Every schoolchild in the mid-Hudson Valley has made a field trip (or two) to the Vanderbilt Mansion, in Hyde Park. The former home of Frederick and Louise. Frederick is one of the grandest estates in the valley. Frederick was a grandson of Cornelius “the Commodore” Vanderbilt and was a shrewd business man himself. Unlike so many descendants of wealthy families, Frederick was able to add to his fortunes and thoroughly enjoyed improving not just his home, but also the grounds and gardens.
The grounds were among the first in the area to be developed. The son of original owner, Samuel Bard, was greatly influenced by the work of, while studying in England. Frederick Vanderbilt as careful to keep the maturing trees and naturalistic landscape in tact, but he favored a formal Italianate approach to gardens and that is how they have been maintained to this day, but a very dedicated group of volunteers in the Vanderbilt Garden Association. Unfortunately the gardens fell into disrepair, to say the least, while all available funding went to the restoration and upkeep of the mansion. It took a lot of work and digging to get them back to the showpiece they are today.
I spoke with 2 members of the association about how they went about convincing the Parks Department that this was a project worth undertaking and then the treasure hunt for clues to what the grounds and gardens looked like during the Vanderbilt’s tenure and signs of what remained of the garden’s “bones”.
You can watch the whole video or tour the transcript and photos, in the following pages. Just click on the links starting at the bottom of this page.
And don’t miss the top take-aways from my talk with volunteers Sue Williams and Susanne Gillespie. The gardens at Vanderbilt Mansion may look like the best money can buy, but money for historic restorations is limited and most of it goes to the house and other structures. The volunteers who restored and maintain these gardens had to be resourceful and Sue and Susanne let us in on some of their secrets.
Click to Page 2, if you’d rather view and read the slide show…
Smart Gardening Ideas from The Vanderbilt Historic Site
❦ The Vanderbilt Garden Association took a year to get organized, create a plan, and come up with a mission statement. They developed a 1 year plan, a 3 year plan and a 5 year plan, keeping maintenance in mind along the way.
This is great advice for anyone planning a new garden or a renovation. You won’t become overwhelmed and things will be less chaotic, especially if you are short of time or funds. Working in stages also gives you the opportunity to see things completed. Once you finish one task, the next one doesn’t seem so daunting.
❦ But before you do any gardening and especially restorations, look at the hardscape – the walls, stairs, paths, buildings – and replace them first. Get the bones right. Don’t jump ahead and start putting in plants they you’ll have to move later.
❦ Site the garden where you entertain.The Vanderbilts sited their formal garden where they would walk in the evenings and the rose garden was where Mrs. Vanderbilt took her guests for tea.
❦ The real start to gardening is in the fall when you compost the beds and till it in, because that compost takes up to four months to become available for the plants to use as nutrients.
❦ Perennials are more labor intensive than annuals. “Once the annuals are in they’re on their own and all you do is pluck weeds. Or deadhead, if you need to.” Perennials require a lot of close weeding, dividing, deadheading, and staking.
❦ The Vanderbilt estate had a water garden that was too deep for code.You can put a fake bottom in a pond, to raise the level. Just don’t use treated lumber or materials that could poison plants, fish, or wildlife.
❦ Pylam dye is a black vegetable dye that floats on top of the water. The water remains clear, but the dye topping becomes reflective. It also gives an illusion of depth and cut down on the formation of string algae.
❦ Mulch plays a big part in cutting down on their maintenance (weeding and watering). They mulch with shredded leaves, as does Locust Grove.
They use sawdust mulch in the rose garden from a reputable source. It’s clean and doesn’t cake or draw too much nitrogen from the soil.
❦ Synthetic liquid fertilizer is high in salts and eventually kills off the balance of organisms in the soil.
❦ Roses only live about 5 years. Hybrid teas were bred for greenhouse growing and don’t thrive in our area. They replaced them with the current Rugosas and the Fairy Tale and Explorer series. Shrub roses rated hardy to Zone 3 do well.
❦ Many of the inexpensive roses sold at garden centers and whatnot are just roses that are no longer under patent. They are still good plants.
Plants That Pass the Test of Time
❦ Go to annuals: Petunias, Begonias, Heliotrope, Lantana, Marigolds, Zinnias
❦ Standout perennials: Thermopsis, Carolina lupine, Dianthus, Mums, Irises (Siberian Iris and bearded Iris), Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Catmint
❦ They’ve also had good luck growing Concord grapes on their trellises and the ornamental cherry tree prunus ‘Okame’ along the Cherry Walk.
Click through the numbers below, to view and read the slideshow.