Where the Magic Lies | Inside Peter Bevacqua's Garden Sanctuary
This article originally appeared in ROSE & IVY Journal No.10
“My first garden memory was my grandfather’s big Italian garden with grapevines, fig trees and tomatoes. Every winter, my father and his brother would help him bury the fig tree in the ground and cover it up with anything they could find, from linoleum to burlap,” muses garden and landscape designer Peter Bevacqua, sitting comfortably under his wisteria-covered pergola that provides a cooling respite from the hot August sun. Off in the distance, black-eyed susans sway gently in the breeze, purple clematis rambles up a stone pillar, and boxwood shaped into perfect ovals borders the brick path leading down to the greenhouse. Gardening is a second act for Bevacqua, one born out of a passion, as they so often are. He and his partner, Stephen, purchased their upstate New York home, located along the outskirts of idyllic Hudson, back in 1988 as an escape from the hectic pace of life in Manhattan—both had demanding careers in advertising. After an unfortunate accident in which a gust of wind knocked over a rest stop kiosk that ended up fracturing both his legs, he was forced to take time off from work to recuperate. “It was a long healing process; it took about four months until I was able to fully come back. When I eventually did, there wasn’t a place for me at my level. I was really relieved. It gave me a push because sometimes things happen to you that you couldn’t do for yourself—the universe makes it happen.”
Once fate stepped in and steered his creative energies in a new direction, he got the opportunity to study at Great Dixter, the fabled garden in England, which some consider an essential pilgrimage for any true garden-lover. “I had heard they were offering a ten-day seminar for eight people to learn from the late gardener Christopher Lloyd. I filled out the application and had to answer questions like, ‘why do you want to participate,’ ‘what type of gardening do you do’ and ‘what was the last plant you purchased and why?’ It was intimidating, but they wanted to know who was coming and their level of plant knowledge. I learned so much from that experience about topics like succession planting. The course really stepped up my game—I left feeling energized with a ton of ideas.”
Upon returning home, Bevacqua received his first commission from a friend who had recently dug a pond on her land. “She asked me, ‘Why don’t you think about getting your feet wet in our pond?’, so that was my first job. Around the same time, we were opening our garden for the Garden Conservancy tour and alongside it, there was going to be an article in the New York Times about first-time gardeners showing. The article was quite phenomenal and it really got things going.” He eventually found himself with an entirely new career, but this time he was doing things on his own terms. “I was going to do it for the love of it, so it didn’t matter if I only had a handful of projects or even just one. My main goal was to work on projects that I loved.”
Today, the home he shares with Stephen sits on a verdant 2.6 acre plot. Over the years, the couple has acquired more of the surrounding land as it has become available, but in doing so, they haven’t always inherited the most ideal planting conditions. The Nearly Native garden, now a thriving section of the grounds filled with wild grasses and flowers, was once an empty lot filled with cement and shale. “One thing I learned at Dixter was that instead of trying to augment or change things, you work with what you are given. For this garden, I wanted to create a vision of undulating plants coming through a hazy layer with various punctuation marks and verticals. There is a unifying feeling that in the middle of all of this movement and frothiness there are some plants that are purposely placed. It gives the informality something to play off of. For me, there always has to be some sort of tension.” Since that original seminar, Bevacqua has continued to expand his knowledge of gardening and landscaping under the tutelage of Great Dixter through three additional visits and has also worked with Helen Dillon on her famed garden in Dublin, Ireland.
He designed the property to include, in addition to the Nearly Native garden, approximately nine distinct areas, among them the lovely Hydrangea Walk, an allée of fluffy Pee Gee hydrangeas and flourishing borders that beautifully frame the nearby paths and lawns. But the most formal of these areas is the Sun Dial, enclosed within a green framework of manicured yews and spheres of precisely trimmed boxwood. A statue of Demeter rises gracefully above the flora, and at the height of the blooming season, the garden is bathed in sunny shades of yellow and strokes of vibrant fuchsia.
The grounds also feature several intriguing focal points, including the fairytale-esque 1960s Lord & Burnham greenhouse from England. Inside this enchanted place, vines of English ivy creep from beneath ceramic pots and abandoned bird nests; they surround an ornate piece of architectural salvage discovered in a Hudson antique shop. Once part of an old building in New York, it now perches decoratively on a ledge. A red spherical sculpture by Mark Wasserbach sits at the end of the path that leads to the Nearly Native garden, and farther along, to a wooden enclosure where blueberries are cultivated and, soon, wild grasses too.
His clientele includes a variety of individuals who want to make their second homes more than just a weekend retreat and perhaps, ultimately, a place to live year round. “My point of difference as a designer is that I use my discipline of advertising and having to come up with strategies to solve a problem. I listen to a client to hear what they are really saying, but also to key into the emotional aspect, which is very important. Most people want to feel calm, secluded, protected and experience a sense of magic. We then talk about the purpose and what it needs to do for them.” He then approaches each new project by laying it out along formal lines and then filling it in with plants in a less structured way. “I prefer a formal framework and then blurring it with plants. When you create sight lines and paths, I always think about what is beyond that turn to lead you forward, but you don’t always know where it is going to go. There is a certain mystery about that detail.”
When asked what the most rewarding part of his job is, Mr. Bevacqua replies thoughtfully, “Gardening gives me a sense of peacefulness that you are one with something, but also that you are doing something greater than yourself. On a different plane, it’s a community of people that want to connect over a shared passion. I feel that I am so fortunate that I am able to live in this beautiful countryside doing something as wonderful as this. I have a feeling that it is my purpose.”