As one of my companions said, “If God had money….” (the assumption being that if God had money, God would have created the Steinhardt Garden.)
I was able to join a private tour of these magnificent gardens in Mount Kisco recently. I wouldn’t even tell you about it, except that the gardens ARE open to the public two days a year, so plan ahead if you like incredible gardens, (and zoos.) Check the Garden Conservancy’s Open Garden Days, and you’ll find this marvel listed as being open on November 2, 2008. Put it in the date book. Fall will be spectacular in the Maple Garden.
Our double pleasure was that Jerome Rocherolle, the designer of the gardens, accompanied us on our tour. He is a man with French roots, and charm to match. In addition, he has done a superb job of creating the garden part of this immensely diverse and pleasing venue.
He and his wife, Carole, own and operate Shanti Bhiti Garden Design in North Stamford, Connecticut. However, from what I observed, they must spend most of their time at this unusual and time-consuming place.
I’m certain that each of us who were there on this tour had his or her own special favorite part, and I must confess that I had several. One of my lasting impressions was, not surprisingly, my first. The gates at the entry, made in France by a master ironmonger, are designed in the form of two peacocks, and are very light and graceful. Several other fences and gates by the same artist can be seen around the garden.
We parked in a courtyard surrounded by some attractive shingle style barns, and directly in front of me I saw a garden bed with a huge blue hydrangea surrounded by very healthy daylilies. This was a good portent.
We are talking here of a huge fifty-five acre estate, once owned by Theodore Dreiser, of An American Tragedy fame, and now covered with more than 2,000 species of trees, shrubs and perennials within its naturalistic setting. Many ponds dot the area, and an exotic animal zoo is a major feature.
There are also several memorable bridges across the waterways, including a moss bridge, and a bright red Chinese one.
We wandered around the animal paddocks, where the exotic birds winter, enthralled by Jerome’s explanations (even though he is not responsible nor extensively knowledgeable about the zoo animals or birds) and his attention to the diverse day lilies around the animal areas, and the enviable greenhouse.
The array of waterfowl was amazing, especially unusual birds from all parts of the world. To my eye, the hemerocallus were more interesting than the lemurs and monkeys and the waterfowl, even the gorgeous East African crowned crane.
We followed this pied piper at a discrete distance from the main house residence to the unusual stone sculpture created by Jerome himself, from ancient Chinese stones (I mean hundreds of years old, and hauntingly beautiful.) We followed him to the charming alpine garden, past lush raspberries dripping off rich green bushes, (where apparently no hungry bird would DARE to go, but I’m not sure why.) We followed him past the most elegantly landscaped tennis court in my memory. Then we walked through a dark forest to the massive fern garden and bridges, past delicious vistas through another woodland garden, over the red Chinese bridge to the lotus pond, until we came upon the irresistible maple garden. Here is where Jerome’s connection to and love of Bonsai really begins to appear.
When I first heard there was a Japanese maple garden here, I wasn’t much impressed. That is, until we started walking through the area where they are. Now I could easily see why there is so much interest in these rare species of lacy maples from foreign lands. Later I learned of the interest that Jerome and his very talented wife, Carole, have in Bonsai, which is the specialty of their garden center.
The walk through the maple garden, with the sunlight shining through the delicate leaves, was something brand new and most memorable for all of us. I’ve never seen such a huge variety and concentration of Japanese maples. No wonder they are already famous in garden circles.
The Rocherolles have traveled the world over in search of unusual specimens of maples, of rocks, and of other exotica that interests them and their employer, the owner of the gardens. They have had many adventures and they have many great stories to tell.
After our morning tour with Jerome, complete with running commentary, we had our picnic lunch on the property at a lovely site called The Ruins. The Ruins is an area of the property that had belonged to Theodore Dreiser. When the Dreiser summer residence had been torn down, the stonewalls and tall fireplace chimney had been left intact to make a garden folly.
By now the fireplace chimney was covered in vines, there was a lovely view down to the ponds, and there were flowering gardens and wildflower fields all around. Several types of garden seating and picnic tables awaited. This had to get a prize for brown bag lunch venues.
There are many layers to this garden, its owners, and its landscapers. The story of Carole and Jerome is laid out in all its confessional glory in the irresistible The Landscape Diaries: Gardens of Obsession, an autobiographical landscape design book written by Carole herself.
It contains their biographies and the history of their landscape business, but also contains the history of this remarkable garden. You may wish to find this book just for the eccentric story, and certainly for the lovely photographs.