Larry Erdmann has learned on the job creating a breathtaking garden in Greenfield Hill
In the rarefied world of Greenfield Hill’s elaborate residential gardens, Larry Erdmann is the quintessential do-it-yourselfer. He says he’s never attended a class or sketched a plan, but instead has learned what he knows on an aggressive circuit of garden tours that takes him and his wife, Susan Bonner, to horticultural attractions in Litchfield and along the Hudson in Orange, Dutchess, Columbia, and Ulster counties nearly every weekend.
There they wander through parterres, marvel at trellises, and listen to lectures on subjects like the cultivation of heirloom roses, the behavior of climbers, and the pros and cons of burlap. Maybe he jots down a note or two. Then he and Bonner, who owns a corporate gifts company, return to Fairfield.
“And then I knock it off,” he says on a damp and chilly January morning suitable for only the hardiest of boxwoods—and gardeners.
The proof of his prowess as a grand replicator is evident all over his property, a lofty place that slopes toward Long Island Sound and that he calls Hillside.
Erdmann’s showpiece is a formal garden that unfurls from his south stone patio, scaling several lawn terraces frilled with Queen of England roses and lavender, and drawing the eye toward the Sound. It sits on an axis that stretches from the central pediment of the house to a pool, roughly hexagonal in shape and surrounded by stone walls.
Accessorized with crab trees like lollipops and white and pink floribunda roses, the garden was designed in the 1920s by Agnes Selkirk Clark, the wife of local architect Cameron Clark—who designed Greenfield Hill Congregational Church across the village green from Erdmann’s home—and a graduate of the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture. Though over time Erdmann has ripped out some boxwoods and replaced pea stone paths with brick, the garden retains its original bones.
“You have to respect the natural symmetry and provide a sense of entry into a space,” he says.
Erdmann’s labor of love pays homage to the history of his home, which was built in 1830. He bought the house and four of the six acres in 1980, and then six years ago, bought the final two from the estate of Cameron and Lucetta Clark. Over the years Erdmann has renovated the building, adding the south terrace, its Neoclassical portico, and its faceted columns, and redecorated interior galleries with trompe l’oeil panels that mirror the view of the gardens.
In a Carhartt vest and deerskin gloves, the former owner of a computer company that specialized in the trade of mainframes has adapted well to his new full-time hobby, trading in soil and seeds.
A disciple of the principles of symmetry, perspective, scale and sensation, he is as earnest in explaining his design strategy as he is in completing his tasks, which on this day include resecuring a wind-blown ornament to its base, and gathering up the pruned branches of his apple trees. Maybe Agnes Clark is visiting him in his sleep.
A tiny stream on the perimeter of the formal garden, he says, enables visitors to hear the continual sound of running water. A beech-tree hedge screens the interior of a four-quadrant secret garden that allows entry through “doors” and features a copper-wire orb mounted on a column.
Simple but enchanting is the atmosphere of the tiny forest, studded with natural stepping stones, that Erdmann calls his woodland garden.
“In here you’re in a completely different world,” he says.
In conceiving of the densely planted wilderness, he says he abandoned symmetry and embraced the imperfect beauty of jagged edges and twisting paths.
Elsewhere there are other highlights: the south lawn, which Erdmann envisioned as a meadow of wildflowers and had seeded with an industrial-strength sprayer; a small apple orchard that lines the south drive; a vegetable garden where tomato vines climb obelisk trellises to a height of seven feet; an herb garden made interesting by an armillary; and an elegant stable designed in the 1920s by Cameron Clark that now houses a party barn, with seating for at least 75, plus musicians.
All of the botanical pleasures seem to warrant a new name for the place. Maybe Erdmann would consider something like Garden Glory.
After all, he’s learned a lot on the job.