Q&A with Gardener Page Dickey of North Salem

When gardeners in this neck of the woods are digging in, the gardening icon most often consulted for inspiration, guidance, and down-to-earth advice is Westchester’s own Page Dickey. Dickey wrote her first book, Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden (Houghton Mifflin 1991), not long after she tackled her own garden in North Salem, transforming a scraggly property into a nationally acclaimed landscape. It retained its humble roots but also blossomed with its fair share of horticultural highlights. From there, she wrote Breaking Ground: Portraits of Ten Garden Designers (Artisan, 1997), Inside Out: Relating Garden to House (2000), Dogs in Their Gardens (2001), Cats in Their Gardens (2002), and Gardens in the Spirit of Place (2005; all from Stewart, Tabori & Chang), while also contributing articles on garden design to Elle Décor, House Beautiful, and House & Garden. Now, two decades after writing her first book, she’s returned home, so to speak. In Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Dickey talks about the challenges of her maturing, middle-aged garden, what she should have done differently, and where she’s going next.

What did Duck Hill, your North Salem property, look like when you first arrived?
There was nothing outside. Before I did anything, I waited and watched. Then I used the doors of the house as axes and started to dig. I dug the first garden in autumn, off the front door. Then I dug the herb garden off the kitchen door.

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Why an herb garden?
I like smelly things. I like tactile things. Originally, the herb garden was wonderful, and then it became a jungle. Herbs have a way of getting out of control. That space takes more gnashing of teeth than any other garden.

How has your garden changed with time?
In the beginning, you’re young and full of energy. You dig and dig. And then time marches on, and suddenly you realize that you have a fraction of the energy you once had for gardening. I’m replacing high-maintenance perennials with shrubs, ground-covers, and bulbs.  

Which perennials are spared?
There are some perennials I wouldn’t think of pulling out, and several of them just happen to be natives, like Baptisia. It doesn’t have to be staked, it gets no diseases, its foliage is beautiful from spring through autumn, the flowers are lovely, and it adds pattern and texture to the garden. Amsonia is another keeper. And several of the ornamental grasses, like pennisetums and panicums, are low-maintenance and fit very nicely with the shrubs.

How have you changed as a gardener?
My enthusiasms change. For example, at first I was hooked on perennials and then I was fascinated by the old shrub roses and collected them, especially the ones I read about in Graham Stuart Thomas’s books—the albas, centifolias, damasks, and gallicas. As I grew older, I became more interested in some of the species roses such as rugosas and burnets because the foliage stays beautiful throughout the growing season. I began to lean toward roses that look good without any help.

Will you share some recommendations for low-maintenance shrubs?
I love all the lilacs, especially ‘Miss Kim’ and ‘Palibin’—they have beautiful leaves and turn handsome colors in fall. I love the viburnums—not only for their flowers but for their berries as well. And there are the witchhazels and the winterberries. Then you’ve got all the smaller shrubs, like the gold-leaved Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon.’ And there are the shrub dogwoods, like Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ and Cornus sericea ‘Budd’s Yellow.’ And the hydrangeas—let’s not forget the hydrangeas—like Hydrangea arborescens and H. paniculata ‘Little Lamb.’

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You mentioned bulbs. Which bulbs?
I’m not talking about hybrid tulips; they’re high-maintenance. But any narcissus works­—there aren’t many places where they aren’t wonderful.

What’s the most common mistake gardeners make?
Not realizing how big things are going to get. You plant a little shrub beside a small tree and they look so good for the first few years. And then they’re way too big and they’re jostling one another and crowding each other out.

Do you have words of advice to help gardeners get it right the first time?
No matter how much you want flowers in your garden, be sure to add shrubs, ornamental trees, and evergreens, because these are fairly permanent and look good at any time of year. It’s important to think about structure from the beginning. But just go out there and do it. People get all hung up on rules. Just get your hands dirty and have fun.

What’s next for Duck Hill?
We’ve been working on the woodland and the vegetable gardens. Sometimes I think I love those gardens the best. We’re trying to do a native meadow. And I’m experimenting with clematis on the fence. Meanwhile, I’m not willing to give up the hedges. Thirty years later, they have character.  

And all this has led to Embroidered Ground—what prompted you to revisit your own garden?
I guess I’ve created a monster. And I’m trying to tame the monster. 

Photo by Gus Cantavero

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