The barn opens out to a frequently used patio flanked by gardenias and serenaded by a koi pond.
Tucked in the center of Bedford Hills, there’s a lush seven-acre property planted to the hilt. But the ripple effect of an intensively planted landscape flowing with water features doesn’t prevent Phillis Warden from hatching further projects.
Not surprisingly, Warden’s most recent eureka moment had to do with water. For an individual seemingly struck by design epiphanies on a daily basis—and for someone who translates her stream of inner concepts into one of Bedford Hills’ most refreshingly avant-garde gardens on a regular basis—there’s nothing off the beaten track about horticulturally related revelations. Similarly, Warden’s latest scheme has to do with obsession. Because, apparently, there were four pounds of poppy seeds waiting for a destination when the idea suddenly hit to use them to populate the flora on a mid-marsh island.
How Warden happened to possess four pounds of poppy seeds waiting for an assignment one can only imagine. But given her track record for gardening by leaps and bounds, it stands to reason that she keeps quantities of ingredients poised in the wings like other folks stock their wine cellars with promising vintages “just in case.” Four pounds of poppy seeds is just Phillis Warden’s version of being prepared for any exigency. When you happen upon a botanical bargain and there’s three ponds, several waterfalls, tapestry borders spreading hundreds of feet, a woodland garden, a meadow, a rock garden, a formal vegetable garden, and a topiary croquet court to fill, keeping understudies in stock just makes sense.
With seven acres of ground to cover, Warden was never prone to do anything by onesies and twosies. Through years of trial and error, she learned to go wholesale when stocking her place. From the first initiative to camouflage the “pitiful little picket fence” in front (which entailed a squadron of rhododendrons that took a fortnight of hole-digging to install), Warden has been overdoing ever since.
And we’re talking about many years of concerted planting. The beauty of the Warden garden is that Phillis was responsible for all of its design components from the get-go.
The process began 34 years ago when she and her husband, John, and their family moved into the house. Actually, the first garden-related rustlings probably predated their occupancy, because the Wardens began renting the house next door in 1969. Phillis quite literally was coveting her neighbor’s property when the 1840 farmhouse and its surrounding two-thirds of an acre became available in 1975. The moment six more acres and two barns became available 14 years later, the opportunity just fueled Warden’s floral fire.
The property wasn’t completely bereft of gardens when they moved in; after all, there were two hostas in place. Three willows were also in residence, which have since gone to the great lumberyard in the sky. (“They all fell. Willows near a house are not such a great idea,” Warden later learned.) In the hopes that Monet and his passion for waterlilies would prove both contagious and curative, the previous owner had installed a “little square water garden” when his wife became ill. But the water feature was more of an albatross than a blessing. “I had two choices,” was how Warden saw her meager inherited wet spot, “I could either take it out or make it better.”
So the reconfiguring began. Inspired by a water garden that she spied while tooling around Bedford Hills, Warden went to work. When she was finished, she had a series of three interconnected, perfectly natural-appearing ponds, complete with waterfalls, fish, and surrounding plantings. She also tackled a garden alongside the house, converting a puny vegetable patch into a lush perennial border with an emphasis on shade-loving plants to serve a space sun-blocked by the sprawling farmhouse.
Turning the lack of light to her favor, Warden worked with a palette of spring bloomers that perform prior to the thickening of the leafy bower overhead and then shift into foliar mode. As a result, the area forms a very sophisticated scene of interwoven green, burgundy, and cream hues carpeting the ground, accented by statuary and garlanded in vine-tangled arbors framing entryways and exits. A more restive setting beside the house would be hard to envision.
With those triumphs under her belt, it wasn’t long before Warden was outward bound. In a blink, she was pondering the further reaches of the property and laying plans. Problem was, the remainder of the land was being held hostage by an impenetrable thicket of snarling invasives so dense that the Wardens had no idea what really lay back behind their house. They vaguely suspected they had a marsh. They sort of knew that the land fell to a steep drop on the way to the wetland. But bittersweet and honeysuckle stood between them and Paradise Found. The only vantage point to survey what lay beneath was by skirting their land in reconnaissance missions from the neighbors’ properties.
When they finally infiltrated, they uncovered a vintage Airstream trailer that was serving as a sparkling palace for many generations of raccoons. Nuisance factors—both animal and vegetable—had to be displaced. In their stead, informal gardens were installed, traversed by a labyrinth of paths crisscrossing plantings with a heavy emphasis on natives. But, as Warden (who is on the steering committee of the Westchester Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College) proclaimed, “I’m not a purist.” She grows anything that strikes her fancy, but natives tend to tickle her interest more often than not.
The land was originally an apple orchard, so it is fertile but also uncharacteristically bereft of rocks. In fact, Warden found herself in the unique situation of needing to input stone to build walls. And the formal upper gardens that she installed make use of quite a bit of stone-demanding hardscaping. There’s a formal vegetable garden within easy food-fetching distance of the kitchen, but also a croquet court surrounded by topiary conifers that has proved a thorn in the Wardens’ side due to lack of drainage. Indeed, if Warden had been a different sort of person and hungered after a landscape heavy with lawn, it would probably not be within her reach, because of the soggy situation.
Fortunately, that’s not the route she took. Now, in place of abandoned campers, sculpture of a very organic kind is hidden in the woods. Plus, there are secluded sitting areas for those who need a respite after the climb or just a place to perch and take in the scenery.
Indeed, one of the Wardens’ proudest features is the viewing platform-cum-treehouse constructed between black cherries in view of the marsh and made solely of untreated wood (to prevent any possibility of pollution). Originally, the Wardens imagined that they’d be camping out by the water. And Phillis slept on the open air/unscreened platform once. But the howl, hoot, and snort of the wild kingdom drove her back indoors. Still, it was an experience. “I felt like I was in Africa,” Warden says, summing up the sensation that she felt no need of repeating.
As for the poppy seeds, that’s where they’ll go: planted on an island visible from the platform. Further on the water tangent, she’s also thinking of extending her ponds down the hill. One thing is for certain: Phillis Warden never lacks for projects.
John Warden likes to say that his wife has the botanical version of Nelson Rockefeller’s “edifice complex.” And he has a point. Except that Phillis Warden’s singular strain of manifest destiny stems from different impulses. Warden’s psychological syndrome, if you will, is driven by an overwhelming and compelling love of her Mother Earth.
Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, the most recent being The New Terrarium, published in February by Clarkson Potter. She lectures often and is a frequent guest on the PBS television series, Cultivating Life, for which she served as an editorial producer.
Photography by Cathy Pinsky