Spring Fever

The April sunshine will bring thousands of plants into glorious bloom in the spectacular gardens at Rocky Hills, which Henriette Suhr has been tending with love for more than 40 years.



Spring Fever

 

The garden at Rocky Hills, 40 years in the making, is about to burst into bloom ¡ª just in time for Garden Conservancy visitors  

 

 by Jacqueline Shanley

 

Like all successful gardens, Rocky Hills, the spectacular eight-acre stroll garden created by Henriette and William Suhr over the last 40 years, is beautiful in all seasons. But it may be at its finest in spring, when the huge collection of rhododendrons, hydrangeas, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs bursts into bloom and the ground is carpeted with frothy drifts of snowdrops, crocuses, grape hyacinth, and wood hyacinth. No wonder the Garden Conservancy, the organization dedicated to preserving the nation¡¯s best private gardens, includes Rocky Hills in its Open Days Program.

 

Visitors strolling through Rocky Hills this spring will find it hard to imagine that the property was once a garbage dump. (The Van Tassel family, of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame, operated dumps there during the 19th century.)

 

The Suhrs bought their country home  in 1956. A busy professional couple who worked in Manhattan, they wanted a weekend house that was within an hour¡¯s commute of the city and large enough to entertain their friends. They wanted plenty of land to start a garden, and they wanted a place with water. What they found was Rocky Hills, a house set on 15 acres on Old Roaring Brook Road in Mount Kisco. Known as Rock Hill Farm, the rugged nature of the land merits its name. Equally descriptive, the address refers to the brook that flows across the southwest corner of the property. Mount Kisco in those days was considered ¡°country,¡± if not wilderness; even now, Old Roaring Brook Road belies the short distance to the Saw Mill River Parkway, particularly the unpaved stretch to Rocky Hills.

 

Although the land wasn¡¯t ideal, it fit the Suhr¡¯s requirements. They liked its sweeping views, interesting changes in elevation, and the brook, whose water they would use to great effect in their landscape. The couple started gardening at their weekend house immediately after purchasing it.

 

¡°Around the turn of the century, the place was a farm,¡± says Henriette Suhr. ¡°During the Second World War, there were cows out there. It was open fields and very little planting. But there were good trees. We worked around those trees. Some were overgrown, some were cleared.¡± The couple also took advantage of the existing topography. ¡°We worked with the hills, not against anything. That¡¯s part of the charm here,¡± she says.

 

Basically city folks, neither of the Suhrs had any formal training in landscape design, or even much in the way of hands-on experience in plain old-fashioned gardening. But many great garden designs have sprung from the minds of talented artists and designers, and luckily, both Suhrs had strong backgrounds in the visual arts.

 

An artist and art conservator who cared for the Frick Collection in New York City for over 40 years, William Suhr was born in Germany to American parents and lived in Europe until he was 30. Henriette Granville Suhr was born in Austria, spent her youth in Paris (where she graduated from the Parsons School of Design interior design program), and moved to the U.S. in 1941. (In the 1950s, Mrs. Suhr worked in Bloomingdale¡¯s home furnishings department. Her concept of the ¡°model room¡± ¡ª furniture arranged in a home-like tableau with accessories, curtains, books, and carpets ¡ª revolutionized the retail interior design business.)

 

The couple¡¯s artistic talents, imagination, and energy were certainly a plus. They also inherited a gardener, a man named Fred Weidt. Although the previous owner hadn¡¯t created a garden as such, says Mrs. Suhr, ¡°The lawns had to be cut, there were a few evergreens and some azaleas, and the gentleman who took care of it had apprenticed with some very good estate gardeners. He was very knowledgeable, very well trained, so we were very lucky.¡± He was also a perfectionist, she recalls, who insisted on staking up every tree peony individually. ¡°That was the way he was trained. He worked here for many years until he died at a very old age.¡±

 

In addition to accepting practical help from their gardener, the Suhrs sought information from books, starting a collection that over the years has grown into an impressive library. They also learned from the nurserymen they befriended on their trips to local nurseries.

