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Inside the Mind of Garden Writer Page Dickey

For the past 33 years, garden writer Page Dickey has lived and gardened at Duck Hill—her home in North Salem, NY. She is a world traveler, avid reader, and author of seven books on the topic—most recently Embroidered Ground: Revisiting the Garden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011). We talk with her about her passion: gardening.

Photography by: Gabriela Herman

1. You've traveled around the world visiting gardens. Which ones do you find most inspiring and why?

One at the top of my list is Jardin Plume in Normandy, France. I love its originality, its humor, its romantic charm. Near the house, there’s a play of lovely meadow-like perennials (veronicastrum, asters, thalicturms) set against hedges clipped into waves. They are wild looking and will make you laugh. Beyond that, the pattern of the main garden is quite contemporary -- a chessboard of large squares full of meadow grasses, framed by a mowed lawn punctuated with apple trees. The garden's boldness and sense of simplicity inspires me.

Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC has been an inspiration for decades. I love its terracing and all the different rooms. Some are beautifully formal, but as you walk down the garden paths away from the house, you will reach some informal, wild areas where bulbs have naturalized under trees. You would never know you were in a city. Beatrix Farrand had a flair for unpredictable design.

Wave Hill always inspires. I love in the spring how scilla and chionodoxa have naturalized in the Conservatory garden beds beneath the perennials and shrubs -- I am trying to encourage the same blaze of blue in our herb garden. Love, again, the spirit of adventure at Wave Hill, the willingness to try new things. (This is something I appreciate about Chanticleer as well.) I always see new plants there that I don’t know, or original combinations of plants. It is a true learning garden. [Learn about color at Wave Hill.]


2. You are a noted garden writer and love to read. What garden books do you find yourself returning to often?

William Cullina’s two books -- one on native wildflowers, the other on native shrubs and trees -- are absolute treasures that I reread all the time. He writes beautifully, and his intimate descriptions of plants are superb.

For information on old roses (a love of mine) and perennials, I always turn to the books of Graham Stuart Thomas, for he knows his plants and their habits well. At the same time, he thinks about how those plants will contribute to a garden’s design. He is that rare combination of a plantsman and an artist.

Russell Page’s book, The Education of a Gardener, is a bible of mine. I think often of his warning not to plant a garden in front of a view, for one will detract from the other.


3. Are there any plants that you refuse to grow?

Cannas and bananas. The garden here at Duck Hill surrounds a nineteenth-century farmhouse, and of course I want the gardens to be in keeping with its old-fashioned charm. So, I stay away from tropicals.


4. If you could grow any plant (pretend that climate is not an issue), what would it be?

I’d like a lemon tree and carpets of rosemary and gray santolina (it hates our humidity here). The everblooming rose (Rosa mutabilis) would be lovely to grow for bouquets. And an arbor covered with the Banksia rose, in yellow or white.


5. What was your biggest garden mistake, and what did you learn from it?

I planted a hedge of Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) around the herb garden 30-ish years ago. I didn’t know then that it was a terrible exotic invasive, taking over the floor of our deciduous woodland. And I didn’t know that I’d have to clip it once a week in summer to keep it tidy, and all those clippings with their vicious thorns would fall into the back of the borders -- making weeding a painful endeavor. A few years ago, we dug it all out and replaced it with a dwarf Korean lilac hedge, which smells very sweet in May -- and behaves itself the rest of the year.


See Page's garden Duck Hill and learn about her love of self-seeding plants in the April issue of Martha Stewart Living.


See Page Dickey's Garden Tour!