The most magnificent gardens on the North Fork are extensions of the green-thumbed homeowners who curate them. The precise plantings are a result of constant editing and weeding — taking years, not months, to perfect.
“I can’t walk around without a pair of clippers in my hand,” Nancy Gilbert said. The 15-acre South Jamesport property she owns with her husband, Richard Wines, is an exemplary, multifaceted garden decades in the making.
Called Winds Way Farm, it is one of only a handful on the North Fork featured in The Garden Conservancy’s selective Open Days program. The nonprofit organization, which strives to preserve public gardens, hosts several self-guided tours in private gardens across the country throughout the year.
Mattituck residents Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith of Landcraft Environments also participate in the program locally, as well as Arnold and Karen Blair of Cutchogue. Each shares a patience and passion for their gardens. They also share a desire for, well, sharing.
“You don’t garden unless you like to share,” Gilbert said. “We love going to other people’s gardens and having people visit ours. It is inspiring to see what others do.”
It is in that spirit these homeowners and renowned gardeners invite you to step into their private Eden.
Winds Way Farm, South Jamesport
Nancy Gilbert and Richard Wines started out as weekend gardeners in the mid-1980s, when they purchased Winds Way from Wines’ uncles. The property, which overlooks the Peconic Bay, has been in the family since the 1600s. The gardens are designed to complement the historic buildings the couple has moved to the land throughout the years.
There’s an 1836 Greek Revival-style whaling captain’s house, an 1872 one-room schoolhouse and an early 19th century barn, each with its own unique garden area that was curated to give the buildings a compelling sense of place.
“Each building was an excuse for a new garden,” said Wines, who chairs Riverhead Town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. “Successful gardening is getting the right plant in the right place. It comes with time.”
The grounds include a small orchard featuring heirloom apples, a large-scale vegetable garden, a soft-fruit area and herbaceous and shrub borders teeming with plants that appeal to butterflies and other pollinators.
Each of the gardens are defined by picket fences, railings or hedges and connected by meandering paths. There are also vines, which Wines received from his uncles, that flourish on the property.
“Even the plants have history here,” he said.
The Blair Garden, Cutchogue
It has taken Arnold and Karen Blair more than 25 years to cultivate their three-acre bayfront property. The pristine 17 acres of beach and wetlands that serve as a backdrop to the gardens are a protected preserve deeded to The Nature Conservancy, ensuring the views will always remain intact.
The gardens effortlessly flow from an 80-foot elevation down to sea level, weaving around numerous winding paths with various landings and overlooks. The grounds are a result of decades of experimenting, transplanting, learning and re-transplanting.
The couple initially hired a professional to landscape around the pool area, but more hands were needed after they purchased a wooded lot adjacent to their Cutchogue home and expanded their plantings.
They did the majority of the work themselves, transforming the overgrown thicket into a parklike woodland oasis with spring-flowering shrubs and trees under towering oaks.
“When the project was over we stood back and said, ‘Look what we did,’ ” Arnold recalled. “The gardening really took off from there.”
The couple eventually ripped up the plantings installed by the landscaper. They learned the nuances of the landscape and best flora for each section of the garden. Today, the property is 100-percent a self-designed product of trial and error and shared passion between the couple.
“We’re in the garden every day — it is a part of us,” Arnold said. “It is the most fun finding plants we love and figuring out where to place them.”
The Garden of Dennis Schrader & Bill Smith, Mattituck
The host of exotic plants that line the Mattituck property of Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith have been likened to the gardens found in Bali.
It is a slice of paradise that grew out of an abandoned potato and corn farm nearly 30 years ago. The couple purchased the 14-acre property in 1992 and transformed it into an Eden. They also own the wholesale landscape company next door, Landcraft Environments.
“It has been a long process,” Schrader said. “It evolves and changes every year. We have our hardscaping — the perennials — but the accent plants, the annuals and the tropicals are changed out every year. It is a fun process of trying new plants and combinations.”
The lush plantings surround a restored 1840s farmhouse that underwent extensive renovations in 2008. The four-acre garden is a testament to diverse and proper planting. Groves of hardy palms and banana trees are woven into the land’s fabric alongside traditional hedges and native plant meadows.
Winding paths lead the way to perennial and mixed-shrub borders. As you travel the beaten walkways, you’ll discover a hidden-away tiki hut with a 12-seat handcrafted dining table as well as the breathtaking section known as “The Ruin,” a subterranean stone grotto. The house and gardens are encircled by nine acres of fields with mowed paths for unabashed views of native plants and wildlife.
“Those types of spaces are shrinking with houses being built and property development,” Schrader said. “It is a place for birds to nest and nature to thrive.”