 

At first, the couple bought whatever plants they fancied: azaleas and rhododendrons were early favorites. As their knowledge grew and their taste in plants became more refined, they sought out more specialized sources for the species and cultivars they desired. ¡°We have approached the look of the garden in a very different manner than landscape architects do,¡± Henriette Suhr says. ¡°We were total novices when we started out. We put things together the way we felt looked good.... If there were any mistakes, it¡¯s that we were totally unconcerned ¡ª and I¡¯m still unconcerned today ¡ª that plants would be growing enormously, so there are areas that are a bit crowded.¡±

 

When something grew too big for its place, the couple just dug it up and moved it. Mrs. Suhr is unapologetic about this approach. ¡°I still plant fairly tight,¡± she says. ¡°I¡¯m not waiting six years for a plant to get to a certain size. Every year I still move things.¡±

Some of the plant choices reveal the couples¡¯ interest in the Japanese aesthetic, but there¡¯s no attempt to replicate a particular garden or style. And there were some happy accidents. ¡°At first we planted evergreens, two magnificent weeping sargent hemlocks, and a whole evergreen garden. We set them into trap rock because we liked the dark green against the stone, and it acted as great mulch for them. There were some dwarfs, and they all got to be monster because the stone protects them against the cold in winter and the heat in summer.¡±

 

Their huge bulb collection was inspired in part by a friend¡¯s holdings in a Dutch bulb farm during the 1950s. The couple acquired thousands of daffodils through this connection during their first few years at Rocky Hills. They also ordered bulbs from local sources. Sadly, the original collection of daffodils succumbed in the early 1970s to a rare, incurable infestation of bulb fly. ¡°It¡¯s a maggot that gets into the bulb,¡± says Mrs. Suhr. ¡°We had big, big meadows of daffodils and when they started dying back my old gardener said, ¡®There¡¯s something really wrong.¡¯ ¡±

 

Even worse, daffodils could not be replanted in infested areas. Recalls Mrs. Suhr: ¡°I inherited some very nice yellow magnolias, and I had this big meadow out there, so I started a wildflower garden. And a sort of enchanting thing happened. Forget-me-nots came with some wildflower mix, and now the meadows are full of them; they¡¯ve put themselves under the rhododendrons, among the primulas, in my fern garden. The wildflowers are gone, but the forget-me-nots are everywhere. I have nightmares that they¡¯ll be gone one day. I don¡¯t know how long they¡¯re going to like it here.¡± Daffodils flourish again, too, in different parts of the garden, and Mrs. Suhr is beginning to plant them beyond the enclosed areas.

 

In 1977, the couple retired and made Rocky Hills their permanent home. Widowed in 1984, Mrs. Suhr continues refining the landscape she and her husband created together, and adding to the library they established. Today, she remains trim, gracious, and active in the garden. ¡°I¡¯m still out there, I still prune and do things,¡± she affirms.

 

To preserve and protect Rocky Hills, Henriette Suhr has donated a conservation easement to the Garden Conservancy. Eventually, the garden will be owned by the Westchester County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation; together with the horticultural library, it will become a public education center for gardeners.

 

It is a mark of her generosity that the plans she¡¯s making now are aimed to please the public in the future. ¡°I put in an extensive fern garden, a huge planting ¡ª close to 60 varieties of ferns. On open day, we had people coming back to see the ferns they saw last year. And I¡¯m putting in a new rock garden. I had one years ago, and I thought it would be interesting for the public to see good rock garden plants. I have a big collection of species rhododendrons. The county has nothing like this at all, so I thought I should get some interesting things, things that people don¡¯t see generally.¡± (There is also a large collection of tree peonies, ¡°a big stand of hellebores,¡± grasses, and a woodland garden.)

 

She is modest about all she and her husband achieved. ¡°I don¡¯t know the names of lots of things we planted. Now I¡¯m supposed to be scientific, to label and identify things properly, like you have to at a botanical garden,¡± she says, laughing. ¡°I talk to people who are knowledgeable, and I realize how little one really knows, even after 40 years.¡± ¡ö

 

    For more information about the Open Days Program, contact the Garden Conservancy at 845-265-5384, or at opendays@gardenconservancy.org.

  

 Jacqueline Shanley, who gardens in Putnam County, writes about gardening and landscape design. Her firm, Sprigs, helps clients enjoy sustainable landscapes and make responsible decisions regarding the environment.

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