Monday, May 31, 2010

Sonnenberg Gardens

My recent Travels to Rochester took me through the beautiful Finger Lakes district. It reminds me of the Swiss lakes and the countryside outside of Geneva, where beautiful farms, vineyards and stately homes were built for pleasure and commerce, overlooking wonderful vistas. Lake Canandaigua is one of the smallest of the Finger Lakes, but just north of it are the remains of, a once, mighty garden.

Sonnenberg was built in the 1880s as a summer home by Mary Clark Thompson and her husband Frederick Ferris. Mary was the daughter of New York Governor Myron Holly Clark. Mary’s banker husband, who established what we now know as CITI Bank died young. Mary, who had buckets of money, spent them on this and other properties she owned. The results were a wonder of the Gilded Age. A Queen Anne style mansion surrounded by French, Italian, Japanese, formal, and informal garden rooms filled with fine statues and fountains that ramble in an estate, farm, and conservatory complex that measured over 200 acres.

Mary died in 1923. Due to lack of a direct heir, the property was inherited by a nephew who sold it in 1931 to establish a Veteran’s Administration facility. During this time, the house was used as nurse’s quarters and many outbuildings were demolished including the cage of a peacock pavilion. Mary had quite a collection, as was the fashion, and was known to house over 216 species of birds!

In the 1973, Sonnenberg Gardens, a non-profit took title of the Mansion and most of the formal gardens, 52 acres. Today Sonnenberg Gardens and the State of New York operate this historic property for the benefit of the public and future generations. Much work has been done and much, much, more is needed and is underway to restore this eclectic house and gardens. If you visit, you will probably have it mostly to yourself, as we did, but then, we were not there in peak season. Regardless, it is a wonderful place to discover and explore.

Formal Italian Sunken Garden terrace undergoing major reconstruction
From the other side
Restored fountain complex
Another Carrara gem awaiting restoration
Simple overlook to rose garden
A few thousand rose garden
Temple of Diana awaiting restoration
Conservatories by Lord and Burnham

Japanese Garden Complex

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Rochester's Lilac Festival

Festival setup

Rochester was the first US boomtown of the 1800’s as a consequence of its proximity to the great lakes and the Erie Canal. It was the home of Abolitionist Frederick Douglas and woman’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony. Immigrants such as German George Ellwanger and Irish Patrick Barry, through their famous plant nursery, brought the title Plant City to the other acclaims Rochester would receive. Eventually, other major names, such as Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and Xerox would rise to major prominence.

Ellwanger and Barry donated twenty acres in 1888 that would become the seed acreage for one of the first municipal arboretums in the country. It was laid out by New York City, Central Park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted. A collection of Lilacs planted in 1892 fomented an informal festival in 1898. Today, the Lilac Festival is celebrated in May and people from all over the world come to visit and luxuriate among the over 500 species of lilacs planted on 22 acres of hillsides in the 155-acre Highland Park.

My friend RJ has been trying to get me to visit for several years. I finally made it up there in time for the festival. Global warming has made the lilacs peak earlier and the Lilac Festival today is a rock extravaganza bringing crowds and a lot of loud music, food, and flower. As much as I like crowds and rock music, I like to enjoy my gardens in peace. We arrived the afternoon before the opening as everything was being set up for the two days of parties and enjoyed the gardens all by ourselves.

Wooded Rhododendron Ravines

The gardens have wonderful plantings that range from massive Austrian pines and beeches to rare 50 foot Corylus colurna, a Balkan Filbert member of the Hazel family which had me stumped, because I had never seen a 50 foot witch hazel in my life. All matter of other rare plants and the not so were also in bloom with a fantastic setting in this hillside park full or valleys and nooks and crannies.

Unusual Tamarix looking like festival cotton candy

Peony Gardens

It could have been a Wistaria festival

Without further ado, enjoy the lilacs! Sorry we don't have ODORAMA for the web!

