Welcome to Rivendel
To create a garden takes about seven years. To build a legacy landscape takes a lot longer. But that's just what Jay Robert Seebacher and his family did.
Photography by Andre Baranowski
Jay Robert (“Bob”) Seebacher’s parents were visionaries, and that’s what brought them to Ossining. Although they were infinitely proud of their one-third acre on the north shore of Long Island, they wanted to instill a sense of stewardship in their son. That’s where Rivendel came in.
Bob was 19 years old when his parents came to him with a proposal. They were looking at a seven-acre property in Ossining. They would buy it with one stipulation: that he help maintain the land and eventually own it.
Although he was “a crazy college kid” at the time, Bob agreed. He knew full well what he was getting into, having accompanied his parents on various nursery and public-garden excursions in his youth. He was aware that stewardship of Rivendel would mean much more than just mowing a lawn. Bob’s goal from the beginning was to turn the slapdash property into a lush landscape, with all the work that entails. He embraced the challenge, through college and medical school, then through his residency in orthopedic surgery, while always remaining close to home. After all, he had a landscape to look after.
Stone steps are lined with daylilies and Rhododendron 'Olga MEzitt'
Even though the seven-acre lot includes an acre of pond and three acres of woods, the remaining three acres around the house—basically an inhospitable rocky ledge—required serious help. Dr. Seebacher was determined to forge gardens in its nooks and crannies. He made friends with nurserymen on his plant-finding junkets; he listened to Aunt Roslyn, a docent at the New York Botanical Garden; he talked gardening with his patients, and he soaked it all in. When his father died and his mother found the property too formidable to maintain, she came to him with another proposal. She gave him one year to take the property under his wing and become its owner. Again, Bob didn’t have to think twice.
Initially, stewardship required more elimination than addition. “It was like the darkest jungle when I first came,” Bob recalls of the heavily wooded property. Selective thinning was necessary to see the forest for the trees. There was no soil covering the rocks, which required additional topsoil to nurture plantings. The landscape was cold and windy. “It was harsh,” he recalls of a garden that felt more like Zone 4 than the surrounding Zone 5 region.
Although the weather might seem like a stubborn adversary, planting midlayer shrubs created wind-buffering protective pockets. In addition, he forged pathways around boulders, to gain access to the rock ledge. Fortunately, he had help in his endeavors. “For my first daytime date with Joanne, I brought her over to weed the property.” Not only did the nurse whom he later married fall in love with the man, she also bonded with the land.
Finding plants that could endure the rigors required trial and error. The first solution was to plant 150 flats of impatiens (inspired by a Toronto garden), plus a lot of pachysandra, but Bob wanted a more natural, picturesque landscape-inspired by Andrew Jackson Downing’s 19th-century aesthetic movement. There are people who like order, and there are people who like a more natural look, Bob realized. The good doctor fell into the latter camp. Fortunately, the nearby nature preserve at Teatown gave guidance.
“I learned to encourage wildflowers.” He planted rhododendrons and acid-loving shrubs, to give the property an understory. He chose epimediums, primulas, jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon seal, foxgloves, ajuga, and ferns that thrive in sparse soil and shady conditions while also preventing erosion. He nurtured wisteria to surround the pool with its blossoming branches. Gradually, the property began to look like the freestyle landscape of his dreams. Age, time, and maturity added to the natural ambience. Through an understory of stately shrubs and little wildlings that scamper around the rocks, Bob created a thrilling adventure that has gained intrigue with age. It feels like an expedition into the wild, but this wilderness features whimsical delight around every bend.
A shareable landscape was part of the goal. After treating an arborist who had fractured his leg, Bob hired the tree specialist to build a multilevel tree house in a stately silver maple, back in 1995. “It was the perfect trick to lure the kids out into the garden. They loved it so much that they slept out there,” Bob recalls.
The young Seebachers grew up to be birdwatchers and frog admirers. “It’s a family thing,” says their father. Meanwhile, the naturalistic landscape continues to mature, and Bob is pleased with its evolution. “Gardening is ephemeral,” he says. And given several generations of stewardship, this land is in caring hands