Friday, June 21, 2013

Gatsby Gardens

Posted by: Alexis Alvey, Horticulture Agent in Denver County

I'll admit that I am a dork at heart.  But unlike most of my colleagues, I don't just geek-out about plants - books and American literature will induce the same type of nerdy enthusiasm.  (And don't even get me started on plant books!)  So when I found out that a new film was being made about The Great Gatsby, a book that I've read not once, not twice, but three times, I pretty much flipped-out.  (And Leonard DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby was a huge bonus!)  I was super-excited to see Gatsby's enchanted gardens, where "men and girls came and went like moths, among the whispering and the champagne and the stars" on the big screen.  Did the exquisite gardens live up to the magnitude of greatness I had created in my head?  Well, unlike the critics, I thought Baz Luhrmann's over-the-top directing did a great job of conveying the splendors and excesses of New York during the Roaring Twenties.
Being that Colorado is a tinderbox and entrenched in wildfires at the moment, I thought I'd use this blog post to provide a brief reprieve by describing some of the lush, green, Gatsby-esque gardens I've had the pleasure of visiting on Long Island, NY.

The front entrance to the Old Westbury Gardens mansion
The Long Island Gold Coast, which encompasses Gatsby's legendary West and East Eggs, occupies the North Shore of Nassau County, from Great Neck to Huntington.  Over a dozen estates, once owned by some of the most famous people of NY, have been converted to public use.  Most of these mansions were built from 1890 to 1925, and they were the playgrounds of the great barons of the Industrial Revolution, including the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts, Whitneys, Pratts, Morgans, and Woolworths.
Old Westbury Gardens is one of my favorites.  Located in Old Westbury, it was the home of John S. Phipps, his wife, Margarita Grace Phipps, and their four children.  John’s father was Andrew Carnegie’s business partner, and as such, he was heir to the US Steel fortune.  Completed in 1906, the magnificent Charles II-style mansion sits amid 200 acres of formal gardens, landscaped grounds, woodlands, and ponds.  It has been open to the public since 1959.  Perhaps you have seen it yourself, because it has been the site of many films, including Cruel Intentions, Hitch, and Gossip Girl.

Old Westbury Gardens
One of the key questions that Old Westbury Gardens wrestles with, is how do you maintain a historic landscape in the modern age that is for public use?  What happens when old, magnificent trees start to decline and invasive pests come in?  Old Westbury Gardens has invested great amounts of time, effort, and financial resources for tree preservation.  There is an old allee of European Lindens (Tilia x europaea) that traverses the property from the ornate entrance gate to the mansion.  If one tree goes, the whole effect of the allee is compromised.  These trees are routinely pruned for deadwood, and an integrated pest management program has been created for them, which focuses on improving the soil environment.

Another former Gold Coast mansion and now public garden has taken a different approach to a similar problem.  Planting Fields Arboretum is located in Oyster Bay on Long Island and was the "country cottage" of William Robertson Coe and Mai Rogers Coe.  William made his fortune in marine insurance and Mai was the daughter of one of the partners of Standard Oil. 
Planting Fields Arboretum pool
Their 65 room Tudor Revival cottage, Coe Hall, was completed in 1921.  The arboretum is comprised of 409 acres of greenhouses, rolling lawns, formal gardens, woodland paths, and plant collections.  At the time, the grounds were landscaped by the famed Olmsted Brothers. 

As a child growing up in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Mai Coe was particularly fond of two European purple beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) on the grounds of her home.  So, when she moved to Long Island, she decided to bring them with her.  In December 1915, the two trees were moved by barge across the Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay, where they were dragged on skids by teams of horses and a steam roller.  Each tree was about sixty feet in height and about forty feet wide, and each weighed more than 28 tons.  Only one of the trees survived the transplanting.  For ninety years, the one purple beech tree towered majestically in front of Coe Hall, cooling the building in summer and tempting visiting children to climb it's enormous branches.  Then, in about 2005, the tree finally succumbed to disease and had to be removed.  But before it was cut down, the foresighted Arboretum Director, took a cutting from the original tree.  The cutting now stands about twenty feet tall, and in a few decades will become the majestic tree that its parent once was. 
Planting Fields beech tree cutting
Perhaps The Great Gatsby will inspire you to someday visit the gardens of Long Island's Gold Coast.  But in the meantime, we can focus on our own backyards and dream of the grandeur that once was.  Personally, I'm just glad I will never have to orchestrate the moving of a 28 ton tree!

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