Monday, September 26, 2011

Paradise Found at Metro Hort Garden Lecture

Social networking has its green scene. 
Laughter and chatter and welcome back hugs, along with a few air kisses, greeted Metro Hort members at the wine and cheese party that was abuzz on the garden rooftop of the Arsenal, overlooking New York’s majestic Central Park.  Skyscrapers perched liked distant sentinels frame the world-class oasis. 
It was a sublime soiree. 

In conversation bubbles that formed, dissolved, and connected, the group’s professional horticulturists eagerly shared their summer work project stories: garden travel, garden design, park renovations and the tribulations and triumphs of horticulture work during what has been noted as the second hottest summer recorded.  There were a lot of stories to tell.  

This year’s growing season had its share of climate change mood swings, that’s for sure – from hot to rain to storms of the century. 
But horticulturists and gardeners prevail!

Metro Hort’s premiere lecture greeted the new series’ season with Emil Kreye & Son’s talk and picture show about their work constructing rock and water landscapes. (
Luke Kreye, Emil Kreye & Son

I think it’s safe to say that Luke’s presentation about the challenges and problems of building their gardens left the members a bit breathless. (One rock garden project is 400 feet long and 23 feet high.) The scope and scale of their work is beyond what most members’ typical projects consist of. 

These are rock gardens for the dinosaurs.  
No dainty screes or diminutive blossoms here. 
These landscapes are colossal. They require heavy, massive technology to move the boulders from the Pennsylvania quarry to their clients’ yards.   
Er, estates. Or compounds. 
See, the Kreye’s client list is happily upscale.  Keeping up with the Larsen’s – of Long House Reserve – and Frank Cabot’s Stonecrop -- and the family who started Bed, Bath & Beyond takes them, well, beyond more than curb appeal. 
When the question of how much a garden design like this might run, the answer was “a lot.” When pressed, Luke said a suite of steps might run $50,000. 
And believe me, these landscape designs were comprised of more than a few stairways to heaven.

The awed members expressed true admiration and respect for the work.
There is palpable pride that four generations of Kreyes know their craft and design with nature. The family tree must surely possess a family garden god or goddess that imbues them with garden power to design ravines, cascading waterfalls to rival national parks, and moats fit for a king – or hedge fund manager.

The feature water gardens or “water installations” circulate water all year long. Water flowing around frozen ice sculpture in their design work is a construct of engineering that creates a living work of art. Some of the waterfalls grades were 150 feet high and the landscapes embrace more than 10,000 pounds of rock.
They’ve created bird sanctuaries.  The water builds microbial colonies, the shrubs are planted to contain waste, rocks and other plants especially ferns, too.  Koi are used in all the ponds they create.

The Kreyes change the topography. The create ecosystems. Designed filters and EPDM rubber linings – so no leaching Luke claims -- support the infrastructure and operation. Overflow water is directed back into the drainage system.  They heavily compact the earth. They use native plants and the result is a landscape tableau that looks likes it’s always been there. 
Alternatively, some gardens have no plants.  It’s rock and water.  And the landscape is a “staged installation.”

Luke describes the design process as visiting the landscape and getting a feel for the site. I couldn’t help think of the mise en place, or spirit of the place, speaking to the family.
They then go to the Pennsylvania quarry and select the stone. 

Then they reassess on site before moving the rocks to create that ideal sense of realism.  “We don’t want to be moving around rocks that can weigh more than 200 pounds, “ Luke pointed out…
“And I personally know every rock in every design,” he states with confidence and pride. So while the designs are outsized, the personal, customized oversight permeates every project. 

Luke and his father design the landscapes, His father – who was in attendance at the talk – details the work.  Each project takes about a year to build, according to Luke.  Technology has allowed the family to create more landscape fantasies.  

A completed installation in the Kreye portfolio was just manic over the top – a real conversation starter. 
A Old Westbury, Long Island family visited the Atlantis island resort and came home determined to build a water slide like the one there. (and here all I got was a t-shirt!)

Kreye’s landscaped or manipulated the yard to make way for not only a water slide but a pool and other impossible water works that would make Poseidon blush. They used cherry laurels to hide a lot of the slide structure so one has the sense of sliding through a forest glen.

Luke dutifully displayed the work at his own home in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  He even invited Metro Hort members to visit for a tour.  “We give three to five garden tours a year,” he noted.   It is sensational to say the least.  “We use as many plants as we can,” he said while showing Eden-rock like images of waterfalls and moats. 
Paradise found…     

If you are a horticultural professional interested in becoming a Metro Hort member, contact the association at:

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Horticultural Society of New York Lecture with Maggie Lidz, author of "The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine"

The Horticultural Society of New York hosted a lecture to mark the release of Maggie Lidz’s epic book, “The du Ponts: Houses and Gardens in the Brandywine.”
The subject material recalibrates the concept of “Curb Appeal.” 

