Do you have a “must visit” garden list? You know, the ten top gardens you would like to see? Well, if you do, then put the Steinhardt Garden near the top of that list. This world class, 55 acre private garden is located in Mt. Kisco, NY, in Westchester County, north of New York City. Twice a year, Michael and Judy Steinhardt open their wondrous garden – and zoo – to the public, under the auspices of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. The gates open for one day in the spring and one day in the fall. Come early because the line of cars waiting to get in can be very long.
Left: Johnsen’s favorite spot at Steinhardt Gardens is the “stick house” folly, an open air ‘house’ made from branches, complete with hanging windows.
The garden is open from 10 am until 3 pm and you can easily spend all those hours meandering through the stepping stone stairways, pine mulched paths, open lawns and country drives. One area blends into the next and it is like a true “magical mystery tour” as you walk through more than 2,000 species of trees, shrubs and perennials. And the best thing for this garden lover? The plants and trees are labeled throughout the gardens!
So why do so many people come to visit? Because this beautiful sweeping landscape rivals anything you might see in a public botanical garden. The Steinhardts have spared no expense to create an enthralling outdoor space in tune with the natural surroundings yet boasting exotics of all kinds. It is awe inspiring. The garden features a large, caged “aviary” with a brook that contains 76 types of waterfowl, an extensive Japanese maple collection, a glorious pondside perennial garden, a conifer hillside, an alpine garden, a fanciful “stick house” folly, fruit orchards, a fabulous vegetable garden, greenhouses, and, not to be missed, a large menagerie of exotic animals.
Left: Pine bark mulch covers a wide path as it winds through the colorful Japanese maple garden.
Photo by: Jan Johnsen
The Japanese Maple Garden
The 8-acre Japanese maple garden features an extensive maple collection planted naturalistically as the understory within a deciduous forest. Here, wide paths, covered with pine needle mulch, gently curve through more than 400 cultivars of Japanese maples and unusual shade-loving flowers and shrubs. The wide diversity of the maples is on full display here in November when the fall color is at its peak. The specimen trees are ablaze in yellow, orange and red.
This garden, although seemingly natural, is actually organized into harmonious groves. One area is dedicated to dwarf varieties of Japanese maples while another consists of japonicum varieties, and so on. Again, a true plant lover’s paradise.
The famous view here is of their “Westport” red threadleaf Japanese maple (so called because it hails from a garden in Westport, Connecticut) set against a lovely, arched red bridge. I often wonder if they painted the bridge to match the tree’s color because they seem to match perfectly!
Left: A specimen red threadleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘dissectum’) frames the view of a similarly colored bridge.
Other plants in this partially shaded landscape include climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomala spp. petiolaris), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and ‘Cornell Pink’ deciduous azalea (Azalea mucronulatum).
These plants and more fill the woodland, almost obscuring some unusual attractions like an enticing rope bridge that spans a small flowing stream. Hidden amongst the trees, this narrow, swaying bridge compels all to cross it—one at a time.
Left: The picturesque rope bridge in the Steinhardt Garden must be traversed ‘one at a time’.
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Nearby is another picturesque stream crossing consisting of single planks set in a zigzag layout. It requires some concentration as you navigate the span. One false move and….well, you get the idea. This is certainly a landscape for the agile.
Left: A zigzag plank stream crossing requires agility and balance but it looks so appealing!
But the true stars here are the Japanese Maples and all the ferns and low growing woodland plants that are planted beneath the trees, around the rocks and along the stream. Masses of epimedium, hosta, tricyrtis, mertensia, Japanese iris, ajuga, woodland bulbs and more make this garden the showpiece that it is. Walking along the soft paths, I always get inspired and inevitably learn about new plants or get a new design idea. This time, a Chinese Allspice tree (Sinocalycanthus chinensis) caught my eye. It is closely related to the native Carolina allspice (zones 6—8) and features camellia-like blossoms in the spring and a lovely yellow fall color.
Left: Chinese Allspice (Sinocalycanthus chinensis) has lovely fall color and enjoys a streamside setting.
Another plant I marveled at was a variety of toadlily (Tricyrtis hirta) that was in full bloom. This perennial woodland gem, an Asian plant, has orchid–like flowers that bloom from late summer through late fall, depending on the variety. They grow naturally at the edges of forests and do best in light shade.
Left: There are several varieties of Toadlily (Tricyrtis hirta) that brighten the woodland garden in November.
Water, water everywhere
Water is a constant theme. There are streams, ponds, fountains and cascades dotting the entire landscape. In one section of the woodland garden there is a deep green, moss covered bridge that beckons you to cross. And beyond that is a tranquil, stepping stone walk crossing irregularly through a waterway.
Left: The calming appearance of flat stepping stones with the sky reflected in the water.
