin (Steward, Tabori & Chang, 2004). She lectures frequently about garden stewardship.

 

 

 

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