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Gardening & More: Graycliff offers tips on redesigning your own landscape

ZEN — Take a tip from the landscape restoration project at Graycliff Estate in Derby. When designing your garden, plan for hardscapes – the paths and walls and trellises – as well as for plants. One of the hardscape elements in Graycliff’s restoration is this natural-looking pool. Photo courtesy of Graycliff/Patrick Mahoney.
DERBY — Whether you need to redesign a garden or are putting in a garden for the first time, take some lessons from the folks at Graycliff Estate, the historical landmark located at 6472 Old Lake Shore Road in Derby.

The landscape, as well as the buildings at Graycliff, were designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright for Isabelle Martin and her husband Darwin, a wealthy Buffalo businessman. The couple used it as their summer home.

To bring Graycliff back to Wright’s original vision, the landscape has been restored to look as it did, when completed in 1931.

Reine Hauser, the executive director of the Graycliff Conservancy Inc., learned a lot, during the landscape restoration process, and has shared four tips that you can use in your own garden.

– Develop a plan before you do anything.


Graycliff’s plan was more than 500 pages long. While you don’t need anything that complex, you should still write down your ideas.

“You won’t have as good a result, if you just go out and dig in the dirt,” Hauser said. “You’ll save time and money, if you have a plan.”

Make a simple sketch of your yard to show what will go where; the late fall and winter are great times to plan a garden.

– Hardscapes are as important as softscapes.


Softscapes are the plants. Hardscapes are the man-made elements such as patios, decks, trellises, water features, driveways, paths and walls. You cannot think about just what flowers or bushes or trees you will have in your garden; you must plan for hardscapes, too.

“Mistakes are expensive,” Hauser said. “You don’t want to put in plants and have to dig them up, to put in hardscapes. You might be destroying plants you just put in, and how sad is that?”

The Graycliff restoration included two major hardscapes, a natural-looking pool and a driveway.

Graycliff is set high on a cliff with sweeping views over Lake Erie. Wright designed the irregularly shaped pool to echo the lake. The pool has been restored and is now the size and shape that it was in 1931.

The driveway has been updated to meet 21st century requirements, while evoking the feeling of the original design. Wright originally used crushed shale that he specified be stained a warm, yellow-orange; that was later replaced with asphalt.

While the restorers wanted to get rid of the asphalt, they could not go back to the original crushed shale, for several reasons. New floors are being installed inside, and visitors would track the shale indoors. More importantly, crushed shale would not allow for full accessibility, or easy access for emergency vehicles.

What they did instead was install a poured concrete driveway, tinted to match the original shale, with exposed stone aggregate. This mimicked the original look, while providing practicality.

– Think about how you are going to water your plants.


“Are you going to use a drip system, or are you going to be lugging hoses around?” Hauser said.

If there is a corner of your yard where hoses don’t quite reach, you may want to choose plants that tolerate low levels of moisture, for that area.

There are drip hoses for certain areas at Graycliff, but some new trees will need special attention, until they become well established.

– Heirloom plants can be wonderful, but they can have drawbacks.


Hauser said she has learned that heirloom roses can be very fragrant, while newer varieties can be colorful and disease resistant.

“Know what you’re getting into,” she said, “and talk to the staff at your nursery.”

– Bonus tip: For more inspiration, visit Graycliff yourself!

You can view not only the changes to the landscape, but the renovations that are going on inside the buildings, when you visit Graycliff in person. This New York state landmark is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Graycliff will generally be open every day except Wednesday, through Dec. 1. Basic and in-depth tours are offered at various times. Detailed information is available by visiting www.graycliffestate.org or calling 947-9217.

Reservations are necessary for all tours, due to the limited space. To make reservations, call 947-9217 or email graycliff@verizon.net. In the email, request the date and time of the tour you prefer. If you wish to reserve a tour fewer than 24 hours in advance, call, instead of emailing for a reservation.

Graycliff will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, but will offer an extended tour schedule on Friday, Nov. 26. Tours will continue all weekend. Yuletide tours will be offered Thursday – Monday, Dec. 26 – 30. Also available are Master Architectural tours, private tours and group or school tours.

Connie Oswald Stofko is the publisher of Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email Connie@BuffaloNiagaraGardening.com.
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