In June of 2009 my garden was featured on the annual Northport Historical Society garden tour event. Weeks of preparation for a full day of garden connoisseurs visiting your garden takes an act of courage and lots and lots of hard physical work. The day was a rousing success and I’m glad I did it.
Sharon Ruedeman captured the event and created this energetic video of that time.
In 1989 I bought my home in Northport Long Island NY. A cute little two-bedroom cape but I really bought it for the garden. It had a good skeletal structure. The property is triangular, set on a corner at a point of two (actually three) converging streets. That the perimeter is not rectangular adds to the illusion that the area is greater then its actual half-acre on the tax code.
The original rear garden in February 1989
The original garden behind the house was merely a worn path skirting a slight mound of earth leading to the rear foundation. The foundation planting consisted of two Euonymus alatus shrubs perched on each outside corner.
In 2000 after looking around for a new home in the area which my new husband Dave and I could share together, we decided to stay on this little piece of earth and build a home specific to our evolving needs. One of the main reasons for staying was my love of the garden I’d worked on for a decade and the vision I’d been working towards.
Small basement windows in the rear of house in 2000
In March of 2000 we began to break ground on what was to be a momentous change in our lives. We were gutting the entire house and rebuilding the interior into three floors. The rear of our home was to become the guest room entrance for the finished lower level which we were adding to the existing structure. The tiny basement windows would be replaced and the entire rear mound would be excavated to create a grand entrance.
View of rear garden looking north in 2000
The modest little bluestone path was to be replaced by a walkway leading to a Japanese inspired bridge, dry stream bed and planting terraces.
My drawing of the project as I envisioned it in 2000
As part of my degree in Landscape Design at Farmingdale I designed and drew the plans for this project. It entailed moving water lines, electrical work and ensuring proper drainage management. Pretty complex and really creative.
Brugmansia suoveolens “Pink Beauty” in full bloom.
Here is my Brugmansia suoveolens “Pink Beauty” in full bloom. So how did that white one slip in? In the morning the flowers are white but as the day moves on they turn pink. Very Cool!
Well…one of the many things I like about my Brugmansia is that when the bloom first opens it is white and during the day the color gradually floods into this sensuous pink. Over time, as the blooms ripen they darken before they dissolve and drop. So what you have is the wonderful serenade of color chords which change over the hours and days.
This plant commands attention when in bloom.
These flowers start to give off their musky fragrance in the late afternoon.
I’ve overwintered this tree for many years now in my zone 6 home. Just before frost, I cut the tall stalks back to just one or two central leaders of about 4 foot in height removing all the side branches and all the foliage. I put the pots in an unassuming corner of the house and place them behind tall tropical ferns to hide them in their dormancy.
Beginning in February I begin to offer them small sips of water and by April I begin to put them out on the deck on warmer days to acclimate them to the weather. I find that they will endure more chill in the air than any of my other tropicals so this is a plus in a rather crowded home without a greenhouse for overwintering.
I tried my unheated garage one year and lost all my specimens so I won’t be trying that again soon! I don’t let them develop any leaves indoors since I find them prone to whiteflies and scale so I keep them as a summer treat.
What a treat! In the late afternoon, the musky odor of these amazing blooms wafts through the air and sneaks in the screens filling our home with summer. Although I do know that some people liken the smell to that of some floozy with overbearing cheap perfume flouncing her way dominantly into their senses.
“Kansas Peonies” Art inspired from my Mother’s Day present.
Four O’Clocks were my first introduction to growing plants from seed. Uncle Teddy took me by the hand at his home in Schenectady and introduced me, the kid from Brooklyn, to gardening. I can still smell the soil as we dropped the seeds of Four O’Clocks into the ground he taught me to prepare. Four O’Clocks weren’t the only things growing in his garden, so was I.
The Kansas Peonies I grow in my garden was a Mother’s Day present from my son Chris. I have so many gifts he’s given to me over our many years together but I still cherish the bright pink of these robust plants each year as they bloom for me right in season. They return each Mother’s Day, expanding and adding to their beauty, as does he.
Japanese Maple a birthday gift.
One year for my September birthday, my son, Michael came swooping in proudly bestowing upon me a stripling of a Japanese Maple. Still dangling was the $9.99 tag placed on it from Home Depot. Now, this mature specimen holds court as a central focal point in my front garden.
