The East Hampton Star, August 17, 1995


Sheridan Sansegundo

Imagine a woodland plot with all the gardening conditions you would like toavoid -- poor, sandy soil mixed with gravel, overshadowed by leathery-leaved oaktrees. Now add two or three truckloads of 10-inch rocks, and you have John Van Sickle's and Gail Levin's Springs acre.It has taken boundless enthusiasm and an inventive turn of mind to overcome the odds, but they have done it and produced a madly eclectic garden where just about everything seems to be happening. "It's very Alexandrian,"explained Mr. Van Sickle, a professor of classics and comparative literature at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York's graduate school. "It's not built on a heroic scale."

Nothing Is Wasted
He explained that each area of the small garden is shielded from the next, so there is change and surprise around every corner. The rocks have been put to good use: They form raised beds, berms, or free-standing sculptures besidewoodland paths. Fallen trees are also used to form berms, with dead leaves packed against them to rot, compact, and form different levels on the otherwiseflat land. Nothing is wasted.

Access to the house is revealed only after circling a baffle of shrubs by the driveway. A pathway to the front door is bordered by two large, square perennial beds. The beds bloom in pink and blue tones in June, reds and yellows in latesummer, and an exuberant multicolored explosion in mid-August.

"That's the only trouble with a perennial garden," Mr. Van Sickle said."You can never be there when the full orchestra is playing."

Unrestrained Color
Red and blue spires of lobelia, bright purple spikes of liatris, Japanese anemones, campanulas, meadow rue, balloon flowers, butterfly bush (to attractbutterflies), abelia (to attract hummingbirds), a hydrangea grown from oneplanted by Ms. Levin's great-grandmother -- you name it, it seems to be inthere.

The two name each plant in common parlance, in Latin, and, then, just so avisitor doesn't miss anything, translate the Latin.

"It's very densely planted," Ms. Levin said in cheerful understatement, looking at the bursting extravaganza of unrestrained color. This is obviously not a household where Martha Stewart's "Immaculate GardenDesign Or Else" has a place of pride on the coffee table.

The two have no help in the garden and they recognize every bit of green life underfoot, much of it grown from seed or from cuttings given by friends. The garden tour stops for a minute while they examine with interest a crop of kale seedlings that have sprung up in the middle of a path.

Trial and Error
At the side of the house, a path darts off into the woods under an arch formed by two pleached hickory trees pleaching is pulling over leading shoots and entwining them together, thus encouraging the tree to form upward growth along the bent branches). The arch is, well, rather lopsided and it stretches the imagination to envisage its future as an object of arboreal beauty. But, Mr. Van Sickle's fervor, as he points out the wild shoots breaking out from the bent branches and talks about nature's amazing adaptability, sweeps you along.

In another spot, a magnolia is being propagated by layering. Its branches arescraped bare on the underside and weighed down against the earth until new rootsform. This is a do-it yourself garden from start to finish, no running down tothe nursery for a fresh infusion of color, and the instruction manual is trial and error. Mr. Van Sickle pointed out an anemic comfrey in deep shade andcompared it to one he moved to a sunny spot, now a voracious giant taking overthe whole area -- trial and error has decreed a third move to a position withboth sun and shade.

Not yet certain just how much of the one-acre lot they want to develop, the gardeners have removed very few trees, so shade gardens of hosta, lungwort, wild strawberries, and every different type of fern edge the woods. Winding pathslead from one glade to another, or circle back on themselves.

For the Birds
At the back of the house is a sunny deck, edged by a grapevine. The vine proved such a draw for birds that the couple decided to cede possession and start another arbor elsewhere. This is where Ms. Levin propagates seedlings --lavender, Welsh poppy, fraise de bois, Michaelmas daisies, and Canterbury bells.

If there are fewer than usual this summer, it is because Ms. Levin, who is an art history professor at Baruch College and the CUNY graduate school, has just finished three books on Edward Hopper: a more than $600 catalogue raisonné,"Edward Hopper An Intimate Biography"(Knopf), which comes out in October, and "The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper" (Universe Books), an illustrated anthology of poemsinspired by the artist, which is just off the presses.

Below the deck is a square vegetable garden rampant with radicchio, chicory, puntarelli (you eat it with anchovy paste), and Perugian beans, perennial vegetables which have been grown from seed brought back from Italy and continueproducing almost until Christmas. Black-eyed susans form a brilliant yellowenclosure for the vegetables. On a rack at the back, seedpods and flowers, suchas honesty and hydrangeas, are drying.

Wonder And Enthusiasm
One of the most attractive spots is a small, wet garden near an outdoor shower.Water from the eaves of the house is also directed to the area which has constant moisture. It is used as a propagation bed, but its moss-covered pathwayof stones, edged with a red-stemmed begonia grandis, royal ferns, a tinycreeping honeysuckle, moneywort, and hostas, is like a miniature Japanese garden.

And, yes, it would be totally out of character if there were no compost heap.There are three of them, hidden away in the woods. One is mature, one is cold compost, and the other, with the addition of lime and nitrogen fertilizer, is a faster-moving hot compost.

The dominating force behind this is intellectual curiosity. Everywhere you look, the gardeners' sense of wonder and enthusiasm is apparent. This is not exterior decorating; this is a garden for learning and discovery, for mental tranquillity but also mental stimulation.

That may appear to be just a heap of melon-sized rocks dumped on Springs by a retreating glacier, but look again -- one of them is the philosopher's stone, transmuting gritty sand into goldenrod, black-eyed susans, evening primrose, yellow loosestrife, goldenstar.