Archives for posts with tag: Italian villas

There is nothing like a field trip to make my day, especially when it starts early, includes breakfast and takes me to another national park.  I’ve always loved the incomparable beauty of their locations (for the most part), the optimistic (some would say naïve) outlook of their educational exhibits and, most of all, the friendliness and earnestness of their park rangers (who are often the most naturally gregarious people).

So, with friends visiting for the New Year’s holiday, we decided to spend the last day of the year on the road and headed up to the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.  It is one of the National Park Service’s more unusual properties (technically speaking, it is a National Historic Site) in that it is not directly focused on the natural environment (like Yellowstone or Yosemite) or a person or event in our government’s history (such as Gettysburg or the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt just down the street).

Instead, it highlights the lifestyles of the rich and famous—of the early 20th century.  Of course, the Vanderbilts had a huge impact on the U.S. economy and their significance in our history (along with other extremely wealthy families) cannot be discounted.  But perhaps the main reason the mansion makes sense as a national treasure is that it is a monumental example of the physical works that can be achieved by people when given sufficient motivation, resources and money (all the same thing, sometimes).  In that regard, it is more akin to, say, Hoover Dam (operated by the Bureau of Reclamation) only with more gilt.

The Vanderbilt Mansion also differs from many Park Service venues in that its main features are indoors.  Given the cold and snow left over from Saturday’s storm, an alternative to outdoor activities was desirable.  Plus, by making our visit prior to New Year’s Day (when the site will be closed), we were able to see the mansion decorated for the holidays.  On Wednesday, the staff will begin to remove the trees and wreaths that brighten almost every one of the 54 rooms.

Though large by mere-mortal standards, the Vanderbilt Mansion was considered modest by its original inhabitants and was used only in the spring and fall (summers were spent in cooler seaside locations and the only acceptable location for the winter social season was New York City).  Still, a lot of expensive architectural details and fancy furniture are packed into its 55,000 square feet of real estate.

Most of the rooms (not counting the servants quarters) are hopelessly ornate but I found it interesting that both the main kitchen and the one bathroom on view (on the second floor) are decorated in a functional style that is still popular today (open layouts; stainless steel, copper and marble fixtures; white subway tile).  The bathroom includes what is perhaps the most beautiful sink drainpipe that I have ever seen.

Outside, the views of the Hudson River were spectacular even on this wintry day.  The only downside to visiting at this time of year, however, is that we were unable to properly tour the grounds which include dense woods, expansive lawns (polo, anyone?) and formal gardens (modeled after those in Italian villas).  I do not know whether anything remains of the vegetable gardens and livestock farm that originally supplied the mansion with food but on a future visit, when the ground is not snow covered, I intend to investigate.

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To commemorate Labor Day, we often take on a project that is, well, laborious.  It is not always planned in advance—we do most of our intensive outdoor work on weekends anyway—although we rarely celebrate Labor Day in the traditional way by relaxing and doing nothing.  This year’s back-breaking task:  dividing the Siberian irises.

Why would we want to do this?  Good question.  The irises were a gift from a local stonemason, Mario, who did a lot of work for us about seven years ago.  Part of his work included the formation of our ornamental gardens and when he was done, we had a lot of space to fill.  In addition to being a talented stone worker, Mario has a dark green thumb.  To help get our new gardens started, he brought us many cuttings from his own garden (which is like what you would see at an Italian villa), including the irises, a Japanese maple and sedum (to plant in the crevices of the stone walls he built).

It took a few years for the irises to establish themselves but for the last three years, they have been producing a dense display of purple and white flowers each spring.  The irises are very effective at naturalizing themselves and after seven years have densely filled the areas where we planted them.  However, as their root systems become more and more compacted, they will flower less abundantly.  Typically, Siberian irises form rings of active plants with dead roots at the centers.  Ours were beginning to display this characteristic.

But digging them up, dividing their rhizomes and replanting them ensures that the irises continue to flower profusely.Separating the plants also means that we can spread them out over a larger area (expanding the border that follows the south edge of our main garden, for instance) and transplant them to new locations (along the road, perhaps).  Further, we’ll have enough split rhizomes to share them with our friends in town to whom we promised the plants last year.  We let that season pass before we could get to them so we are overdue.

The task is decidedly labor-intensive and required several steps.  First, we dug up the irises.  Their rhizomes and roots are densely intertwined and form clumps about two feet in diameter.  Removing them is almost as difficult as removing sod but their stems and leaves allowed Rachel to pull up on the irises while I broke the roots free with a shovel.  It took about half an hour of picking and tugging to break each mass free and lug it out of the garden bed.

Next, I broke up the root masses using a small gardening fork and my bare hands.  (Actually, I wore work gloves.)  If we had not let the irises go so long—two to three years is the recommended interval—this part might have required less effort.  But after seven years, the root masses were practically solid.  I used the fork to knock out the trapped soil and rocks and create handholds.  Then, I just grabbed on and pulled.

Slowly and with not a little frustration, I broke small groups of rhizomes free and passed them over to Rachel.  Using shears, she cut off the excess roots and dead portions of the rhizomes, clipped the leaves to a length of about six inches, and stacked the now divided plants neatly on a tarp.  We filled two shopping bags full of irises and delivered them to our friends in the village.

The final step was replanting.  We returned about half of the irises to their starting place and reburying them in the loosened soil was the easiest task of the day.  We spaced them six to eight inches apart and consequently, the area is much less densely-planted than it was when we started.  Given past experience, though, it should fill back in over the next few years.

The remaining half—and the two clumps of irises that we have not yet divided—will have to go somewhere else.  But that is for another labor day (one with a lower case L).