A bouquet of Zinnias comes into my hands each year when my husband Dave buys them from the gardener with a stand up the street from us. The grin on his boyish face as he hands them to me with love is matched only by the riotous colors of the single and double flowers grouped tightly in his hands.
On Mother’s Day this year my grandson C.J. bounced up to greet me with a pot full of poppies. He shares my garden with me and helps to bring my attention to all the wonderful colors and shapes he finds there for fear I might miss them. These poppies are pink he told me and reminded me that we need to photograph everything so we’ll remember how they looked.
For years I’ve been hauling hoses back and forth across my property. Each year the hoses get heavier and more difficult to move. In the last few years I can count far too many lost additions to my garden for want of water. Not a good way to treat the plants and certainly not a good way to protect the investment I’ve made in my garden.
So we half bit the bullet and had the initial stage of an irrigation system installed. If you live on Long Island and want to know a truly professional company to work with on your irrigation needs, go to Rain Rich located in Greenlawn NY. First we met with Manuel Nava who is the service manager and did a very thorough layout and assessment of our somewhat complicated property. Then Rich Silverman, the owner and founder of Rain Rich met with us to discuss the staging of the project over time.
Woodland paths restored after the irrigation pipe installation.
As he explained, since we have a mature, heavily planted garden, all the digging work would be done by hand in order not to disturb the root systems. The garden, since it was in peak season would be protected and returned as quickly as possible to an undisturbed state. As a skeptical New Yorker I figured, “Oh sure, that’ll happen!”
Well it did! Rich was true to his word. In one day he had a crew come in and hand dig all the trenching for the water and the electrical work. They first moved aside all the wood chips from my woodland walks and then dug the trenches. After the installation was completed, the soil was returned and the wood chips restored. Had I not taken pictures all day during the project, had I been away for the day and missed the frightening havoc wrecked upon my garden I would not have believed that the piping system had been installed. After all was done, it was hard to see that anything or anyone had been tromping around the property.
Rain Rich trucks of Greenlawn NY
What an amazing and careful piece of craftsmanship!
Rhododendrons have such a great place in plant hunter’s history. Tales are still being told and re-enacted as new and old seekers traverse the back roads and non-roads of the Himalayas in search of the newest and rarest of Rhodies. Courage, stamina, and leeches always play a big role in these adventures.
Having quite a different perspective of plant hunting, I traverse the hills and dales of Long Island in search of the ever elusive cultivar not yet in my plant collection. Rather than being the intrepid adventurer of far off lands gathering seed, I drive to nurseries and make some of my decisions on whether I can lift the plant into my car. Rhodies can be backbreaking.
Which brings me to the problem of this Rhododendron catawbiense which is an original inhabitant when I bought the property in 1989. The foundation plantings were all huge view-concealing Rhodies. Over time I’ve managed to dig up and move all of them except this last remaining specimen. Some of the huge plants I moved by myself and in some cases, I hired a person with a bobcat. Some survived the transplanting and some didn’t. In retrospect, I think the fatalities had to do with watering and drought issues since the rootballs of Rhodies are pretty shallow and self-contained.
View from the dining room window of the Rhodi in bloom
The way to view Rhododendrons is not to the exclusion of a view of the rest of your garden when sitting at your dining room table. This view is only beautiful for 2 weeks a year when the rhodi is in bloom. The only other benefit to having this view is that in the winter you can use the leaf curl as a thermometer to determine if the temperature is below freezing. Not worth it I say. So, as I’ve said every year for the last decade or so, I’m going to move that Rhodie to the woods this year.
I’ve been working on my garden for a long time. When I had the driveway widened, I had bluestone gravel put down since I like the crunching sound of homecoming when I drive off the paved street into the driveway.
I took the stones, which come up every time I sink a shovel into the garden, and used them to create the edging with the slight curves that welcome you onto the property and foreshadow the style which will be followed throughout the garden. Though I had professionals widen the driveway and initially place the stones I supplied, I moved them and moved them for quite awhile until I got the actual curves visually right.
I moved the stone edging 6 times before I was satisfied with the curves. I did this instead of joining a gym.
Garden Entry May 2008
I planted spring bulbs and flowers, in order to give an early season, welcome to the folks driving by and the ones who walk by on their daily exercise circuit. I am pleased how the area filled in since my initial planting in 2001. In fact, it has filled in so fully that I’m able to divide and share the wealth with some other eager gardeners.
