Why hello garden role models! When Ken Druse and Louis Bauer said “yes” to our request for their gardening secrets, we wet our plants. The two are like the power couple in gardening circles. Ken is an esteemed lecturer and has written enough books to fill his own library shelf, about two dozen. His most recent is “The Scentual Garden: Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance.” Louis is the former horticultural director at Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, New Jersey, then most recently at everyone’s favorite garden oasis, Wave Hill in the Bronx. Their story began 30 year ago in a Brooklyn Brownstone backyard surrounded by potted plants. Now they garden on a two-and-a-half-acre island in the Paulinskill River in New Jersey—and rely on a lot fewer containers for their plants.
JM: What’s your favorite season?
Ken : Nothing can compare to spring—it’s easy ... “Anyone can do spring,” said Alan Haskell”— He meant flowering bulbs and evergreen azaleas but kidding aside, I love the spring ephemerals and the flowering shrubs and trees – from the haze of the red maple flowers until June when the weeds get bigger than the plants we adore.
Louis : Fall, when things are at their fullest and the list of chores gets shorter; at the end of fall I have the most optimistic list of things that should change.
JM: What’s your top 3 favorite plants and why?
Ken : I know this is a cliché, but my most recent favorite plants are the last three I’ve seen- ones I don’t have and think I can grow. Seriously, it changes all the time, but I do like woody plants, (because they do well here) and columnar trees (and a couple of naturally narrow shrubs) like Liquidambar ‘Slender Silhouette,’ and maybe Buxus ‘Graham Blandy’. We have collections, for example, about a dozen different dogwoods, 10 Hydrangea arborescens varieties, and so on. I love Trillium, and am passionate about Arisaema (Jack-in-the-pulpits). This could be a very long list. Plant-love guides my designs.
Louis : I’m currently into evergreen ferns and Carex species, especially native species, but also some interesting but underused Ophiopogon and Liriope varieties. That is because we have added the new gardening space across the road but have less energy and mobility, so I’m looking to “self-reliants” to plant among the rocks. I want to make masses of mixed perennials that have a big impact and are attractive for a long time each year. And, I am looking to deer-resistant plants with minimal care.
JM: What plant gets no love (is underused) and why should we pay more attention to it?
Ken : Well, let’s see ... Taxodium, Thujopsis dolabrata, Diphilea cymosa ... ? Again, too many to mention.
Louis : As above, ferns and carex, Ophiopogon, Hypericum prolificum (deer don’t eat these).
JM: What’s the aesthetic of garden? What are some of your favorite “rooms”?
Ken : I think the aesthetic is naturalistic. We have few obvious formal areas, which is partly due to the shape of the island and the surrounding woodlands. A canal cuts across the island connecting the slow branch of the river with the fast one and is spanned by a sod-covered, arched stone bridge.
Primula x bulleesiana Canal Garden Cercidiphyllum japonicum 'Pendula'
This place has become the “canal garden,” is one of my favorite places and a focal point of the property. In spring, it is filled with candelabra primrose.
Louis : We also have a lot of trees—those that cover the nearby hills and ones Ken has planted.
Ken : Two-foot whips that arrived from mail order nurseries are now 70-foot-tall trees. One of my favorite areas was what I called the Gravel Garden where I hoped to grow Zone 7 plants. But over time, it has become shaded and though it has a nice shape—outlined by a 70-foot wall—it isn’t much of a Mediterranean planting anymore.
Louis : Ken is right, the Gravel Garden has a nice shape; a low half-circular stone wall across from the stone foundation of the original house and now of the new house we built six years ago. The stone on both sides is softened by plants, so the enclosure is subtle but still pleasing.
The largest open space of the garden is a 70-foot diameter circle of grass lawn surrounded by mixed borders. It, too, is a subtly formal feature since the wild variety of border plantings grab all attention.
View of the river with sycamore
JM: Do you have an edible garden?
Ken : We only have a little plot of vegetables because of the shade. The island garden is in a valley (elevation 500 feet) between mountain ridges to the east and west (big hills: 1,200 feet). But a tree came down and gave us a patch of sun to try out a tomato or two and some winter squash. We also have to deal with our sandy soil brought over the years when the river overflowed and flooded the garden.
JM: What’s the one (outdoors/garden) tool you can’t live without.
Ken: My Felco number 2 pruners.
Dianthus at the edge of the edge of the gravel garden
JM: What gardens have you visited recently that you loved? What gardens or garden institution has influenced the way you manage yours?
Ken : Wave Hill, of course, John Gwynne and Mikel Folcarelli’s Rhode Island Sakonnet garden, Andrea Filippone’s in New Jersey, Pennsylvania’s Chanticleer, Les Jardins de Quatre-Vents in Quebec ... too big a list. Love and influence are different. Influenced by Wave Hill, love the others.
JM: When is the last time you hugged a tree? Or what’s a sign of respect that you give to nature’s green beings?
Ken : I most recently hugged a tree (a few) in September. Nature guides this garden along with plant acquisitiveness, which has slowed down because we are out of space.
JM: What’s one of your favorite resourceful/inspirational books on gardening?
Louis : All of Ken’s books of course, especially the ones with me in the photos and “Nature Into Art, the Gardens of Wave Hill”!
JM: What’s new or coming up for you in the 2022?
Louis : Old dog learning new tricks, hoping it will keep me young, and no more excuses to visitors about the state of the garden. Along with that, appreciating what happens day by day.
Ken wearing Janet Mavec sunflower pin.