The speaker was author and Estate Historian Maggie Lidz (That’s what it says on her business card. How glamorous is that job?!)
Author and Estate Historian Maggie Lidz

Lidz demonstrated her thoughtfully researched, and from the sounds of it, well-curated approach to the book. 
“We decided we’d concentrate on the du Ponts’ Brandywine estates only,” Lidz explained.  While she has the world of du Ponts at her own click and Google, she nevertheless had to determine which of the houses and estates to feature in the book. 
See, the du Ponts may have been simple folk of French descent but they did have multiple dwellings that could be the envy of any self-respecting hedge fund director or the Jolie Pitts.  From South Hampton to Montecito to New York City to Palm Beach, the du Ponts had all the right addresses on their stationary.  No frets.  The Brandywine zip codes offer more than enough for any garden enthusiast to get lost in for a long, long time.

Clearly at ease with the subject matter and obsessed about her protagonists -- in a very good way, Lidz offered a lively and informed talk, accompanied by expository images: most rare and some never before seen, that are included in the book.

This gave me pause to reflect how lectures offer a rare opportunity to learn so much about a passion. 
Why is it that so few attend live events – whether it is music or lectures or demonstrations?  That is another story but I can offer that seeing and meeting experts like Ms. Lidz enrich our lives and our culture.

How else to describe how Lidz’s years of dedication and knowledge and research culminate in a story about American immigrants who did good for their community, who changed the course of commerce, business, and through their ensuing wealth; elevated horticulture.

Lidz’s talk led us through the history of the family – from the 1800’s gunpowder making and the Italians brought to Delaware to work in the factories through the du Pont’s business diversification to synthetics, General Motors and “science-based services and products.” 
The resulting, outsized wealth enabled the du Ponts to design and create gardens of unimaganable grandeur and fantasy and sophistication.  “Horticulture itself was extraordinary in Delaware,” said Lidz.
The du Ponts took it up a notch or ten. 
It is somewhat difficult to imagine in this day and age in terms of present landscape design aesthetics, and therein lies the discovery – the inspiration and magic of what gardens can be and how they are enduring if yet ephemeral cultural art.

The generations of du Ponts and their gardens represent all the allure of great country houses from the Gilded Age through post World War II wealthy America.  After all, how many country homes could boast such a large staff that they could host their own baseball team – as we discovered the du Pont families did?! 

Clearly, it was the gardens that made du Ponts unique and part of the country estate movement, according to Lidz.
We learned how the du Pont family cultivated acres of single-species gardens and perennial borders that might make Vita Sackville West blush.
For example, Lidz described how the iris gardens could be one to two acres, designed in an Iris Bowl style that became very popular with a certain swanky garden set.
The Iris Bowl is/was a tiered garden planting designed so that one could be standing in the center of a stadium of blossoms -- surrounded by fragrance.  For the approximately eight days a year the iris bloom.

Personally, I applaud the pursuit of this garden style. 
While clearly those of us without the means to practice this kind of unrestricted, high horticulture would find it impossible to plant gardens of this scope, I do think we should practice the more seasonal, sustainable and successive plantings embodied in the Iris Bowl design concept, rather than make so many of the plants in the garden workhorses that perform from Pasadena to Palm Beach.

I was struck by another keen point Lidz cited in a news report of the day in 1942: “Gardening is considered part of the national war effort.”

We should certainly be making more of the same claim today…

Given their legacy of community support -- and long before the Garden Conservancy –( the du Ponts opened their private gardens to public visitation.  Lidz showed a classic traffic jam of motorists in their Model T’s in line to get into the garden. 
See—our lust for enjoying and experiencing gardens has a legacy.

In particular, Lidz described the different “mindsets” that informed the garden styles of the three du Pont cousins that characterize much of the book, all of which are museums or public institutions – sort of brining it full circle.

Today, there is Longwood Gardens  (  and Owl’s Nest Wilmington gardens designed by two of my favorite landscape architects – and women! -- Ellen Biddle Shipman and with later work by Marian Cruger Coffin.  FDR Jr married into the du Pont clan and the news was TIME magazine worthy:  

More from the Cultural Landscape Foundation:

The lecture fuels a discovery to learn more about the du Pont’s unparalleled contribution to America’s horticulturical legacy.  There are many stories here to explore from the du Pont family to very intense garden design and landscape architects, as well as interior design – many of the du Pont homes are decorative arts museums today run as non-profit cultural institutions. Especially noteworthy is Winterthur, the du Pont estate named for a family homestead in Switzerland.  It’s spring garden is breathtaking.  (  

Lidz pointed out an odd strategy the du Ponts employed: they used local garden architects for their homes and nationally-recognized landscape architects and garden designers.  This was the opposite of what was generally done in their day.
I say they got it just right.

Published by Acanthus Press ( 228 pages, filled with photos, Lidz’s book is must have for any garden-inspired library – and coffee table.