Nina Bassuk, Part II: Behind the Scenes in the Bassuk-Trowbridge Landscape

Nina Bassuk and Peter Trowbridge, rear center, participate in landscape installation along with students in their "Creating the Urban Eden" class.
Nina Bassuk and Peter Trowbridge, rear center, participate in landscape installation along with students in their “Creating the Urban Eden” class.

In this second blog post about Nina Bassuk, we learn about her extensive home landscape. She is also an accomplished flutist who graduated in 1969 from the Music and Arts High School (now known as the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts) in her native NYC. Nina says that recently she reunited with some members of her high school class to play chamber music at the art exhibit of some other former classmates. She is also accomplished on the piano.

Thankfully for the rest of us, Nina Bassuk and Peter Trowbridge are overachievers. In their professional lives, they are accomplished Cornell professors of horticulture and landscape architecture, respectively. At home, they apply their skills and vision to their nine-acre landscape.

Strong axes give the garden a sense of order.  Photo by Craig Cramer
Strong axes give the garden a sense of order. Photo by Craig Cramer

Peter bought the abandoned farm overlooking Cayuga Lake, between Ithaca and Mecklenburg, in 1980. The first few years were devoted to home construction and clearing the land, which had been infiltrated by pioneer woody saplings of red maple, white ash, and white pine. Peter brush-hogged to halt the farm’s steady march to woodlot, preferring to keep four acres of the land in meadow and five acres for more intensive cultivation.

Eventually Nina came into Peter’s life, and over the past 30 years, the couple has created stunning pleasure grounds that double as an outdoor laboratory for use in their professional lives.

Wanting to preserve some of the historic elements of the property, Peter developed a structure for the landscape based on ruins of a barn foundation. He explains, “The idea was that you came through the front door of the house right out the back door, where you’d encounter a formal axis leading your vision along that old barn foundation. That axis draws your view all the way back 1800 feet to the white pines at the property’s edge.”

Bassuk-Trowbridge landscape in spring
Bassuk-Trowbridge landscape in spring

The rest of the garden lines flow from that main axis. When Peter built an office for his landscape architecture firm on the land, he sited it at a 45-degree angle from the main axis. Foundation gardens follow that line and connect the office to the house. “Then other gardens link onto that backbone,” he says. “It gives you a feeling of order and comfort; it’s logical and makes sense. Even if you’re not done putting in gardens, which we never are, at least there’s some big view.”  This attention to structure is important on a property of this size, so that people can experience the space as mysterious and inviting, not overwhelming.

Landscape architect Dan Krall is a colleague of Peter’s at Cornell and a close family friend. “What I love about the gardens,” he says, “is that there’s a powerful overall scheme integrated with small gardens that surprise and delight. There are wonderful elements of contrast. As you move farther away from the house, things get a little wilder. You start with gardens that are highly maintained, and you are led to a meadow that feels like a big open English park.”

The first thing that attracted Peter to the land in 1980 was a large grove of mature sugar maples used as a sugar bush by the previous owner. Peter had no intention of extracting sap from the trees, which, like many rural sugar maples, were in decline. Instead he and Nina created huge mulched beds for the trees and found that with some pruning and regular mulching, the trees actually improved. The roots grow right into the bark mulch, and benefit from zero competition from grass or woody plants.

While Nina and Peter eschew planting shrubs in the sugar maple understory, they have found the trees to be compatible with bulbs. They’ve perfected a technique that allows them to plant thousands of bulbs each year without disrupting the maple roots. “We plant bulbs right into the bark mulch,” says Nina. “The key is, you can’t stop mulching, or the bulbs will suffer. We put down two to three inches most years.”

As the foliage of thousands of daffodils dies back in May, the stems of thousands of allium (ornamental onions) like ‘Purple Sensation’ emerge, diverting attention from the fading daffodil leaves. In June, when the stems of the allium collapse, Nina and Peter mulch right over the bulb leaves and stems to tidy up. It’s also a technique that adds to the organic matter of the soil—in two ways. Nina and Peter use an average of 120 cubic yards of bark mulch under the sugar maples each year.

They have also planted masses of fall-flowering bulbs like the purple-blue autumn crocus (Colchicum ‘The Giant’). Autumn crocuses send up end up leaves in the spring, flower scapes in the fall. Commuters along Nina and Peter’s road actually pull over in the fall, wanting to know what they are seeing.

In travels to England Nina and Peter were exposed to the British gardener’s affinity for foliage as a significant source of visual interest. In their home garden, they moved in the same direction, focusing on shrubs with colorful foliage, like burgundy-leaved ninebark (Physocarpus ‘Diablo’), golden-leaved spireas like Spiraea ‘Gold Mound’, purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’), and colorful willows like Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ with its mottled white and green leaves and apricot stems and S. purpurea ‘Nana’ with wispy blue-green foliage.

