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Outdoors and In: An Imaginative Garden

Martha Stewart Living, May 2008

View a gallery of Judy Tomkins's garden.

Just outside the door of Judy Tomkins's porch, a cluster of stones spills haphazardly beneath a dogwood, creating a makeshift bed for 'White Parrot' tulips and Saunders peonies. "When the genius is there already, I garden around it," says Tomkins, whose 18th-century clapboard house is in a tiny hamlet north of New York City. This is not to say the landscaper leaves everything to nature. Sitting atop the stones is an antique Jizu figurine from Japan, the finishing touch on an already exquisite display.

In these gardens, seemingly random masses of tousled flowers pop up here and there, yet virtually everything has a reason for being where it is. During spring, the 80-year-old wisteria blooming over a terrace is flanked by beds accented with red, white, and black tulips and white bleeding hearts. Later in summer, mixed borders of hollyhocks, larkspur, delphiniums, and cimicifuga ("just to mention a few," Tomkins says) will take their place.

"Gardens to me are the frosting on the cake," Tomkins says. "It's the landscaping and the topography of the land that are so important." Her gardens flow with their surroundings rather than dictate to them, and the flowers she grows are often those she wants to enjoy in arrangements.

Tomkins, 81, had a career as a photographer before she embarked on a second career, at age 60, as a landscape designer, initially educating herself through books. She also developed an association with fellow garden designer Hitch Lyman, owner of Temple Nursery, in Trumansburg, New York. Lyman helped Tomkins broaden her knowledge of plants, she says, and she developed some strong likes and dislikes in the process. When it comes to foxgloves, only 'Excelsior,' white or apricot, will do, Tomkins says. The crape myrtle has to be white, not the usual magenta." Another predilection: "Almost anything that has the word rare in capitals following the name will draw my attention," she says.

Tomkins also has an affection for Saunders peonies, hybrids created in the early 1900s by A. P Saunders, a professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Tulips, too, are a favorite, including an old-fashioned red hybrid that Tomkins acquired in 1958 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. She says it still comes up each year. I love the period of the tulips," she says. "It's my favorite time in the garden."

But when deciding what to grow, Tomkins always has her eye toward what she wants to display indoors, a perspective that has made her home a study in how to bring the outside in. Arrangements are typically airy and a bit stark, designed to accent pieces Tomkins has collected over the years. A woven Japanese backpack hung on the wall, for example, becomes a vase for a simple bunch of dogwood stems she has brought in from the yard.

Then there's the Arts-and-Crafts-style table Tomkins designed and had built specifically for a space just off the living room, which was too small to fit other tables comfortably. On the table, 'Black Parrot' tulips and white bleeding hearts spray from a few of the many black pottery vases she has collected for more than three decades -- a mix of early-American and Japanese pieces and additional ones made by contemporary potters. "In flower arranging, I like to have fabulous vases and a few flowers," she says. "Proportion is very important."

In winter, she relies on branches to create arrangements, forcing the blooms when she can. When that's not possible, she displays bare branches; their beauty lies in structure alone. The idea of using branches to create a lasting display is one Tomkins builds on in the garden as well. The arbor over the entrance to her home is covered by kiwi vine, which takes on a magical appearance in winter: a tangle of branches that looks like a dark-red thread dancing around the structure.

In summer, the pathway leading to her front door is bordered by towering gardens filled with an array of plants, including roses, astilbes, foxgloves, cosmos, and German irises in shades of black, white, and pale pink. The only rule when it comes to those gardens is that they must be tall and no "stair-stepping" of plant heights is allowed. The smallest plants -- they must be at least 18 inches high -- are intermingled with the taller plantings to make a raucous display of texture and color. "It's like a canvas," Tomkins says. "I certainly have found a way of doing something in landscaping that I never found in photography."

Text by Barbara Whitaker, photographs by Maria Robledo

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