With Summer Solstice and Midsummers Day upon us and what seems to be an extraordinary heat wave here in Laguna Beach all signals pointed to time in the garden with friends this weekend. My own plot is very small and overgrown, just the way I like it and it was a treat to sit and be witness to various wildlife seeking both food and shelter from the harsh summer elements. This week also saw me having a nourishing conversation with Australian import Harry Hopkins, Hamptons landscaper, to learn more about what occurs in high end landscape design.
Harry, what first interested you about landscape design?
I lived in Japan, Tokyo for a couple of years when I was 15 to 17. My Dad would take us all out to spend a couple of weeks in Kyoto and I think the gardens there got me into it. The incredible beauty of the zen gardens and the shrines, the whole area kind of blew my mind. When I returned to Australia I studied horticulture and landscape design. There was also a property where we lived in Sydney that had one of the first Camellia groves imported from China, with a propagation house and 20 diff. species of Japanese maple, an incredibly well planned property, studying design made sense of it for me. These are the two main reasons and I have never thought about doing anything else.
Where do you undertake the majority of your projects?
In Bridgehampton and Easthampton, people are building or renovating homes on the potato fields out here and we landscape them. There is not a lot of old growth up here on the fields and we create gardens that look mature, bringing in large trees, the smallest of which will be approximately 20ft. Some people out here still create monsters where maintaining 2 acres could cost them $100,000 each year but after working out here for 22 years I now have clients that really appreciate their gardens and it is not about keeping up with the Jones’.
The hard part of being out here is being at the end of an island, everything gets thrown at you at once, there are short seasons and it is initiation by fire trying to plan and plant. We have just worked 15 hour days for 3 months so we don’t have a lot of time to think during this time, it is a pressure cooker. You have to explain to people that everything we do is alive and we can’t always just put plants in while buildings are being built, it’s an on going education.
You spend many years nurturing the gardens you work on, how do you view them?
Well firstly there is the responsibility, I guarantee trees and plants so there are punch lists and a lot of monitoring going on, that is the side of it that is ‘work’ and takes time and then there is another side of it when I go the the properties early in the morning or late afternoon to photograph them and it is wonderful. It’s the feeling of awe and satisfaction, I love it. The process can be a little hectic sometimes but the outcome is mind blowing.
You are struck by the beauty but what about getting dirty?
That is the best part! Getting dirty and watching it, I am sat here at a house I landscaped 12 years ago and looking at one of the most beautiful trees that I planted, it is incredible, there is definitely huge satisfaction from the dirt side of the job. After the first 4 or 5 years you watch and see what has really grown, it is an inspiration.
What are your clients looking for?
Not to get their hands dirty. My clients prefer to walk the property not work it. There is a lot of paranoia about lyme disease and ticks from the woodland so families are looking for gardens that include a lawn, (somewhere to place their hammock), maybe a treehouse, a pool, with enough money anything can be created. These properties are often only used for 12 weeks of the year and families might only get up to their property for 3 days each week, so they want something that is complete and looks good. For some of my clients their gardens represent precious time with their children in an open space, living in Manhattan appreciating an open space here with their families feeds their soul.
How often to you encourage vegetable gardens and do you find that children become more aware of nature and the concept that vegetables actually grow and not just appear on shelves?
I now have 3 or 4 clients who do small scale things with their children for example we will install small cut flower areas, herb gardens and small vegetable gardens. Children can also appreciate small agriculture out here; picking strawberries, we also have apple time and farms that produce cheese. Showing kids these things is a part of being out here. I also have a couple of clients who have cooks on property and they grow their own veggies.
All our properties are now organic, it is harder as it is a slower process, a tree may take longer to look its best but there is an important integrated relationship between the plants and the lawn etc.. it can be quite a hard sell to educate people that this is important.
What about water usage?
Long Island has lots of water and we use ‘leaky pipe’ irrigation which I first found out about in the kibbutzs in Israel. Some people also have their own well but for many years the potato farmers used harsh pesticides so the well water needs to be properly filtered but it can still be used for plants. Irrigation is a real art, in the first year of planting we need to pamper these newly planted mature trees and plants as they are still in shock, then we need to regulate as time goes on. People are also becoming more aware of indigeneous plants that require less water.
We also use a lot of Mycorrhizal it’s like a soil fungus, what might be created on the floor of the forest when plants integrate within each other where they have this kind of symbiosis. So instead of standard fertilizer we will use this fungus that really promotes root growth and the plants to relate to each other, it is a pretty new thing, people have only been really aware of it in the last five years and it works incredibly well. There is a lot of green thinking out here but it is hard to promote with the NY mentality.
You sound like quite the educator.
Not so much the educator, I think I see myself more as a motivator, a landscape motivational speaker. I spend a lot of time getting people involved looking at both the big picture and getting them excited about a tree or branch. I called a client recently to tell them to come out to see a tree that had just blossomed, they hadn’t seen it blossom in a couple of years. I am trying to get clients to understand more and I spend a lot of time motivating.
Is there anything that you refuse to do?
Yes, to take out trees that shouldn’t be taken out to create clearings, that is the main thing. I will say that I think we should work around it and will try to reign people in as far as maintaining the integrity of the landscape. I have actually walked out of a couple of jobs because of things like that. I also draw a line at pesticides.
Are you someone who believes that we should all grow something regardless of how small our space is?
Absolutely, even if you live in a tiny studio you can have a small herb garden on a window sill or small table or even figure out how to get out onto the roof, everyone should work out how to grow something, it is incredible therapy and good for the soul. In NYC I see so many people in Central Park who are passionate about it, soaking it all up, maybe more passionate than those who have 2 acres out here. I will always promote this in urban areas, I could never imagine not having plants around, even where I live in Australia it is a relatively small property and there is something going on in every corner. When I work on smaller projects like that I look to see what I can put into every nook and cranny.
Harry, thank you so much for taking a quick break to talk with me and for motivating us to get growing! Have a fun summer break (or would that be winter break?) back in Oz.
© The Red Barn Cooperative
This nourishing conversation was picked up and featured in Her gardening blog, a gardening carnival.
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