Fabulous Lilac chinensis variety Lilac Sunday. Long racemes of flowers unlike typical small flower clusters

Located a few blocks away from Highland Park is the old Ellwanger estate that has been maintained by the Landmark society of Rochester. This is a little gem of a garden with few visitors. We spent over an hour sitting and enjoying the views and wonderful plantings and never saw anyone other than the two volunteers who were maintaining the place. Happy Gardening!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

in front the family home

My first memories of anything to do with gardens or flowers are also of my mother. I remember her dressing me to go off to church on Mother's Day. She was pinning on me a red rose and she explained to me the Cuban custom to wear a red rose in honor of a live mother and a white rose in memory of a deceased. Of course, this, like so many other things she told had no meaning until so much later.

The truth is that we often miss the opportunity to know our parents because they are our parents. It is only if we have them when we are old that we can share stories as mature adults. It is unfortunate that we missed knowing them when they were young, vibrant and glamorous.

My mother grew up in a little backwater town some 60 kilometers outside of Havana named Guanajay. She was the eldest of eight children and was born in 1918. Her father was a cigar roller and had done so in parts of Cuba and in Tampa but when he married he settled down to raise the family. Her mother was a simple woman who took care of an extended family like her own mother.

As you might imagine my mother was not prepared to be anything other than a wife and mother. She certainly had no idea of what lay in store for her in Cuba much less the life she would later live in the US. Somewhere along the line she dated and partied in manners traditional to the Cuba of the 1940's. She met my father who had returned from failed attempts at the movie industry in Mexico City and as a gold miner in Nogales, Arizona.

barely a month after I was born

Mother was in her thirties when she had me and had so wanted more children so I would have a sibling. That was not to be. I grew up the focus of a lot of attention and expectations. I don't have many memories of that youth except when I look at these photos that spark so many thoughts of our life in Cuba. Mother accused me of ruining her figure. I always knew her round and maternal rather than svelte and sexy. Yet, when I see these pictures I see such a Cuban beauty and a stature of glamor that she earned along the way.

Against my father's Oldsmobile in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana

Dashing in Varadero, 1953

Pissed at me at Carnaval in Havana, 1953

Giving me "look" at my second birthday with her parents and part of the clan

She was the typical housewife and mother, cooking and cleaning and dealing with an extensive family. My father made a good living and we lacked nothing, but that would not last. Politics would enter our lives as my father got in trouble with the Batista government only to wind up with Castro in the hills fighting the guerrilla war. Upon Castro's triumph my father rose to power and came down just as fast when he criticized the government. Father out of the country left a load of work for my mother solve. Mother stepped up to the plate to deal with lawyers, officials and other people and papers to leave the country and try and salvage whatever personal items we could take. Through unprecedented courage and fortitude she put me on a plane and got me out of Cuba alone. She was jailed trying to take our TV set to her father. Once you declared your intentions to leave the country, Castro expected everything to be left to Cuba without exception.

Learning to live in the US

We were eventually reunited as a family in the US and quickly left Miami for Chicago. Father knew the return to Cuba was not going to be anytime soon and we moved as far away from the Miami Cuban Community that fomented much but accomplished little other than maintain the poor Cubans on the island in an American imposed embargo.

Mother was forced to work to help out and the only thing she could do was sew. She went to work in a factory as seamstress and learned that she had a voice and choices for her first time in her life because she earned a living. My parents experience serious marital problems due in part to the role switching that was taking place. Father was no longer the all powerful voice and he was not sensitive to the role Mother was developing for herself. Multiple separations ensued with Father leaving for California only to have us join him a year later.
Escaped Chicago to the warmer climes of California

Father reached for the bottle more and more and Mother put up with it because of love, history and duty. Soon after my return from University in France Mother decided to leave him for good. Too many years of booze, a see-saw marriage and fearing for my future ended it all. I graduated college and she graduated into a life of her own.

My return from University years in France

Chippendale fun

Mother never looked back. She never remarried either. She had me, her family and her life to keep her going. I often begged her to meet someone so she would have the companionship that she deserved from a loving man. She in her wisdom explained, that what she wanted a hunk. She wanted someone charming and good looking and she felt all she could get was another old man needing a cook and a laundress. She was probably right but I was sad for it.

