Photos by Lauren Thomas
Arriving at Mohonk Mountain House, surrounded by so much beauty, one tends to initially perceive the landscaping and gardens there as part of the entire vista, with all of it melding into an overall impression of loveliness. But stop and take a closer look, or better yet, a guided tour of the gardens. Each area of the landscape has been sculpted and shaped with a purpose under the direction of garden manager Andrew Koehn.
The showstopper of the gardens at Mohonk this year has been created around a theme of “The Planets,” offering a horticultural solar system with the flowering plant choices representing each planet and the Roman god or goddess the planets were named after. The different planetary groupings are arranged to “rotate” around the sun, represented by a towering bank of sunflowers. The colors in the planetary garden are stunning, with prominent use of intensely deep reds, pinks and purples, a true visual feast of saturated hues.
The planetary garden will be the featured attraction of Mohonk Mountain House’s 80th annual Garden Holiday event taking place this Sunday, August 23 through Friday, August 28. The yearly event at Mohonk, scheduled to take advantage of the last burst of summer blooms before autumn sets in, includes a number of gardening-related events and workshops each day in addition to guided walking tours of the garden and greenhouse. Participation in the events is included for overnight guests but those with a day pass who purchase a meal may attend a Garden Holiday event of their choice (with the exception of the Victorian Garden Party on Tuesday, August 25). Events range from demonstrations of floral design and the art of bonsai to sessions of outdoor garden yoga and the opportunity to learn how to create a floral “planet” of one’s own using a moss-covered sphere.
Complementary garden tours at Mohonk are offered to day pass guests year-round on Thursdays at 9:45 a.m. Tours of the greenhouse are also given on a regular basis with its garden shop offering plants available for purchase.
Recently New Paltz Times went on a tour of the gardens and landscape at Mohonk Mountain House with the Master Gardeners from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County. Our knowledgeable guide, Master Gardener Barbara Darbin, walked us around the grounds and through the various themed gardens as she explained what went into their creation. We saw the “white garden” — the white blooms intended to reflect the moonlight so that guests staying overnight can enjoy the sight of the blossoms from their balconies before retiring — and a children’s garden adjacent to the greenhouse, featuring stimulating scents, sights and sounds meant to encourage the next generation of land conservationists to develop a love of nature early on. (After all, what kid would be able to resist being intrigued by a raspberry bubblegum-scented snapdragon or rubbing the leaves of a “popcorn cassia” plant to see if they agree the scent of hot buttered popcorn is released?)
The Master Gardeners are trained volunteers who provide the public with gardening programs and activities that include their annual tour of the Mohonk Mountain House gardens. Drawing on the horticultural research and experience of Cornell University, the Master Gardeners provide services to Ulster County residents that include pH soil testing, insect and plant disease identification and plant selection and care recommendations.
Our tour began at the massive containers planted at the turrets on the east porte-cochère. Head gardener Andrew Sinno explained that the design principles used at Mohonk to create the displays begins with simplicity, utilizing a limited number of colors and plant materials in order to create a unified composition. As described by Sinno, their process sounds much the same as that of an artist composing a painting. The gardeners at Mohonk used only shades of pink and orange against dark-colored plant materials along with a variety of textures to move the eye around the composition. The oversize scale of the planters matches the size of the porch area they’re placed on, and the space that was available in the planters was used to best advantage by planting taller things in the back, medium size materials in the middle ground and plants that spill over the edges in the front.
Mohonk Mountain House has received a great deal of national recognition for their gardens and stewardship of the land. The gardens date back to 1869, reputedly started with a few geraniums planted near the lake by Albert Smiley. The gardens were originally designed within the picturesque or romantic style of landscape gardening — irregular in form with variety and boldness of composition to reflect the rugged scenery at the site — but have, of course, evolved over time. A Victorian maze was added next to the Rose Garden in 1998 and the grounds include an herb garden featuring a number of lavender varieties, plantings at the Barn Museum that include corn and reflect farm plantings, the “blue” garden (more purple than blue, as our guide Barbara Darbin pointed out), a cutting garden, a wildflower meadow, Ruth Smiley’s Fern Glen and a variety of interesting tree species, from the huge pawpaw tree outside the greenhouse to the towering Dawn Redwood tree from China with deceptively soft fernlike needles. There is a graceful Sweet Bay Magnolia tree, a few Corkscrew Willow trees (one with a photo op in its natural opening in the trunk) and the largest tree on the property, a massive Beech tree.
More information about the Master Gardeners is available at www.ulster.cce.cornell.edu/gardening/master-gardener-program. More information about the 80th annual Garden Holiday event at Mohonk Mountain House is available by calling the garden shop at (845) 256-2152 or visiting www.mohonk.com/programs/garden-holiday