Splendor in the Grass 2

Splendor in the Grass

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No time or talent for digging in the dirt? Enjoy a visit to one of our area’s splendid public gardens instead.

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By Malerie Yolen-Cohen


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Not-So-Secret Gardens


Whether you’re seeking a leafy refuge from the work-a-day world or merely some botanical inspiration for your own little patch of green, these public gardens will both soothe your frayed nerves and open your eyes.


Mother Nature had been showing her dark side of late: wild temperature swings, hurricane-force winds, torrents of rain where there should be snow.  It was almost enough to make you want to give up on her entirely. But it’s spring and The Lady has another side, a nurturing one of soft warm breezes, beautiful and complex color palettes, winged creatures, and sweeping landscapes. Fortunately, Westchester County is awash in lovely settings both vast and intimate. The following are just a few of the gardens and preserves that are open to the public.


Renaissance Fair

Caramoor Center for

Music and Arts’ gardens

Girdle Ridge Rd.

• Katonah

(914) 232-1253; www.caramoor.org

Admission: Free for grounds only; 

Ticket required for home tour $9

At night, the six major gardens of Caramoor glow with candlelight. “With the home’s Spanish Colonial architecture, it feels like a Mediterranean resort, a fantasyland,” says Caramoor horticulturalist Clifford Dickson. That Dickson is still enchanted with these gardens, planned, as its brochure states, “to enhance Caramoor’s Renaissance sensibility,” is a testament to their magical quality.

Most guests first come to Caramoor to listen to world-class music, then end up transfixed by planted courtyards, cutting gardens (used to keep arrangements fresh throughout the house), and meandering woodland paths on 80 tended acres. The Tapestry Hedge features iris, peonies, and day lilies fairly erupting with blooms. And a newly opened

Sense Circle

for the visually impaired offers a wheelchair-accessible area planted with flowers that appeal to your sense of smell.

Dickson’s favorite is the Sunken Garden, which he calls “a perfect place for meditation,” with its antique statuaries, tall trees, and shade plants arranged in quadrants around a circular garden. “The Sunken Garden contains pastel-colored flowers,” says Dickson, “and when the moonlight hits the petals, it makes them shimmer.” You can almost hear the goose bumps rising on his arm.

Each garden has a particular color scheme chosen by Dickson and the very active and devoted Caramoor Garden Guild. Self-sustaining, the Guild raises money through private donations and its annual plant sale, when thousands of plants grown in greenhouses on the Caramoor grounds are eagerly snapped up, usually on the weekend before Mother’s Day. “The prices are great and the quality is excellent,” says Dickson, “so people come from all over to buy them.”


Classic Romance

Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate Gardens

Sleepy Hollow

(914) 631-9491; www.hudsonvalley.org/kykuit/index.htm

Admission: Wed. to Sun.10 am to 3 pm May 13-Nov. 6. Basic house and garden tour: $22 adults, $19 kids, $20 seniors, $12 for Historic Hudson Valley members

Kykuit, the estate that housed four generations of Rockefellers, is a prime example of a beloved private family home generously gifted to the public. Kykuit, unlike its Yonkers cousin, the Untermeyer Estate, which was just as grand but fell to the demolition man rather than incur major expenses for the city that inherited it, is maintained by the National Historic Trust. 

Kykuit offers several two-hour tours. The Basic Tour takes visitors through the home’s first floor and its Inner Garden. The Gardens and Sculpture Tour covers all of the “garden rooms” designed by William Welles Bosworth—the acclaimed landscape architect of the early-to-mid 20th century. According to Kykuit Program Director Susan Greenstein, “the classical garden rooms, enriched by 20th-century sculpture from artists like Henri Moore, Picasso, and Calder, make them unique and elevate them in the world of garden design.”

The grounds of the 87-acre estate are terraced where each level leads to another—and what appears to be a vast romantic landscape is really laddered acreage that blocks the view of downtown Tarrytown below. This illusion of grandeur was Bosworth’s calling card. “It’s interesting to note how each generation of Rockefellers put its own stamp on the gardens,” says Greenstein. Within the classic Roman teahouse in the inner garden, Nelson Rockefeller installed a decidedly contemporary soda fountain. You can still peek in and see it.


Steel Magnolias

Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens

at PepsiCo. Headquarters

700 Anderson Hill Rd.

• Purchase

(914) 253-2082; open daily

Admission: Free dawn to dusk

If you’ve lived in Westchester for any amount of time and have gotten outside at all, you most likely have stuffed away or framed or hung a picture of you or your spouse or your mother or your baby posed beneath, along, or astride one of the 45 sculptures in the vast grounds of  PepsiCo. (My favorite family photos are of my son, Jacob, staring mischievously out from under a black-and-white arched composition on a warm, sunny day.) 

