“Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers. Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby. There’s a slick town, Barnaby. Out there, full of shine and full of sparkle. Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby. Listen, Barnaby…” Famous words from the movie Hello, Dolly when Cornelius decides that he and Barnaby need to find adventure outside of Yonkers. Perhaps they had already seen all there was to do in Yonkers… I wonder though, had they already visited Untermyer Park & Gardens?
Back in the middle of September my wife had read her most recent copy of Martha Stewart Living. A publication steeped with interest for both my wife and me. Speaking directly to our passions, cooking for her and gardening for me, my wife learned of Untermyer Park & Gardens in Yonkers, New York situated on the Hudson River. My wife and daughter convinced me to plug the address into our navigation system and not ask any questions. An hour later we arrived at one of the most magical gardens I have ever seen.
Samuel Untermyer, an immensely successful corporate lawyer who was reputed to be the first to earn a one million dollar fee in a single legal case, purchased the “Greystone” property in 1899. The third owner of this property, Untermyer was determined to build “the finest garden in the world” and employed Beaux-Arts architect, William Welles Bosworth, to help fulfill his vision. A prominent American architect with a host of accomplishments under his belt, Bosworth had just completed the expansion of the Rockefeller gardens at Kykuit, the famous Rockefeller Estate north of Tarrytown, New York.
Although the gardens have fallen into disrepair, languishing for decades, there has been a resurgence led by the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy to make them one of the finest in the country again. For me, there are two prominent features that were so awe inspiring, it held my attention for the better part of that afternoon. The Walled Garden and The Vista are just two magnificent features that remain in tact on the 43 acres, not even a third of its original size, however.
The Walled Garden, based on the Garden of Eden, is perhaps the finest Persian garden in the Western Hemisphere. Crenellated walls and octagonal corner towers stand several stories tall. Upon entering the gardens you are greeted by two behemoth weeping beech. Said to represent two great trees (the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good And Evil), I spent a half hour enjoying the shade they provided on that warm, late summer day. Fastigiate beech help punctuate the geometry of the gardens and there are several newly planted specimens at which to marvel at. A stand of Katsura trees, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, towering over one of the octagonal corner towers had me appreciating their apricot fall color. However, they left me wanting more as I had hoped to partake in the senescing fall leaf color, where I could smell the spicy cinnamon/brown sugar scent they give off. I did take comfort in the fact they these giants exposed their shaggy, rugged bark that you can only appreciate on older specimens. A stunning Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica ‘Gyokuryu’, represented itself well. A dense, broad pyramid with short, dark green needles, I had forgotten how much I love this cultivar. And the surprise plant of the day, that even my wife gawked at, was a Bushclover type, Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Gibraltar’. Eye catching, rosy-purple, pea-shaped flowers swarmed this plant that had its extremities bending to the ground. A reliable late summer/early fall bloomer, this Bushclover surely did not disappoint. A deciduous beauty that benefits from being cut back hard the end of winter, you can expect it to grow 4-5 feet tall and 5-10 feet wide. Appreciating the hot summer sun and near drought conditions as I write this article, Lespedeza I find to be an underused plant in our landscapes today. A shame because its hardiness, reliability to flower and with no serious insect or disease issues should suggest its usefulness in the landscape. Not to mention it’s a nearly carefree plant.
Much of what I learned about Untermyer came from an unexpected source. A delightful woman, Elizabeth “Betty” Morgan, was on the property that day representing the park. Her seemingly boundless knowledge has come from her nearly 60 years of living in Yonkers. Her kindness, willingness to teach and enthusiasm for the property were just so genuine. I wonder, if Cornelius and Barnaby had met “Betty,” perhaps they would not have been so quick to leave Yonkers and explore?