Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

Wow! Can you believe it? Garden Phyllisophy is gone… over…  a thing of the past. I don’t remember exactly when I started reading the Gazette but it was many years ago. I always looked forward to Phyllis’s column, hearing about her latest gardening endeavors and enjoying her pearls of wisdom. Thankfully she is pulling a Madonna, or maybe a Lady Gaga, and reinventing herself as Just Phyllisophy. No doubt, she will continue to entertain, educate and surprise, Phyllis style!

I was honored when asked to assume the helm as garden columnist for our magnificent monthly. My name is Mel Bellar and I am a gardener and professional landscape designer. In the mid-eighties, I fell in love with the Catskills and visited often. In 2001 my wife Peggy and I bought a weekend house in Andes and our love affair with this area deepened. By 2004 we were living here full-time and I started my landscape design business, Zone4 Landscapes, the following year. It is hard to believe that we just finished our 9th season.

Gardening, landscapes and design are my passion and I can talk about them all endlessly. I think of garden design and landscape design almost synonymously, but it is interesting to wrestle with semantics. In “Mel’s world”, the entire area around a house and property that is shaped and controlled by the human in charge is “the garden”. However, in the traditional sense, a garden is commonly thought of as something more intimate and close to the house. Therefore it is easier to think of “the landscape” as the larger scope of the land extending beyond the property line into the surrounding area or the “borrowed landscape” in designer lingo. Truthfully, there is no clear definition of these terms and they are used contextually and often interchangeably.

As a child growing up in suburban Louisiana, your property was your “yard”. There was the “front yard” and the “back yard”.  When people in the Catskills refer to a vast property or mown area as their “yard” I must confess that I get a kick out of it! While musing about all this I did a little research and discovered plenty of cyberspace chatter about these definitions. I also discovered that both “yard” and “garden” come from the same Anglo-Saxon root word, geard.  Hmmmm. Moving on, or one could say transitioning!

December is, after all, a time of transitions:  starting a new year, moving from the holidays into the dead of winter and this year saying goodbye to Garden Phyllisophy and hello to Garden Therapy. Perhaps you wonder, why Garden Therapy? I struggled with settling on a name and approached it with vigor…Garden Gaze, Gazer or Gazing; Garden Gawker, Soulful Soil, Digging Design; Design and Dirty, A Design for Digging; and Gardenacity were a sampling of ideas that I tossed around! Somehow I kept coming back to Garden Therapy. Peggy and I always refer to working in the garden as therapy. Nothing like a cup of coffee and morning garden walk to make life seem better. Gardening has many therapeutic aspects and a garden provides a continual metaphor for life.

Back to transitions – – often gardeners bemoan the onset of winter, fighting the blues, pouring over seed catalogs and longing for the spring. Not me! I love the winter! It is a time when nature says, “Do something else for a while and take a break.”

Almost all of us can appreciate the beauty of winter with a shimmering cover of snow, but even in the drab gray stretches there is much to appreciate if you adjust your perception (see, it’s therapy). For instance, in the winter the amazing structures of many plants are revealed. Winter turns the visual volume down… the leaves disappear and the colors mute. Take advantage of this and look closely. Winter gives us the opportunity to appreciate the subtle variations of bark colors and textures, endless shapes of plant carcasses and the grandeur of stately evergreens. The main attraction for me, though, is the dramatic reveal of winter-stripped plant shapes and branch structures (makes my wife quite nervous as they sometimes LITERALLY turn my head while I am behind the wheel).

BranchestitledExercise caution, but on your next winter drive, try appreciating the amazing forms of the red oaks and sugar maples that are everywhere in Andes. I also suggest studying the lowly sumac (considered a terrible weed by most). Yes, a proud grove of sumacs with their graceful arms terminating with fuzzy burnt red finials is a thing of beauty…I am a huge fan. We even left a volunteer in our garden and groom it lovingly into its now magnificent form.

UntitledAnd who can forget the hydrangea in winter? The hydrangea paniculatas, a family of hydrangeas that do particularly well in our zone 4 environment, include the Pee Gee hydrangea, Limelight, Pink Diamond, and Tardiva. They all leave an attractive branch structure and dried flower heads to be enjoyed throughout the winter. Check out the three Tardivas against the west side of our house.

UntitledAnother Andes activity I suggest: Cruise over Cabin Hill and take note of the incredible Star Magnolia at the bottom of the driveway of the white house with the cool canvas awnings that is for sale. And don’t miss the stand of amazing Black Locust at the Maxwell farm on the way to Delhi. Take care though… this is another spot that I nearly run off the road while gawking. Talk about branch structure!

Have a wonderful New Year and join me next month as I “branch out” into the ever-expanding landscape of Garden Therapy.~