How Susan and Jim Henry Transformed Overgrown Waccabuc Property into a Working Farm
Text by Tovah Martin
Photography by Andre Baranowski
To reclaim a bucolic landscape in Waccabuc, Susan and Jim Henry bushwhacked through overgrowth, creating a vineyard, An orchard, perennial beds, and vegetable and herb gardens.
Jim and Susan Henry enjoy the fruits of their labors with a glass of Homestead wine, made from grapes in their vineyard in Waccabuc
Susan Henry, who co-founded the Westchester Land Trust, has lived her entire life in Waccabuc, where her ancestors first settled in 1776. It's a community so charming that her husband, Jim, likes to describe it as “just south of Brigadoon.” But when they purchased their six-acre property 43 years ago, it was not a pretty picture.“The house had been empty for sixty years and was dilapidated,” Jim Henry says. The landscape—complete with a swamp and its attendant yuck—was suffocating beneath invasive vines. There were even rumors that the house was haunted. But the Henrys weren’t fazed in the least. What mattered more to the couple was that the 1819 Greek Revival house (now known as the Homestead and on the National Register of Historic Places) had all its original details in an untouched state.
First on the list of priorities was nailing the house back together, a campaign that took the lion’s share of their first years as owners. Concurrently, they started the task of penetrating the undergrowth around the house, which was engulfed by every nasty thing of the horticultural kind. “I doubt we realized in the beginning how much work it would be,” Jim recalls. But as they began to reclaim the land, wonderful surprises revealed themselves—like the sunken garden with its wandering brick paths beside the little potting shed. And tidying up accented the august trees and handsome heirloom shrubs in residence. The health and welfare of those trees became something of a fixation for Susan. “Sometimes it was a question between whether the trees would be pruned and fed or whether the kids would go to college,” Jim jokes.
They ended up with a brick-and-gravel court skirting the house and a lawn where the kids could play. The eyesore of a swamp was transformed into a charming trout-filled pond, and Susan was beginning to flex her muscles as a gardener. Her taste in plants was in perfect synch with the era of the house. So it was baptisia and Jacob’s ladder that went into her first bed, which was outside the basement door. Beside the perennials, she tucked in tomatoes and basil. She put in espaliered apples to make the backyard private. “They’re part of the design, giving definition, serving as green walls,” she says. Between the strong outstretched arms of the espaliered fruit trees, Susan put in perennial beds with peonies, lilies, phlox, astilbes, anemones, geraniums, and other favorites with historic roots.
While clearing was in progress, the vegetable garden was moved from place to place on the property before it landed in the field just a stone’s throw from the house. Here they planted no-nonsense apple and peach trees, and, at the same time, Jim was trying his chops at grapes.
The vineyard was a gamble that hit the lottery with many happy returns. Jim always wanted a vineyard. So, the moment they cleared a space, he was headed to the Finger Lakes to pick up some vines. He came home with Marechal Foch for his red and Seyval Blanc for his white. And he didn’t just test the waters—the vineyard was 300 vines strong. “You can grow a lot of grapes in a small space,” he says, defending his seeming exorbitance.
Not only do the muscular branches of the espaliered Golden Delicious look great, but they hold a crop of apples and form a fence as well
To meld the vineyard with the mood of a homestead, they let the aisles between the vine rows grow to grass rather than tilling the entire field. The result really does fit the scene, forming a green fence around the vegetable garden—and the vegetable garden is prettied up with a strong central axis accented by a set of gates. But the rewards from the grapes go far beyond beauty. After the five-year hiatus while they waited for the vines to kick in with a grape harvest, it was smooth sailing—if you discount the weather (grapes detest wet summers; last year was a disaster) and the competition (raccoons, deer, and birds of all descriptions pay call; turkeys lead the list of offenders). Oh, and there’s the labor: spring pruning, summer spraying, and season-long weeding. Besides that, it’s home free and has been “very gratifying,” claims Jim, who plays down the difficulty of the process. The grapes are picked and pressed. He pours the juice into five-gallon bottles, adds the wine yeast and sodium bisulphate. The brew is fermented for a couple of months and the resulting juice is poured from the sediment in the bottom to clarify it. (The winemaking equipment comes from Prospero in Pleasantville.) And then, after a period of time, “according to the grape and your anxiety level,” the wine is ready to drink. “It’s easier than making jelly!” Jim says.
The wine is pretty much Jim’s department, while Susan (whom Jim describes as the “MG”—Master Gardener—while he is the “gardener,” lower case) tends the vegetable garden with Jim, tucking in annuals whenever his back is turned. As a result, the vegetable garden is festive with zinnias, cosmos, sunflowers, and borage (the borage is a particular thorn in Jim’s side, as it spreads with a sinful promiscuity). But the blossoms in no way hinder the garden’s productivity. In addition to the obvious tomatoes, Susan also plants the full complement of edibles including corn, carrots, leeks, onions, and whatnot. There have been eye-openers. The horseradish has proved so delighted with the location that it’s been a little too energetic in its reproductivity. Ditto for the borage. But all in all, being a steward of the land has been a lark.
At the end of the day—wine glasses in hand—the Henrys can survey the Homestead and feel the warm glow of pride. Perhaps they prefer not to remember exactly how sad it looked when they first adopted the land. But now, not only do they revel in the cornucopia they have created, but another little bit of Brigadoon has been preserved.
The Homestead is open to visitors through the Garden Conservancy on September 9; go to gardenconservancy.org for more details.
Tovah Martin’s next book, The Unexpected Houseplant is due to be published by Timber Press in August, 2012. An accredited Organic Land Care Professional, she lectures throughout the region (her schedule can be found at tovahmartin.com and her blog at plantswise.com).