I like the way the stones seem to have settled into their niches and look as though they’ve always lived where they are. The soil has slid through the gaps and the ground covers have leaped over the tops, naturalizing their display.
A sturdy old oak stump nestled in my woodland garden
This grand old oak tree was hollow and very much alive when I bought my property in 1989. It was a constant fascination to me that such a large tree could survive when so much of it’s trunk was hollow. This was years before I formally studied horticulture and learned about the xylem, cambium and phloem and their role in feeding the tree and keeping it alive.
I just loved the strength and endurance of this massive tree for what I could see with my own eyes. It had the ability to live year after year with half of it’s core gone, pushing out leaves in spite of itself. To me it was a tribute to raw determination.
A few years ago though, I noticed a decline in the top growth and I became concerned. This huge tree had always leaned quite heavily sideways and if it fell, though it wouldn’t land on any house or structure, it could fall onto the roadway and possibly injure folks driving off to do errands in their car. To avoid that possibility I called for a conference with my arborist, Eran Strauss of Tree Believers. We decided that the tree had indeed reached a tipping point and was now a danger.
Eran and I had his crew cut the tree to a height of about 25 feet so that if it fell, it would remain on my property and fall into my woodland walks. Though I missed this living example of determination, I felt relieved that danger was averted.
So one morning, weeks later, as I’m taking my first sip of coffee and looking out my kitchen window, something had dramatically changed in the garden. As I wandered out to examine the change I came upon the toppled top 15 feet or so of incredibly decayed pieces of oak tree trunk smashed to bits and strewn around the garden. The only damage was to my wire compost bins and not to any people. Our plan had worked.
I now enjoy watching this remaining stump play host to birds and wildlife. The ivy and mushrooms love to snuggle into crevices. This old friend makes me smile each time I see it, remembering the strength and determination it had to live life on it’s own terms. And now it is resting and still giving back to the universe.
Last year I took this picture in my front entry garden on April 14th. This is just at the edge of where the driveway meets the garden and as you can see, I hadn’t even finished clearing out the leaves from the miniature rhododendrons. The bulbs are all starting to come up and the azaleas behind the tree stumps are getting green. The Cercis canadensis ‘Covey’ or Eastern weeping redbud tree is not yet in bloom and I haven’t turned the water on at the little globe water feature. I haven’t even gotten around to planting the hayracks on the deck banisters.
This second photo was taken a month later on May 17th and what a difference! The azaleas, which were here when I bought the property in 1989, are in bloom in the entry garden and in the distance in the front garden. The Uvularia grandiflora or Bellwort is spreading itself in front of my globe. A hosta named ‘Diana Remembered’ that I bought from Terre Nova Nursery is sprouting to the right of it on the curve. The miniature yellow green hosta to the bottom left of the image is called, ‘Green Eyes’. I love growing all different kinds and sizes of hostas but I like even better when the slugs don’t spoil the view. These mini’s I find are particularly vulnerable to becoming salad for the slugs but I like the challenge of changing their minds.
I don’t have much seating around my woodland walks other than tree stumps since it is a place for a meandering journey rather than a destination. But I do have one bench that allows me to sit and take a break if my phone rings while I’m gardening.
It also is very much a destination for my grandsons since they use it as a stopping and starting position for their many excursions with the dinosaurs and forest tigers they’ve found roaming the woods.
This first bench I bought in 2000 to commemorate my graduation from Farmingdale State with a degree in Ornamental Horticulture. By the time this photo was taken in January of 2007, the bench was beginning to sink if you sat on it so it truly became merely a garden ornament.
This next bench I bought in September of 2008 to celebrate my birthday. I found it on the web at shop-nc.com:
It surpassed my expectations in the quality of materials and the beauty of the design. I would certainly recommend the product and the company.
I took this photo in April with one of my Rhododendron PJM’s in full bloom. A few years ago I transplanted this rhodi from another part of the garden and positioned it behind the bench to give a sense of enclosure. The view beyond is borrowed scenery since my property line is about 10 feet behind the bench.
Here is a view from behind the bench looking towards my home. If you look closely you can see that I have secured the bench to the adjacent oak tree to prevent it from getting legs and walking out of the garden. Some years ago I found that my wood chipper had disappeared from the garden and it took me quite some time to get over the sense of violation and intrusion.
