A small, intimate garden

I went over to Olana the other day looking for trees that had big leaves. I needed a leaf to use as a lid on a glass water container for tea. Here you can see the leaves I collected. The vase is the squiggly shaped glass object – designed by Alvaro Alto.


Olana, which is five minutes from my house, is the Persian style home of Hudson River artist Frederic Church. After an 18-month trip to Europe and the Middle East, Church hired architect Calvert Vaux and worked with him on the design of the mansion, which was constructed between 1870 and 1872. It sits on top of a hill with sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Catskills.


Olana is a grand and fascinating place

I had just returned from a month in Italy. The only garden I saw on the trip was the Boboli garden in Florence which is a huge, formal and cold place to my eyes. There were a lot of tall hedges and massive areas that implied wealth and prestige. It wasn’t interesting to me at all.


Boboli Garden in Florence, Italy

But now I was back home and at Olana. I decided to wander over to the flower garden which I hadn’t seen in a couple of years. It’s a tiny garden by a wall out of sight of the house. There are no grand gestures or sweeping views of the mountains. It’s a small and intimate place with a path that seems to meander with no haste. Truly a great garden with no artifice. Enjoy!

Flowers spilling over the path. A smoke bush in the far back. Different heights of planting. The path curves.

Flowers spilling over the path. A smoke bush in the far back.
Different heights of planting. The path curves.

The path curves up and hugs the wall. Blue delphinum, purple catmint and the leaves of peony and grasses lead the way.

The path curves up and hugs the wall. Blue Delphinum, purple Catmint
and the leaves of peony and grasses lead the way. 

Almost to the end with the view in site. Leaves of Iris, pink Hollyhock and always a smattering of yellow.

Almost to the end with the view in site. Leaves of Iris, pink Hollyhock and
a splash of yellow Heliopsis


The garden is enchanting and how wonderful to find this bench where
I could sit and reflect on the quiet beauty of the place.



When I set out on my quest for a leaf to cover the Alvaro Alto vase I never
thought it would lead me to this magical place.

For more about Olana

About my garden

I first learned to garden when I lived at Green Gulch Zen Center in California. Green Gulch is a working organic farm that grows vegetables and flowers for market. I learned about Biodynamic farming, watched gardeners plant seeds in rows of dark rich earth, walked by steaming hot compost piles and weeded in the flower gardens.

Zen is known for its close relationship with the arts, in particular gardening, poetry, calligraphy and the tea ceremony. As part of my Zen practice I have been studying the Way of Tea for many years. This study includes flower arranging, garden design, architecture, literature, the connoisseurship of the fine and applied arts and cuisine. Kaiseki cuisine is a seven course meal served during a tea gathering and in 1997 I wrote a book about it called The World in a Bowl of Tea.

When I moved to my home in Tivoli, New York I continued my Tea and Zen practice and built a small tea house in my back yard. One important element in any Tea gathering is the garden and the path to the tea house, called a Roji. To learn more about this I went to Japan to study Japanese garden design at Kyoto University of Art and Design.

It was my first trip to Japan and I felt completely at home. At last I could walk through the gardens I had heard so much about. I wandered through ancient temples and drank in the atmosphere of the timeless spaces.

This is the story of how I built a Tea house in my backyard and how I created the gardens that surround it. I incorporate many of the ideas of the wild garden, the English cottage garden, the prairie garden all the while working within the rustic, elegant style of the Tea Ceremony.

excerpt – A Tea Garden in Tivoli

Garden rooms

The Tea garden, or Roji is divided into two spaces: an outer garden and an inner garden connected by a series of stone paths. Gates and fences play an important role in dividing the two rooms to create the feeling of transition from one place to another.

When designing the landscape for a Tea garden I start by looking at the architecture of the place, the bones and details, because I want to gracefully transition from outer to inner, from the street to the tea house; a transition from daily life to a space that is contemplative and feels connected to place.

It is not necessary to have a tea house or retreat space in your back yard, but the garden should feel like you’ve stepped onto a path that leads you through the countryside to a rustic hut or space designed for quiet contemplation and reflection.

The overall impression should be one of integrity, tranquility and beauty. There are a few elements that make this work.

-excerpt from A Tea Garden in Tivoli

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