Some decades ago, a young boy growing up in western New York was given a zinnia bed in his grandfather’s vegetable garden to tend. Meanwhile in Connecticut, another young boy gathered rocks, painting them white, which he placed carefully along his family’s driveway to better define it. Oftentimes, childhood experiments in horticulture and molding the landscape are fleeting interests, cast aside in favor of others and eventually forgotten. In rare instances, their spirit is carried on, in however circuitous fashions, to later be manifested in a sublime, mature statement. Such is the case in the garden of Peter Bevacqua and Stephen King in Claverack New York.
Passing through a white gate discretely tucked in a side street just off of Route 23B, one is immediately transported into a world far away from that busy thoroughfare. Inside, a gravel path framed by clipped yew and boxwood beckons. Beginning at a white-columned pergola draped with wisteria that ties their house to the landscape and nearby riot of elephant ears bordering another building, a multiplicity of different experiences unfolds. Strong sightlines and a masterful layout guide one through their journey, making the series of formal and informal areas feel far larger than their two-acre footprint.
The garden is a vivid expression of two distinct creative minds, focused artistic talents, and a strong relationship that began when Peter and Stephen met 40 years ago. Both had successful careers as Creative Directors in the advertising industry, which has served them well in designing their garden. Peter explained that the fundamental principles of putting the blocks that work together in a garden composition is not a dissimilar process in a sense to laying out a printed page, albeit with plant material.
In their case, the “blank page” which they were given to start with was an untended mass of tall grass behind the house they purchased in 1988. The couple was not even certain they would remain in that location for very long, originally looking for a place in a more remote, quiet area. Still, an old Lord and Burnham greenhouse sparked their interest, and the yard was graced with some mature trees. Perhaps imbued with the spirit from their youth, they began to garden there, co-opting existing elements not only from their own yard, but also the larger landscape. The foliage from maples in a neighbor’s yard provided blocks of background color to incorporate in their own compositions, for example. There was no master plan to start with, and garden truly evolved organically. When what other people might view as disasters struck, the pair quickly learned to turn these into opportunities. When the loss of a large Norway maple no longer provided shelter for the delightful shade garden, the pair decided to plant a small grove of Metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ in its place. The golden needles of the dawn redwoods now provide a vivid foil to the deep maroon leaves of an adjacent Red Maple. In nature as in life, everything changes, and a key to happiness is the willingness to change with it.
It has been a gratifying experience for the couple to garden in the same spot over the past 20 years, gaining an appreciation for the subtle shift in weight and texture of mature plantings, as well as the ability to observe even how the topography and condition of the land changes over time. In some instances, increased light, shade, or wetness informs design decisions or plant choices. In others, the acquisition of a specific object such as a statue of Demeter, or a specimen plant like a Variegated Silver Cloud Redbud, can alter the planning or outcome of an area.
Stephen’s lifelong love of architecture and interest in the merging of design with natural elements are evident in the dynamic relationship between the hardscape and horticulture in the garden. Sightlines not only lead the eye to objects and plants that anchor views, but advantage is also taken of perspectives through openings, doorways, or the curve in a path to frame or reveal scenes. These “frames” provide the perfect setting for Peter’s unique compositions of plant material for which he is justly well known. Peter explains his method as “layering”. Using a vocabulary of shrubs, hedges, perennials, and climbers, he blends or juxtaposes different elements to create tapestries that move the eye around, with an emphasis on the unique interplay of form and texture to create interest on multiple levels.
This is evident when walking through the garden and realizing that while flowers might play more of a supporting role here than in those full of traditional herbaceous borders, it is no less colorful for it. Even in winter, the garden holds interest and provides inspiration for the pair. Peter thinks about selecting plants with an appreciation for the texture of a particular bark or the underlying latticework created by bare intertwining deciduous branches, while Stephen uses the season to better observe the underlying structural element of the garden. A fresh blanket of snow even gave him the opportunity to map out the sinuous curves of a future hydrangea border in his boots.
The pair draws inspiration from many different sources, studying at gardens such as Great Dixter in England, looking at photographs, and noting the work of other great gardeners. A Jacques Wirtz-influenced billowing boxwood hedge serves a great example of this. While they learn from others, the garden is above all uniquely their own creation, a happy product of a collaborative relationship where each brings complementary individual strengths to the process, always discussing and moving forward on things together. Retired from their former careers, the married couple now resides in Claverack full time. Stephen is an artist (with an upcoming show at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson), and Peter the founder of his eponymous garden design firm, Peter Bevacqua Garden Design (http://www.pbgardendesign.com).
Luckily, Bevacqua and King are very generous in sharing their vision, frequently welcoming groups and interested individuals to their garden. This year, the public is welcome to visit the garden on Saturday, June 6th from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. as part of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program in Columbia County.
Conrad Hanson has been an enthusiastic, unapologetically amateur gardener since 1998, when he bought a house in Germantown, New York. He maintains a blog on gardening, architecture, home repair and regional activities at www.schoolfieldcountryhouse.com. Currently the Executive Director of the Friends of Clermont, he is an advocate of integrating historic preservation with the needs and issues of the community.