PAGE DICKEY, 70, and her husband, Bosco Schell, 76, were soaking up the sun on their terrace here one afternoon a few weeks ago — floppy hats in place against the rays — explaining how they were simplifying their garden. Sort of.
“The first step is to replace perennials with shrubs and ground covers,” Ms. Dickey said, sipping her coffee after a hearty lunch of her homemade minestrone, whose onions, leeks, garlic and chard came straight from the garden. “We need an overall plan: more green architecture and less plants.”
Mr. Schell, a retired book editor, grew up in Hungary, where his family had a walled kitchen garden. He had peeled the Empires and Mutsus gathered from the orchard here for the fresh applesauce we had eaten, dribbled with cream.
“We talk about simplifying, but the whole joy of gardening is being creative,” he said. “And creativity usually means adding. You go to a nursery and you say, ‘Oh! That’s the perfect plant for us!’ ” (Like the little potted strawberry bush, named Venus, that they fell in love with at a plant sale, and then wandered around with for days, seeking a place for it.)
“Instead of simplifying, we’re complicating,” he added with a chuckle. Mr. Schell, who fled Budapest at 11, when the Germans invaded, can’t bear to throw away any plant; he makes more from seeds and cuttings, to give away or donate to plant sales at the local library.
As Ms. Dickey writes in “Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden,” to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, “A husband is all very well, but a husband in the garden is a mixed blessing.”
The two married 10 years ago, he a widower, she divorced, with 13 grandchildren between them. Now they have 3 dogs, 20 chickens, 4 runner ducks and 2 Royal Palm turkeys. And thousands of plants, from overgrown shrubs and trees and hedges to perennials constantly screaming to be staked or deadheaded or divided, or self-seeding all over the garden.
Mr. Schell is the plantsman, the collector, the one-of-everything type. She is the designer with the painter’s eye, who started building this garden 30 years ago, with her former, nongardening husband, when they moved to this three-acre remnant of a 19th-century farm with their four children. (She told that story in “Duck Hill Journal: A Year in a Country Garden,” published in 1991 by Houghton Mifflin.) It had a few old lilacs and dogwoods around the house, a woodland edged with sugar maples and a pasture overlooking the blue hills of the Hudson Valley.
Using the doors of the old clapboard house as site lines, Ms. Dickey, who is steeped in European as well as American gardens, created a series of terraces and hedged garden rooms, one opening to another, all on axis to the house.
She loved flowers then — peonies, roses, irises, lady’s mantle, bee balm, foxgloves, catmint — a multitude of perennials billowing over the crisp lines of geometric beds and trimmed hedges of privet, boxwood, euonymus, dwarf lilac, cornelian cherry, gray-twigged dogwood and hemlock, which is lightly sheared once a year.
Back then, she also had endless energy, for riding horses with her two daughters, tending her little flock of rare poultry from the Murray McMurray catalog, giving garden talks around the country, writing books (six, not including her latest) and rushing out to weed (her favorite thing) and divide and prune and plant more, whenever she could. Always accompanied, of course, by her dogs.
“I can’t imagine not having dogs — they’re such good companions,” Ms. Dickey said later that afternoon, as Posey, her long-legged lurcher (a mix of Scottish deerhound and greyhound) loped ahead of us down a path. Noodle, her miniature dachshund, and Roux, her Norfolk terrier, trundled along behind.
I had come up from my own overgrown garden in Maryland, where the shaggy privet is 12 feet high and the climbing hydrangea never stops climbing, seeking some inspiration on scaling back.
It’s one of the themes of “Embroidered Ground,” and an important one for boomers, who still have the passion for gardening, but not the backs for it.
“I have a fraction of the vigor I once had, with bones that now creak and muscles that scream in protest,” she writes.
But plants, of course, do not adjust to one’s diminishing energy and arthritic knees.
And she had married a man who could add but not subtract. Who would sneak red-striped yellow tulips into her careful combinations of mauves and purples and creams.
“It was not my vision, my plan,” she writes. But “Bosco and I are slowly, at times painfully, learning the art of compromise.”
Besides, he loves to prune, so what’s not to like?
Mr. Schell attacked a monster strawberry bush, Calycanthus floridus, one day when Ms. Dickey was out — “not there to confer, to criticize, to screech in protest,” she recounts in her book.
She had planted it years before by their bedroom, so that its delicious strawberry-pineapple scent would waft through the windows. But now, this 10-by-10-foot shrub was turning their room into a cave. Until Mr. Schell went at it, that is, reducing it to a rooted bit of the main stump.
