STONEGATE FARM - DREAM - Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)

DREAM

STONEGATE FARM

At Stonegate, we started with a small kitchen garden built within the stone foundation of an old barn that had been razed 30 years earlier. We grew herbs in one bed, rhubarb and asparagus in another; we mixed flowers with fruit trees and planted greens under indeterminate tomatoes. The small space, roughly 30 × 50 feet, was orderly and manageable. We even added a small chicken coop for a flock of eye-candy bantams in one corner, plus a compost bin. I used salvaged local brick to lay herringbone-patterned paths and repurposed the original 15-foot Gothic cupola from the old barn (which a neighbor was using as a toolshed) to serve as a rose-swathed ornament at the garden’s center. This was my first garden, and it was high on romantic aspiration; very pretty and fussy and photo ready. For almost 10 years, that was all we needed. But as eating a healthy, nutrient-dense organic diet became more important, we began to outgrow our quaint, contained potager and dream of something more.

Land access was the first challenge, and in a high-priced residential neighborhood such as ours, so was economics. Most of the parcel that made up the original 37-acre estate had been lost—believe it or not—in a high-stakes poker game to a developer in the late 1950s, and he’d mysteriously let it lie fallow for almost 40 years (although he had surveyed plans to turn the property into ⅛-acre split-level suburban lots, tearing down the old farm buildings and destroying the future of Stonegate in the process). Another developer bought up the land just before the previous owner’s death in the 1990s and had it subdivided into 1-acre parcels, the most desirable of which fronted the stone-walled and wooded ribbon of River Road, just north of the historic Balmville Tree, a massive 300-year-old cottonwood that marks the center point of the hamlet of Balmville.

Running north along the western highlands of the Hudson and 60 miles up from Manhattan, Balmville is a mix of 19th-century estates and newer development. Balmville retains some of the old grace and magic, but development pressure has compromised much of its historic feel; there’s little understanding of context or place in the new sprawl, just a kind of sad nowhereness.

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A century ago, before the franchising of American architecture led to collective, bland mediocrity, this really was somewhere. Stonegate, originally named Echo Lawn, was built in 1850 for George A. Elliot, a prominent paper manufacturer and a contemporary and friend of Andrew Jackson Downing. (Elliot was instrumental in moving Downing’s ideas forward toward the creation of Central Park in New York City, whose layout owes much to Downing’s articulation of the picturesque movement in America.) Echo Lawn, with its sweeping mansard roofs (one of the earliest such introductions in the country) and high-style interiors embellished with decoratively filigreed plaster and marble detailing, was an impressive expression of what Downing would call “social civilization and social culture.”

When Stonegate was Echo Lawn, its neighboring estate to the east was Algonac, home to the Delanos and Roosevelts, and across the street was Morningside, a Frederick Clarke Withers masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. The Echo Lawn estate, with its ornate villa, picturesque grounds scattered with orchards, and Italianate gardens, was a property of its time, a place Downing would have known and approved of. Echo Lawn was the estate of the Knowlton family in the late 1800s (whose early American furniture collection was one of the founding endowments of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) and the Beal family in the early 20th century. The Beals were an eccentric clan that included prominent landscape painters Gifford and Reynolds Beal, whose studio—with its 50-square-foot north-facing window—is the current kitchen of the carriage house at Stonegate. The property seems to inspire a kind of vigorous creative enthusiasm, something in the water that makes its owners, present company included, want to live expressively on the land.

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And so in 2004, with lots running upwards of $100,000 an acre, we had to come up with some imaginative financing to keep the dream of expanding our farm from being undone by development. Lawyers in tow, we argued for architectural review in front of the local zoning board, lobbied the state’s Historic Preservation Office to intervene, and campaigned hard to protect the integrity of Balmville’s historic center. But as in most municipalities, money and private interests have eminent domain and tend to prevail. We won the battle but lost the war: A small footprint of the old estate has been preserved and put on the National Register of Historic Places, but its neighboring lands have been colonized by bland and incongruous vinyl boxes.

If you begin to grow food in the middle ground of suburbia, there will be zoning issues to consider, neighbors to placate, protections to secure. At Stonegate, it took us 2 years and some persistent lobbying of the county legislature and the local Cooperative Extension, including impassioned appeals to rooms full of skeptical bureaucrats, to get our agricultural district. The designation allows us significant protections under the bylaws of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, including allowances for livestock, burn permits, secondary structures, and some property tax abatements. Checking with local zoning to see what you can and cannot do may just turn you into an accidental activist; you may have to plead and rally your case for community-integrated agriculture. The good news is that there’s momentum moving in favor of the grow-local movement and against out-of-date zoning. These are winnable battles. Of course, nothing worth doing isn’t also worth a good scuffle with authority.

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