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Lost in the Landscape


Big boulders? Deer? Don’t throw in the trowel yet. Westchester landscaping pros offer advice for dealing with Mother Nature’s obstacle course in the pursuit of the perfect property.

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By Dave Donelson • Illustration by Marilena Perilli


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Like most homeowners, i have a love/hate relationship with landscape gardening: i love the end result but hate the struggle. Make no mistake: living on an eye-popping plot in Westchester takes more than a green thumb and a few Saturday trips to the nursery. If you want to surround your home with a luscious landscape, you need fortitude, patience, bravery, and a lot of cash. Being a little ruthless helps, too.


“Gardening is like raising children,” says landscape designer Elaine Yellen of Scarsdale. “You feed them properly and teach them how to behave, but you just have to cross your fingers and hope they turn out well. It’s a very humbling endeavor.” Yellen, an expert whose client list includes dozens of homeowners and numerous country clubs around the county, has been humbled by some of the best, including Fenway, Sunningdale, and Winged Foot.


The problem lies with that perverse wench, Mother Nature. As Yellen says, “You can do everything exactly by the book, but she makes us feel small and insignificant. Mother Nature will have her way.”


All around the county, though, one showplace home after another demonstrates that somebody has what it takes to overcome these problems. Surely, all of these home- owners can’t be descendants of Frederick Law Olmsted. To find out how it’s done, we spoke with several experts who might as well be related to the great landscaper (after all, that type of natural artistry must run in the blood). We asked them how to deal with the most common problems faced by Westchester homeowners who want their little piece of the county to have something on it besides a house, a lawn, and a couple of junipers. They identified four of the biggest Westchester landscape bugaboos—trees, water, rocks, and deer—and gave us some advice on how to handle them.


up a tree

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree


Obviously, Joyce Kilmer never had a Japanese magnolia shedding all over his front yard like I did when I lived in New Rochelle. It was indeed a lovely tree—for about a week each spring. Then those creamy white and pink petals dropped to the yard like a truckload of rotting banana peels. Later, when the seed pods fell, you’d think someone scattered a bag of marbles over the front walk (not quite as luminous but every bit as dangerous). The “lawn” was more hardpan dirt than grass, since the tree’s leaves cast a dense shadow, while its roots sucked up all the water and nutrients in the soil. God may have made that tree, but the poet who planted it in my front yard wasn’t thinking very far ahead.


My experience was nothing compared to that of Rita Schubert, a stalwart of The Little Garden Club in Rye, who built a home with her husband, Robert, on a vacant acre in Rye 12 years ago. “It’s on property that hadn’t really been touched for a hundred years,” she says. “It was nothing but a bloody mess. Nothing but roots and rocks. It took a lot of sweat. I used a machete to get through the vines and crap.” They faced trees, rocks, water—nearly all the Westchester landscape heartbreakers—but turned their proverbial lemons into lemonade by creating both a woodland and a wetland garden near their house. 


Schubert showed no mercy in the woods. “There were a lot of sweet gum trees,” she recalls. “They’re a total nuisance but you can’t just cut down the whole woods,” although you might like to—and some shameless homeowners have come close. “We had to take out a lot of invasive stuff. A little maple sapling will appear, then ten or twenty years later, it’s still that ugly, skinny little tree. We cut them down and put in some evergreens, redbuds, and dogwoods. We also planted a lot of ferns, hostas, azaleas, crab apples, and berry-carrying plants.”


If you can’t see the forest (or can’t envision your garden) for the trees, heed this: Before you head into your thicket like Freddy Krueger on a rampage, know your town’s rules and regulations. Many municipalities have ordinances that dictate which trees can and can’t be cut down, and the thin letter that comes in the mail would certainly ruin the lounger-and-martini mood you’re trying to create.


And you don’t necessarily need a chainsaw to make an enjoyable landscape where trees dominate, says Yellen. “I love shade gardens. They’re less dramatic because they concentrate on foliage and things that are subtle, but they can be very restful. A lot of bulbs will grow there, especially if you have deciduous trees.” The daffodils, muscari, hyacinths, and other early spring bloomers get all the sun they need before the trees leaf out. To see the effect, just drive past Purchase College on Anderson Hill Road in April.


in deep water

When it comes to water, one way to ensure landscape success—or at least sanity—is literally to go with the flow. “The best gardeners don’t try to change Mother Nature,” says veteran gardener Sandy Morrissey of Hartsdale. “There are some beautiful gardens built into rocks and shade and with natural water features. You have to go with what you have.”


This year, everybody has water on the brain. Those lyrical April showers turned into torrential downpours, sending floodwaters where they hadn’t gone for a hundred years and exacerbating problems many gardeners already had with wet spots on their property.


It’s something we should expect, according to Rye-based landscape architect Richard Horsman: “If you step back and look at the overall topography of places like Mamaroneck and Rye and some of the others, you realize that a good portion of these communities are built in a flood plain.” He adds that it’s going to get worse, not better, as building continues. The amount of development, additional roof surfaces, more paved driveways, built patios, and paved new streets increases the amount of water runoff that can’t percolate into the soil and seep back into the water table.


If you have an area that was damp even before the skies opened for 40 days and 40 nights this year, don’t despair; there are solutions. Mamaroneck landscape designer Judy Seslowe suggests creating a pond-like area on your property if you have enough room.

“There are a lot of things to plant in the willow family, certain viburnums, some perennials that can tolerate wetness. Also a lot of woodland-type plants, like aronia and other chokeberries, will work. Some irises do well beside streams, too.”


