Though you’d never know it from his marvelous 50-acre spread in the heart of North Salem horse country, Dick Button is a late bloomer when it comes to gardening. He was already in his 50s when he moved here and first tried his hand at growing things.
“I was always too busy,” says Button, long the opinionated voice and handsome face of international figure skating for generations of TV viewers. “You have to be able to have time — and the patience — to have a garden.”
Over the past couple of decades, he’s clearly found the time to figure out this whole gardening thing. On Sunday, you can see for yourself when he throws open the gates of his former dairy farm and invites the public in for a self-guided tour and walk around his great property, which features a beautifully planted swimming pool, a rustic barn, ponds and open fields, a smokehouse and an icehouse, original stone walls and newer stone walkways, a bocci court in an allee of crabapple trees, and an intricately planted circle garden.
In his long and colorful borders, Button has planted an unusual mix of classic English cottage garden plants combined with wilder things you’re more likely to see in a meadow. He’s also clearly got an affinity for annuals, mixing them into the borders to fill holes and add welcome blasts of color in September, as so many perennials begin to shut down for the season.
His is one of the founding gardens in the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program, first opening to the public in 1995 when Page Dickey, his friend and around-the-corner neighbor in North Salem, created the program with Pepe Maynard of Bedford.
“He usually gets several hundred visitors,” says Stephanie Werskey, media coordinator for the Garrison-based Garden Conservancy.
Shelby White’s even grander estate in nearby Lewisboro is also open on Sunday.
Button loves having fellow gardeners in his garden. “I learn more from them than they do from me,” he says.
“My garden is always open in the fall,” he says. “So often I don’t even get into the garden until June. And then it takes me all summer long to catch up.”
“It’s been a strange year,” he adds. “Things that normally do well haven’t and things that normally don’t do well are looking wonderful.”
Look closely and you’ll see lots of references from his ice skating days — “ just because it’s fun,” Button says. A gold skate sits atop a wrought-iron gate, another gate is an artful homage to his first Olympic gold medal, in 1948 in Switzerland. He earned his second in Norway in 1952.
He calls the two urns in front of the twin perennial borders “my two Peggys,” after Peggy Fleming, his fellow champion on ice and commentator on TV. Depending on what he plants in them each year it might be “Peggy on a bad hair day” or “Peggy with an Afro.”
“I like to garden for the fun of it,” Button says. “I learned from skating that making mistakes is not a problem. As long as you don’t have a serious injury, you fall on your fanny and you’re OK. In the garden, if you get it wrong, you can move the plant. Or if it dies, get another.”
At 84, he’s no longer the manic, nimble and totally hands-on gardener he once was — but not by much. “I do all of the design, all the purchasing and all of the placing of everything,” with full-time help for everything else, he says. “This place has always been too big not to have help.”
“Sometimes I’m still out weeding at 8 o’clock in the evening,” he adds. And then comes a loud “Don’t get old!” with a big laugh and wagging finger.
In addition to gardening, Button counts on regular trips to the gym (at least three times a week) and swimming in his lovely pool (every day) to stay in shape. Alas, ice skating is completely off the menu these days.
On Dec. 31, 2000, he fell while skating not far from his home and suffered a horrific head injury, with a fractured skull, multiple concussions and blood clots.
He had to be in a straightjacket the first five days, and it took three months at Burke Rehabilitation Center in White Plains to get him completely back on his feet. He permanently lost the hearing in his left ear, but otherwise, he says, he’s just fine.
Along with the swimming pool, visitors to Ice Pond Farm will find 13 other spots with water in Button’s garden, including fish ponds, barrels, a pig trough, fountains here and there, and the namesake ice pond at the very bottom of the valley behind the 1840s farmhouse. “I think water is an exceedingly important part of any garden,” he says.
He’s also a great believer in having plenty of places for visitors to sit and take in the views.
There are two other valleys on the surprisingly hilly property that’s full of suddenly open — and then closing — views and vistas. It’s not unusual to see small groups of riders on the common horse trails that run through his land.
“I like it because of the drama of the place,” he says. “I never could have found that if I had bought a piece of flat property.”
And he loves the constant change and flow of his garden, just like graceful moves on ice.
“Your garden changes constantly — the light is always changing, from morning till night — and no two skating performances are ever alike.”
IF YOU GO …
What: Open Days gardens
When: Sunday, Sept. 8. Dick Button’s garden, Ice Pond Farm, is open from 1 to 6 p.m.; Shelby White’s garden is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Ice Pond Farm is at 115 June Road in North Salem. The White Garden is at 199 Elmwood Road in Lewisboro.
Admission: Open Days are rain or shine, no reservations needed, $5 per garden.
Information: gardenconservancy.org/opendays (with driving directions), 845-424-6500 (Monday to Friday only).