Personal Expression Against a Remarkable Backdrop

Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley
is a new book about American gardens of the northeast by Jane Garmey, a noted garden writer born in England and now living in New York and Norfolk, Connecticut. The 28 gardens featured are found in private estates to the east of the Hudson River, an area whose famed scenery Garmey appropriately describes as “inherently dramatic.” She has selected gardens whose creators, a mix of garden designers by profession and others who have made it a passionate occupation, primarily seek to create a private paradise while enhancing the remarkable qualities of the existing landscape.

Garmey chose the properties according to the following criteria: “I find myself drawn to gardens with age and maturity, and especially to those that strongly reflect the sensibility of their owners.” As her descriptions and the accompanying photographs reveal, the properties, ranging from 50 to 500 acres, display a range of gardens. Garmey emphasizes the use of trees and plants — and their unique qualities of texture and color and their capacity to transform and define space. She also strongly notes the element of time. Many of the gardens are lifelong projects that are slowly developing and always changing.

Several of the gardens are in keeping with the tradition of the older properties they occupy. Some property owners, admirers of 18th Century English garden design, have taken cues from famous places like Stourhead and Stowe. Several of the gardens feature planting designs that enhance the existing landscape and appear effortless and natural. Their spatial configurations encourage meandering walks punctuated by views of expansive vistas. Some even include classical temples, statues, and follies.

These elements are especially visible at Altamont, a 500 acre property in Millbrook with a vast parkland that includes streams, marshland, forest, and a succession of lakes and ponds. The formal garden adjacent to the house has four-walled areas planted with different themes. A ha-ha creates a seamless transition from the formal garden to the surrounding landscape.

A few of the gardens are located on properties with modern additions. A similar grandeur is achieved with landscaping suited to that aesthetic. In these cases, the property owners have sought to complement as well as soften the style and scale of the architecture. For a geometric house in Clinton Corners, plantings reinforce the garden’s rectilinear quality while muting its overall effect. Eunymous blankets the terraced garden and masses of bamboo help to partition space and create privacy. A maze-garden houses a sculpture collection within arborvitae hedging that humanizes the space and softens the surrounding metal walls. Beyond the cultivated area, a 360-degree view captures the expanse of wilderness, delineated from the property by only a boundary of stone walls.


Garden features express the unique sensibilities of their creators. Transitional spaces between the cultivated grounds and the larger landscape are important elements. Many of the properties employ methods to de-emphasize this transition, utilizing a ha-ha or a discreet fencing element to create the separation. One property in Amenia, however, accentuates the change with an engaging progression of enclosed spaces defined by stone walls and hedges that distinguish between the formal garden and the wilderness beyond.

In one exceptional property in Millerton, the owner constructed a rock garden made from 60 tons of stone from a bluestone quarry near Albany. The garden is planted with thyme, euphorbia, sedums, and various other plants using a Japanese technique of repeating the same arrangement of colors and plants varied across different scales.

Also, nearly all of the properties include a productive aspect, such as an orchard or kitchen garden. A 200 acre property in Rhinebeck houses a remarkable version. The property owner, Amy Goldman, is an advocate of heirloom fruits and vegetables. She has devoted one acre to an enclosed productive garden that serves as a laboratory for her research on different varieties. She hand-pollinates squashes and grows 20 different kinds of watermelon. At the time of publication, she had plans to cultivate 250 varieties of peppers from both the old and new world for research on a book.

Each garden in Garmey’s selection displays a unique appeal. The unifying principle among them is that they have been joyfully created, which is apparent in their perceived effortless. An important detail to note, however, is that despite the ease of their appearance, achieving their stature is no small feat. As Garmey notes, “In England, the English have gardens. Americans, as I have now learned, make theirs.”

While the English countryside enjoys mild weather and a gentle grade, the Hudson valley at times presents an intractable canvas. The 360-view for the house in Clinton Corners necessitated the clearing of 200 acres of steeply wooded land. Likewise, on a property in Craryville, the owner spent several years clearing the dense woods above a rock ledge measuring 180 by 45 feet. Today, it’s a primary feature of the garden showcasing lichen, moss, sedums, and birch trees.

Regardless of their intensiveness, the gardens are clearly worth the effort for those who create them. As the book demonstrates, these places are personal expressions, some decades in the making, of passionate interest and individual taste. In Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley, Garmey’s selection captures these unique expressions against a remarkable backdrop.

Explore the book.

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, former ASLA summer intern and recent Master’s of Landscape Architecture graduate, University of Pennsylvania.

Image credits: Monacelli Press

2 thoughts on “Personal Expression Against a Remarkable Backdrop

  1. Naomi Brooks 11/12/2013 / 8:01 pm

    I’ve worked on the Clinton Corners property for almost 10 years … not all 200 acres were cleared (good grief!), but about 30-40 acres were altered to create the house, gardens, and near views. It has healed very nicely, with the help of some talented designers, contractors, and maintenance crews.
    -Naomi Brooks, Verdant Landscapes

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