Visiting Blithewood Gardens

by Gretchen Lytle


Blithewood Garden is a handsome, classical Italianate formal garden that overlooks the Hudson River with the Catskill Mountains as a backdrop. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Francis L. V. Hoppin designed both the current mansion and its formal garden set on the hillside, over 100 feet above the river. The symmetrical, geometric garden beds, protected by brick walls, are laid out around the central rectangular pool. The gazebo and pergolas draw one’s eye toward the river and the mountains beyond to the west. While it is an intimate, protected space, one does not feel confined. Steps up the hillside to the east, terraces with views west, and arches to the north and south invite visitors to explore beyond.

A June Visit

Visit the garden any time of day, any time of the year. Every season offers something new. An eagle may soar overhead, and chipmunks scurry from one hiding place to another. While it is a quiet spot, you may hear the hum of river traffic or an Amtrak train powering north or south—or simply the sound of the fountain’s spray. Varied shrubs and flowers are emerging or going to seed, and often the sweet scents of blossoms add to the sensory pleasures. June is a particularly lovely time to visit as the garden is spruced up for Bard’s graduation and alum festivities. Bard purchases annuals from Hudson Valley nurseries and then nurtures them in the greenhouse until it is time to transplant them to the gardens. Colors pop out from the foliage-rich, green beds as these annuals add splashes of yellow and purple to the variety of white to pink to red roses and peonies, orange poppies, purple allium, iris, and wisteria.

Beds with Native Plantings

At Blithewood Garden a pair of beds of native plants adorns the eastern wall, replanted after much hard work digging out the old, deep roots of knotweed. Among the echinacea, chelone, physostegia, butterfly weed, baptisia, clethra, and wild ginger, it may actually be the lavender blossoms of the salvia that catch your eye.

Historic Wisteria

American wisteria climbs up the east brick walls and complements the Chinese wisteria, which have been decorating the pergolas on the west side for as long as the garden has been planted. Managing these 100+ year-old plants is hard work. As soon as possible each winter, the gardener prunes them to keep them in check and to promote bloom. As with tending anything in the natural world, challenges emerge. Why don’t they bloom every year? In early May this year they began to blossom gloriously. Healthy and lush, they are moving beyond flowering into heavy leafing. New wisteria shoots sprout up from the ground and need to be removed before they grab onto old and new, coiling around and choking whatever will support them, whether a slender iris or a thick, old branch of the original wisteria. Multiply the wisteria work times the number of other shrubs, vines, and flowers in the garden that also need care, and you will share my amazement at the wonders one experiences on every visit. Historically, the garden has had what it still has: evergreens, wisteria, peonies, iris, and roses. It has expanded its range over the years and now has a slightly more free-form feel with the inclusion of diverse pollinator-friendly plants and native species.

Moving Forward with Rehabilitation

Blithewood Garden faces maintenance issues on the structural front. The good news is that Bard’s Blithewood partner, The Garden Conservancy, has given a $93,000 grant towards the drawings needed to restore the hardscape and structures. Visit the garden, and it is easy to see evidence of structural decay. Braces stabilize the gazebo, some of the brick walls are listing, and masonry is crumbling. This is no surprise in light of over a century of weather’s impacts. There’s a short film on Bard’s Arboretum website with spectacular footage of the garden from the ground and from the sky, illustrating both the beauty of the garden and its setting as well as the restoration needs themselves. Take a look. Bard and The Garden Conservancy will be setting priorities for the rehabilitation project, and they welcome contributions towards these efforts through this link.

Return Visits

Come visit the garden this June. In fact, come visit the garden regularly and consider becoming a garden tour guide so you can share this beautiful spot with the larger public. Blithewood’s Beaux Arts garden draws gardeners, artists, and landscape architects. Please contact Amy Parrella, Arboretum Director, at [email protected] for information on a training session.

For your own pleasure, be sure to return later in the summer and in the fall. Fall colors predominate, complemented by a subtle array of white and off-white blossoms. Pollinator-friendly plants draw butterflies, and if you are lucky, you’ll find monarchs coming for the inviting Tatarian Aster.

To get there, drive north onto campus via Annandale Road. Turn left onto Blithewood Road, towards Blithewood Mansion/The Levy Institute. Once past the Hessel Museum of Art, bear right towards the parking area at the northeast corner of the mansion.