Almost two years ago, I fell in love with Untermyer Gardens. See Love At First Sight for an account of that visit. I’d been intending to go back but somehow, busy schedules and events got in the way until this past Saturday. To say I was excited about returning to Untermyer would be a gross understatement. Still, a part of me bore some trepidation. Would I be just as enchanted?
This year, the gardens have received some mega-watt press coverage – well deserved due recognition. I am privileged to call head horticulturist, gardener extraordinaire and just downright nice guy Timothy Tilghman a dear friend. So I tend to follow closely all commentaries made about his work.
By arriving a couple of hours before sunset, the light, in my opinion, was just right for viewing and photographing. Predicted rain storms were nowhere in sight. The temperatures had dropped so it was no longer unbearably hot as it had been earlier in the day. All in all, perfect conditions for wandering in the gardens. Timothy awaited our small group with an eagerness only one who genuinely loves his job can muster at the end of a long work day.
As is customary, one begins with the pièce de résistance – the walled garden. Approaching the tall doorway, one immediately spies the main axis of the Indo-Persian design of the garden. And your breath catches. The canal of flowing water glimmers with the fractured reflections of the colors of a brilliant sunset. But these hues are not from the sky. They are from the riot of marigolds growing exuberantly on either side of the canal’s length. Imagine, marigolds! That lowly, gas-station staple was given center stage in this important space. Interspersed by Japanese holly and off set to the sides with rectangles of green lawn, the marigolds shone bright. Positively sophisticated. The juxtaposition of the ordinary flowers within the formality of the design was a stroke of artistic genius. Timothy and Marco Polo Stufano (of Wave Hill Gardens fame and my hero plantsman) had come up with the idea of marigolds – inexpensive, hardworking, effective and true to the required Indian provenance.
Marigolds are widely used in India – one sees them in abundance. Edging garden borders, filling up pots, fat garlands adorning temples, wedding halls, new cars, new houses and, anywhere a celebration is taking place. Growing up, I never paid much attention to the marigold. It was so ubiquitous. The fragrance of the plant is imprinted in my olfactory memory. In my garden in the northeastern US, it has never crossed my mind to plant marigolds. Too out of place and definitely not the right colors.
Now, here they were. Thousands of flowers used in a different way all together. Similarly colored cannas in pots continued the theme. Arrangements of other potted tropicals distinctive in their foliage added to the whole composition. The perennial borders along the perimeter of the gardens contrast beautifully with the annual display. Here one ( okay, me) picks up many ideas for plants to add to one’s own garden. Not as flamboyant but just as expressive, the plants strike a very nice chord.
I could’ve spent all my time in this garden alone. I was feeling my roots! But Timothy had much to show us. Future plans and projects were discussed and pointed out as we hiked the property, exploring ruins of past gardens, lingering in the Temple Of Love and envisioning the waterfalls flowing once again, imagining the thousands of daffodils on the ‘hill’. Pausing now and then to gaze at the Hudson river and the Palisades across. I was even more convinced of the importance of bringing all of the Untermyer gardens to life. Not simply restored but renewed. In keeping with history but also giving it voice to make more history. Timothy and his small team are more than up to the monumental task, its the funding that eludes. Sigh.
We remained till the sun set. Watching it, I was struck by our visit, just as I’d been two years ago – it had been magical. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Timothy for giving the world this marigold summer. How utterly enriched we are.
As you look at the images below, I hope you will make it a point to visit Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers, NY. Free to the public! If you see Timothy, tell him I sent you. I can’t wait to see what annuals he will choose next year.
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar