Thursday, August 9, 2012

Caryl weeds out: One thing I thought I'd never be

Roof garden at the Palace on the Ganges, Varanasi, India
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and, as an adult, I moved to Manhattan where I raised my daughters. If you asked me where I might have migrated in my second life, I’d have said maybe a beach in the Hamptons or, in my wilder dreams, the ghats of the Ganges. I can picture myself as a beachcomber or a world traveler but never in a hundred lifetimes would I have imagined myself as a country gardener in upstate New York. That’s why I was so surprised when the multi-talented and accomplished green thumb Catherine Morrison profiled me in The Sunday Gardener. Full disclosure: I have been helped enormously for the past few years by horticulturist Meg Crawford of Twin Ponds Nursery. Meg, who has entered a new chapter of her second life, passed on her private clients to The Valley Gardener, Tricia Paffendorf, who is returning to work outside the home (literally) now that her sons are in school. So take a look at my garden, the product of six women (counting me) who know how to make things grow--especially themselves.

An Editor Edits Her Garden

A chance encounter on an Amtrak train led me to a small village and Carrie Tuhy’s enchanted cottage and garden. The conversation was of nothing more consequential than the proximity of rail service from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley, where Carrie spends whatever time she can carve out away from the city. “Do you think it’s possible,” I asked, “to find a modest house in a small village on a street with sidewalks and neighbors?” “I just did that,” she replied,“ and invited me to tea that afternoon.

The  cottage in spring

Carrie is a former magazine editor (Real Simple, InStyle) who is now the co-founder of Second Lives Club, a blog for women who are jumpstarting the next phase of their lives, which she did with a retreat from the corporate world and the purchase of her house. It is a picture-perfect, 1940’s Cape with three rooms down, two rooms up and a bath-and-a-half. On a corner lot, it has a front yard, a side yard, a back yard, a picket fence, and a very ambitious, aging garden.

Viburnum anchoring front door
Carrie bought the house from a couple in their eighties who were reluctantly leaving to mover closer to their children. The wife was a passionate gardener, and left all her tools behind with Carrie. “I had never had a garden, and I didn’t drive when I first came here,” Carrie said. “It didn’t matter, because the house was in walking distance to everything. “ For someone used to Tribeca this was a calm transition, and a car didn’t appear until later. Probably when she realized you can’t garden without one.

The side yard
The house is located at the improbably-named corner of Mulberry and Chestnut Streets. I walk by often, since as a result of that chance encounter I am now renting a small apartment nearby. It’s allowed me to take photographs in the garden’s moment of tidiness in early spring, to the fullness of late spring, through the over-blown summer, and into the fall and winter. 

“The garden is the work of the three women who lived here over a long period of time – 60 years -- and it’s taken me five years to begin to understand it,” Carrie reports. A tidy picket fence surrounds the house, with a few ornamental trees planted inside the fence. They are almost crowded out now by the trees outside the fence, installed by a zealous village street tree planting program. 

The long border lining the walk to the front door is a fine example of why such borders should always be perpendicular to the house rather than parallel. While looking down the length of the border from the house to the street you see none of the empty spaces that are inevitable in a mixed border. Only when you are parallel to the border do you have an opportunity to examine all your mistakes.

The front yard
Carrie’s long border covers the seasons from early spring bulbs, through peonies and iris in late spring, to phlox and its companions in the summer. The hefty viburnum anchoring the corner of the front steps is replicated in the long border by baptisia and a few sub-shrubs that serve the same purpose.  

Alongside the house is a crowded group of spirea ready for division, leading to a trellised alcove, the first of a number of garden “rooms.” Directly off the sunroom, the trellis is graced by an apple tree, espaliered by Carrie. About 9 x12, this small room is perfect for a morning coffee, or afternoon tea and a nap. The aforementioned sunroom is ideal for a writer, but it is a shed in the garden that has captured the writer’s heart in Carrie. “I thought I would be able to write there, like Virginia Wolfe did at her writing lodge at Monk House in East Sussex. It has become instead a theatre of memory, filled with souvenirs of travel and sentimental objects considered too personal for the more public rooms.

Patio terrace outside the sunroom
The shed is added onto periodically, but still remains unused. Two windows were given as a birthday gift from an admirer long and sadly gone. A daughter’s desk occupies one end of the shed; a bench sits outside the door for contemplating the garden and the passage of time, which is unavoidable while sitting on a garden bench. 
The shed interior

And so the editor steps in. Gardens are not static, and for every gardener there is a moment when just enough becomes too much. The small ornamental trees are battling with the street trees. Perhaps the formal herb garden in the middle of the rear garden should be replaced with a calm lawn. Perhaps the vines, if thinned, would let a little air in. Isn’t the once-sheltering clematis now a shroud? Have the roses on the trellis stopped blooming? 

The shed exterior
The editor begins to edit, but it requires learning a new vocabulary and a new language. Plants are not as orderly as words and sentences, but that is what second lives are all about, isn’t it?


  1. Gosh, have been holding out. Loved this peek into your garden! Can't wait to see the garden in full bloom. xo

    1. Anytime you want to see it live and in living color, let me know.

  2. Lovely! We must compare notes. I'm a newbie to gardening too. Who knew it could be so satisfying.

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Yes, it is very satisfying--and a life affirming. Sometimes I look out the windows overlooking my
      windows and I am caught by its beauty. It makes me happy to be alive. Good luck with yours--
      and thanks for stopping by at our site.

  3. As a longtime friend and fellow urban afficionado, I was captivated by Carrie's "secret garden" and secret passion for country living. Her tour of her garden "rooms" as Ms. Morrison so aptly put it and of her Wolfian shed was nothing less than magical. I look forward to a return visit next summer to witness yet another of Carrie's award-winning "edit" jobs.

    1. Missing you like crazy. I had to watch the closing of the Olympics without any gin and tonics or pistachios.
      If you were here, we would have been dancing to the Spice Girls!!! Anyway, glad to hear you are coming
      back. I thought nature might scare you away. Tell me the truth, though: do you like my house more than

  4. First things first: That is a gorgeous photo of you all in white in the original post of this article!

    I have way more garden than I need. We have a small house with an enormous yard and to cut down on the football-field feeling in the back, I dug a huge border out of established grass around three fruit trees. It looks best in spring, I think. Right now it is full of black-eyed Susans and Joe Pye weed. It is wet, sunny and a constant challenge.

    But when everything else feels outside of my control, pulling a few weeds, rearranging plants, or putting in some new ones helps me bring things into perspective.

  5. Oh, Judith, you are an investigative blogger. I was keeping that picture
    a surprise for visitors to Catherine's site, The Sunday Blogger. Thank
    you for your comment--I have no idea what Joe Pye weed --and for
    supporting our blog and Catherine's.