This past week I attempted to impose order on the natural world by building new garden beds, pulling weeds, raking the remnants of the winter garden debris, and planting out sweet peas. I feel gratified, even though I know that the faint buzzing in my ears is the sound of the unplucked weeds laughing at me. A tidy garden is an ephemeral thing, but I find that fact is less distressing than the sight of a weed-choked bed. It’s enough to make me search for answers in classical philosophy—or in a spray bottle of Round-Up.
The ephemeral nature of the gardens came home to me last week when I went to visit Untermyer Park in Yonkers, New York. Untermyer Park sits on the site of an estate formerly known as “Greystone”, that was once home to defeated Presidential candidate Samuel Tilden. Tilden, Al Gore’s political kinsman, retired to Greystone in 1876 after receiving a majority of the popular vote, waiting while the Electoral College’s returns were disputed, and finally losing the election when an “electoral commission” split along party lines and elected Rutherford B. Hayes by one vote. Tilden was neither the first nor the last to decide that he would encounter less manure in the pursuit of agriculture and gardening than he would in party politics.
Tilden made impressive gardens at Greystone, but the estate did not come into its glory until after it was purchased in 1899 by New York lawyer and self-made millionaire Samuel J. Untermyer. Driven partly by the interest in horticulture and partly by a competitive streak that led him to try and outshine wealthy neighbors like John D. Rockefeller, Untermyer filled his property with fabulous gardens. The most impressive of them was christened the “Greek Garden”. About an acre in size, the layout was walled on three sides, with a dramatic view of the Hudson on the fourth. Though Greek-style columns, motives and statuary were used throughout the garden, the design, with its intersecting canal-like watercourses owes much to Persian and Middle Eastern models.
From Untermyer’s day to the present, the Greek Garden has contained a range of flowering plants and trees, but it owes its uniqueness to its architecture, mosaics and use of water. An amphitheater dominates one end, adorned by an imposing pair of tall marble columns, each topped by a Minoan sphinx. On the side west side of the garden, a Greek temple looms over a lower terrace that is home to a now-empty mosaic-tiled pool flanked by two grassy rectangles. In Samuel Untermyer’s day, Isadora Duncan’s dance troupe performed there.
The slopes of the Untermyer estate were extensively terraced. A flight of “1000 steps” led down from one side of the Greek Garden towards the river. The flight was interrupted by a series of landings, each leading to a terraced bed planted with a color-themed garden. The steps culminated in a “Vista Overlook” that faced the Hudson, looming over the estate’s gatehouse. Untermyer also had a naturalistic rock garden with a folly that was known as “The Temple of Love”. Apparently this particular feature was popular among the wealthy property owners along the Hudson, with several millionaires commissioning their own “Temples of Love.”
But all that love and all that money did not change the ephemeral nature of gardening. After Untermyer’s death in1940, the estate was donated to the City of Yonkers for use as a public park. Municipal money was tight, and for years the gardens languished, deteriorating as the weeds took over and the effects of weather and vandalism multiplied. Now restoration efforts are underway, and Ellen Meaghar, Grants Administrator for Untermyer Park, is hard at work trying to find funds to shore up the infrastructure and repair the mosaics, columns and follies. As replanting takes place, low maintenance cultivars must be chosen. Samuel Untermyer had a staff of 80 gardeners. Mitchell Tutoni, Yonkers’ Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Conservation can spare only two. Clearly Untermyer Park needs friends with deep pockets and volunteers with willing hands.
My visit to Untermyer Park made me look at my own weeding chores in a new way. After all, if weeding and trimming had continued at Greystone after Untermyer’s death, the property might be a glorious series of gardens today, rather than a splendid ruin.
Individual gardens may disappear, but the discipline of gardening, with its emphasis on maintenance, goes on forever.