When it comes to gardening, Bedford Hills resident Phillis Warden tackles the seven-acre terrain in leaps and bounds.
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With those triumphs under her belt, it wasn’t long before Warden was outward bound. In a blink, she was pondering the further reaches of the property and laying plans. Problem was, the remainder of the land was being held hostage by an impenetrable thicket of snarling invasives so dense that the Wardens had no idea what really lay back behind their house. They vaguely suspected they had a marsh. They sort of knew that the land fell to a steep drop on the way to the wetland. But bittersweet and honeysuckle stood between them and Paradise Found. The only vantage point to survey what lay beneath was by skirting their land in reconnaissance missions from the neighbors’ properties.
When they finally infiltrated, they uncovered a vintage Airstream trailer that was serving as a sparkling palace for many generations of raccoons. Nuisance factors—both animal and vegetable—had to be displaced. In their stead, informal gardens were installed, traversed by a labyrinth of paths crisscrossing plantings with a heavy emphasis on natives. But, as Warden (who is on the steering committee of the Westchester Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College) proclaimed, “I’m not a purist.” She grows anything that strikes her fancy, but natives tend to tickle her interest more often than not.
The land was originally an apple orchard, so it is fertile but also uncharacteristically bereft of rocks. In fact, Warden found herself in the unique situation of needing to input stone to build walls. And the formal upper gardens that she installed make use of quite a bit of stone-demanding hardscaping. There’s a formal vegetable garden within easy food-fetching distance of the kitchen, but also a croquet court surrounded by topiary conifers that has proved a thorn in the Wardens’ side due to lack of drainage. Indeed, if Warden had been a different sort of person and hungered after a landscape heavy with lawn, it would probably not be within her reach, because of the soggy situation.
Fortunately, that’s not the route she took. Now, in place of abandoned campers, sculpture of a very organic kind is hidden in the woods. Plus, there are secluded sitting areas for those who need a respite after the climb or just a place to perch and take in the scenery.
Indeed, one of the Wardens’ proudest features is the viewing platform-cum-treehouse constructed between black cherries in view of the marsh and made solely of untreated wood (to prevent any possibility of pollution). Originally, the Wardens imagined that they’d be camping out by the water. And Phillis slept on the open air/unscreened platform once. But the howl, hoot, and snort of the wild kingdom drove her back indoors. Still, it was an experience. “I felt like I was in Africa,” Warden says, summing up the sensation that she felt no need of repeating.
As for the poppy seeds, that’s where they’ll go: planted on an island visible from the platform. Further on the water tangent, she’s also thinking of extending her ponds down the hill. One thing is for certain: Phillis Warden never lacks for projects.
John Warden likes to say that his wife has the botanical version of Nelson Rockefeller’s “edifice complex.” And he has a point. Except that Phillis Warden’s singular strain of manifest destiny stems from different impulses. Warden’s psychological syndrome, if you will, is driven by an overwhelming and compelling love of her Mother Earth.
Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, the most recent being The New Terrarium, published in February by Clarkson Potter. She lectures often and is a frequent guest on the PBS television series, Cultivating Life, for which she served as an editorial producer.
Photography by Cathy Pinsky