As a botanical artist, I use my garden as the inspiration for my work. I also use it as a fitness gym to keep me healthy, strong and flexible. The other side benefit that no gardener ever mentions is that the more gardening you do the more ice-cream you can eat without gaining weight. Isn’t that enough reason to take up gardening?
My witch hazel, otherwise known as Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’, begins blooming in February in my neck of the woods. I’m located in zone 6, on Long Island, NY in the United States which is latitude 40.900N and longitude -73.343W. The elevation is listed as 59 feet but I’m at the top of a series of hills so I’m a bit higher up from the town harbor. This means that I get a little bit more snow than other parts of my town and it lasts longer.
This photo was taken on March 1, 2008 and it shows the view from my kitchen window. Looking slightly left, through the V shaped branches of my Paperbark maple, you can see the witch hazel in bloom. I planted that shrub in August of 1999 and it lights up the garden for close to two months beginning in February.
I positioned it as a focal point to pull my eye out to the woodland walks. I wanted to see the cheerful yellow color from warmth of my kitchen without having to brave the elements on a cold late winter day. It is such a welcome harbinger of spring that it often seduces me to brave the cold to see what else might possibly be in bloom so early in the year.
Ribbons of paper thin confetti dangle from the branches as if in anticipation of celebrating the spring season.
Today I was featured in a Newsday Business section article written by Arlene Gross. The excerpt focusing on my background and my life choices is copied below. If you’d like to see the article in it’s entirety you can see it on my website in the News section.
At midlife, taking lower pay to begin more satisfying careers
By Arlene Gross
Special to Newsday
11:07 AM EST, January 4, 2008
Mary Ahern had dabbled in art for many years, but had never been able to actually make a career of it. Until four years ago, that is, when she made the switch to full-time artist.
“I had always been a creative artist,” the Northport resident, 60, explained. “Life, however, intervened, and as a single parent, I was never able to create my art on a full-time basis.”
Changing careers at midlife is no small feat, and switching to one with substantially less earning potential is more difficult still. According to Randy Miller, founder and president of ReadyMinds, an online career counseling service, downsizing a career can be a source of great anxiety.
Yet for some people, any fear or hesitation is mitigated by the yearning to follow a dream. Seeking more spiritually uplifting endeavors can be the ultimate challenge, and Miller said any attendant loss of income is often compensated with a renewed sense of purpose and newfound happiness.
“There are a lot of people who go through life and think, ‘What if?'” Miller said. “With a strategic plan, coupled with the new passion and ultimate objective of doing something different, one can more easily achieve their ultimate goals.”
For Ahern, a new husband provided the impetus and financial support to move forward. Income, the couple concluded, was less relevant to the quality of their lives than the legacy they wish to leave behind.
“When we married, Dave urged me to follow my dream,” she recalled. “The hard part at first was trying to find inside myself what that dream actually was. You spend so much time marching forward and doing what you do, you lose the essence of yourself.”
Once their five children — all from previous marriages — were finished with college, Ahern felt it was OK to follow her calling.
“My income from my art doesn’t yet come close to the money I’m used to making in either my career in computer graphics equipment sales or my own graphics design firm,” she said.
One of her greatest sacrifices was a big dip in retirement savings, which now come exclusively from her husband’s salary.
“We have a comfortable nest egg,” she said, “but by coming out of a conventional career, I no longer have the extra cushion to add to my existing portfolio of tax-advantaged savings vehicles.”
Despite her diminished earnings, Ahern says she is happier. “I am living the life I am meant to live,” she said.
Excerpt of Article posted in The Times of Northport
Artist cultivates her livelihood like a garden
By Arlene Gross
June 13, 2007 | 02:39 PM
Northport resident Mary Ahern is a successful artist who practices a unique technique she describes as. “Digital Mixed Media Painting”.
Mary Ahern enjoying her garden peonies.
But Ahern, who… (was) among the exhibitors at Arts in the Park in Northport July 8, (2007) was not born an artist. “I didn’t come to paint until I was older,” she said. “I didn’t even know I had a facility for it.”
As a young girl, she focused on music: playing trumpet and saxophone for the high school band and conducting her Fort Hamilton High School graduation in Brooklyn with a rousing rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“I’ve been in the bleeding edge of those kinds of issues,” she said. “In those days, girls didn’t conduct.”
A life-changing moment came in her 20s, when a friend gave her a coffee table book of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.
