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A framed Skip Wachsberger painting. (Credit: Felicia LaLomia)

The rarest of the magnolia trees in Charles Dean’s garden were the size of pencils when he and his late husband, Clyde “Skip” Wachsberger, planted them 16 years ago. The two so-called Silver Parasol magnolia trees — a hybrid that combines the beautiful fragrance of Asian magnolias with the showy flowers of American varieties — were a gift from Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. Because the trees proved so hard to propagate, there are only a handful of them in the world. The fact that they were entrusted to the pair speaks to their skills as gardeners and the ambition of the backyard oasis they created in Orient.

The couple called the spot Adsworthy Garden, a cheeky tribute to how they met — through a personal ad placed by Dean, who worked for high-end restaurants in New York City, and published inadvertently in an East End newspaper, where it reached the eyes of Wachsberger in Orient. Soon they were working in the garden together, pruning the magnolias to help them grow and learning to trust each other’s instincts. The experience was so transformative it inspired Wachsberger to write a memoir, “Into the Garden with Charles.” Illustrated with his own watercolors, it would be published shortly before his death of cancer in 2011. 

“Every garden tells a story,” he wrote. “Ours tells a love story.”

Plants — like relationships, like children, like ideas — have a funny way of growing in unexpected directions. Today, the once-tiny Silver Parasol magnolia trees are towering. Sitting under the trees’ spectacular umbrella-shaped leaves on a recent morning, Dean said he had no choice but to adapt. 

“Of course, they’ve totally transformed the garden because they caused so much shade,” he said. “It’s very different now, but it’s always different. It’s always changing. Even now, it looks so much different than it did even 10 years ago when I took it over completely without him. I just kept doing it.”

In an exhibit he curated about Adsworthy, on view through Labor Day at the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient, Dean calls the plot his “relatively secret garden.” Relatively, because the place is renowned among local gardeners. Secret, because passersby on Village Lane would never guess from the front of the modest colonial that out back is a shy half-acre of densely packed trees, plants and flowers from around the world. 

Built in 1700, the house may originally have been a small home or a simple farm building, perhaps even a barn housing animals. When Wachsberger arrived in the early 1980s, the yard had not much more than a couple of old apple trees. He slowly turned the parcel into an English cottage garden bursting with flowers, including more than 50 different roses. Dean’s arrival in 1996 heralded a tropical phase they called Key West North East, influenced by Wachsberger’s fascination with exotic plants and Dean’s experience living in Florida after college. This unlikely paradise overflowed with passion flowers, large-leafed banana plants and more than a few pink plastic flamingos. A monkey puzzle tree from Chile grew needles as sharp as a hypodermic and bark like a medieval armor. 

Today the garden is less fantastical and more earth-bound — a change dictated by the shade from the giant magnolias as well as the more practical personality of the gardener (for one thing, Dean tired of moving dozens of tropical plants indoors every winter). “When Skip was dying, he said, ‘Don’t do what I would necessarily do. Just do what you want to do to and tend your garden,” said Dean. “But I realized that’s the only thing you can do.”

Walking the blue flagstone path that winds through the small garden, he points out just a few of the extraordinary trees and perennials within — a weeping Alaskan cedar, Japanese lilacs, a Chinese fig hazel. He has added several striking sculptures by his artist sister, Frieda Dean, and by Greenport artist Arden Scott, whose large-scale metal sculptures incorporate materials salvaged from local shipyards. Her dramatic forms provide a burst of color against the winter snow and in the summer double as supports for the rose bushes, still thriving after nearly three decades.

This melding of art and horticulture is a fitting tribute to Wachsberger, whose creativity took many forms. He painted sets for the Metropolitan Opera, owned a company that designed trompe l’oeil murals around the world, wrote and illustrated two books and co-edited, with Dean, an anthology called “Of Leaf and Flower: Stories and Poems for Gardeners.” He painted photorealistic portraits, North Fork nature scenes and award-winning botanical watercolors.

Yet it was his gardens he considered his best art — a living legacy across the North Fork. As greenhouse manager at Ornamental Plantings in Southold, Wachsberger influenced the landscape via his advice for customers and by stocking unusual plants that might never have made their way here otherwise. Because he and Dean frequently shared cuttings with neighbors, yards in Orient still boast exotic, 15-foot-high Basjoo banana plants and other reminders of Adsworthy’s “faux-Floridian” era. 

He also designed numerous Orient gardens himself, as highlighted earlier this summer in a memorial garden tour. At the Hon. Lewis A. Edwards House on Main Road, he worked with owner Keri Christ to lay out the pathway beds for a cottage garden, showcasing a variety of heirloom roses that were introduced in 1858, the same year the house was built. At the Orient home of Ellen Birenbaum and Mary Roman, they said, “Skip created the gardens like a painting, with a flow of colors and shapes, ever changing over the course of all four seasons.”

“He took gardening seriously as a creative activity,” said Dean. “And out of all the things he did, he said that at the end of his life, his major accomplishment was creating this garden. And it’s in the gardens where you really see the creativity still blooming.”