“It’s both a maintenance issue and an evolution of our tastes,” says Peter. “We prune and tidy up once in the spring and that’s it. Colorful foliage gives you interest all summer when most of the flowers are gone. We also like perennials like Siberian iris that give you that stalwart foliage all summer.”

“We don’t do lot of annuals anymore,” says Nina, “because the rabbits ate them and our dogs sprawled out on them, and they’re just too much work. For flower color we do pots around the house for impact up close.”

Mixed shrub-perennial borders in the Bassuk-Trowbridge landscape
Mixed shrub-perennial borders in the Bassuk-Trowbridge landscape

One of the most important principles Nina and Peter communicate to their students is that of matching plants appropriately to site. On nine acres at home they’ve seen first-hand how much site conditions can vary across short distances. “We put the first two vegetable gardens on the best soil we could find,” says Nina. “It’s where the farmer brought in topsoil to use as backfill against the barn foundation. Because it was the 19th century, no heavy equipment compacted it. It’s well-drained soil with lots of organic matter.”

One of the vegetable gardens bakes in full sun, so they use it for solanaceous crops like tomatoes and eggplants. The other garden has a bit more shade from nearby trees, so it’s used for cole crops like leafy greens that would burn up in early summer if not for the mitigating shade.

Another spot where Nina and Peter have maximized natural conditions is along a drainage swale that moves surface water into a constructed pond. “It’s quite wet there in spring and into summer,” says Nina, “so we plant things that like wet feet, like river birch (Betula nigra), redtwig dogwood (Cornus sp.), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). We put in a grove of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), which I love. We planted a Japanese butterbur (Petasites japonicus ‘Giganteus’), an herbaceous plant that takes over, groundcover-style. It only grows where it’s really wet, so it hasn’t invaded other gardens.”

Other spots on the property have soil that would drive most gardeners to drink. Nina and Peter transformed a very difficult spot with “blue-gray clay” into an allee of black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia). The trees are pollarded—cut back to nubs on the trunk—every spring. In one season they regenerate a full six feet of uniform head growth, giving an elegant, formal appearance. Black locusts are great candidates for this site because of their willingness to grow in the poorest soils.

“When we first moved here,” says Peter, “we had an open vegetable garden. But we have herds of deer here, so that lasted a year. We tried putting cages around individual plants to keep the deer out. We tried planting a deer-resistant garden, but it consisted of tomatoes and onions.”

Finally Nina and Peter, who both love to cook, decided to invest in attractive wood fences for their vegetable gardens. They built two formal square-shaped gardens that mirror each other in their symmetrical design. Both are highly maintained and ornamental in nature and integrate espaliered fruit trees and garden sculpture.

Protecting the open perennial borders and young trees from browsing deer has proven more difficult. Nina and Peter have learned from experience that the resident deer will eat witchhazel (Hamamelis sp.) right to the ground and will strip every leaf of the blue hollies (Ilex meserveae), even though the literature says they don’t like it. They mow down oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and serviceberry trees (Amelanchier sp.), and you can just forget about daylilies and hostas. They will paw tulip bulbs right out of the earth.

Here’s where the distinctions get downright comical. Peter reports that the deer will browse some lilacs (Syringa sp.), but not the ubiquitous ‘Miss Kim’. He says they will eat the tender new German iris foliage, but not the mature foliage, and they will eat the flower buds of young magnolia trees, but not the vegetative buds (how do they know the difference?)

Lest ye despair, Nina and Peter report that, on their property at least, the deer won’t eat Savin junipers (Juniperus sabina), boxwoods, spireas, weigela, Siberian irises, shrubby dogwoods, peonies, lavender, grasses, and butterfly bush. And even things the deer like are often safe later in the season when the shoots harden off, or when the plant gets sufficiently mature—so the news isn’t all bad.

The latest news from the Bassuk-Trowbridge landscape is that they are putting up a high tunnel, an unheated poly greenhouse to extend their growing season in the fall, to get an early jump on spring, and to overwinter things that aren’t hardy. “I’ve had fig plants—we bring them in the garage in the winter—but I’ve always wanted to try to have fruit on them,” Nina says.

There’ll be room for much more than figs: the tunnel, which they are putting up themselves with helpers, will be 20 feet wide x 72 feet long. They’ll use the space for unusual trees and shrubs, for propagation, and for some herbs like rosemary that are just out of range to overwinter in Ithaca. The big challenge is getting water to the tunnel from their pond, and electric from the house.

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