Roots and Shoots: A Morning in the Japanese Maple Forest

By Pamela Doan

The gardener has achieved the loftiest of gardener’s goals — from every room in the house there’s a beautiful vista. From the kitchen, there’s a shade garden with a variety of large-leafed hostas in shades of green and blue. The dining room and living room overlook a sweep of flowers with several cultivars of hydrangea, rhodedendron and roses. The peonies are in bloom now, fragrant with white and red petals. Under the tall, old sugar maples, the daffodils are spent in the northeast corner. From the family room, there is another view of the shade garden and the climbing hydrangea blooming on the oak tree, thick flowers and leaves twined around the trunk 20 feet up. A glimpse of the forest on the west side is the view from the entire wing, what you’d see in the first morning light when the dew shimmers.

Bob Harvey

Bob Harvey

Although outside the fence, it’s surrounded by the same sugar maples, spruce and pine that cover the hills and valleys in Philipstown, the forest inside the fence consists of Japanese maples. Bob Harvey, the gardener and homeowner responsible for planning and creating this lovely setting, was curious about the trees he’s always appreciated but couldn’t grow at his home on the West Coast. After moving to Garrison from southern California 25 years ago, though, he got to learn about gardening in a new climate. Leaving behind his year-round growing season and semi-tropical plants, he took a few classes at the New York Botanical Garden, which has a tremendous educational program for gardeners of all experience levels. Bob used his curiosity and to create this seamless and dynamic landscape with his partner and soon-to-be husband (thanks to Gov. Cuomo!), Joel Weiser.

Bob ordered his first Japanese maple seedlings from a nursery in Oregon almost 20 years ago. He said: “I’d go to bed thinking about the trees and planning. When the seedlings arrived, it was like Christmas. I’d get five to six seedlings at a time, just 12- to 18-inch twigs, basically.” He planted them in a bed off to the side, and when they were big enough, he started transplanting them and putting them in place. Now there are 65 different cultivars in about half an acre on one side of the property.

It feels and looks like a forest and has a natural layout with a path that winds through it and ferns, grasses and flowers interspersed sparsely and harmoniously. Shorter cultivars of Japanese maple stand between taller trees or spread out below them. Every single one is unique. Bob said: “I was treating it as a tapestry. Throughout the seasons from spring to fall, there is a change of color literally daily.” The hues vary from shades of green and yellow to purples, pinks and reds. The shape of each tree and its leaves are different, but similar. The graceful textures and muted colors, nothing bright or jarring here, evokes a calm, steady spirit. This is a place to meditate and listen to.

Bob Harvey gardenJapanese maples thrive in our climate. “It all takes care of itself,” said Bob. “There isn’t much pruning or fertilizing, and very little weeding because I’ve mulched it all. In the spring, the whole yard takes about four hours a week, then about half that in the summer. I lost about five trees during Tropical Storm Irene, but other than that, it’s been very hardy.” Bob discussed what he referred to as “checkbook gardening” and how people don’t understand what they’re missing when they want instant gratification from their landscape. “It’s just so much fun,” he said.

Bob’s advice to other gardeners? Buy good reference books, like Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. He also recommended taking a class on a subject to explore an aspect of gardening in depth and credits learning to identify plants as the most useful knowledge he picked up. Then, he said, “Just visit gardens like the New York Botanical Garden on a monthly basis and watch what happens. Look and fall in love with something.”

Garden questions? Send them to [email protected].

One thought on “Roots and Shoots: A Morning in the Japanese Maple Forest

  1. Great article. The descriptive way in which it was written enabled me to envision the property. The pictures exploded with the natural environment which Bob Harvey’s property exudes. I would love to have my property look that beautiful. Thanks for sharing with us this great property.