Always game for a party

Saying goodbye again to go to graduate school

In 1992 I returned to Graduate school, 16 years after my undergraduate degree. Mother was not happy to see me go yet again, but she put up with it as I explained it was for my future. She was stoic and came to visit with faltering health. When I graduated friends who were going to take her to the ceremony were stuck in traffic and the only choice was for her to march with us. I rolled her on a wheelchair through the entire Penn campus and into the stadium.

Graduation day May 1995

She lived 34 years in the US and never learned English; this was a major regret of her life. She was very concerned that not speaking English would keep her from becoming an American citizen. Due to her advanced age she was interviewed in Spanish and granted American citizenship. This country never had a better supporter. She had managed it all on a 4th grade education. She was no luminary but she was loving and kind and made everyone feel good and welcomed. Sorry if I have digressed from garden talks but I felt that she needed her 15 minutes of fame. You see, she was the first flower of my garden.

Elena Hilaria Cabrera Muñoz

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Room with a View

In the May NJ Monthly article they mention something I described as mustache plantings and how I don't like them. The fact is that many plantings surrounding our homes are one dimensional attempts at having the house look good from the street. Few people think about the implications of this little strip of plants along the house and what they could do to improve it. We almost always inherit some plantings when purchasing a house and then we are kind of stuck with them unless you are ruthless and just remove them as I did.

The reasons for removing them were twofold. I wanted to have access to my house for maintenance and I wanted to see and enjoy the plantings. By moving the plants three or four feet away from the structure they tend to frame a view or provide you with one. When I have designed gardens from scratch I always design them from the outside looking in, but always keeping in mind how it will look from the inside. When I lay out the garden for planting I look at it from both vantage points to see if what it is that I have created works.

When I go on a vacation I always ask for "a room with a view." I remember some years ago traveling with a bunch of landscape architects in Mexico and I always would approach the desk clerk with a statement such as "my room is going to have a wonderful view of your town" invariably my traveling companions would laugh at me for being demanding, but when I got in my room there would be a view of a volcano, a patio or a garden, while my traveling companions got a view of a wall.

I guess my point is that if you travel and want beauty in your life why does it have to stop there? Although all my attempts don't always work because as you can see in the first photograph, my neighbor's trash cans and recycling bin can be less than appealing, most of the time I have considered what I want to see and how I am going to crop it.

My lot is not huge and houses are fairly close to one another, but in contrast to newer neighborhoods were houses are on top of each other, I have some room which I have used to create plant screens. These plantings look lush and green for most of the year and keep away the need of hiding everything with drapes. I have no drapes. I have roman shades which I rarely close and the rest I do with plants. The two pictures above are of my dining room and when the viburnums bloom it is magical to look out the window.

Similarly, my front porch is rather exposed and just 15 feet from the sidewalk, if that. There with some bamboo, rhododendrons and other viburnums, I have reached a pleasant level of privacy that provides lots of light and enough exposure. The above image, faces my shared driveway where my neighbor in their tall SUV drive past many times a day, but thanks to the bamboo I can choose to wave or not.

On the other side of my porch my other neighbors and I share my woodland garden which is planted with varieties of large flowering viburnums and flowering styrax trees and under planted with wonderful woodland plants. It is extremely private and not more that 20 feet-wide.

So why let your plantings be this little mustache against your house? Move them away from the house so you can enjoy them. Reclaim some of that wasted lawn space with something appealing for both those passing by and yourself. Paint with a dramatic broad brush and then pinpoint special attention to your favorite plants, colors or fragrance. Just because you inherited a few plantings does not mean you can't relocate them or incorporate them into a better scheme.

Finally, my little mud room/library faces the back porch and the back gravel walk down to the pond. It is my favorite view. I often sit back here looking out at the great flowering vista or reading a book. Here, more so than outside I choose to find refuge during much of the year. In winter it can be like a scene from Dr. Zhivago. In summer it has all the view and none of the bugs or humidity that will often limit being outside. I suppose, some of this sounds a bit like the romantic goo that Miss Lavish wrote about her Florence holiday in the Ivory Merchant production of A Room with a View. Oh, well grab your romance wherever you can!  Happy Gardening.