NORTH SALEM, New York – Page Dickey, 70, and her husband, Bosco Schell, 76, were sitting on their terrace here one afternoon a few weeks ago – explaining how they were simplifying their garden. Sort of. “The first step is to replace perennials with shrubs and ground covers,” Dickey said, sipping her coffee after a hearty lunch of her homemade minestrone, whose onions, leeks, garlic and chard came straight from the garden. “We need an overall plan: more green architecture and less plants.”
Schell, a retired book editor, grew up in Hungary, where his family had a walled kitchen garden. “We talk about simplifying, but the whole joy of gardening is being creative,” he said. “And creativity usually means adding. You go to a nursery and you say, ‘Oh! That’s the perfect plant for us!”’ (Like the little potted strawberry bush, named Venus, that they fell in love with at a plant sale and then wandered around with for days, seeking a place for it.)
The two married 10 years ago, he a widower, she divorced, with 13 grandchildren between them. Now they have three dogs, 20 chickens, four runner ducks and two Royal Palm turkeys. And thousands of plants, from overgrown shrubs, trees and hedges to perennials constantly screaming to be staked or deadheaded or divided, or self-seeding all over the garden.
Schell is the plantsman, the collector, the one-of-everything type. Dickey is the designer with the painter’s eye who started building this garden 30 years ago with her former, nongardening husband when they moved to this 1.2-hectare remnant of a 19th-century farm with their four children. Using the doors of the old clapboard house as site lines, Dickey, who is steeped in European as well as American gardens, created a series of terraces and hedged garden rooms, one opening to another, all on axis to the house. She tells the story of how the garden developed in “Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden,” to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February,
She loved flowers then – peonies, roses, irises, lady’s mantle, bee balm, foxgloves, catmint – a multitude of perennials billowing over the crisp lines of geometric beds and trimmed hedges of privet, boxwood, euonymus, dwarf lilac, cornelian cherry, gray-twigged dogwood and hemlock, which is lightly sheared once a year.
In the hemlock garden, so-called for the shaggy hemlock hedge that fronts the road, they have pulled out high-maintenance roses – more phlox and asters – and replaced them with variegated red-twigged dogwood, Japanese tassel fern and cranesbill geraniums. One of the most beautiful gardens here is a courtyard of crabapple trees edged in boxwood, which flanks a wide path to the house. But with every year, their branches grow wider, and we had to walk single-file to avoid the beautiful dark berries dangling in our faces.
When the man who lovingly prunes them year after year asked her if she would consider taking them down, Dickey said no, of course.
“I stood there in horror, speechless, envisioning the void, the characterless space,” she writes in “Embroidered Ground.”
“They are beautiful still, especially in spring and winter,” she writes. “And I don’t have the energy to start again.”