They planted the tiny survivor by the paddock fence, which surrounds a small meadow, where it is now a good 8 by 6 feet, on its way to 12 by 12. (I don’t think there’s much hope for these two. They finally found a place for their new strawberry bush behind the herb garden hedge, where it too can grow into a giant.)
There is talk of ripping out the six-foot-high privet hedge that frames the main flower garden on the south side of the house. (It has to be pruned every couple of weeks in summer.) “But I don’t have the energy or the heart,” Ms. Dickey said.
Last summer, in the main garden, they managed to pull out the blue phlox, which tends to get mildew and self-seed everywhere. They are replacing it with shrubs like Little Lamb, a hydrangea that behaves itself, and Bud’s Yellow, a shrub dogwood with chartreuse branches that stand out in winter.
In the hemlock garden, so-called for the shaggy hemlock hedge that fronts the road, they have pulled out high-maintenance roses — more phlox and asters — and replaced them with variegated red-twigged dogwood, Japanese tassel fern and cranesbill geraniums.
These plants should take care of themselves. But Ms. Dickey cannot leave well enough alone. She has also planted Japanese anemones among the dogwood, imagining their white flowers swaying over the red twigs.
Is there any hope for this woman?
“It could just be grass,” she said, in a little voice, over coffee.
What aging gardener cannot relate. How can you yank up the plants that formed you?
One of the most beautiful gardens here is a courtyard of crabapple trees edged in boxwood, which flanks a wide path to the house. But with every year, their branches grow wider, and we had to walk single-file to avoid the beautiful dark berries dangling in our faces.
When the man who lovingly prunes them year after year asked her if she would consider taking them down, Ms. Dickey said no, of course.
“I stood there in horror, speechless, envisioning the void, the characterless space,” she writes in “Embroidered Ground.”
“They are beautiful still, especially in spring and winter,” she writes. “And I don’t have the energy to start again.”
Storms have made some of the hard decisions for her. A mini-tornado took down a line of great old sugar maples. Last summer’s heat and drought killed a favorite viburnum on the edge of the woods, and a fungus is decimating the ash trees.
“I wonder how long that one will last,” Ms. Dickey said, staring at a mighty sentinel at the top of the hill that leads to the fields and woodland, 200 acres preserved by surrounding landowners.
She and Mr. Schell have planted dogwoods where the sugar maples stood, and a red oak: “This will not do much in our lifetime,” she said. But that’s just it. These trees are for those who come next.
These days, both in Europe and in the United States, Ms. Dickey finds herself drawn to landscapes with simple mowed paths through high grass in an orchard. And here, at Duck Hill, she can envision just grass and shrubs within the bones of her hedges.
But seeing is one thing; doing is another. For now, Mr. Schell shows off the cuttings he has made of a variegated geranium, in a little pot in his greenhouse. It’s a beautiful space, made from the glass and framing of old greenhouses, attached to the east side of a sunny studio they call the Boscotel.
“I was going to shut down the greenhouse this winter because it’s so expensive to heat,” he said.
“I won’t let him, it’s too much joy,” Ms. Dickey said. “We’ll just have to not spend money on something else.”
It’s so hard to cut back, I observed.
Mr. Schell laughed.
“But it makes us feel better that we tried,” he said.
Simplifying the Terrain
If you have the heart to pull up beloved high-maintenance plants, you can replace them with interesting alternatives.
Page Dickey recommends deciduous shrubs for year-round interest, as they bloom, leaf out, change color and then lose their leaves to reveal bare branches that complement the winter landscape.
Beech trees, pruned once a year, make a beautiful formal hedge. Shrubs in the dogwood family can make striking informal hedges. Cornelian cherry, or Cornus mas, covers itself with a cloud of puffy pale yellow flowers in March; by summer, it is laden with bright red berries.
The native gray-twigged dogwood, Cornus racemosa, sports clusters of white berries on pink stems. “So when it loses its leaves, you see this haze of pink,” Ms. Dickey said. And its gray branches set off the buffs and browns of a winter landscape.
Burnet roses (Rosa pimpinellifolia) are handsome tumbling over a stone wall. Ms. Dickey planted some on the bank behind a retaining wall near her barn, an idea she got from Gertrude Jekyll, the Victorian English gardener and writer. The single-petaled white flowers with bright yellow stamens produce sweet black hips by fall.
Think about pulling up your barberry; not only is it full of thorns that can easily pierce a weeder, but it’s one of those invasives that birds eat and spread into the woods. Ms. Dickey replaced the low barberry hedge in her herb garden with dwarf Korean lilac, and shears it after it blooms.