Love At First Sight

Have you ever had the experience of encountering a place that immediately finds a home in your heart? When you feel inspired and energized by the promise it holds? On the morning of October 5, 2012, thats exactly what happened to me. That was the day I was introduced to Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers, NY.

Until a year and a half ago, I had never even heard of the place. Then my friend and horticulturist extraordinaire Timothy Tilghman, took up a job there. I was made aware that the garden had flourished in the early half of the last century and then went into serious decline. It was all but forgotten while weeds smothered the place and vandals went about wrecking it. I hoped Timothy knew what he had accepted. It wasn’t just the job of maintaining this garden but he had to first bring it to life. Thats more than mere application of horticultural knowledge. It takes great vision, curiosity and passion.

Through mutual friends and mainstream media coverage, I followed Timothy’s spectacular progress at Untermyer. I kept intending to visit but life has a habit of getting in the way and it wasn’t till this particular October Friday that I finally got there. On this bright, beautiful day, Timothy waited to show me his ‘baby’.

There is plenty in the archives to give the original plans and making of the original gardens that Mr. Untermyer himself oversaw and created. So I shall not go into the history and other details. But I strongly recommend that one go to the website www.untermyergardens.org. to learn more as well as to see photographs of then and now. I assure you it is worth the time and effort. What I want to convey here is my personal response to this garden.

Spying the walled garden through the tall doors set in a high, crenelated wall is a real tease. One is lured in. It is entirely possible that on entering this garden and seeing the Persian/Mogul inspired design, my own Indian heritage influenced how much at home I felt. It was as though I was visiting an old royal garden in northern India. But it was more than that. It felt right. Perched across from the Palisades, overlooking the Hudson river, this garden was situated carefully and deliberately. The designer had known exactly what he was doing. Which brings home the point that for a garden to be a true success, it must not only be laid out well but it must be assigned to the appropriate site.

The plantings are just lovely. Dramatic and yet, they do not compete with the strong bones of the garden. Even in restoration, a garden must evolve. Timothy has selected plants that are visually really attractive. On closer inspection they reveal how clever he has been in his choices. The Japanese hollies with New Guinea impatiens bordering the water canals are spot on. Elsewhere, he’s used plants that are hard working and easily obtained. Anybody can try these plants in their own gardens. I got the distinct feeling Mr. Untermyer would’ve approved.

And thats what makes Untermyer such a wonderful classroom for all gardeners. The original plans are available to show how the owner along with landscape architect/designer Welles Bosworth created the various gardens with care and purpose. There are photographs and other information available for study and they provide a wealth of answers to the myriad questions that Timothy must ask in order to restore all of the gardens to their former state of glory. His progress will be instructive at so many levels.

After showing me around the walled garden and allowing me sufficient time to drool over it as well as the mosaic pool set just below to its side, Timothy led me on a horticultural adventure. The initial discovery of various ruins and debris after clearing decades of overgrowth had been absolutely thrilling for him. Now he could match photographs to actual locations on the property. His joy in showing me all of what he has unearthed and what still remains to be done was contagious. Whether it was the authentic Roman pillars or the old carriage trail or the rose arbors or where the daffodil drifts explode in spring or the Temple of Love, I was caught up in the excitement of coming upon the remains and envisioning them at the height of their times. This was history, archeology, architecture, horticulture and The Secret Garden all rolled into one exhilarating experience.

An astounding amount of work still remains to be done but what has already been achieved is just as impressive. Here is a garden brimming with such potential and possibilities. It absolutely must be restored or we will lose one of our nation’s great gardens.

There is an Untermyer Conservancy to which donations can be made. And while one waits for funds to roll in and the work to be done, word about this treasure must go out, visitors should come and all together we can bring this garden back to the way it ought to be. We owe this to ourselves and to generations ahead.

I’m already planning future visits when I can paint en plein air while at the same time acquire new gardening wisdom.

(c) 2012 Shobha Vanchiswar

Entrance to the walled garden

Into the garden

The view of the Palisades from the walled garden

The temple

The mosaic work

Roman pillars

To gardens yet to be restored

A viewing place. There used to be a waterfall here.

With Timothy Tilghman