Garden Hopping in Westchester County
By Jan Johnsen
Why is Westchester County one of the nation’s great garden tourism areas? As a professional landscape designer and avid garden visitor, I have to say that it’s our unequaled concentration of so many world-class estate, historic home and public gardens. Nowhere else can you visit such varied garden destinations, all in close proximity, all in one easily traversed county.
Add to this the diverse natural features that Westchester offers — from the splendid Hudson River Valley to the shores of Long Island Sound to inland, rocky woodlands — and you have a true garden mecca.
To get you started on your outdoor adventure, here are my personal suggestions for garden hopping (on the rest of our map you’ll find more details about both these and other don’t-miss destinations):
Begin at the amazing Kendall Sculpture Garden in Purchase. It forms the extensive grounds around Pepsico’s world headquarters and was designed by a great British designer, Russell Page. You can see his touch in the formal modern layout of the landscape. Some of my favorites within the site are groves of white birch trees, an ornamental grass garden and a bog garden with a series of rectangular pools that reflect the sky.
Another must-visit garden is at Kykuit, the grand estate of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. It’s a magical place that offers long views across the Hudson River. The gardens here are sweeping and include bubbling fountains, grottoes and spectacular ornamental trees such as magnolias, cherries and dogwoods, that drape over the outstanding stonework.
Another personal favorite is Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem. I love walking around this gem of an Asian-style garden. The central feature is its naturalistic pond, ringed with irises and ferns. The Japanese maples planted here are stunning, especially when they sport their colorful fall foliage. And in spring, the flowering Japanese cherry trees gladden any garden-lover’s heart as they foretell of warmer days to come.
The Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah in Northern Westchester should definitely be on your itinerary. This Italian-style estate is so fun to visit because it offers an array of garden areas to savor. I particularly like the Sunken Garden and the Iris & Peony Garden. And don’t forget the glorious music that they offer!
This is just a sampling of the marvelous natural offerings that make Westchester a garden lover’s delight. Enjoy!
Westchester County-based author, blogger and educator Jan Johnsen is an award-winning landscape designer. An instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and contributing editor for Garden Design Magazine, her books include Heaven is a Garden and The Spirit of Stone.
Westchester’s Historic Homes & Gardens
The wealthy, powerful and cultured of New York and beyond have long chosen Westchester for their stately homes and retreats. If you’re a history buff, architecture connoisseur or horticulture enthusiast, this is the spot to create your own tour of memorable mansions and glorious gardens.
1. Historic Hudson Valley
See the estate of the family whose very name symbolizes American riches, visit a modest church featuring unexpected treasures, learn about the lives of Colonial-era slaves, and discover the charming home of America’s first celebrity author. It’s all part of a unique collection of sites managed by Historic Hudson Valley:
The star attraction is Kykuit, once home to oil magnate John D. Rockefeller. Tour the main rooms of the six-story house, marvel at priceless collections that include classic cars and works by world-famous artists, and then stroll the extensive terraced gardens, dotted with sculptures, pavilions and grottos, all framed by sweeping Hudson River views.
Next is Union Church of Pocantico Hills, where you’ll see a stunning collection of stained-glass windows, including Henri Matisse’s final work and a series of nine panels by Marc Chagall, with some honoring members of the Rockefeller clan. Trace this unique attraction’s history by downloading the free app.
A busy farm, gristmill and trading center in the 1700s, Philipsburg Manor offers a hands-on look at life before the American Revolution. Work flax into linen, thresh wheat, visit the 300-year-old manor house, and hear tales of the indispensible role slaves played in the colonies’ early economy.
At Van Cortlandt Manor, discover more opportunities for immersion in the day-to-day experiences of our forebearers with cooking, candle making, even writing with a quill pen. Tour the manor, brick ferry house and heritage garden, where you’ll find an array of period-appropriate plants.
Some of American literature’s most enduring characters, from The Headless Horseman to Rip van Winkle, were created by Washington Irving. America’s first internationally famous author made his home at Sunnyside, a quirky house draped in wisteria and set among garden paths and river views.
Visit hudsonvalley.org for details on all sites, including hours and directions; admission is by timed tours only; Kykuit tours begin at the Visitor Center at Philipsburg Manor.
Notable events Two famed Halloween-season extravaganzas, The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze® at Van Cortlandt Manor and Horseman’s Hollow at Philipsburg Manor.
635 S. Broadway, Tarrytown; 914-631-4481; lyndhurst.org
Google “Gothic Revival Architecture” and you’ll find the name Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the most successful American architects of his generation and the genius who designed Lyndhurst in 1838. Inspired by medieval forms, this ornate style features castle-like turrets, arched windows and stained glass — all on display at Lyndhurst. The mansion’s most famous resident was 19th-century American railroad developer Jay Gould, whose private office is part of your tour. Sample Gilded Age elegance as you move through the sumptuous Victorian dining room, library and Grand Picture Gallery. Many elaborately decorated rooms feature art, antiques and furniture original to this fairy-tale castle. There’s also a recently restored 1894 bowling alley, an “upstairs-downstairs” tour that takes you through the servants’ quarters and an observation tower with Hudson River views. Lyndhurst’s 67-acre site, free to stroll, has been preserved to reflect 19th-century landscape design with vast lawns, surprise views and a romantic rose garden, complete with a flower-draped pergola.
Notable events Concerts, craft fairs, gardening workshops and special exhibits.
3. Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts
49 Girdle Ridge Rd., Katonah; 914-232-1252; caramoor.org
In 1914, successful banker Walter T. Rosen fell in love with Lucie Bigelow Dodge, who shared his enduring passion for the arts. Well-known patrons of the creative class, they ensured that their beloved summer estate in Katonah be preserved as a cultural center in a unique natural setting. Today, you can lose yourself in 90 acres of perennial and seasonal gardens and cultivated landscapes — from a dazzling array of peonies, irises and day lilies to a cluster of butterfly-attracting flora to the manicured serenity of the Sunken Garden. And you can enjoy acclaimed classical, jazz and operatic performances throughout the year at indoor and outdoor sites like the Venetian Theater and a Spanish-style courtyard. Leave time to visit the Caramoor mansion, which houses a vast collection of artwork, sculpture and other treasures, including a 40-panel Chinese screen of carved jade and a lacquered room that once graced an Italian palazzo.
Notable events Concerts representing many musical genres — classical, opera, American roots, jazz, chamber, kid-friendly.
4. John Jay Homestead
400 Jay St., Katonah; 914-232-5651; johnjayhomestead.org
Among the nation’s founding fathers, few were as prolific as John Jay — he served as President of the Continental Congress, Governor of New York and the nation’s first Chief Justice. A respected negotiator, he also co-authored The Federalist Papers and helped frame the Treaty of Paris, ending the American Revolution. Despite his illustrious career, Jay looked forward to settling at his Westchester County farmhouse. He retired in 1801, but his beloved wife, Sarah, died just a year later. Jay never remarried and lived a quiet country farmer’s life at the Katonah homestead until his death in 1829. Today, as you wander through the home’s halls, bedrooms and parlors, you’ll find that simple country atmosphere largely unchanged: The interior has been restored to reflect its appearance during Jay’s lifetime, and well over half of the furnishings are original to Jay and his family. You can visit historic farm buildings, an interactive education center and walk (or, in the winter, snowshoe) 62 acres of fields and gardens.
Notable events Friday picnics, annual Barn Dance, renowned Farm Market, lectures, play days.
5. Untermyer Park & Gardens
Samuel Untermyer was a highly successful lawyer and investor and close ally of President Woodrow Wilson. He once famously said that he would have preferred being Parks Commissioner of New York City. Untermyer’s passion for horticulture led him to create gardens and greenhouses that were among the most celebrated in America during the 1920s and ‘30s. Today, 43 acres remain that still dazzle with their inventive design elements. Walled, rock, color and sundial gardens, a descending stair to a Hudson River overlook and a cascading rocky waterfall topped by a stone temple offer a memorable escape.
Notable events Garden parties, summer festival of music, dance and theater.
7. Kendall Sculpture Garden/PepsiCo Sculpture Gardens
700 Anderson Hill Rd., Purchase; 914-253-3150; pepsico.com/sculpture-gardens
Westchester County is home to what may be the world’s most extraordinary sculpture garden — 45 works by famed artists like Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miró, Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, spread across 168 acres surrounding Pepsico’s world headquarters. The natural settings were laid out by Englishman Russell Page, one of the 20th century’s greatest landscape designers. Download the free app for visitors information, a site map, videos and a guide to the sculptures and 11 themed gardens that highlight, among other flora, birch and oak trees, irises, fall foliage, grasses and lily ponds. Open weekends March through October.
Notable events School and camp groups welcomed for tours by reservation.
7. Hammond Museum & Japanese Stroll Garden
28 Deveau Rd., North Salem; 914-669-5033; hammondmuseum.org
Dating to the 17th century, Japanese Stroll Gardens were designed to present a series of “scenic gems” connected by paths that lead to a ceremonial tea house. Stepping stones beckon you forward, partial views suggest a revealing scene just ahead, and different perspectives encourage a leisurely, contemplative appreciation of trees and flowers. Created by artist Natalie Hays Hammond in 1957, this garden and museum drew on her extensive Asian travels, which inspired her to create a place where Eastern and Western culture could meet. In Hammond’s words: “As people often travel to escape routine problems and obligations, or to escape themselves, so should they find peace in an unhurried journey through a stroll garden.” The museum offers exhibitions of contemporary and historic works representing Eastern and Eastern-influenced artists.
Notable events Annual Moon Viewing concert (August), bonsai and tea ceremony workshops.
8. Lasdon Park & Arboretum
2610 Amawalk Rd., Katonah; 914-864-7268; lasdonpark.org
It’s no surprise that the stately home at the heart of this public park looks familiar — it was modeled after George Washington’s famous Mount Vernon in Virginia. In 1939, it became the home of William Lasdon, a noted philanthropist whose family was passionate about horticulture and travel. The Lasdons collected countless tree specimens from around the world and planted them on the estate — the beginnings of the extensive gardens and wildlife habitats you can enjoy today. As you walk through Lasdon Park, you’ll also encounter the Conservatory — a glass-enclosed space that immerses visitors in the lush, moisture-soaked beauty of a rainforest. A dinosaur garden, Chinese friendship garden and American chestnut grove are just a few of the other natural attractions on display.
Notable events Seasonal train shows, concerts, plant sales and garden shows.
Also of interest:
9. Philipse Manor Hall
29 Warburton Ave., Yonkers; 914-965-4027; parks.ny.gov/historic-sites/37/details.aspx
Once home to a Colonial loyalist who fled to England during the American Revolution, it is now a museum and a fine example of high-style Georgian architecture. Don’t miss: the 1750s papier-mâché Rococo ceiling and the collection of presidential portraits.
10. Glenview Mansion at the Hudson River Museum
511 Warburton Ave., Yonkers; 914-963-4550; hrm.org/mansion.html
With castle-like turrets that command a majestic view of the Hudson, Glenview has been restored to show life in a Gilded Age household. Don’t miss: the magnificent grand staircase and a library featuring polished black furniture inspired by Japanese design.