A mass of feathery ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) that are yellowish-green at this time of year is planted nearby. The contrast of the lacy ferns with the damp, gray stones creates a magical scene. I cannot express the contentment I feel in this shady dell.
Left: Feathery ostrich ferns provide a lovely display of late season color in a woodland garden.
It is at this point that I must commend the designers of the Steinhardt garden, Jerome and Carol Rocherelle of Shanti Bithi nursery. For 20 years they developed this property, finding and siting the stones, the plants and creating the waterways. It was their artistic genius combined with the Steinhardts’ passion for plants and animals that made this amazing garden what it is today.
Left: A moss-covered bridge beckons.
A Unique Sculpture
Jerome Rocherelle is also responsible for the sculptural arrangement of 42 tall and narrow “bamboo shoot” stones that he obtained from China. He calls this sculpture ‘Aspiration-Sky’. They create a striking element on a level lawn. The stones stand out against the fall foliage and kids love to wander through the vertical ‘steles’. Again, here is another great idea for someone to try in their garden!
Left: ‘Aspiration-Sky’ by Jerome Rocherelle, the designer of the Steinhardt Garden.
The Hillside Perennial Garden
A popular garden area is the sunny, hillside perennial garden overlooking a large pond. Here, stone steps lead up through a variety of herbaceous flowering plants that provide a year-round display of color. The star of the show in early November is the prolific “Sheffield Pink” chrysanthemum (Dendranthema x grandiflorum ‘Hillside Pink Sheffield’). This perennial is covered in apricot-pink daisy-like flowers from September through November. It is a hardy, long-lived plant (zones 5—9) that likes full sun and well drained garden soil. In this garden it is planted along with African daisy (Arctotis) and an alluring tri-color St. John’s Wort (Hypericum x moserianum). This low, spreading plant (zones 6–9) has colorful leaves and is covered with masses of cheerful, deep yellow, cup-shaped flowers from July to October. It grows well in sun and part shade, but needs protection from cold, drying winds.
I toured this garden with Tony Bielaczyc, Assistant Director of Horticulture for the Steinhardt garden. He told me that this was one of his favorite parts of the property and reminded me that it is a constantly changing landscape. He said they are always rethinking things and “moving plants, reconfiguring and editing the garden”. No garden is ever static. As Tony said, “Living things do what they are going to do, despite your best intentions”. We are co-creators, at most, when gardening.
Left: ‘Hillside Sheffield Pink’ chrysanthemums trail down a slope in the perennial garden near stone steps.
At the stick house folly (see slide 1), fruit trees are espaliered along its invisible walls and beautiful seasonal display plantings of ornamental kale, mums, and amaranthus border the outside. It is a fun garden folly which means it has no purpose other than being a decorative feature, delighting old and young. It adds a bit of whimsy to a marvelous landscape.
Left: Dark purple ornamental kale contrasts beautifully with cabbage, white Montauk daisies, and orange mums outside the stick house.
Vegetable Gardens and More
The conifer collection is for the true plant connoisseur. Over 200 Needle leafed evergreens of all kinds are planted amongst a rocky base. They are close to a fruit orchard which contains apples and stone fruits and near to the vegetable garden.
The vegetable garden and small fruits house are part of the ‘working section’ of the garden. A rustic, wire-mesh covered structure protects the fruit of blueberries, currants, hardy kiwi, gooseberries, raspberries, and more from animals and birds.
And I should mention that they follow an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, as much as they can here. They encourage predator insects and ladybugs and are working to increase them every year. In fact, I was thrilled to see three bee hives at the edge of a hillside. These hives are testament to the fact that bees, our beleaguered pollinators, should be encouraged in every garden, large and small.
Left: The rustic wire mesh covered small fruits house protects a variety of berry bushes from animals and birds.
A Lovely Rustic Stairway
And who says you have to use expensive materials in a garden? One particular stairway I loved was a curving series of cedar log steps, held in place with log ‘spikes’ and topped with jack pine mulch. It led up a small hill through Japanese maples, witchhazels and gingko trees. The steps were so appealing that I had to climb to the top! This is a great example of it being more about the journey than the destination, which is a garden design truism in my way of thinking.
Left: Rustic cedar log steps topped with pine needle mulch lead up a hill.
The Steinhardt Menagerie
I end with a memorable part of the Steinhardt property—the animals! Michael Steinhardt has a passion for animals and this is a veritable zoo. The kids love the many species that they can see up close like zebras, camels, llamas, wallabies, ostriches, lemurs, flamingoes, emus and more. You can easily spend the few hours you have just conversing with the animals, as I suspect many people do.
As you can see, there is much in this wonderland of plants and animals to delight everyone! And I hope it whets your appetite to make the journey to see this unforgettable landscape. Please check with the Garden Conservancy Open Days for the dates that this great landscape will be open to the public again. And when you come, you also must visit ‘Innisfree’…but that is an article for another day….