EVER watch someone entering a garden? Not for nothing is Eden synonymous with bliss. A garden can deliver pleasure on any level of sophistication — from simple delight in color and scent to the thrill of a horticulturist seeing a new variety for the first time. Joy is the common denominator.
In the Hudson Valley — prime territory for lush gardens — five that are open to the public showed a variety of personalities on visits this season. At one, a young man in khaki shorts sat sketching formal plantings while a young mother and her toddler son frolicked near multicolored blooming borders and a woman strolled blissfully among fragrant bushes. At another, schoolchildren listened to a guide talk about the scenery.
Early one morning, a charming walled garden was deserted except by an energetic chipmunk playing hide-and-seek among the pansies. And in the woodland section of Stonecrop Gardens, a diverse landscape near Cold Spring, a group of garden-club women from Connecticut strutted their stuff, naming the wildflowers as fast as they spotted them.
The valley is an easy day trip from New York City and a center of lavish estates with masterfully designed grounds. Here are five of its gardens.
Lasdon Park and Arboretum
If "public park" means well-worn playgrounds to you, you haven't been to Lasdon. The first thing visitors see is an elegant formal garden whose well-tended panels are framed by boxwood hedges. In the corners are pots of blooms. Everything is changed three times a year; now, in midsummer, the garden is a riot of deep purples, reds and whites, with petunias, nicotiana and alyssum among the flowers. At a fountain in the center, water burbles through pipes played by two nymphs, almost in a lullaby. What peace!
There are 234 rolling acres to see at Lasdon, now a Westchester County park but once the country estate of William and Mildred Lasdon, whose Colonial Revival-style home survives as a gallery and a horticultural library. Of course, it has gardens in the yard — where visitors may linger at umbrella tables and browse in the garden shop, which occupies the pool house.
In summer, coneflowers of all colors — red, orange, white, pink, you-name-it — predominate. The sight is even splashier in spring, when a hillside of azaleas blooms in a rainbow of hot pink, white, coral, lavender and magenta. Hundreds of fluffy bumblebees buzz among the blooms.
Lasdon Park, on Route 35 in Somers, N.Y., is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily year-round (914-864-7260; www.westchestergov.com/parks). Admission is free.
The mansion at Montgomery Place, the 434-acre Livingston family estate, is closed, but don't skip this landmark, now owned by Historic Hudson Valley, a nonprofit network of historical sites. Not only are the gardens beautiful, but the Livingstons' view is one of the best panoramic vistas of the Hudson I have ever seen. Trees frame three distinct views of the wide, shimmering river, and a small pond at the bottom of the lawn seems to bring the river closer than it really is.
The 19th-century landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing advised the family on the layout of the grounds, though his influence today is best seen in the woodsy trails; the gardens were redone in 1920s and '30s.
The formal gardens, in a Colonial Revival pattern, mix flowers and herbs. Thyme surrounds the sundial (get it?), and the blocks are planted with curly chive, rosemary, lemon balm, catmint and yarrow. Along one border of the garden, the floral palette is hot (reds, purples, bright yellows) and along the other, it's light and airy (pinks, blues, whites), with phlox and baby's breath.
Another feature is a stout 200-year-old tulip poplar, whose gnarled branches can't hide a gash that was, at some time past, filled in with bricks and mortar. It's one of many majestic old trees on the property.
The best spot may be the "rough garden." Divided by a stream and a waterfall, it looks like an unruly child. Plants grow every which way: blue lacecap hydrangea, white elderberry, pink rhododendron and much more. Listen for the splashes, too — of many frogs!
Montgomery Place (Route 9G, Annandale-on-Hudson; 845-758-5461; www.hudsonvalley.org/montgomeryplace) is open on weekends May to October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission is $5.
Tucked inside the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, Bellefield is overshadowed by its sprawling neighbor, which includes Springwood, the Roosevelts' home, and a museum and library. That's a shame. Bellefield, which dates to the 18th century and is now the onsite headquarters of the National Park Service, is modest, but its garden is a charmer. It was designed in 1912 by Beatrix Farrand, a renowned landscape architect at the height of her career. She not only created gardens for the Rockefellers, the Morgans and Edith Wilson at the White House, but also pioneered the concept of "garden rooms" with their own feel. And she was Edith Wharton's niece.
