Autumn Inspiration at Stonecrop Gardens: A Getaway in Cold Spring, New York

In the Hudson River Highlands, just an hour’s drive north from New York City, Stonecrop Gardens sits on twelve windswept acres. Once a private home and nursery for collectors of alpine plants, its owner, Frank Cabot, was the founder of The Garden Conservancy. Eventually Stonecrop became a public garden and an inspiration for gardeners interested in experimenting and exploring a wide variety of plants and design ideas.

Visitors to Stonecrop first encounter a charming, rustic entrance pavilion with a boardwalk that leads gradually uphill to an enchanting, glass-enclosed conservatory that is actually floating in a pond. A grove of white birch trees complements the white exterior walls – inside the conservancy is a warm refuge from brisk Fall winds. The plants on display include all sorts of exotic South African, Australian, and New Zealand bulbs, trees, and shrubs.

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Pit HouseforBulbs

Just beyond the conservatory is an old-fashioned potting shed where plant propagation work goes on all year round. Here you can meet up with Barbara Licis, who manages the garden office and helps visitors get oriented for self-guided tours.

Licis points out that Stonecrop is “unique in the diversity of its plants and mixture of different gardens.” Her favorite area is the “systematic order beds,” an educational feature of the garden with more than 80 different plant families arranged into plant orders and a phylogenetic family tree tracing the history of plant evolution.

Handmade Raised Troughs for Alpine Plants

Licis first directs us outside to the potting shed where there are several low stone beds for alpine plants. Alpines like to grow at very high elevations, often above the tree line, so the growing conditions at Stonecrop, at only 1,100 feet, have to be carefully maintained. The low beds are made from a naturally-occurring but scarce rock called tufa, which is both porous and high in calcium carbonate.  Experts say that tufa lets roots grow right through its pores and permits good drainage. The calcium carbonate provides minerals that alpines as well as acid-loving plants need.

Nearby, handmade raised troughs create a miniature garden for dwarf conifers and rock plants that grow in mats or cushion forms. These raised troughs are made of hypertufa (a combination of cement, sphagnum moss, perlite, and vermiculite) that is similar to natural tufa, but less expensive and more readily available. In the Fall and Spring the staff offers popular workshops on how to create your own stone troughs.

There also is an indoor alpine display house under glass and attached to the shed, and visitors may purchase individual specimens. Starting in January the display will include colorful Kabschia saxifrages followed by the European primulas.

Rock Ledge and Redwoods

In addition to the amazing alpines, Stonecrop– as its name suggests– is known for its gorgeous natural stone outcrops, especially its massive rock ledge and lovely streams that trickle down the face of the rocks. Stunning orange fall foliage on a Japanese Maple that stands near the ledge contrasts sharply with the grey rocks.

A series of smaller rock steps, placed by hand decades ago, helps visitors descend to a lake below. Water from the lake is circulated back to the top of the ledge. A flat flint stone bridge leads into a magical grove of very tall dawn redwood trees that are currently shedding clusters of yellow-orange Fall foliage.

Color-themed Flower Garden

Another area that is spectacular in autumn is the enclosed flower garden, which showcases a great variety of brilliant Dahlias blooming at their peak in the Fall. Color-themed beds in square and triangular shapes, many with steeple trellises for vines, contain plantings of roses, grasses, trees and shrubs. A large bed in the middle is a vegetable garden watched over by a life-sized straw and burlap lady–the image of the famous English landscape designer and artist “Miss Gertrude Jekyll.” She keeps an eye on the color scheme, according to the staff.

FLower Garden-Jekyll Image

The “renovation and revitalization” of the flower garden was the very first project of English horticulturalist Caroline Burgess, director of Stonecrop since 1984. Burgess spent some years as head gardener at Barnsley House gardens designed by Rosemary Verey, the “grande dame” of Cotswold English gardens. In an article about her early years at Stonecrop called the “History of the Flower Garden,” Burgess writes:

“Whilst working with Rosemary Verey and as a student at Kew, I visited countless gardens and worked with many gardeners, both famous and little-known. In fact, I did my third year thesis at Kew on the workings of the UK’s National Garden Scheme (NGS) and for years previously had spent each Sunday visiting every NGS Open Garden that was within a day’s ride on my motor bike….This mental catalogue of gardens provided me with a wealth of information and ideas from which to draw as I set to work in Cold Spring.”

The flower garden is probably the most challenging area to maintain of all the many areas, microclimates, and collections at Stonecrop, according to Licis. “Many of the plants are tender perennials and annuals that are dug up every Fall, potted, over-wintered, and then planted back in early summer,” she explains. “We also plant bulbs every fall since most are dug up when planting in spring and summer.”

No autumn visit would be complete without admiring all the blazing red and orange sugar maples standing near old stone walls dating from much earlier times when the whole property was a farm. You can even pick up a delicious apple or two taken from a lovely Canadian snow apple tree. The snow apple is one of the oldest known apple varieties, called the “Fameuse,” originating in France before being introduced in Canada and America. Like the entire garden surrounding it, the snow apple is fairly small, but so very sweet and richly rewarding to behold.

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