It’s hard to believe that Mohonk Mountain House is a family business, but it has been family run ever since Albert Smiley opened the doors back in 1869. The house itself is a sprawling mix of materials and architecture with 600 guest rooms and plenty of other spaces to entertain them. Stretching almost 1/8 of an acre, the house is now considered a castle. It wasn’t always this large. When Mr. Smiley bought property, there was only a 10 room inn and a tavern. Ah, but the property is what sold him. All 280 acres of it.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that the first few times I visited Mohonk, I didn’t even notice there were gardens. I went there to hike and I’ll excuse my oversight by saying that you really need to focus when you are navigating through the Lemon Squeeze. I could go on about the hiking, (75 miles, if you include the preserve), boating, tubing, golfing, horseback riding, and spa, but I’m here to tell you about the gardens.
The property is heavily forested, so it’s a wonder there are gardens at all. They say it all started with a few red geraniums that Mr. Smiley planted near the entrance to the house. I suspect they’ve been growing in size ever since and now encompasses about 30 acres of gardens and lawn.
The garden that grabs your attention first is the Victorian bedding garden. This is a rare site in this day and age and for good reason. It’s a lot of work. The gardening staff has this down to a turn key operation. I guess after a hundred years, they should be pretty darn good at it. They form a bucket line and move thousands of plants from the greenhouses to the carefully prepared garden beds – all annuals. You’ll see coleus, nicotiana, supertunias, and lots of new introductions.
Each year is a new design, although the layout of the garden remains the same. No doubt one of the things they’ve learned over the years, that makes this garden work. Each bed is filled with large swaths of a single type of flower and all the beds are labeled. However the best view is found when you climb up into the nearby cedar gazebo.
I’m told that 1 gardener is responsible for keeping these beds weeded. My hat goes off to him or her. This is a full sun garden and it covers a lot of space.
Although the overall feel of the Mohonk landscape is American picturesque, the English gardening style is most in evidence in the formal gardens. The Rose Garden is a sight to see in early spring. They added a Victorian maze next to it, which is worth getting through to see the cutting garden at its peak.
Most of the folks I’ve toured Mohonk with seem to linger longest in the herb garden, a semi-formal affair with a vine covered arbor. It’s as free flowing as the borders surrounding the house, which make a nice transition to the wilder landscape beyond.
Another English touch is the use of specimen trees throughout the rolling lawns. It’s nice to see this park-like scheme used here, since many of the trees used by Capability Brown in British landscapes were imported from America.
No visit to Mohonk is complete without a trip down to the greenhouses. It’s an education just to walk through them, but take some of that learning home with you. Most of the plants you see on the grounds are also for sale at the greenhouse.
If there’s a fault with Mohonk Mountain House it is that it is so expensive, even for a day visitor. I like to think of it as a treat and try to go when there is an event going on, like the week-long annual Garden Holiday. The Ulster County Master Gardeners also host a 1 day garden event each August.
I have a problem with estates that are frozen in time. They become musty and lifeless caricatures of themselves. Mohonk has a grandeur that can’t easily be replicated in our time and although it stays true to its heritage, it keeps evolving. In 1997, Mohonk received the Grand Award for Grounds Maintenance from the Professional Grounds Management Association, for their stewardship of the land. And a $13 million renovation brought modern conveniences to many of the resort’s attractions. And the hiking trails I knew as a teenager are much the same, but new spots for sitting and enjoying the view have – thankfully – sprung up.
Mohonk Mountain House
Lake Mohonk, New Paltz, NY 12561