In the garden with … George Biercuk

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Stepping into George Biercuk’s garden in Wainscott is like stepping into a parallel universe. It feels like a woodland, but it’s not full of underbrush and briers. The oaks that grow all over the East End tower overhead here, but this is no forest.

Instead, there is a compelling composition of texture, form, color and fragrance.

“It’s a contrived kind of in-the-woods,” Mr. Biercuk explains. “It’s a different kind of experience.”

Different indeed. And he created it all by himself.

“I did it,” he says, holding up his hands, “with my five little helpers at the end of each hand.”

A trim man with a bushy mustache, glasses, and a shaved head, seemingly always wearing shorts, no matter the weather, Mr. Biercuk is a man obsessed. Gardening, he says, is in his genes. His Polish grandfather had a farm. His mother grew all sorts of vegetables and fruits in their small yard in North Massapequa. And gardening is what he loves to do. He is self-taught, except for a few courses he took along the way, and he reads voraciously.

These days, in addition to tinkering with his own garden, he designs gardens for private clients and teaches gardening classes for East Hampton’s continuing education program and various other groups.

Carving It Out

The garden began 10 years ago, when Mr. Biercuk and his partner, Robert Luckey, bought 1 acre of property off Sayres Path and decided to build a house there. The lot was full of oak trees and catbrier, the soil scarce and sandy—“It holds water for about 3 billionths of a second,” Mr. Biercuk remarks—not the most promising place for gardening. When construction on the house was delayed for a year, the pair started work on the landscape anyway. Among their first decisions was to save as many of the trees as possible.

“I like shade,” Mr. Biercuk said. Besides, the trees keep the house cooler in summer.

So, the trees stayed. But the catbrier had to go and Mr. Biercuk and Mr. Luckey pulled it out, by hand. Then, truckloads of compost and manure were brought in. Mr. Biercuk dug it into the ground, along with rock phosphate, greensand, rotted wood chips and whatever else he could get his hands on.

“I was crazed,” he recalls. “I would wheelbarrow [stuff] to the area and just keep digging.”

(To this day, all the leaves that fall from the trees stay on the property. Mr. Biercuk composts them in big wire bins and puts them back into the gardens in spring.)

Setting It Up

When the house was finally in place, the garden really began to take shape. The first thing Mr. Biercuk did was lay out winding paths through the front and back of the property. He wanted to achieve a feeling of roaming through the woods on meandering paths. And meander they do, leading now to various features and points of interest. Because of that, it’s impossible to take the whole garden in at once. It must be toured slowly, an experience that belies the relatively small dimensions of the property.

Before the paths, though, there was a starting point.

“Right here,” Mr. Biercuk said, pointing to a small, rock-edged pool surrounded by compact shrubs and watched over by a small stone Buddha statue. The grouping was placed to give the homeowners something to look at from the kitchen window. “I thought I’d like a little pond right here,” he explained. So he built one. The rest of the garden has come together in much the same way—no plan on paper, no blueprints or drawings, just ideas in the ambitious gardener’s head.

After the pool, he began installing “anchor plants,” the shrubs and trees that would create the garden’s living framework. Mr. Biercuk started with small plants and let them grow, filling the gaps with perennials. Now, the shrubs are big enough to fill their spaces, so some of the perennials have been removed. “They have done their job,” Mr. Biercuk said.

He is editing, and now the garden is moving on to the next stage.

Thinking It Out

The garden is designed for year-round interest. Spring brings the thrill of new growth and the earliest flowers. Summer is lush with color and fragrance. Autumn has late blooms and brilliant foliage, dramatically backlit by the low-slung sun. And winter brings a play of shapes and textures dotted with colorful winter berries.

One of the remarkable qualities of the Biercuk garden is the degree of thought the designer put into it, examining the layout from every imaginable angle. For example, Mr. Biercuk made a point of placing shrubs and plants with interesting winter features outside the windows of the den because he and Mr. Luckey spend a lot of time in the den in winter. In summer, views from the deck are essential, so he planned accordingly.

