North Fork Ramble: The Glory Of Growing

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In 1992, Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith bought themselves a project: an abandoned, 1840s-era farmhouse surrounded by 17 acres of weeds, wild roses and poison ivy.

After an acre of clearing by hand, they’d had enough.

“Oh, it was rough,” Mr. Schrader laughed last week, sitting on the back porch of his Mattituck home that looks out over the property. “That was very labor intensive. We had machinery come in and do the rest. Who knows where we’d be if we didn’t.”

Over the last two decades, the couple has transformed the once rambling wilderness into a tamed yet natural oasis—mixing native plants with exotics throughout the garden rooms hedged in by hornbeam, box and willow, before opening up into the vast fields cut with bike and dog paths—which will be on view during LongHouse Reserve’s North Fork Garden and Winery Tour on Thursday, September 12.

The tour will be followed by a visit to Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse in Mattituck. There, founder Barbara Shinn will lead a 40-minute walking tour through the vines, discussing her growing method, organic farming and biodynamic agriculture. More than likely, the winery’s border collie, Panda, will be tagging along.

“She thinks every dog has this. Every dog has their own vineyard,” Ms. Shinn said last week outside the winery. “She has no idea that some dogs are cooped up in a New York City apartment all day. She can’t fathom that.”

It was Manhattan that drove former restaurateurs Ms. Shinn and her husband, David Page, to the North Fork in the first place. They needed an escape and the area reminded them of the West Coast, where they had met 10 years prior.

Channeling their inner Napa Valley and Sonoma, they boldly bought the historic Tuthill Homestead on Oregon Road in 1998. Two years later, they planted 20 acres of grapevines, even though they had no previous knowledge of wine outside the restaurant industry.

“We’re pretty much self-taught, to tell you the truth,” the vineyard owner said. “It was one day at a time and Mother Nature was chasing us constantly, but it was wonderful from the start. We were so happy to change our life and get out of the city and just work the earth again. And see things grow.”

Mr. Schrader and Mr. Smith had a similar revelation 21 years ago when they moved their business, Landcraft Environments, to Mattituck from Nassau County. Previously, they had operated as a design/build landscape firm largely interested in using unusual plant material. When they couldn’t find specific plants they wanted for certain installations, they decided to grow them from seed on their own.

The couple had an epiphany. This was more fun than designing, Mr. Schrader said. The business soon overflowed into their home next door.

“It’s like a hobby gone crazy,” he said of the garden. “It is overwhelming, the whole thing put together. But if you look at it in pieces, it could be a little courtyard in Brooklyn. Even the containers could be a window box somewhere. It fits into any scale, just pieces of it. Or you could do the whole thing. Or you could do it bigger.”

He laughed, and said, “Central Park, or something like that.”

More than 300 container plantings are sprinkled throughout the property, which hosts exotics from South Africa, Madagascar, South America, Bulgaria, the Himalayas, Japan, as well as Costa Rica—where the couple owns property.

“There’s things we’ve collected from all over. We do quite a bit of traveling, exploring and plant collecting,” Mr. Schrader said, fiddling with a purple “Fireworks” gomphrena. “You go to a nursery and find something new. Every year, we’re always looking for new things to introduce and try.”

The garden rooms are broken up by two ponds, a linden allée, rustic arbors and trellises, a banana grove, stone walls, voluptuous double borders and an Asian Adirondack-style tiki hut that houses a portion of the couple’s orchid collection.

Ten acres toward the back of the property stretch out into open meadows, from which a sweat-drenched Mr. Smith suddenly emerged.

“Excuse my appearance,” he said, wiping his hand across his forehead. “Clearing, you know. It’s not as easy as the video on YouTube.”

“Find anything interesting over there?” Mr. Schrader asked.

“Two turtles,” he answered, catching his breath.

“Oh, good!”

“Rescued them.”

“Good. Any groundhogs?”

“Nope.”

“Also good!”

Once Mr. Smith finishes mowing the field, the plan is to construct a subterranean ruin there from Mr. Schrader’s stone collection—most notably, eight pallets of glazed terra-cotta from a building’s façade that he won at auction in Georgia a number of years ago.

“In traditional English gardens, they usually have what they call a folly,” Mr. Smith explained. “It’s usually something that’s unexpected or comical. It’s a little relief from the formality of the garden. So that’s our folly.”

“If we ever get it done,” Mr. Schrader said.

He shot his partner a playful, questioning look and the pair chuckled.

“Alright, time to get back to it,” Mr. Smith sighed dramatically. And with a smile, he headed back out into the field.

LongHouse Reserve will host the North Fork Garden and Winery Tour featuring a luncheon at the Mattituck home of Dennis Schrader and Bill Smith, followed by a visit to the nearby Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse on Thursday, September 12, starting at 10:30 a.m. Tickets are $75, or $60 for members. For more information, call 329-3568 or visit longhouse.org/shinn-estate-tour.

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