NEW PALTZ, N.Y. — For a peak gardening experience, head up to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.
The food is phenomenal. Given tantalizing menu temptations with designer garnishments like tricolor cauliflower risotto, cashew puree, and basil infused brioche, every mouthful is so dangerously delectable, you need to build up a hardy appetite between meals at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.
No problem, because this resort has 85 miles of hiking trails of all ability levels, poised for exploration. In fact, everything about Mohonk is geared toward luring guests outdoors. From the miniature putting green conveniently positioned right beside the back porch (take a few swings while waiting for dinner to be served) to the network of rustic gazebo-studded trails that lead out from the inn, Mohonk is a famed destination for outdoorsy types as well as city-based fresh air wannabees. But what Mohonk doesn’t make a big deal about is the garden and horticultural wonders at their site.
Want to see an outstanding garden full of ideas? A little known secret is that the Mohonk garden is still going strong through October, festooned in flowers synchronized in tandem with swoon-worthy fall foliage in the surrounding mountains.
Even without their gastronomical feats and gardening exploits, Mohonk Mountain House would be a destination that merits inclusion on everybody’s bucket list. Opening as a 40-guest inn in 1870, Albert Smiley saw a gem when he purchased the rugged mountain tavern plus 280 acres in 1869 for $28,000. Currently, Mohonk owns 7,800 acres while providing 259 guest rooms with stunning views.
In addition to hiking and rock climbing in the craggy Shawangunk Mountain range, Mohonk offers mountain biking, row-boating, horseback riding, archery, guided nature tours and disc golf as well as a spa experience. Need to brush up on your tomahawk throwing technique? They have lessons. There are kids’ programs and themed events throughout the year.
But gardeners are a special target group for the lodge. The land immediately around the lodge was burned before purchase by a forest fire, so clearing land for gardens was not necessary. The blank canvas allowed Albert Smiley to begin installation of elaborate gardens in 1888, completing his horticultural opus ten years later. From the 1970s onward, the garden went with a Victorian motif, using annual bedding plants in various colorful configurations to thrill guests. With the addition of a greenhouse complex, annuals are now grown in-house to make the extravaganza happen.
Although rose gardens, herb gardens, a maze, cutting gardens, and various other plantings swirl around the grounds, Mohonk Mountain House remained a bastion of Victorian bedding for decades. The gardens were great from afar, but weren’t so thrilling close up. Instead, the beds merely formed a context for guests to experience weaving in and out of the complex arborvitae maze, climbed the two story wisteria gazebo/tower, or explored the length of the vine-encased rustic tunnel. But the planting scheme and thrill level has changed dramatically in recent years. Basically, the plantings have gone from static to stupendously riveting, for gardeners of all expertise levels.
The current garden manager, Andrew Koehn, launched the concept of theme gardens “partly to preserve our own sanity, but also to engage visitors.” The result is a crowd pleaser as well as a challenge for the design team. “I wanted the gardens to tell a story and become more educational,” Koehn explains. “It has morphed into really enthusiastic ideas, and it has become more educational.” This year, the theme is Scarborough Fair, but other motifs have explored the color/textural opportunities of expressing Under the Sea, Box of Crayons, the Blues, and Out of Africa, in blossoms.
As a result, horticulturally-oriented guests would be wise to pack a camera and come armed with pad and pen to jot down combinations because this is a great opportunity to let the experts do the experiments. And you might want to steal some ideas. Annuals often get forgotten in the rush to fill a garden with perennial pizzazz that endures from year to year. And yet, a garden can slip into a lull in midsummer when perennials are the only game in residence. Tossing in some annuals is a wise move to keep the premiums coming. Rather than sticking a few stray annuals on the periphery of a bed, how about sprinkling them in to create sustained impact? For example, try tucking annual deep burgundy “Elephant Head” amaranths throughout a perennial bed can invigorate a layout. Or consider mixing orange amaranths, pink Monarda citriodora, and lavender Verbena bonariensis. Combine magenta dahlias with dark-leaf cannas.
Koehn’s favorite combo in this year’s brew? The Queen Anne’s lace-like flowers of Ammi majus combined with spires of cleome. Or if you really want to work a section solely with annuals, weave a tapestry of Ammi majus, Verbena bonariensis, Salvia uliginosa, and pink Benary zinnias together. That’s just one of the many combinations that Mohonk’s head gardener Andrew Sinno crafted. Think you don’t have any place to host such a complex combo? Enlist the unproductive space around the periphery of a vegetable garden and put it to work for a more beautiful and bountiful interlude. Plus, as a perk, you’ll be coaxing pollinators into the area. As a thank you, they’ll probably service the squashes.
At Mohonk, the garden crew works with annuals by the tens of thousands and greenhouses are packed with seedlings grown during winter, specifically for the endeavor. But then they are filling voluminous beds chock full of color. You could do some fancy footwork on a much smaller scale. And it’s amazing how easy it is to start seedlings, if investing in annual plants on a yearly basis would stretch your budget. Seeds cost very little, and a sowing started in April or early May should yield plants in plenty of time for display.
Of course, there’s much more to Mohonk than the very visible annual beds. They have walkways bristling with perennials providing ideas such as combining steely blue echinops with royal purple “Blue Paradise” garden phlox. Their mature free-style herb garden takes a wild and wooly approach beyond the typical Colonial Revival four-square presentation. A rose garden struts the splendor of that queenly flower. And a fern trail beckons you into the cool shade. It’s all done with the rustic hand-hewn craftsmanship that pervades this mountain getaway. And their greenhouse and garden shop are also open to the public.
Even if buying plants is not on your agenda, stroll in that direction anyway. The greenhouse is surrounded by an inventive children’s garden (with a succulent dinosaur) including all sorts of places for kids to explore and become ignited by a fascination for plants and nature.
If ever there was a place where memories are forged, it’s Mohonk Mountain House. Sure, you could go for the culinary experience and call it a day. But by paying attention to the deeper roots and submerging yourself in all that the lodge has to share and teach, you can bring a little bit of Mohonk back home to your own earthly paradise. Check them out at www.mohonk.com.