The abstract-expressionist painter Robert Dash (b. 1934) has spent the past 44 years transforming two acres of Sagaponack farmland into an original, quirky maze of garden follies and styles.
The property, the Madoo Conservancy, at 618 Sagg Main Street, is open to the public for a $10 admission fee on Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 4 from May 15th until September 15th (and by appointment at other times). Courtesy of the director, Alejandro Saralegui, I visited on Tuesday—and at first I thought I’d wandered into a Tim Burton fantasy of Edward Scissorhands meets Alice in Wonderland. The narrow, meandering paths led me into areas with names like “The Oriental Bridge” and “The Laburnum Arbor,” “The Hermit’s Hut” and “The Potager.” I was chased by a flock of turkeys and enchanted by the house and painting studio, where lectures are given and private events can be held.
Dash has experimented with trees and plants of every size, shape and national origin. He’s studied horticulture and historical styles from the ancient Greek and the High Renaissance through Gertrude Jeckyll English, and incorporated all of them into the melange. He’s designed, planted, pruned, built, rebuilt, painted, decorated, and sculpted with plant material.
The grove of ginko trees underplanted with boxwood was my favorite space at Madoo. “Rather a wild stroke,” he admitted in his beautifully designed booklet, “A Walk thorugh Madoo,” available at the Conservancy office. The booklet gives the origin of the name (“Madoo is old Scots for ‘my dove’”) and provides fascinating details, such as: “The quincunx is one of the very oldest garden strategies. It is to the Greek traveler and Xenophon that we owe this plan. He claims to have seen it in the gardens of Cyrus the Great, the illustrious Persian… it is a device for creating light and shadow in the desert. A tree is planted towards the corners of a perfect square and one is installed dead center. They are then limbed up and cubed, the resulting masses creating an enfilade of light and shadow. It was a place where people sat or strolled and were refreshed.”
East Hampton: The Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden
Thus refreshed, I drove into East Hampton, where I always sigh when I turn the corner into the village, and Route 27 turns from a two-lane highway—usually clogged with traffic—into a country thoroughfare with green center divider and views of windmills and great colonial houses, some of which are now inns and restaurants. On that elegant stretch of Main Street, across the street from Guild Hall, there’s a worthwhile, free public garden behind the 1784 Clinton Academy restoration.
Designed and maintained by members of the Garden Club of East Hampton, the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden showcases the low-maintenance, indigenous plants of Long Island and demonstrates good conservation practices in action. The plantings are well labeled and include Rosa virginiana (a wild rose now dripping with huge orange fruits or hips), Rhodendron calendulaceum (flame azalea, which is glorious in spring, but looks good even now), Cimifuga racemosa (black cohosh, currently showing off its dramatic seed heads), Aristolochia macrophylla (Dutchman’s pipe grass), and many other grasses, ferns, and perennials, including wild ginger and columbines.
Bridgehampton: Marders Nursery
After some high-end window-shopping, I visited Marders on Snake Hill Road just north of the highway in Bridgehampton, one of the best of many excellent nurseries in the Hamptons.
Nurseries are places of inspiration: you’re welcome to wander around, discover new plants and plant combinations, and get advice from local experts. You establish a relationship and return again and again (with your checkbook or credit card).
And Marders is more than a nursery: the 28-acre property includes the Silas Marder Gallery with art exhibitions (the current show is called “Beautiful Pieces”); an outdoor movie theater where there are free screenings of classic films like “Jules and Jim” and “Psycho” every summer Friday at dusk; a three-story barn that houses the offices, retail store and space where garden lectures are given. In fact, tomorrow, there’s a fall pruning lecture at 10 a.m., and you can attend lectures on harvest and holiday wreath-making though December 4th. The store offers 7,000 square feet of garden gifts and artifacts: books, baskets, pots, silk and dried flowers, candles, tableware, and right now, an impressive selection of bulbs for fall planting.
But you go there for the plants: specifically for the shrubs and trees. Landscape consultant Steve Scott gave me a tour of the property via golf cart, explaining that the business is evenly divided between retail sales, landscape design, and property maintenance. “We specialize in mature trees,” he asserted. “Ten acres are devoted to trees ‘in the ground,’ before they’re balled and burlapped for sale. And most trees, especially the unusual specimens, are brought in from all over the country,” he said.
You can also learn, via the price tags, how much your own trees might be worth. At our house there are five 20-foot cryptomerias, planted by the previous owners, outside our lower-level windows. The price of one Cryptomeria Japonica Yoshino at Marders: $16,800. A Japanese maple like the Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ on our front lawn: $14,800. Knowing this makes me more appreciative of the relatively low annual investment in maintenance by Keith Schepart of Taconic Tree Care Inc., who just sent me a reminder letter that it’s fall transplanting and pruning season.
“So, when I read somewhere that Jerry Seinfeld had 50 mature trees planted at the East Hampton mansion he bought from Billy Joel, did he buy them here?” I asked Steve Scott. “Jerry is here all the time,” Steve confided. “With his property manager. Celebrities like him and Christy Brinkley don’t come here by themselves. They come with their landscape designers and property managers. They easily spend $1 million every summer on landscaping.”
It’s easy to spend at inspirational nurseries like Marders. But right now the evergreens are all on sale, 40% off. And so are dozens of beautiful oversized, glazed ceramic pots, each of which could be a focal point in any garden. Personally, I have my eye on a pair of small, affordable evergreens: Thuga plica ‘Whipcord,’ described by the grower, Iseli Nursery, Inc. in Oregon, as follows: “The unusual foliage on this low, mop-head-like plant consists of long, thick, glossy tendrils that suggest Independence Day fireworks. Unlike the species, which is a giant forest tree, the many branches seem to explode upward and send sparks cascading in all directions. Green in summer, the foliage changes to bronze in winter, matching the richly colored wood. Every garden can accommodate the small, dynamic conifer (only about 5′ tall and 4′ wide) that demonstrates some deer resistance.”