Along with the planting she did in the woods, Schubert turned a damp area on her property into a showplace. “The wetland garden really emerges much later in the year,” she explains. Since it gets more sun, she has additional flexibility in what to plant there. “It has eupatorium, ligularia, and grasses. Gooseneck loosestrife loves it in there, of course. Another thing that does really well in the wetland are goldenrod and lots of black-eyed Susans.” On the edges, where it’s a little bit dry, try hydrangeas and even a few roses.


Seriously persistent water problems, however, may require backhoes and multitudinous municipal permits, as well as some advice from an engineer, according to Ron Tetelman of the landscape architectural firm Eberlin & Eberlin in Somers, who serves on the seven-member New York State Board of Landscape Architects. One approach is to install a dry well or a galley, a device that collects storm water. “It’s set underground in hopefully porous soil,” Tetelman explains. “It’s large enough to handle several inches of rain and slowly percolate that water into the soil over a day or two.” That sounds expensive but simple. It’s not—simple, that is. “It all depends on the characteristics of the soil,” he adds. “It can’t be silty; it obviously can’t be clay.” 


Of course, another point on the nothing-is-simple side: “Unfortunately,” Tetelman says with a sigh, “we have mostly silt, clay, or rock in most of Westchester.”


on the rocks


Westchester has no shortage of rocks, as the blasting to make basements for new McMansions in my West Harrison neighbor-  hood reminds me every naptime during construction season. If you want further proof, just look at all those lovely stone walls running through our towns. They weren’t originally built for their beauty; they were organized piles of Westchester granite and other tool-busting detritus that got in the way of farmers’ plows and homebuilders’ shovels over the years. Our homes sit atop beds of Paleozoic and Proterozoic rock scrubbed by five glaciers that passed over Westchester through the millennia, leaving all sorts of stony litter—not to mention gigantic boulders—in our gardens-to-be. 


Even if your property looks like a place the Flintstones would be proud to call home, you still have lots of options. “Rocks can become very nice features, too,” Seslowe says. “We call it ‘planting the boulders.’ Sometimes it’s nice to just clean off the rock itself because the texture can add very exciting design elements.” So, before you cast the first stone, put the dynamite away and get out your compost.


Then choose some plants to complement the rockscape. They don’t need to be as showy as stand-alone plants, either, because the rock becomes the centerpiece of the scene. Most landscapers also expect their rock-garden plants to be low-maintenance (which is always a plus). If your rock-garden is in a sunny space, consider hen-and-chicks and closely-related sedums, snow-in-summer, Scotch moss, candytuft, or lamb’s ear. For shaded places among the boulders, you might be better off with primroses for color or maidenhair fern or spleenwort for greenery. Morrissey’s mantra: “Right plant—right place.”


for deer life

I may get stoned with one of your unearthed boulders for saying this, but I’m not a big fan of Bambi. Some of his relatives once ate 48 hostas I had spent a back-breaking day transplanting. That was not long after they had used their teeth to trim one side of a 12-foot-long holly hedge to the bare trunks, fastidiously snipped the blooms off every daylily in the 75-foot swatch along my driveway, and nibbled a perfectly-shaped, eight-foot-tall arbor vitae into a lopsided brown ice cream cone. A normally peace-loving man, I’ve been known to run screaming out of the house wildly firing my BB gun when I spot the herd of these rats on stilts working their way through the woods toward my tulips. I suspect this amuses the deer, because it certainly doesn’t make them go away. 


“When they’re present, deer are the number-one challenge to any home-
owner,” Morrissey says. They tend to be a bigger problem in the northern half of Westchester, although they’re showing up more and more frequently in the south, in numbers rivaling Snowbirds descending upon Boca Raton in November.


Drastic pests call for drastic measures. The BB gun aside, I’ve adopted the stinky prison camp approach, building six-foot fences from two-by-twos and thin black netting around sensitive areas and periodically spraying everything with an organic emulsion that smells a lot like really old garlic pizza. It may not do much for property values in the neighborhood (and the neighbors may think I’m neglecting the garbage pails) but, knock on wood, it seems to have kept the deer out of the flowers for the last couple of years. 


“They’re trying to come up with some other ideas to get away from the fences, like noises, even irrigation systems that come on to scare the deer away,” Tetelman reports. “There are even some grasses you can plant that the deer tend not to walk on to get to the good-tasting stuff, although I wouldn’t swear to their effectiveness.”


You also can choose to plant things that aren’t on the top of the deer menu.  “All nurseries have lists of plants the deer won’t eat, but it definitely limits your choices,” Seslowe says. Even with those, it all depends on how hungry they are, especially in the winter. Some frequently recommended plants include daffodils, catmint, barberry, and heliotrope. I’ve noticed such lists never identify plants as “deer proof.” The less-than-assuring “deer resistant” is the preferred term. 


If your luscious lilies have been nibbled to nubs by passing deer or your yard turned into an unexpected pond, don’t despair. You’re in good company. How many of us bought a home graced with stately trees in winter only to discover next spring that nothing will grow beneath them except dandelions? Or optimistically stuck a spade in the earth only to jar our teeth when the blade clanged into bedrock just inches beneath the surface? “Everyone has issues with their landscape,” Seslowe says, reassuringly. 


Above all, don’t be discouraged by the curveballs Mother Nature throws at you. You can always call in an expert for some advice. Of course, if you’re feeling feisty, you can roll up your sleeves, grab your hoe, and tackle landscape problems yourself. As Morrissey says, “Gardens have a personality when the homeowner does it themselves. They bring a passion to it.” And a bit of ruthlessness.



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