The Passionate Gardener
Dan Meyer has lived on the same Cortlandt Manor half-acre his entire life. But the day he was bit by the gardening bug, his lawn didn’t stand a chance.
Photography by Dawn Smith
Meyer spent some time trying to hit the right shade of saffron to make the pergola glow, but when he found the perfect smoldering Mandarin red, everything on the property got a fresh coat.
Passion makes the world go round. When you walk into a garden and everything around is bustling with zeal—when the fervor is so palpable that it literally spills from the beds and tumbles with exuberance to ignite your imagination in flames—that’s when a garden causes a double take. Who can help but applaud passion in a gardener? And if bubbling, reverberating fervor is what gardening is all about—then 62-year-old Dan Meyer gets a standing ovation.
Dan Meyer had a vision; that’s the only way his garden can be explained. The retired florist (he had owned Ashton’s Flowers and Gifts in Peekskill) has lived in the Cortlandt Manor house that his parents built on a very suburban half-acre of land since he was six months old. For decade after decade, it was nothing more than a blank canvas. Meyer has the snapshots to prove just how boring the lawn (and it was just a lawn) looked as it spread like a carpet around his family’s little ranch house. There was nothing wrong with that scene. It was a perfectly fine, verdant carpet, as far as greenswards go. But it was a yawn.
Birds are continually fluttering and drinking from the bird bath, but most of the other accessories in the garden have an Asian accent.
Meyer is slightly vague about exactly how his eureka moment happened. He remembers thinking, “I’m retired now, and wouldn’t I like to jazz up the yard?” He does confess that he was “slightly bored and in need of something to take the place of my job.” So, one minute he was wandering around idly, admiring the wares at a statuary merchant and, the next instant, he was figuring out a location that might do justice to a much larger-than-life solid granite peacock with a tail span about the size of a municipal clock face. After a few quick calculations, he figured that it would need to be set up on a terrace to overlook the slope of his backyard. But first he needed to construct the terrace. Actually, a few terraces would give the proper pomp. But then, how could he leave the seven-and-a-half-foot-long dragon behind? Or the pair of four-foot-tall Foo dogs? Before you could say, “Trash the lawnmower,” Meyer was writing out a check for several tons of Asian hand-carved granite.
Guarded by a pair of Foo Dogs, the shrine to the granite peacock was what started the whole renovation.
The way I see it, Meyer had a vendetta against his lawnmower from the very beginning. Probably back in his youth, he'd hated that machine and had plotted vengeance throughout his life. When the retaliatory opportunity came, he was ruthless. Basically, he mothballed that noisy, gas-guzzling contraption forever. It took him just four months to totally rip out the lawn from the backyard and install the series of terraces instead. And, despite the fact that Meyer had never gardened before, he hit the stores. “I just went plant shopping,” he says. So where did he find fodder? He’s a devotee of Adams Fairacre Farms in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, New York. “Seventy-five percent of the plants come from them,” he says. He purchased every conifer imaginable to accent his beds. Hundreds of shrubs. Then he peppered hundreds more perennials between the evergreens. His training as a florist definitely lent direction. There’s a healthy ratio of evergreens refereeing the flowering plants and providing repetition. For all its massive plantings, the backyard has continuity as well as ample exclamation points. Meanwhile, weeping trees stud the scene here and there to give vertical height. Walk into the backyard around the side of the house that once boasted only a carport (now vanished into thin air), and you start a journey.
Of course, the garden evolved over time. One day, Meyer eyed the far corner of the backyard and thought, “I need serenity.” So that’s how the dining/lounging/bar/patio was installed. Another day, he sat down and sketched out an immense pergola that he'd envisioned in his mind’s eye (this, by the way, is the only element of the garden that was planned on paper) to accent the side of the house. (Did I say accent the house? The pergola is a scene stealer.) The pergola sits beside John Meyer’s rhubarb garden. “The rest of the garden is mine. So when my father asked for a rhubarb garden, I had to give him a little land.”
Briefly, there was a tiny patch of lawn in the front yard. But that token nod to convention didn’t last a blink before Meyer began plotting its demise. Meanwhile, the neighbor across the street was constructing a house and unearthed several boulders of impressive proportions, which found their way into the Meyer front yard. They are surrounded with plantings that co-exist happily with the seven-and-a-half-foot-long dragon that resides in the front yard, illuminated by floodlights. “All I do is flip a switch,” he explains, “and everything lights up.”
Undoubtedly, you are wondering about upkeep. With the help of a full-time gardener, Meyer handles it himself. And he definitely has not gone the low-maintenance route. For example, he opted for moss-covered stones which require meticulous hand-cleaning. But Meyer enjoys serving the soil. “I love gardeners who are ‘into it,’” he confides. “And when I’m in the garden, the world could explode, but I wouldn’t even notice.” His devotion is contagious. “People stop on the road to get a better look and I have to tell them to park before they cause an accident,” he admits. “People roll down their windows and yell, ‘It’s beautiful!’ from their cars.” Master gardeners pay annual visits to harvest ideas. And the garden is open to the public for the first time through the prestigious Garden Conservancy Open Days Program (gardenconservancy.org) on July 31. Anybody who has been secretly scheming revenge against his or her lawn has got to come check it out. But even if you made your peace with your lawnmower, come to see this outburst of rapture. Got zeal? Get started digging the garden of your dreams. It’s never too late for a little red-hot fervor.
Tovah Martin is the author of The New Terrarium, among other garden books. An accredited organic land care professional, she lectures throughout the region (her schedule can be found at tovahmartin.com and she blogs at plantswise.com).