It all started two years ago when Dinny Morse and Isabel Malkin, Mae’s doting daughters, visited the garden that their father established in their mother’s name at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, as they do perennially. The sisters—Dinny lives in Greenwich and Manhattan, and Isabel calls Greenwich her home—decided it was time for this commemorative garden to grow some new memories. “The original garden was perfection,” Isabel says, “but it had drifted from that plan and purpose” through the years as the garden matured and some plantings were changed.
The two couldn’t help but wonder what type of garden their mother would have wanted and what the original designer, renowned landscape architect Alice Ireys, would have created had they been privy to all the gardening techniques and trends of the 21st century. “We wanted to create a garden that was more of today, something our mother would think is beautiful,” says Dinny. “And we wanted it to be as soft and serene as she was.”
Riverside landscape architect Susan Cohen, who is known for her elegant residential designs, was called upon to reimagine the garden. Susan, longtime coordinator of the botanical garden’s landscape design program, was the designer of “Momijigari: The Japanese Autumn Garden” and “Sculptures from The Museum of Modern Art at The New York Botanical Garden” and codesigner of “Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Chrysanthemum.” She was quite familiar with Ireys and her work. “I bought her book ‘How To Plan and Plant Your Own Property’ early in my career, was inspired by her classic designs, and many years later, I got to know her,” she says. “I hoped to reimagine the Wien Summer Garden as Alice would have done it today.”
Susan started speaking to Dinny and Isabel to get an idea of the woman behind the blooms. In the 1940s, when Dinny and Isabel were young, Mae and her husband, Lawrence, moved from Long Island to a rambling, fieldstone house in Weston. “It was out in the country,” Isabel says. “It really was the backwoods. Nobody had ever heard of Weston back then.” The property had chickens, horses and Mae’s pride and glory, a cutting garden filled with wildflowers. Mae’s profession was her family, and her hobby was gardening.
“The house was always filled with mother’s flowers,” Dinny says. Isabel remembers her mother’s natural floral arrangements. “She used to cut Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans, whatever she could find, and create beautiful bouquets,” she says. Later in life, when the girls were grown and she had moved to Westport, Mae continued gardening. The property was small, but she still found the space for a vegetable garden and a companion cutting garden.
“Mother was petite, beautiful, gentle, sweet and kind,” Dinny says. “And she was always youthful and natural,” Isabel adds. “She never grew old.” Mae died in 1986, at age seventy-six, and the Wien garden dedicated in the summer of 1988. Susan wanted to create a design that not only honored Mae but also Alice Ireys. She took further inspiration from the green hedging and billowing flowers of Sissinghurst Castle’s White Garden, which was designed by Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s.
“Alice was a landscape architect who designed more than 1,000 residential and public gardens, and Mae Wien expressed her artistry in her garden and in her bouquets,” Susan says. Mae’s garden is a study in simplicity: Its red-brick paths are arranged in a classic shape. The six central beds form a fan whose rays lead the eye to the perimeter plantings, which are backed by a yew hedge. “Like many English country gardens,” Susan says, “it is formal in design but rambunctious in its plantings. The idea of combining order and disorder was evident in Ireys’s original plan for the Wien garden.”
Susan proposed a garden of blues, purples and whites, punctuated with chartreuse. “The color scheme was the key,” says Kristin Schleiter, curator of outdoor gardens and herbaceous collections at the botanical garden who worked on the project with Susan. “It had evolved to be a mishmash of hues; there was every color in the spectrum mixed together.” The contemporary contrast of the colors not only reflects the elegance and refinement of Mae Wien, but it also sets the garden apart.
“The sophisticated palette, unique at the New York Botanical Garden, serves as an inspiration to home gardeners looking to incorporate novel combinations of beautiful, low-maintenance and long-lasting flowers into their own containers and borders,” says Gregory Long, CEO and the William C. Steere Sr. president of the botanical garden. Once the color scheme was in place, Susan focused on the form, adding significant details. Using the original pair of crabapple trees as anchors, Susan added a low hedge of dwarf boxwood to separate the brick paths from the outer plantings and balance the scale of the garden.
“The hedge brings in green architecture,” she says. “And the added bit of evergreen makes the colors sing.” She planted hostas, ferns and other shade perennials under the crabapples and added three large terracotta pots, one at the center of the yew hedge and one on each outer bed, to create a subtle focal-point triangle.
Quiet and Quaint
Mae’s garden is intimate, and therein lies much of its appeal. At only 48 feet by 65 feet, it’s the perfect size for a cottage or a romantic marriage proposal. When Susan strolls to the garden, she’s greeted by the deep purple blooms of a Polish Spirit clematis vine that’s climbing the entrance trellis along with the pink rose Awakening. “This is the only pink flower in the garden,” she says. “It was here already, and it was a lovely reminder of the original garden.” The Heavenly Blue morning glory, which has wrapped itself around the fence, won’t come forth with its blue wall of blooms until late summer. White foxgloves and white dahlias mix with the chartreuse of the Green Jewel Echinacea and Envy zinnia to bring out the best in the tall bearded iris, Angelonia Angelface Blue and Sky Blue petunias.
“These are some of my very favorite flowers,” Susan says. “I have most of them in my own garden.” She points to a lime green nicotiana, which has small
bell-like flowers. “I love that one,” she says. Other particular favorites are the ladies mantle and the variegated Japanese forest grass, with its cascading habit of growth.
“The annuals, including the spider flowers, the cosmos, the flowering tobacco, the sage, the verbena, the snapdragons, thread it all together,” says Kristin. These are the summer flowers. Spring brings the tulips, blue pansies and hyacinths, and in the fall, white and purple mums add a shot of color. Because of these seasonal changes, “Susan’s redesign combines intimacy with impact and formality to create a must-see horticultural highlight from May through October,” says Long.
But the Mae L. Wien Summer Garden does more than look pretty. It plays the perfect hostess, inviting visitors to make themselves at home the minute they pass under the wrought-iron trellis that is fashioned like a crown. The brick paths may look formal, but the pretty purple petunias that spill out onto them let visitors know that it’s proper for their feet to linger. A pair of classic teak benches reinforces the casual feel of the space. A plaque on the back of each, quoting a passage of William Ernest Henley’s 19th-century poem “Pastoral,” promises:
Pageants of colour and fragrance,
Pass the sweet meadows, and viewless
Walks the mild spirit of Mae,
Visibly blessing the world.
Dinny and Isabel chose the poem because it reminded them of their mother. “It was perfect for her—we changed May to Mae, and it worked,” Isabel says. The sisters are delighted with the remade garden. “The delicacy makes you think of Mother,” Isabel says. Adds Dinny, “It’s a beautiful garden, and it reflects the kind of person she was. Every time I see the garden, it almost makes me feel she’s still with us.” Isabel agrees, adding that “the botanical garden was a perfect choice of place to remember our mother.”
And it’s the perfect place, Kristin says, to wait out the summer heat. “Because of the cool color scheme, it feels nice even on a baking hot day.” As Susan and Kristin stroll through the garden, the butterflies follow them. “I feel as if I am in a storybook garden,” Susan says. The two continue down the center path. “Someone else will come along in another generation and rethink this garden. And they should; gardens should change. I’m just pleased that I had the chance to follow in the footsteps of one of the important garden designers of the 20th century.”