A smooth, stroller-friendly walkway meanders around the dramatic installations of 20th-century artists mingled among thousands of trees and flowering bulbs and plants. Former PepsiCo CEO Donald Kendall believed that an integration of art, architecture, and landscape could spark creativity in his employees, so in the late 1960s, he hired Edward Stone and his son to design both the office building complex and the grounds. The grounds were enhanced in the mid ’80s by the addition of intimate gardens and walks that encompass magnificent pieces of bronze, marble, steel, nickel, resin, granite, and spruce.

The most popular sculpture, according to Christina Ali of PepsiCo, is of lifelike people, formed in plaster-covered bronze, sitting on a bench. Naturally, we have a picture of my older son, Ben, on his lap.


Island Oasis

Wildflower Island at

Teatown Lake Reservation

1600 Spring Valley Rd.

• Ossining

(914) 762-2912 ext.110; www.teatown.org

Admission: $6 for non-members, $4 for members; Open April through September; Times and hours vary; call

in advance)

Wildflower Island is a dream come true for those who salivate at the sight of hundreds of rare orchids. In fact, the Island was originally created to showcase the elusive Pink Lady Slippers Orchid, a flower so rare, it’s almost impossible to sustain anywhere else. “Those who think that they can ‘rescue’ this orchid have to understand that it can’t be transplanted,” cautions Leah Kennell, the garden’s curator. “It needs a certain soil and will die if taken out of this environment.”

Connected to the “mainland” by a footbridge, Wildflower Island is a two-acre oasis of serenity. “We limit access to groups of no more than six at a time, because this ecosystem is so fragile,” Kennell says. Indeed, only those over 14 years of age are allowed onto the island.

Many of the 230-plus species of plants that make their home here are indigenous or have naturalized to this area. The black-eyed Susan, for instance, is a wildflower that relocated from the Southwestern prairie. As for the Oconee Bells (very rare plants that sprout small white blooms) Wildflower Island is most certainly a refuge. “The Oconne Bells are not from the Northeast,” notes Kennell, “but they are preserved here because they lost their Southern home.”


Greek Retreat

Untermeyer Park and Gardens

945 N. Broadway • Yonkers

(914) 377-6430

Admission: Free; Open daily dawn to dusk

Walk through the gated entrance of what appears to be a medieval castle wall into a Greek courtyard perched over a stunning ribbon of water. Have we time-traveled back to ancient Athens? Here, statuaries stand over burbling canals in miniature. A rotunda en-circled by Iconic columns entices visitors to gaze over to a dramatic river and cliffs; terraces lead to pools and platforms laid with intricate mosaics. 

Unbelievably, this serving of Mediterranean majesty is in our own Yonkers—and everyone can enjoy it for free. “There are people who’ve lived in Yonkers their whole lives who tell me that they didn’t even know this was here,” says Commissioner of the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Conservation Mitch Tutomi. To say that newcomers are blown away is an understatement.  

In the early 20th century, successful New York lawyer Samuel Untermeyer hired acclaimed landscape architect William Bosworth, who also designed the gardens at Rockefeller’s Kykuit, to construct gardens that would enhance the beauty of the Hudson River and the Palisades beyond. “Untermeyer had as many gardeners on staff as we have for our whole citywide department,” Tutoni marvels. The lawyer’s gardeners took care of not only the Greek courtyard and the massive swimming pool below (soon to be renovated), but also the proliferation of blooms around The Eagle’s Nest, a filigreed iron gazebo that sits on a rock outcropping; the Thousand Steps, which gently descend to another rotunda that’s popular with picnickers; and the carriage trails that snaked from the main house to the dock from which Untermeyer boated to the City every day. Though the original mansion and carriage house fell to the bulldozer after Untermeyer’s death, plans are in the works to restore a portion of the estate grounds to its original glory. Even in its present form, it still astounds.


Butterfly Effect

Pruyn Sanctuary Butterfly

and Hummingbird Garden

275 Millwood Rd.

(Rt. 133) • Chappaqua

(914) 666-6503


Admission: Free; Open daily dawn to dusk

The Pruyn Sanctuary Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden is a labor of love—tangible evidence of the contagious passion of one wildflower enthusiast, Midge Arnold. Seven years ago, Arnold, a botanist and Audubon Society board member, saw the need for a wildflower garden to attract, nourish, and shelter a variety of “flying wonders”—butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees. To that end, she decided on a site within the Native Tree and Shrub Arboretum and Meadow at the Pruyn Sanctuary, determined the best plants to use, and enlisted her husband, Bill, to build the fence and lay flagstone paths.

These days, the Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden, a lively and colorful 40-by-30-foot space that is situated next to the Audubon office, is cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers. Iris, lavender, lilies, honeysuckle, and snapdragons lure monarchs, swallowtails, fritillary, and the virtually vibrating ruby-throated hummingbird to this postage-stamp plot. Plantings outside the garden act as a windshield so that the flying creatures can conduct their business in peace. “The best time to view butterflies,” says Arnold, “is in the heat of the day, around noon, from June to September.”   


Frequent Westchester Magazine contributor Malerie Yolen-Cohen lives in Stamford, Connecticut, where deer munch through all of her colorful spring plantings. She goes to

public gardens often for her deer-free spring flower fix.


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