In Nutley, a Backyard Garden Ventures Far Beyond Ordinary

Stroll through the stunning Mountsier-Hardie garden during the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days.

Mountsier-Hardie garden nutley

Hornbeams offer vertical clues that help weave the lower garden at the Mountsier-Hardie home into its canopy of tall shade trees. Photo by Laura Baer

It would be impossible to walk by the Mountsier-Hardie house without experiencing little shocks of delight at the lush plantings that determinedly overflow their beds to spill out onto the sidewalk; at the sculpted stair rail that seems to twist out of the slate like an erupting vine; at the witch hazel tree tossing its gold confetti in midwinter; at the drifts of tulips saucily beckoning in spring.

And if you’re invited into the garden—as hundreds of visitors are at least once a year, during the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days (June 12 and September 21 this year)—you’re likely to experience a not-in-Kansas-anymore moment. 

On 2-1/2 extraordinary acres in Nutley, Silas Mountsier and Graham Hardie—and their landscape designer, Richard Hartlage—have, for decades, cultivated delight.

Mountsier, a retired banker, started the garden in 1946 after returning from World War II to his childhood home. At the time, the property consisted of nothing but a house (a two-story colonial), a few oaks, a small terrace and lots of dirt. He describes that first iteration, with its rhododendrons and mountain laurels, as a conventional garden. In recent decades, the garden has evolved into much more.

In 1992, Hardie, who operates a tour company, came to live with Mountsier, and they enlisted Hartlage, who had recently earned his horticulture degree, to help with the garden.

Hartlage took out nearly everything except the oak trees and some hollies, and installed plantings that offered more structure to the garden. To tie the towering oaks into the rest of the landscape, he planted hornbeams clipped into dramatic, vertical rectangles. He also created a variety of garden rooms—hidden spaces that reveal themselves, one after the other, along a series of pathways.

Mountsier-Hardie garden nutley

A horizontal wall/sculpture complements the arrangement of hornbeam topiaries. Photo by Laura Baer

In 1996 and again in 1998, Hartlage returned to extend the garden to the environs of an old carriage house on the property. When Mountsier and Hardie bought the 1-acre property behind the house, Hartlage created a new, contemporary garden. Here, he built up two sweeping berms on either side of a long lawn, planting them with ornamental grasses, which he’d used throughout the earlier gardens as well, and installed evergreen and deciduous trees, including additional hornbeams. 

“The new garden,” says Hardie, “has the plant vocabulary of the old garden”—though the statements it makes are significantly grander. Those berms, for example, are now home to 10,000 hakone grass plants, as well as thousands of daffodils that bloom before the grasses emerge in late spring.

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Jeanne Will, a former regional ambassador for the nonprofit Garden Conservancy, praises the garden’s “extremely sophisticated selection of plants,” but notes that “it’s user friendly—it just envelops you.” In fact, the entire garden is more about form and movement than individual plants, and strolling through it, says Hardie, “is like walking through sculpture.” 

Hartlage—a designer of national renown, whose work can be seen at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden—refers to the Mountsier-Hardie garden as “a land-form sculpture.” 

Mountsier-Hardie garden nutley

Bronze bull grazes on one of two sweeping, sickle-shaped berms, blanketed with, depending on the season, daffodils or hakone grass. Photo by Laura Baer

Mountsier and Hardie appear to have a large circle of friends, including quite a few of the sculptors whose work is evident throughout the landscape in some 80 objets de jardin. There’s Dainty, the fetching bronze cow by the late Geraldine Knight; a pair of carved oak benches, resembling exquisite, oversized fungi, by British sculptor Alison Crowther; and the trunk of an old apple tree preserved in beaten aluminum by American sculptor Robert Lawrence Lobe.

As charming as it is, the sculpture presents something of a challenge to Hartlage (“as I do,” adds Mountsier wryly). The designer, says Hardie, has had to keep the plantings “subdued” to serve as a foil to the sculpture.

A day rarely goes by when Mountsier and Hardie aren’t out enjoying the garden, strolling the paths to see what’s newly in bloom, relaxing in one of the many alcoves, or—pre-pandemic—dining with friends on the terrace. 

Over the past year of lockdown and isolation, those friends frequently asked Mountsier if he was having a hard time of it. “No,” he’d respond, no doubt while regarding his small slice of paradise. “Because I’m here.”

The 2021 Open Days at the Mountsier-Hardie garden are Saturday, June 12, and Saturday, September 21, from 10 am to 4 pm. Reservations begin in May. Find more information on the Garden Conservancy’s website.

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