The rarest magnolias in Charles Dean’s garden were the size of pencils when he and her late husband, Clyde “Skip” Wachsberger, planted them 16 years ago. The two so-called Silver Parasol magnolias – a hybrid that combines the magnificent scent of Asian magnolias with the showy blooms of American varieties – were a gift from Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. Because trees have proven so difficult to propagate, there are only a handful in the world. The fact that they were entrusted to the couple testifies to their gardening skills and the ambition of the garden oasis they created in the East.
The couple called the spot Adsworthy Garden, a cheeky tribute to how they met – through a personal ad placed by Dean, who worked for upscale restaurants in New York City, and inadvertently published in a newspaper of the East End, where it reached the eyes of Wachsberger in the East. Soon they worked together in the garden, pruning the magnolias to help them grow and learning to trust each other’s instincts. The experience was so transformative that it inspired Wachsberger to write a memoir, “Into the Garden with Charles”. Illustrated with his own watercolors, he will be published shortly before his death from cancer in 2011.
“Every garden tells a story,” he wrote. “Ours tells a love story.”
Plants – like relationships, like children, like ideas – have a funny way of growing in unexpected directions. Today the once tiny Silver Parasol magnolias dominate. Sitting under the spectacular umbrella-shaped leaves of the trees one recent morning, Dean said he had no choice but to adapt.
“Of course, they totally transformed the garden because they caused so much shade,” he said. “It’s very different now, but it’s still different. It’s always changing. Even now it looks so different from what it was 10 years ago when I took it over completely without him. I just kept doing it.
In an exhibit he curated on Adsworthy, shown on Labor Day at the Oysterponds Historical Society in the East, Dean calls the plot his “relatively secret garden.” Relatively, because the place is famous among local gardeners. Secret, because passers-by in Village Lane would never guess from the front of the modest colonial that behind it is a shy half acre of trees, plants and flowers from all over the world.
Built in 1700, the house may originally have been a small house or a simple farm building, possibly even a barn housing animals. When Wachsberger arrived in the early 1980s, the yard was left with little more than a few old apple trees. He slowly transformed the plot into an English cottage garden teeming with flowers, including over 50 different roses. Dean’s arrival in 1996 heralded a tropical phase they called Key West North East, influenced by Wachsberger’s fascination with exotic plants and Dean’s experience living in Florida after college. This unlikely paradise was teeming with passion flowers, large-leaved bananas and more than a few plastic flamingos. A monkey puzzle tree from Chile grew needles as sharp as a hypodermic and bark as medieval armor.
Today the garden is less fantastic and more down to earth – a change dictated by the shade of the giant magnolias as well as the more practical personality of the gardener (on the one hand, Dean is fed up with moving dozens of plants around. tropical indoors every winter). When Skip was dying he said, ‘Don’t do what I would necessarily do. Just do what you want and take care of your garden, ”Dean said. “But I realized it was the only thing you can do.”
As he walks the blue flagstone path that winds through the small garden, he points out some of the extraordinary trees and perennials inside – a weeping Alaskan cedar, Japanese lilacs, a Chinese hazelnut. He added several striking sculptures by his artist sister, Frieda Dean, and Greenport artist Arden Scott, whose large-scale metal sculptures incorporate materials salvaged from local shipyards. Its dramatic shapes provide a burst of color against the snow in winter and summer support rose bushes, still thriving after nearly three decades.
This fusion of art and horticulture is a beautiful tribute to Wachsberger, whose creativity has taken many forms. He paints sets for the Metropolitan Opera, owns a company that designs trompe-l’oeil murals all over the world, writes and illustrates two books and co-publishes, with Dean, an anthology entitled “Of Leaf and Flower: Stories and Poems for Gardeners ”. “He painted photorealistic portraits, natural scenes of North Fork, and award-winning botanical watercolors.
Yet it was his gardens that he considered his best art – a legacy living across the North Fork. As Greenhouse Manager at Ornamental Plantings in Southold, Wachsberger has influenced the landscape by advising customers and stocking unusual plants that might never have gotten here otherwise. Because he and Dean frequently shared cuttings with neighbors, Yards in the East are still home to exotic 15-foot-tall Basjoo bananas and other reminders of Adsworthy’s “False-Florida” era.
He also designed many oriental gardens himself, as was highlighted earlier this summer during a tour of the memorial garden. To the Hon. Lewis A. Edwards House on Main Road, he worked with owner Keri Christ to lay out the beds for a cottage garden, showcasing a variety of heirloom roses introduced in 1858, the same year the house was built. At the Oriental House of Ellen Birenbaum and Mary Roman, they said, “Skip created the gardens like a painting, with a flow of colors and shapes, constantly changing over the four seasons.
“He took gardening seriously as a creative activity,” Dean said. “And of all the things he did, he said at the end of his life his main achievement was to create this garden. And it is in the gardens that we really see creativity still flourish.