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Eliot Clarke's Exceptional Garden at Lithgow

by Carola Lott
Sun Aug 7th, 2016

All photographs by Susie Clarke

When Eliot Clarke bought Lithgow in 1968, the features that make the property so remarkable today existed only in his mind. A tangle of shrubs and vines obscured the vistas; there were few trees and no water features. 

Clarke’s love of gardening goes back to his childhood when his own small garden consisted of a rock surrounded by flowers. When people saw the garden, he says, “they didn’t admire the flowers, they admired the rock and that taught me something.” He learnt his second lesson from a book about the 18th century English architect and landscape designer, William Kent, who believed that “all Nature was a garden.”

Clarke has read countless garden books and received a degree in horticulture from Cornell. However many if not most of his ideas have come from his extensive travels through Italy, France and Great Britain, as well as the Far East. Clarke and his wife Susie, who has become an accomplished gardener herself, would spend their weekends abroad visiting gardens. 

One of his first creations was a Japanese Garden inspired by many trips to Japan that always included a visit to the gardens of Kyoto. In the Japanese Noh drama the oak is the symbol of strength and the pine the symbol of longevity. When he returned from an early visit Clarke realized that an enormous oak on his property near a grove of pines was the perfect place for his own Japanese garden. As the site had a number of rocks left by the glaciers, he had little to do but level the ground and put in steps. 

Soon after, he planted two alées of spirea and at their intersection installed a graceful stone cupola he imported from England. He was just getting started. After he put in his first pond, Chauncey Stillman, himself a noted gardener, told Clarke “It maybe your first pond, but it won’t be your last.” Before long there was second pond of four acres that was the perfect place for a graceful Chinese pavilion just large enough for eight people to dine on summer evenings. 

In the early 80’s after seeing deer parks in Europe and England, Clarke fenced the property and introduced a herd of fallow deer which have become a profitable business. The Clarkes sell most of the deer as breeding stock with a four year old buck fetching over $500. However Clarke feels that the deer are part of the garden and installed a temple atop a hill in the deer park. 

Architectural elements are just the bones of the Clarkes’ garden. Although the effect is entirely natural, the lush plantings of trees, shrubs and flowers are contained in a layout of “structured formality and balance.” Hedges and alées of trees always lead the eye to a distant focal point be it a statue, an urn or simply a tree with an interesting form. 

For many years herbaceous borders filled with exuberant annuals and perennials surrounded the house and extended along the lawn. These have now been simplified both to reduce the labor, much of which the Clarkes do themselves, and to emphasize the natural features of the property and its views across the distant countryside. 

Besides providing years of enjoyment Clarke’s garden has had other advantages. As he wrote about his garden in his alumnae bulletin, “much of the labor and all of the planning I do myself…which has kept my weight at the same level as it was when I was at Harvard.”