Artist Catherine Howe and her husband "escaped" from Manhattan and a studio apartment to a modest house on an acre in Cold Spring-on-Hudson, New York, in 1994. There, she would focus on her painting, yet be close enough to the city that she would not be estranged from the art world.
Although she barely noticed the state of the garden at first, Howe says, it didn't take much prompting to take up a spade and begin her first garden. "I called my city-slicker-turned-gardener friend Ed to find out what basic tools I would need to maintain the yard," she says. "He suggested a lawn mower, a shovel and a glossy book full of photos of impossibly beautiful English gardens, which he provided." The book enticed her, even though at the time she couldn't tell an heirloom plant from a weed.
According to Ed, the property held the vestiges of a good garden: huge shade trees, some flowering shrubs (the usual suspects: forsythia, mock orange, lilac) and an old woodland garden with a fortune in European ginger (Asarum europeum). Ed said after finding this treasure, "There was once a good gardener here." It turns out there once was. A former garden club president had lived there until the 1970s. The garden's legacy, alongside the glossy garden book, was an irrefutable call to action. Howe changed from downtown black to gardener's white and began.
Q: What were your initial plans for making the garden into what you wanted?
A: My initial plan was no plan. I threw in plants willy-nilly. They were usually herbs and edibles, as well as the soon-to-be composted hybrid tea roses. Soon I realized that what I was making was a very idiosyncratic kitchen garden. This made sense, considering the fact that I love to cook, eat and bring in armfuls of cut flowers. I put in gravel paths to discourage slugs and mildew and to encourage sunbathing for my dog and cat family. I pretty much lived in the garden.
Q: Didn't you also design gardens professionally for a short while?
A: I worked in my own garden first, and quickly met some like-minded women-garden-club dropout types who loved to talk the talk and dig the dirt. One of them, Cynthia Kling (a former Garden Design editor), thought my plot in Cold Spring was weird in a "good way" and hooked me up with Grace Kennedy. Grace is a fellow painter and a more experienced gardener, and could give me a hands-on education. I worked for Grace for two years, and during that time I fell in and out of love with hundreds of "gardenworthy" perennials as we planted them in clients' gardens. Grace's inspiration led me to dabble in professional garden design. You must be results-oriented when designing for someone else, and that put too much performance pressure on me, which was exactly what I moved to the country to avoid. So I eventually quit designing and went back to my selfish pleasure in the garden, which is more supportive of the self-absorption of the intrepid artist-me.
Q: What is the connection between the way you do art and the way you garden?
A: As an artist, I work with forms that slip between order and chaos, beauty and vulgarity, sex and death. All this heady stuff is in the garden as well. The daily drama between the perfect cabbage rose blossom and mating Japanese beetles: You find it inside you as you bend your nose to the garden. Contemporary painting strives for beauty while breaking all the rules that aren't helpful. I tried to be orderly and install a calming sense of geometry in my rustic parterre, but I also love the randomness a gravel garden naturally takes on. My garden moved from lush to ample to overgrown pretty quickly.
Q: Talk about your favorite plants and why they are your favorites.
A: My favorite plants are the ones that do things you don't expect; for example, plants that get much bigger than they were supposed to: species roses, tender salvias, verbascums, fennel, heirloom indeterminate tomatoes, lovage. I also love plants that self-seed in a fortuitous manner. Last year I never trimmed off the seed heads — I don't bake or produce opium — of my bread seed poppies (Papaver somniferum). The next summer, my entire plot was devoted to these gorgeous poppies. It looked stunning! My usual heirloom vegetables and perennial herbs were not happy in the squeeze-that was the downside.
Q: What has been the most satisfying aspect of this garden?
A: I most appreciate the truly uncontainable aspect of nature, the constant balance between the artificial cultural aspects of gardening and the deeper reliance of the gardener on nature and her randomness and unpredictable beauty. Like other pleasures, there's the promise of the next garden and the excitement of starting again. I recently sold this, my first garden, and have moved to an old farm with nothing but a pink magnolia, an ancient weeping willow and overgrown fields. Here I am picturing in my mind's eye a truly enormous, eclectic and abundant kitchen garden.
Catherine Howe and her husband Bob Barry have an apartment in Manhattan and a farm in Germantown, NY. Howe teaches criticism and art history at the New York Academy of Art. A painter, she is focused on contemporary depictions of women. Howe is represented by Littlejohn Contemporary Gallery on 57th Street.