A Larchmont gardener discovers the power of “less is more.”
Photography by Dawn Smith
The lush lawn leads past the swimming pool and poolhouse down to the clear blue water of Premium Pond.
Susan Efron’s 100-year-old Mediterranean-style stucco home sits on a leafy Larchmont street, displaying all the stately solidity you’d expect of a centenarian. In the front garden, an old Japanese maple with picturesque, gnarly limbs grows amid a neat circle of mulch, adding to the well-established scene.
It’s a quiet enclave amid the hubbub of Westchester, but true serenity lies in the back garden, where undulating flowerbeds flank a wide lawn that slopes gently down to the pale, calm waters of Premium Pond. A large hickory towers near the water’s edge, bisecting the view and adding a powerful note to the postcard-pretty scene. (“Good for a swing,” notes Efron of the tree.)
The property is only about an acre, and the garden’s simple layout can be taken in almost at a glance. Yet a closer look reveals carefully chosen plants that will bloom in succession throughout the season, with those selected for their foliage woven cleverly among the flowers. It’s informal, but it’s certainly not haphazard.
When Efron moved into the house 12 years ago with her husband, Paul, and their two children (now both at college), she was just a budding horticulturalist. “We lived in London for seven years, and that’s when I became interested in gardens,” she says. “We lived in a townhouse, but I always went to the Chelsea Flower Show and visited gardens in England. That was the trigger for me.”
When it came to the lay of their land, the Efrons made one major change. “When we bought the house, the terrace was 10 steps down,” Efron recalls. “A friend in Scarsdale was renovating, so we used fill from her house to level the area.” Now, the back door leads directly onto the stone terrace, where English lead planters and a rusty iron drinking trough overflow with cascading annuals.
Wide, undulating borders on either side of the lawn are planted in long sweeps of color for maximum effect. Dahlias, stokesia, coneflowers, delphiniums, and other perennials in whites, blues, pinks, and purples dominate the beds, with annuals filling any bare spaces.
Previous owners of the Larchmont house left behind only some peonies—dark crimson, pale pink, and white—a few mature hydrangeas, and a privet hedge screening the neighbors on the right. Efron’s first gardening efforts were to create a border in front of the privet hedge and to plant holly along the left boundary as a backdrop for a second flowerbed. “I thought a bed on either side of the lawn framing the expanse of water would be best,” she says. “And I made the beds curvy so they wouldn’t be boring.” As time passed, Efron became very interested in plants and wanted to learn more, taking classes at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. She decided to plant a flowing, English garden, rather than a clipped, formal one.
Color was important, says Efron, who was once a jewelry buyer. “Gemstones are all about color, so I think that translated into flowers.” But, like all novice gardeners (and many a grizzled veteran), she was tempted to buy “everything pretty in the nursery.” The results were jarring.
“I didn’t know what I wanted until I saw what I had and realized it wasn’t right,” she says. “Then, in a class at the Botanical Garden, I learned the first rule: take out half the plants you’ve got and double up on the rest.” She began winnowing plants to “calm down the colors” and create a more uniform effect.
An inviting spot on the swimming pool terrace, where roses and clematis climb up the pergola.
Still not satisfied, Efron hired garden designer Barbara Paca and presented her “with a giant binder of pictures of things I liked,” she says with a laugh. “She knew how to execute my ideas. That’s a real talent.” Paca widened the beds and made them curvier, while altering many of the original plantings, making larger sweeps with fewer varieties. What remains are mostly old-fashioned plants typical of English cottage gardens: peonies, foxgloves (many of them of the peach-pink variety called ”Sutton’s Apricot“), malvas, phlox, delphinium, and salvia.
Hydrangeas, hibiscus, and other flowering shrubs anchor the beds, with massed perennials creating luxurious abundance, and annuals filling in where needed. Purples, pinks, blues, and white dominate. “Or, at least, that’s the goal,” Efron notes. “There are exceptions. I have lots of yellow moonbeam coreopsis, for example, but it’s a tiny flower and a very soft yellow. Chartreuse is my new favorite; it goes with everything. But no tomato red.” Yet a blowsy hibiscus in that color towers defiantly in the back of a bed. It’s in the “recycling area,” where Efron moves plants that turned out to be too bright or otherwise wrong. “I can’t bear to throw anything out,” she admits, steering a visitor away from a patch of gaudily golden black-eyed Susans blooming next to the driveway. “Well, they make a good cutting flower.”
A bench nestled amid roses and hydrangea provides a shady spot to sit and admire the view.
Back on the lawn where pastels prevail, Efron strolls along, pointing out plants as she passes: a clump of tall Nicotiana sylvestris with its lovely trumpet-shaped blooms (“almost majestic”); pale yellow hollyhocks (“no rust”); a lone pink coneflower peeking out of a sea of white ones (“a mistake”); ”Pink Fascination“ dahlias (“my favorite—no mildew and they just keep going”); stokesia ”Honeysong Purple“ (“a new favorite, it’s such a lovely color”). A weeping cherry adds height and contrasts nicely with a hydrangea whose leaves darken to maroon as the season goes on. Coppery leafed wiegela are vigorously trimmed almost like topiary balls after they bloom to stop them from getting rangy (a wiegela tendency). A sweep of purple scaveola and verbena edges the front of the border.
More lush plantings surround the pool, including annuals in large containers, all in the same subdued, pretty palette as the rest of the garden.
“I put in lots of annuals so there would be color for the open garden,” says Efron, who welcomed fellow enthusiasts as part of the Garden Conservancy’s tour last year. “I’m planning to be a bit more subdued in the future.”
On the terrace by the swimming pool, ‘New Dawn’ roses clamber in pale pink glory over the pergola, while deep purple clematis head up the supports. Dragonwing begonias, coleus, blue petunias, and other annuals flourish in an old clawfoot bathtub and other less eccentric planters around the pool terrace.
Delicate Moonbeam coreopsis, one of the few yellows Efron permits, create bright spots in the flower beds. The garden is planned to frame, rather than compete with, the stunning view.
The majestic poolhouse, with its stunning water views, doubles as a game room (complete with pool table) and guest cottage. More roses and clematis create a welcome around its door. A second-story deck in the rear overlooks the pond through the branches of a well-pruned mulberry.
Although the garden’s overall effect is dainty and soothing, there are touches of drama, like a mass of ligularia, with its striking heart-shaped leaves and yellow spires shown to advantage next to red-twig dogwoods. Highlights come from clumps of casablanca lilies and white cleome. Heucheras form other punctuation—the deep purplish leaves of ‘Plum Pudding’ and the bronze of ‘Chocolate Ruffles,’ add depth, while the chartreuse of ‘Lime Rickey’ are a bright spot. Nepeta, russian sage, and caryopteris each deliver the pretty contrast of blue flowers and airy, silvery foliage.
Lead planters from England, overflowing with annuals, add color to the flagstone terrace by the house (as do clematis, scrambling up the wall).
A stone bench near the top of the slope was “discovered” by Efron’s son when he was about six. “He found a stone sticking up in the garden and started digging,” she recalls. “It turned out to be the bench. A neighbor who had a backhoe excavated it for us. It broke his backhoe, but it was very exciting.”
The garden is a work in progress, says Efron, who volunteers at the New York Botanical Garden for hands-on lessons from true professionals. “I’m still trying to limit it to fewer colors. And I’m still working on the big picture. I ask myself, Is it beautiful? Is it peaceful?”
The short answer to both questions is, clearly, yes.
Freelance editor and writer Lynn Hazlewood works at a desk overlooking her own rather neglected pond and garden in High Falls.