Henriette Suhr says this winter was the hardest she’s seen in 50 years of gardening at Rocky Hills, her great 13-acre property in Chappaqua.
Her garden suffered so much structural damage in the late February snowstorms that she had to cancel her planned public opening on Saturday, May 8 as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. Rocky Hills will still be open on May 29 as planned.
(These photos are by our Mark Vergari; we were at Rocky Hills a couple of weeks ago. I shot stuff, too, but I’ve been so busy with an upcoming Sunday package on garden clubs that I haven’t even looked at them online yet.)
Fifteen trees came down in one storm, including three huge hemlocks that surrounded the old farmhouse. One smashed through the wisteria pergola by the front door — it has since been rebuilt — and another crashed through the sloped tree peony garden just outside the back door.
Miraculously, the house was spared. But many shade-loving plants, like Suhr’s collection of hellebores and species rhododendrons, are now baking in full sun. You can also see neighbors for the first time in years. And if you look closely, you can see a dead branch or two hanging from nearly every tree.
Her gardener, Timothy Tilghman, and a crew of workers have been working nearly full time to clean up the mess.
“I had three to four people here every single day since the end of February,” Suhr says. “The damage has been in the thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Donations from the nonprofit Friends of Rocky Hills, through the Garden Conservancy, is helping to pay for the storm damage.
Typically, Suhr is matter of fact about the damage — and appreciative of this wonderful spring we’re enjoying.
“I have one place that’s still in shambles,” she says. “But the rest — everything looks enchanting around the house. The garden looks magnificent!”
Indeed, this garden gem, one of the best in the Hudson Valley, looked breathtakingly beautiful last week, a sea of colorful tulips, azaleas, daffodils and sunshine-yellow euphorbias in full bloom, artfully arranged against a pea-green backdrop of ostrich ferns, dawn redwoods, day lilies and hostas.
It’s a very approachable and welcoming garden, too. “A lot of common plants are used really interestingly here, so it’s not an intimidating garden,” Tilghman says. It’s a great spot to cull ideas for your own yard.
Rocky Hills has been a mainstay of the Open Days Program since it was conceived by garden designers Page Dickey of North Salem and Pepe Maynard of Bedford in in 1995, who modeled it on the popular “Yellow Book” guide in Great Britain.
The program allows visitors to step inside the gates of some of the best private gardens in the country, for a $5 fee that goes toward the national preservation efforts of the Garden Conservancy, which now includes Rocky Hills.
Locally, 18 private gardens in Westchester are participating this year. They range from Shobha Vanchiswar and Murali Mani’s tiny jewel of a garden in the heart of suburban Chappaqua (opens Saturday, May 8) to Judy and Michael Steinhardt’s 55-acre spread in Bedford that boasts a veritable Noah’s ark of wild animals along with the expansive gardens (Oct. 30).
Other highlights include Phillis Warden’s exuberant 7-acre garden in Bedford Hills, which features a formal croquet court and wild marsh garden (May 23); Lulu Farm in Bedford, a hilltop property with 10 acres of gardens and 90 acres of fields and woodland laced together with old stone walls (June 5); and Barbara and John Schumacher’s 50-acre property in Yorktown, with 400 roses in a 4-acre garden (June 20).
Rocky Hills looks great in every season, but it truly shines in spring. Suhr, a former world-class interior decorator, and her late husband, Billy, a painter and art curator, traveled a great deal for work, but they always counted on being in Chappaqua in spring. So they planted thousands upon thousands of spring bloomers — rhododendrons, azaleas, bulbs, peonies, iris, lilacs, magnolias — to overwhelm the senses in April, May and June.
Neither had any horticultural training, but they used their great eye for design to create a richly textured, painterly garden that unfolds in layers of color, hidden views and distant vistas that keep pulling your eye through the landscape.
What was once the Suhrs’ casual weekend home that had just a few typical suburban foundation plantings when they bought it in 1956 will become a Westchester County-owned public strolling garden and horticultural center when Henriette dies — or decides she’s had quite enough, thank you very much. The Garden Conservancy has accepted a conservation easement as a first step in its preservation.
Right now, the garden is awash in a zillion forget-me-nots, sky-blue clouds of blooms that Suhr allows to reseed at will and whimsically dot the property.
Whole hillsides of these glorious blue wildflowers shimmer in the mid-day breezes.
Despite all the winter damage, Suhr promises that all will be in good order by May 29. Indeed, we think it already is.
Here’s a look at the complete list of upcoming dates for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program in Westchester.
May 8 — Shobha Vanchiswar and Murali Mani’s garden in Chappaqua
May 23 — Phillis Warden, Bedford Hills
May 29 — Rocky Hills, Chappaqua
June 5 — 3 gardens, in Briarcliff Manor, Bedford and Tarrytown
June 6 — 5 gardens in North Salem
June 20 — 3 gardens, in Bedford Hills, Bedford and Yorktown
July 25 — 3 gardens, in Cortlandt Manor, Bedford Hills and New Rochelle
Sept. 12 — 2 gardens, in Lewisboro and Waccabuc
Oct. 30 — Michael and Judy Steinhardt, Bedford
In Putnam, a 35-acre horse boarding and training facility in Brewster, known as Eastward, will be open May 23 and Sept. 26. There are no Open Days gardens in Rockland this year.
Admission to each private garden is $5. Open Days are rain or shine, and no reservations are required. For more information, call 888-842-2442, or visit www.opendaysprogram.org.
These Open Days gardens are among the hundreds featured in the national 2010 Open Days Directory, a soft-cover book that includes detailed driving directions and vivid descriptions written by their owners. The directory includes garden listings in 21 states and costs $21.95 including shipping. Visit the website or call the above toll-free number to order with a Visa, MasterCard or American Express, or send a check or money order to the Garden Conservancy, P.O. Box 219, Cold Spring, NY 10516. Discount admission tickets are also available through advanced mail order.
If you go
Rocky Hills will be open from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 29. The garden is at 95 Old Roaring Brook Road in Chappaqua, just off Exit 33/Reader’s Digest Road of the Saw Mill River Parkway.