To reach Bellefield, turn left at the end of the historic site's entrance drive (there's a small "Bellefield" sign). Walk around to the side terrace. Down a few steps is the garden — a wonderland whose fieldstone walls, laced with wisteria and other vines, block out the outside world.
Bellefield's garden seems to be a common backyard garden until you notice that it really is three garden rooms. They stretch from the house's terrace to an arched doorway, with a velvety green lawn down the middle that narrows twice, elongating the space. In the walls along the way, Farrand placed two more arched oak doors, with black Arts and Crafts-style hardware.
The mixed borders are a color-themed mass of lilies, phlox, cleome, snakeroot, monkshead and the like in shades of pink, white, mauve and purple. The palette grows lighter — becoming cream, blush, gray and white — as the garden narrows. Gaze at this from the terrace, which offers a few tables and chairs for weary feet, and you just might feel a lord of a manor.
The Farrand garden, at 4097 Albany Post Road (Route 9), Hyde Park (845-229-5320; www.beatrixfarrandgarden.org)_is open daily from 7 a.m. to dusk; admission is free.
Just 12 acres, Stonecrop might seem at first like a little gem. But it's really a vault full of jewels, all the more surprising because you approach it on an unpaved road.
Inside, surrounding a country manor house built in 1958 by Anne and Frank Cabot and now owned by a nonprofit corporation, are thickets of blooms — a few are salvia uliginosa, ruta graveolens, tweedia caerulea and dozens more on a handout lists running several single-spaced pages. You are in another world, not least because Stonecrop changes dramatically as you walk from one area to the next. One minute you're in a bamboo grove so thick you have to hold back the branches; the next, on a rocky ledge amid teeny alpine blossoms of brilliant red, purple and pink.
One highlight is the "inner sanctum" in a lattice design. Around the walls are shrubs, grasses and roses, framing beds filled with changing displays. In mid-July the day lily collection is in full bloom, with more than 75 varieties in colors from dark purple-maroon to dusky peach and soft yellow. Charmingly, there's also a vegetable garden. It's watched over by an obese burlap scarecrow nicknamed Miss Gertrude Jekyll after the influential garden designer who created more than 400 gardens in Britain, Continental Europe and the United States.
Leaving the inner sanctum, you'll see another highlight — a whimsical pavilion. Its first story has a footprint in the shape of a cross, with a moon window at each end that looks out at a different garden view. Atop that is a second story shaped like a zigurrat, covered in clematis and very soon, clerodendrum trichotomum, or glorybower. (Go back next spring for wisteria.)
The garden is at 81 Stonecrop Lane, off Route 301 east of Cold Spring (845-265-2000; www.stonecrop.org) and is open April to October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday as well as the first and third Saturdays of each month and on selected Sundays; admission is $5.
Van Cortlandt Manor
At this mid-18th-century estate in Croton-on-Hudson, visitors watch workers in period dress churn butter, craft brooms, forge iron, stitch quilts, cook on an open hearth and — of course — tend the heritage gardens that provide ingredients for many of those activities. This manor, too, is run by Historic Hudson Valley.
Garden aficionados will want to stroll the Long Walk, an ornamental flower garden that flanks a red-brick way traversing the property. In July, it's flush with zinnia, passion flowers and baptisia.
Past the Ferry House, once a resting spot for stagecoach travelers on the old Albany Post Road, a pebbled trail wends into the woods along the Croton River just as it's about to empty into the Hudson. Look for the stone post that marks the distance to New York City as 40 miles.
Back near the house is the herb garden, which in May was bright with woad, a yellow flower that produces blue dye. The adjacent spiky purple blooms are chive. Nearby are hops, appropriate because the van Cortlandts acquired much of their wealth from breweries. Over the months, the vegetable garden flourishes with tobacco, broccoli, squash and pumpkins.
The manor, on South Riverside Avenue (914-271-8981; www.hudsonvalley.org/vancortlandt) is open daily, except Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from April to October and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends in November and December. Admission to the grounds is $5; a $12 ticket includes a tour of the house.