Home and Garden: Made in the Shade

When Arthur Ross began carving his garden out of the dense woods around his house 30 years ago, he had no idea what he was doing. The results: a tranquil wonderland.


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Made in the Shade

 

A Wall Street trader turns an overgrown forest into a tranquil woodland garden

 

By Lynn Hazlewood

Photographs by Philip Jensen-Carter

 

I could kick myself for starting this,¡± says Arthur Ross as he leads the way through his glorious woodland garden. But he obviously doesn¡¯t mean it. As he points out plants along the way, some of which are tender tropicals that he has to  laboriously dig up and store in the greenhouse every winter, his enthusiasm grows. ¡°I love this,¡± he says, pointing to the sweet woodruff lining a pathway at the start of the tour. It¡¯s the first of a long, long list of plants he loves.

 

Ross, a Wall Street trader, and his artist wife, Carolyn, bought the house in Garrison as a weekend retreat more than 30 years ago. Back then, the property was dense, overgrown woods surrounding an undistinguished contemporary home. ¡°It looked like a toolshed,¡± Ross remarks. If you let him guide you through the grounds, he¡¯ll save the house for last ¡ª and you see at once why the couple bought it: it¡¯s situated on a hilltop with a glorious view of the Hudson River and Storm King, with the Catskills rising in the distance.

 

The first fall, back in 1975, Ross planted 2,000 tulip bulbs. The following spring, he and his wife arrived one weekend just as the tulips were about to bloom, only to discover that they were all gone. ¡°Eaten to the nub,¡± remembers Ross. ¡°I called the fence guy that morning. He said, ¡®We don¡¯t work on Saturdays.¡¯ I said ¡®I¡¯ll make it worth your while.¡¯¡± The fence guy came and enclosed about five acres with a 10-foot chain-link fence. It¡¯s almost invisible anyway, but it¡¯s now also well disguised by arborvitae, hemlocks and other shrubs and trees planted over the years.

 

Apart from the tulip bulb extravaganza, Ross was then a gardening novice. ¡°I¡¯d never even had a houseplant,¡± he says. ¡°But I had a friend with a beautiful perennial garden. I¡¯m very competitive ¡ª and obsessive-compulsive. I thought, ¡®I can do better than he can.¡¯¡±

 

He began by clearing saplings and small trees in a 10-by-20-foot swath of ground, leaving the larger trees standing. ¡°Then I went to the local garden center, bought about $300 worth of perennials, and planted them,¡± Ross recalls. ¡°I came back the following week and found everything dead. I knew nothing about what I was doing. First, I didn¡¯t water them, and it was too wooded, so there was very little sun. Third, roots from trees and brush sapped all the energy.¡±

 

Undeterred, Ross decided to learn how to garden. ¡°I bought books, had local mentors, learned by trial and error.... I¡¯ve had a lot of accidents.¡±

 

It¡¯s hard to imagine the extensive garden as a tangle of scrubby woodland. Ross explains how it came to be. ¡°I¡¯d decide to clear out an area and put a hedge ¡ª usually andromeda or hemlocks ¡ª against the wood line, with a garden planted in front. Then the following spring I¡¯d get the urge to go crazy and expand,¡± he says. ¡°I¡¯d clear out the part behind the hedge and plant that. Every year, I said, ¡®This will be it.¡¯ But I was smitten. I kept on creating new areas.¡± Mistakes were torn out without regret. ¡°I¡¯ve changed things a million times,¡± says Ross, who did all the work himself, just hiring stoneworkers to create retaining walls and build the serpentine pathways that wind through the property.

 

Today, towering oaks, maples and larches cast dappled light over dense plantings. Stone and gravel paths lead to grassy clearings; past a cutting garden full of day lilies, heliotrope, marguerites and astilbe; past beds overflowing with hollyhocks, baptisia, shasta daisies, phlox, ladies mantle and unusual blooms like plectranthus, a plant with silvery leaves and sky blue flowers that Ross propagates by cuttings in winter.

 

Moonbeam coreopsis, perennial ageratum and lavender line the way to the central part of the garden. ¡°This was my Picasso period,¡± Ross jokes, pointing to beds enclosed by cubes of Belgian block. The blocks, various kinds of stone, railroad ties, gravel mulches and curved borders all prevent runoff on the slope.

 

Around every turn there¡¯s a surprise, like a circle of maidenhair ferns, or a sweep of creeping juniper surrounding a golden chain tree, or a sea of evening primrose. There are flowering shrubs everywhere: hydrangeas, wiegela, caryopteris, andromeda, spirea, smokebush. Everything is grown in abundance. ¡°Gotta have mass,¡± Ross declares.

 

At the foot of the slope is a lawn where filtered sun shines through the canopy of tall trees. ¡°I call it my meditation garden; it¡¯s all different shades and textures of green shrubbery,¡± says Ross. ¡°I used to sit on a bench here and dream of what I wanted to do next.¡±

 

Nearby, a katsura tree weeps over a small pond. One of Carolyn¡¯s mobiles hangs above the water to scare off herons who might fancy a fish dinner, while water plants are set in baskets on shelves to stop the fish from dining on those. Beyond the pond, a path of heavy stepping stones runs through a carpet of pachysandra and lily of the valley to a white garden, an idea suggested by the arching branch of a dogwood. ¡°It looked like a doorway,¡± Ross says. Nearby is the greenhouse, built in 1985, where the tender plants winter over.

 

Carolyn¡¯s garden, near the house, is a small raised circle full of plumbago, roses, and agapanthus. A wrought iron trellis in the shape of Aries the ram chewing flowers was a birthday gift Carolyn designed and gave Arthur, who¡¯s born under that sign.

 

¡°And this was the grand finale,¡± says Ross of the waterfall that cascades down a rock face to a koi pond. ¡°It was a forest up there. I¡¯d tried to plant and kept hitting rock. Then Frank Cabot, the founder of Stonecrop Gardens, came to see my garden and he said,

¡®Arthur, you¡¯ve got to have water.¡¯ In the back of my mind I had the idea it would be great to have a waterfall. So I decided to clear the slope. It took about six months,¡± he says. ¡°It was some job.¡±

 

Hostas, dicentra, Solomon¡¯s seal, ferns and other shade-tolerant plants grow on either side of the stone path that leads up behind the waterfall. Bridal wreath scrambles over rocks, monkshood vine twines as a ground cover and climbing hydrangeas sprawl beneath the trees ¡ª it¡¯s all as exuberant as the gardener himself. He points out a crepe myrtle and a tibouchina ¡ª two of the small flowering tropical trees that need to winter in the greenhouse. We pass through a thick understory of azaleas and rhododendrons whose white, pink, coral and lavender blossoms are offset by deep blue and purple irises.

 

Above the waterfall, 15-foot-tall native azaleas with peachy-orange blooms grow near a small pond. ¡°The water just kisses the rocks here,¡± observes Ross. ¡°It¡¯s a very peaceful, meditative kind of place.¡±

 

Ross still works as a trader, though many years ago he swapped the clamour of Wall Street for an office over the garage. There he can look up from his bank of computers at the waterfall on one side, or the swimming pool amid the flowering shrubbery on the other. When the mood strikes, he can leave the business world behind and stroll through the garden he has created ¡ª the happy master of a much more pleasing universe.¡ñ

 

 

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