“I opened it up and turned the pages and wept,” she recalled. “It was completely transforming. I could only look at 10 pictures a day, it was so overwhelming.”
From that moment, Ahern knew she must study art and, then a resident of Queens, attended Queens College.
Although she was influenced by O’Keeffe and painted similar subjects, such as close-up and sensual florals, Ahern said she did not mimic her idol’s technique. Whereas O’Keeffe painted with direct and rapid strokes, Ahern’s traditional paintings were created in grisaille, or gray scale, and layered with washes of pigment on top, giving the subjects a glow through the optical blending of glazes of pigment.
After divorcing her first husband, Ahern took a job at Barnard College’s career counseling office, where she herself was able to get some career guidance. Through her Barnard position, she attended Columbia University for free by working there while raising sons, Chris and Michael, then ages 10 and 8.
“I knew if I couldn’t stay home and be a mom and paint, I had to make a decision: I’m going to make as much money as possible,” she said.
With profit in mind, Ahern went into technology sales, selling computer graphics and eventually becoming Northeast regional sales manager at Chyron Corporation in Melville. Then she started Online Design, a digital graphics company.
For Ahern, feminism was not a word to bandy about but, rather, her day-to-day reality – working as a single mother in a male-dominated industry.
“My single-minded focus on providing a good life for my sons enabled me to ignore the tremendous obstacles, prejudice, emotional assault and loneliness that comes from breaking through social barriers,” she said. “I, like my father, pulled myself up by my bootstraps. As a woman in a male industry however, I, like Ginger Rogers, did everything in high heels and backwards.”
In 1989, Ahern fulfilled her dream of buying a house with a spacious garden in Northport, which she said, “was like a step back in time to a slower and more gracious lifestyle.”
“The center of town with a Main Street embedded with trolley tracks leading to the harbor breezes and music in the gazebo captured my attention and insisted upon my attendance. I needed to move here.”
Eleven years later, she renovated her home, adding an airy, second floor art studio, and now natural light trickles throughout.
The garden, which Ahern designed, encircles the house, with its artfully designated focal points and meandering paths, everything flowing gracefully.
“I practice nonviolent gardening – no rose bushes to stab you – all soft inviting plants,” she said.
Seventeen years after her first marriage ended, Ahern married David Ruedeman, an engineer at Chyron. The couple worked together there but got to know one another only when he became a client of Online Design. This year will mark the couple’s 10th anniversary…
Early on in the second marriage, wishing to reinvent herself, Ahern got a degree in horticulture from SUNY Farmingdale in 2000, with the idea of becoming a landscape designer, which she did for a year. “It was too much for my … body,” she said, of the many hours spent working on bended knees.
From there, it was a two-year course studying botanical illustration at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
Her (Mixed Media) painting, a culmination of expertise paralleling her life’s progressive journey, combines a passion for the fine arts, gardening, computer graphics and botanical painting.
“To be creative, you need to know your medium,” Ahern said of her computer graphics skills. Through her paintings, she seeks to make people look around them and become more aware of the nature surrounding us.
Dr. Roberta Koepfer, her friend since 1971, said, “She’s like a phoenix. I have seen her rise up from a fair number of devastating experiences. Every time she comes back, she comes back more dynamic, more focused on her art and with an increased zest for life and personal growth.”
When it came time to sell her art, Ahern’s business savvy came in handy; she started in Northport as an exhibitor at the annual Arts in the Park series (in 2004) and now participates in about 15 art shows in New York and Connecticut between May and September, with her husband lending a hand.
Ahern’s work has also been the focus of several gallery exhibitions, including a one-person show at Greenlawn’s Harborfields Library this past February.
Susan Hope, gallery coordinator for the library, noted that Ahern’s exhibit was well timed: her cheerful florals brightened the gloom of winter. “It has an eye catching appeal,” she said. “People really enjoyed it, whether they were art savvy or just seniors on their way to their meetings.”
Today, Ahern is either painting her botanicals, selling them or lecturing on the business of art at libraries or schools, although her business persona has changed radically over the years. “I did trade shows in high heels and silk suits,” she said, “now I’m doing business in Birkenstocks and shorts.”
To anyone seeking career guidance, Ahern advised, “Don’t throw away anything you’ve done because you want to transform yourself. Take the good portions, the positive elements and try to incorporate them into this new self you’re creating. That’s how I’m living my life.”