“I was constantly running in and out of the house looking” to place plants where they would best be seen from indoors and out, he explained.

In addition, plants are placed to create different visual experiences when viewed from different angles and all the space is used, including vertical space. Variegated euonymus scrambles up some tree trunks. Elegant Japanese hydrangea vine scales others, and covers itself with lacy white flowerheads in summer.

Mixing It Up

The garden has lots of shade, but it’s never boring, according to Mr. Biercuk. The forms and textures of the plants are the basic building blocks of the design, and foliage is paramount. Mr. Biercuk uses lots of variegated foliage in the shadiest areas to light up the dim places and he likes to juxtapose plants with subtle differences in coloration so he can compare them. On one side of the house grow three large aucuba shrubs, which are typically used as houseplants. One variety is Gold Dust, its leaves spotted with yellow. Next to it is Picta, also gold spotted, but with bigger yellow splotches in the center of each leaf. Behind them is a less common form that has solid green toothed-edged leaves and red berries from winter into spring. Elsewhere, a small-leaved euonymus (Moon Shadow) whose deep green leaves have light yellow centers climbs a tree behind Pieris variegata, more commonly known as andromedas, with white-edged leaves.

Rocks are also important in Mr. Biercuk’s garden. There are stacked stone retaining walls that create terraced planting beds, stone steps on slopes and artfully placed lava rock boulders throughout the garden. The owner/designer placed them, all 35 tons of them, by hand with the help of a lone garden cart. And Mr. Biercuk had very specific ideas about what he wanted to see when he was finished, regardless of how much back-breaking work was involved to achieve it.

“One day I had done 15 feet, and I stepped back and I looked at it and it just didn’t work, it just was wrong,” he said. He ripped the whole thing out and started over.

Pleasing All the Senses

Fragrance is another essential component of the Biercuk garden. It is full of luscious scents from spring through fall. The diminutive evergreen shrub Skimmia starts perfuming the air along the walk to the front door in early spring, followed by the wonderfully sweet, light scent of Daphne odora, another compact shrub. There are fragrant azaleas, too, and daffodils, and as spring becomes summer, anise tree adds its warm licorice note to the mix, Mr. Biercuk said. In summer, there are sweet gardenias in pots—plus one that remarkably has survived three Wainscott winters in the ground—Koreanspice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), and Casa Blanca lilies with their intense, heady perfume. Autumn brings Clerodendrum, and one of Mr. Biercuk’s favorites, Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki,’ also known as holly olive or false holly, in October, “when,” he says, “it’s delightful to have this fragrance because you can’t see the flowers.” Visitors stop in their tracks searching for the source of the delicious scent.

Color is a key part of any garden, and Mr. Biercuk’s has plenty. Besides the many variegated-leaved plants, there are shades of pink on one side, orange on the other, and lots of white to blend them. Mr. Biercuk put lots of orange around the swimming pool (a rock-edged beauty with a waterfall) to impart a feeling of warmth. In summer there are swaths of pink Begonia grandis and carpets of mostly white impatiens through the beds. There are peonies (which he plants in honor of “the grandmother I never knew”), irises, hydrangeas (Blue Billow is his favorite), summer phlox, abelia, honeysuckle, azaleas and rhododendrons, including the show-stopping Taurus with its stunning flowers of pure, clear red.

Lots of the color comes from foliage, including heucheras. Mr. Biercuk thinks peachy golden Caramel is the toughest and best variety. “Forget Amber Waves,” he declares. “It’s useless. It rots. Caramel is the one!” There are purple-leaved barberry, golden boxwood and dramatic black mondo grass, too.

Many of the plants in the garden were gifts, or began as cuttings or volunteer seedlings from the gardens of friends and family. Others were 
happy accidents, like the unlabeled azalea he found for 99 cents at a Frank’s Nursery that turned out to have extremely fragrant flowers he laughingly describes as “screaming bubble gum pink.”

But wherever the plants come from, they all have to earn their place. He especially values plants that are interesting in all seasons.

“Plants have to work,” Mr. Biercuk says firmly, “earn their keep.”

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