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Garden Visit: At Home with Silas Mountsier in New Jersey

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Garden Visit: At Home with Silas Mountsier in New Jersey

February 11, 2016

In spring the semicircular grass berm behind Silas Mountsier’s house in Nutley, New Jersey, is littered with daffodils blooming beneath slender redbud trees. Mr. Mountsier, 87, was born here, and liked it enough never to leave home.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

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Above: Between the flowers are the first fresh spikes of Japanese forest grass, always late to start after winter hibernation.

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Above: Leading visitors around the April garden is Graeme Hardie, Mr. Mountsier’s partner, and the moving force behind this garden’s evolution from an overgrown suburban afterthought to a horticultural and design showpiece, open to the public annually for charitable garden tours, and visited often by friends.

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Above: Since the spring of 1992, garden designer Richard Hartlage, a friend of Mr. Hardie, has worked with the two men to re-envision this landscape, transforming it gradually into a series of distinct spaces whose characters range from grand to intimate, always held together by the constant theme of countless greens.

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Above: Intimate living areas invite quiet conversation and contemplation.

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Above: There is plenty to contemplate: part of the motivation behind this garden’s metamorphosis was the need to show to proper effect Mr. Mountsier’s extensive outdoor art collection, which is now incorporated effortlessly within the botanical scheme.

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Above: From the patio beneath cherry trees (a favorite spot for spring and summer lunches) a Burmese storage urn offers the viewer a three dimensional pause before taking in the verdant expanse beyond where Dainty the cow (a life-size bronze piece by Geraldine Knight) chews cud perpetually on the lawn.

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Above: There is an intimacy between the smooth skin of the Shiva from Mamalapuram and the young spring blue of indigenous Mertensia virginica; Hartlage’s honed appreciation of plants is evident in their deployment for function, form, color, and seasonal interest.

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Above: T

he ephemeral collection of spring flowers beneath the cherries includes cultivars of (often underused) natives such as bellwort (Uvullaria grandiflora) and trout lilies (Erythronium).

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Above: Woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) pop against a quilt of new leaves of a burgundy Heuchera.

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Above: Ostrich ferns are planted near the entrance, where the intricate structure of their unfurling fronds can be appreciated up close.

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Above: Mr. Hartlage’s conceptual strength lies in the rare art of balance. He is very good with lines, and uses uprights with delicate effect. On the front lawn, a clean and natural diagonal of white birch trunks introduces the solid wrought iron columns standing farther back. The low stone-topped wall and hedges of deciduous ornamental quince and evergreen yew act as a crosshatched counterbalance.

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Above: Two oak seats carved by Allison Crowther invite draw visitors to the pool, made tropical by the broad leaves of hosta and the spiked agave.

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Above: Sweeps and curves are held in check by straight lines, at ground level and rising skywards. Imposing hornbeam uprights create tall drama above the shorn arcs of boxwood and cherry laurel hedges, while an undeviating bluestone path leads to a Robert Lobe sculpture at the limit of the sightline.

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Above: The Lobe piece was made by beating aluminum onto an old apple tree to create what Hardie refers to as “our Venus de Milo.” When the buckeye thicket planted beside it is in bloom and backlit by the afternoon sun, the effect is radiant.

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Above: The pivot of the green grounds is the glade beneath centuries’ old oaks, bridging the space between the Mountsier family home and the spacious guest cottage to the south. By late summer on the berm the daffodils have long since receded beneath a luxurious pelt of Japanese forest grass.

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Above: The lush semi-shade-loving grass is a soft foil for immobile stone and concrete.

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Above: The smooth concrete gates frame seasonally shifting plantings that might include, in a given year, alliums, Abyssinian gladiolus, and statuesque trumpet lilies.

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Above: As the year tilts, Japanese anemones bring pink abandon to the crushed stone path that circles the outer curve of the berm. This is not a low maintenance landscape, and gardener Lazaro Roque works fulltime to maintain its impeccable appearance.

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The garden is lived in. With Mountsier presiding at the head of a summer lunch table, Hardie whisks in and out, offering dishes featuring the best of what the local farmers market has to offer: ripe Jersey field tomatoes, buttery potatoes in their skins, ears of corn. These are timeless afternoons where the varied greens above and around the table and the latest unusual flower to bloom inform the conversation and the world outside is kept away.

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