Dream House and Greenhouse

The heat and humidity have taken their toll on my Riverside Park garden. The hydrangea heads are bowed, their lacy petals skimming the ground; the peony leaves are powder-coated with mildew; and my “woodland” garden has become a sad xeriscape. The guilt I carry for not watering regularly—which, for a gardener, is roughly the equivalent of a mother not feeding her children—is not helping things, as it’s compounding on itself. Unfortunately, the perfect watering time, dusk, is also when the rats come out to scavenge for supper—a compelling reason not to rush over to West 76th Street after work.

To distract myself from my own horticultural shortcomings—not to mention the oppressive July heat—I recently headed north to look at some other people’s gardens. My first stop was my sister-in-law Lee’s garden in the Berkshire foothills of northwestern Connecticut. Lee is not only a master gardener but has a highly developed and idiosyncratic aesthetic, so both the design and plant choices are nothing short of extraordinary. Beds with leafy cabbages look more beautiful than antique roses. Graceful paper birch trees stand sentinel at the guest cottage door. Large-scale terra cotta urns and verdigris metal furniture are positioned as if by Joseph Cornell in a shadowbox. Lee uses colors judiciously, and plants are treated like sculptures, whether a 6-foot-tall flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), paired with a collection of mercury glass balls, or spritely stalks of Verbena bonariensis punctuating the lavendar beds. There’s a surprise waiting in each of the metaphorical “rooms” Lee has created in her seven-acre hilltop garden.

My next stop was the Lenox Garden Club tour, visiting a half dozen gardens in the Massachusetts town and its surrounding hills. What really caught my eye—I must confess that after Lee’s sensational garden, the tour was a bit of a letdown—was the Berkshire countryside, which left me yearning for a house with a garden attached—sans the vermin. Which, of course, led me to some online house hunting (buyers market, anyone?) and the Lance Vermeulen Real Estate site where, within 10 minutes, I found my dream house: “18th-century diamond in the rough. Early American saltbox colonial in historic South Egremont awaits your thoughtful attention. Period details, wideboard floors, lots of warmth and charm. Lush perennial gardens in place. Set on 1.2 acres. Low taxes.” I read this listing with the same rapt attention I would a poem. And the asking price: $249,000. For that same amount, I could also consider the alternative: a nice one-bedroom in Flushing. A friend recently framed the dilemma as this: Do you want to live in peace and go to chaos, or live in chaos and go to peace? For now, I’ll pick living in chaos, and visit Lee and her guilt-free garden for peace.

nbutkus@observer.com

Dream House and Greenhouse