ASHLAND, N.Y. — The words "lunar landscape" and "gardening" don't necessarily go together. In fact, most gardeners would run screaming from any property warranting such a description - but not Bruce and Kathy Nichols. These New Yorkers didn't know any better.
"When the prior owners built the house," says Kathy, "they dug out the side of a mountain in order to put in the foundation." So when the Nicholses bought the property 12 years ago, they found rocks and clay instead of rich soil.
Both had been introduced to gardening as children, but neither had pursued it in adulthood. "It was only when we got here," Kathy explains, "that we discovered we loved to garden."
Another newfound "love" for Bruce was constructing stone walls. "I started by building a single stone wall at the back of the house," he says. "I was trying to just make a retaining wall. Then we decided we should put in a little garden. Now I can't walk by a book on stone walls without buying it."
Because of the poor soil and Bruce's newfound fascination with stonework, the Nicholses' garden consists of raised beds created out of native fieldstone or bluestone. Each is filled with trucked-in soil amended with a product called Fafard Mix 3-B.
"It's a mix of peat moss, wood ash, vermiculite, and perlite," explains Bruce, who works part time at a local nursery. "For me, preparation of the site is the most important [task]."
Drainage is their nemesis. "We've worked for a couple years on our pond," says Kathy. "It's given us a lot of trouble. Originally it was just a mudhole that leaked a lot.
"But we've done a tremendous amount of rock work, created a spillway, and plugged the leaks," she adds. "And this past year, we had it dug out to a depth of 10 feet in order to get a bit more spring water into it. Now it holds plenty of koi and acts as a backdrop for mountain laurel, Siberian and flag iris, and rhododendron."
Another focus for Bruce is dwarf conifers. He has at least 75. "I like the way they look, their variegated shades of green and blue and yellow," he says. "I like watching them over the years. They grow and change, and the look of my dwarf conifer gardens grows and changes with them."
Whenever Bruce and Kathy take a trip, he stops at every nursery along the way, searching for another specimen to add to his collection of miniature trees.
"I've got dwarf Alberta spruces that only grow 10 to 15 feet high," he says. "They're soft and furry looking. I also have two varieties of dwarf weeping larch. They are pretty strange looking because they lose their needles in the fall. Another [favorite] selection is the gold star juniper."
His bible is "A Garden of Conifers," by Robert A. Obrizok.
Kathy, on the other hand, doesn't want to wait years for plants such as conifers to grow. She prefers immediate results.
She will plant a raised bed, then replant it to make it look better. "I treat plants like furniture," she says. "I move them around all season long. I just use my eye to determine what looks best."
Both Kathy and Bruce are psychiatric nurses by profession. They met at a local hospital, eventually married, and settled down in the crags of the Catskill Mountains.
Their love of the area makes them conscious of its limitations when it comes to gardening.
"Technically, we live in Zone 5," says Bruce, mentioning the USDA hardiness rating of the area. It indicates an average winter low temperature of minus 10 to minus 20 F.
"But, we're so high up and exposed," he notes, "that I won't buy anything that's not hardy to Zone 4" [with an average low of minus 20 to minus 30 F.]. "We learned that from the folks at the Mountaintop Arboretum [located in nearby Tannersville]. They have a wonderful assortment of trees that do well up there - all due to the hardiness factor. I think, given the severity of this past winter, that conservative attitude definitely paid off."
Even deer don't seem to be a problem for this industrious twosome. "We made a deal with the deer," says Kathy. "We feed them all winter long - twice a day. When spring comes around, we stop feeding them, and it's their turn to go off and forage on their own."
The trade-off involved 2,000 pounds of grain this past winter, and a few bottles of Deer-Off sprayed around the perimeter of their cultivated areas this spring.
"So far this has worked for us," Bruce says. Deer have destroyed only a few hostas. "Working part time at the nursery, I hear lots of complaints about the deer in this part of the country. But we try to always remember they were here before us."
The Nicholses' house is isolated, surrounded by 50 or 60 acres. The gardens themselves comprise about three-fourths of an acre. But there's plenty of variety in that space.
"We have rock gardens, shade gardens, perennial beds, annual beds, herb beds, several daylily beds, and a woodland garden that peters out as you walk further into our forest," says Kathy. "My favorite is a tribute to my mother, who died four years ago. She liked making miniatures [for dollhouses], so we planted a garden full of miniature plants. It's right outside the kitchen window, and I can see it all the time."
But at the Nicholses' house, looking out the window is only the beginning. "We tried to make sort of 'outdoor rooms,' " says Kathy. There are chairs and benches strategically positioned for enjoying the scenery. "And Bruce laid out flagstone and gravel walkways around all our beds. That way, you can wander around and stop to admire the flowers."
Two years ago, they installed a drip irrigation system to keep plants evenly watered. Now they plan on making a tiny waterfall - using part of that system and a stream that runs by the side of the house.
"We're not putting in any new beds this year," Kathy says. "We plan on working on that waterfall."
That's not to say that new things won't still be popping up. For instance, there may be more of the large containers filled with annuals strategically placed around the house.
"Every year, we say we're not going to buy any more, but of course we do," Kathy laments.
The containers hold geraniums, verbena, African daisies, and petunias, to name a few. "Anything you can find at a nursery, you can find here," says Bruce.
They have hundreds of ferns, "thousands" of hostas, burning bush shrubs, climbing hydrangea vines, bleeding heart flowers in pink and white, rugosa roses, and a wisteria that came from a clipping taken from Kathy's mother's home. "It's probably 70 years old," she says.
And that's not all. "At any given moment, I have close to 100 clippings, shoots, and sprouts rooting in pots," Bruce adds. "I keep waiting to find a place for them all."
When asked what tips they'd pass on to other gardeners, Kathy answers: "Buy the best plants you can. I believe those 49-cent plants just don't do as well as those that are better cared for. We've seen that time and again."
"The soil has to be the best," her husband reiterates. "Preparation of the site can't be [neglected]."
"And water, water, water," Kathy adds. "It doesn't do any good to bring home beautiful plants and not help them to do their best. We fertilize every three or four weeks, during the growing season, too."
The Nicholses sometimes get gardening tips from books and magazines. But their mentor is Pat Kern, co-owner and gardener at Kern's Nursery in nearby Jewett. "She's an artist by training," Bruce says. "But she translates her art into working with plants. She's a real source of inspiration.
"We've gone to Longwood Gardens and the Montreal Botanical Garden to get ideas, but Pat does amazing work - different and wonderful."
Working two to three hours a day during the summer,the Nicholses have taken Ms. Kern's teachings to heart, creating something beautiful.
"We have visions, of course," says Bruce. "We just work them out a little at a time, learning as we go.... We don't have a unified plan, we just get inspired by plants."