GARDEN THERAPY: It’s Better in the Country – January 2016

Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)

By Mel Bellar

This December, I had the honor of being invited to present at the Landscape Design Alumni Lecture Series at The New York Botanical Garden where I graduated in 2006. This is a series that I have enjoyed for years! Typically, the speakers range from distinguished garden and landscape professionals to  famous folks promoting a new book. Imagine my surprise when I was asked to speak! I thought it was a “prank call.” After accepting that it was real I had to figure out just what to talk about.

The thing that most distinguishes me from the majority of my colleagues at NYBG is that I work in the country, in rural Delaware County. Hence the title of my talk was Rural Landscape Design in the 21st Century (my wife Peggy came up with this), which I thought was a bit grandiose. But I went with it and it did provide a broad theme for contemplation.

Working in Delaware County is not at all like working in NYC or the greater metropolitan area! The thing that I most appreciate is that we have fewer rules and hoops to jump through. Now, I don’t want to aggravate, taunt or incite our code enforcement officers and other town/county officials here… but it simply is true. A landscape designer/contractor working in Delaware County does not have to get nearly as many licenses and permits as our counterparts downstate. In fairness, we do have DEC and watershed issues, but we don’t have the stringent stormwater management issues that plague our flatlander friends. Perhaps I am naïve, but I also think that folks up here are generally less litigious. The possibility of getting sued is not something I dwell on when I am doing my designs or working on a property. This makes for an environment that is better for the designer and the homeowner as well.Mel's Spruce trees

On the other hand, money does not flow as freely in Delaware County as it does downstate. I seldom have clients with the big budgets of people in the greater metropolitan area. We are often “do-it-your-selfers,” who are more focused on getting the most for our money in beauty and land rather than on status.

The smaller economy also means less access to resources such as large and specialty nurseries and day labor.

What we do almost always have, are bigger properties and much larger areas to manage than in most of suburbia. These parcels are likely to include hilly/steep areas and have rock and clay for soil. Often I find myself working with and around ponds and streams that add both challenge and interest.boulder-patio-firepit

Logistics are different, too. Most of us have wells, and many homeowners are here only on weekends, making watering more of an issue. I personally have never installed an irrigation system, while that is almost a mandatory element for my counterparts downstate.

One of my favorite differences is that many folks up here want their properties to look “natural,” “in the style of” the old farm or “not landscaped.” They want those boulders to look like they were deposited by a glacier, not a backhoe.

To me, these challenges (and the unabashed beauty of the area) make the Catskills a much more fun playground to work in. They provide amazing opportunities to do cool and interesting projects. I love being able to dig up and use boulders right from a client’s property (or get truckloads of them delivered from LaFever Excavation or Josh Construction). I have used these big native boulders to create beautiful retaining walls, to tame slopes for patios and plantings, and to create cool accents and places to sit. I also love being able to get custom-cut rough-hewn native hemlock from Dick Liddle to build arbors and pergolas (like the Andes Rail Trail entrance). The natural weathered wood looks great in the Catskills without being refined or stained. And, of course, I love using our native Catskill plants to create gardens framing our amazing “borrowed views.”

Simply put, it is better in the country.~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.