Bellefield, designed by renowned garden designer Beatrix Farrand, was created as a private garden that is completely enclosed by a stone wall and long hedge. If you didn’t know where to look, you would definitely miss it. I’m glad I persisted. It’s a true treasure in a valley full of extraordinary gardens. And I’m very happy to report that a bright, new sign makes it much easier to find.
Bellefield sits on the corner of the FDR Estate, in Hyde Park. It was a private home, remodeled by the architectural firm that influenced so many Hudson Valley estates, McKim, Mead and White. It was donated to the National Park Service in the 1970s and, because of its proximity to FDR’s home, it was used as offices for the Park Service.
As with most formerly grand estates, the garden was in sad shape. Fortuitously, a visitor had a hunch that it was an important garden and, following some research, it was discovered to be a Farrand design. A group of volunteers (Where would these gardens be without volunteers?) Began the gratifying task of bringing the garden back to life.
Today it is an enchanting spot to visit and a wonderful chance to glean some of the design genius of a women who helped shape American garden design.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Executive Director, Karen Smythe, and Anne Symmes, Horticulturist and Gardner Educator. Both are huge Farrand fans, as am I. They shared some key elements of what makes this garden so special – the perspective, the color palette, the layering – as well as some intimate glimpses into Farrand’s life and her unusual training, in an era when most women did not have careers.
Farrand is best known for her work at Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington, D.C., but I think you’ll find Bellefield much more accessible. This is one of my favorite Hudson Valley gardens. I hope you enjoy it, too.
The video of our talk is below, followed by a list of some of their top take away tips.
If you’d rather read and view the Slide Show, click over to Page 2.
I hope you enjoy both and check out the other Big Ideas for Small Spaces talks.
Click to Page 2, to start the slide show…
Design Ideas from Bellefield, to Borrow for Your Garden
❦ Forced Perspective – Farrand made this private family garden seem much larger by creating a forced perspective. Each garden room gets a little more narrow, as you move away from the house. The walls change from the rough stone to the dark hedge. This telescoping effect makes the garden seem longer and also creates a destination at the end. We instinctively want to see where the garden goes. Anyone with a rectangular backyard could make use of this effect.
❦ The double borders at Bellefield do double duty. They make maintenance easier, because you can access more of the beds, without having to reach in. You can work in between the borders, without having to step inside them.
They also give the illusion of a larger border. From most spots in the garden, you can’t see the narrow, middle path. It just looks like one wide border. Both sides of the double border use the same palette of plants.
❦ Farrand liked to juxtapose the formal and informal. At Bellefield, she offset the formal symmetry of the rectangular garden by leaving the large elm tree slightly off the center axis.
❦ Consider the mature size of trees and shrubs, before you plant them, and be prepared for them to outgrow their space. The Halesia (Silver Bells) tree Farrand planted at the end of the garden was expected to be a small understory tree, like a dogwood, but it is now a towering specimen.
The borders were all planted with sun loving plants, but as the elm tree matured, it cast quite a bit of shade on the borders near the house.And then it died and had to be replaced by a much smaller tree. Although the sun was back, it would eventually be shaded out, as the tree grew.
Another factor to consider is root competition. As the trees mature, the smaller perennials lose out to the thirsty tree roots.
❦ Pay attention to your microclimates and don’t be afraid to push the envelope. Bellefield has had terrific luck growing Japanese anemones along the stone wall. Not only does it reflect heat, it also acts as a wind block, making the area a hardiness zone warmer than other parts of the garden. You could do the same with a wall or even a white wall on the south side of your house.
❦ Layer. A lot. Farrand underplanted her signature peonies with lots of bulbs. The bulbs flowered before and after the peonies and the peony foliage hid the fading leaves of the early bulbs.
❦ Farrand achieved volume in the garden by putting in a lot of tall, spiky plants like foxgloves, yucca, and Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus mollis).
❦ Farrand achieved a harmonious color palette throughout the garden by keeping each border somewhat monochromatic and working with only a handful of colors. One border is purple and mauve, one is cream and blush, with a lot of gray leaves, another extends the blush into pink and crimson the the final border is all white.
❦ Share. As Anne said, “The more you share, the better off you are.” The Historic Plant Center at Monticello was generous enough to share some heirloom ‘Black Prince’ Iris tubers with Bellefield. A few years later, Monticello lost their iris and were delighted to have Bellefield return the favor.
❦ Farrand frequently used a very basic, but sturdy trellising made of upright 2 x 4s bolted to the wall, with staking bamboo woven horizontally through them.
❦ Deer fencing is worth the expense and effort. It probably pays for itself in the amount of plants you won’t have to replace.
Plants Used at Bellefield and Recommended for Hudson Valley Gardens
❧ Peonies form the backbone of Bellefield, early in the season. Many of the original peonies at Bellefield survived several years under black plastic. (And they’re deer resistant!)
❧ Iris is a classic partner for peonies. In addition to ‘Black Prince’ mentioned above, they sourced many historical irises through The Historic Iris Preservation Society.
❧ Tulips are short-lived, but integral to the garden and considered worth the effort of planting. ‘Thalia’ is a pure white that is also very fragrant.
❧ Easter Lilies (Lilium longiforum) can be grown in Hudson Valley gardens, but don’t expect blooms at Easter. Instead, expect to be surprised by them in July.
❧ Dame’s Rocket, (Hesperis matronalis), which some consider a roadside weed, is appreciated as a wildflower, at Bellefield. It looks like a phlox and blooms early, before the peonies. It can become a nuisance, so plant with caution.
❧ Summer Hyacinth (Galtonia candicans) is a tall bulb (3-4 ft.) with dangling white flowers that emerges after the peonies bloom.
❧ Ragged Robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) is an unusual, but short-loved perennial with pink-purple, star shaped flowers. It self-sows and ingratiates itself throughout the border.
❧ Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) ‘Honorine Jobert’ is great for late season white blooms, from August through frost. Can handle shade, but needs a somewhat moist soil. They have some problems with it surviving long, cold winters.
❧ Mock-orange (Philadelphus coronarius) Is planted close to the terrace, to enjoy its citrus fragrance. These days, there are many hybrids to choose from.
❧ Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) was used as a replacement for the lost American elm (Ulmus americana). Farrand used Chinese elms in other designs, so it looks quite at home at Bellefield.