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Gardening and More: Graycliff Estate offers tips on how to redesign your home landscape to make your yard look its absolute best

PRETTY AS A PICTURE — 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 Graycliff/Patrick J. 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 R. Martin and her husband, Darwin D. Martin, a wealthy Buffalo businessman. They used it as their summer home.

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

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

1. Develop a plan before you do anything.

Graycliff’s plan was more than 500 pages long. While you don’t need anything that complex, it’s still good to 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.”

Don’t forget to make a simple sketch of your yard, to show what will go where, she said, adding that late fall and winter is a great time to plan a garden.

2. Hardscapes are at least 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 can’t just think about what flowers, bushes or trees you will have in your garden; you have to 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, and the irregularly shaped pool was designed by Wright, to echo the lake. The pool has been restored and is now the size and shape that it was, back in 1931.

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

While they wanted to get rid of the asphalt, they couldn’t go back to the original crushed shale, for several reasons. New floors are being installed inside, and visitors would track the shale inside. More importantly, crushed shale wouldn’t allow for handicapped 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 mimics the original look, while providing practicality.

3. 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 you have 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.

At Graycliff, they have drip hoses for certain areas, but there are also new trees that will need special attention, until they become well established.

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

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

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

For more inspiration, visit Graycliff yourself.

You can see not only the changes to the landscape but the renovations that are going on inside the buildings, when you visit Graycliff in person. It’s a New York State landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Graycliff is open every day except Wednesdays through Dec. 1, and basic and in-depth tours are offered at different times. Detailed information is on their website at or call 947-9217.

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

Graycliff is closed Thanksgiving Day, but will offer an extended tour schedule on Friday, Nov. 26, and 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 publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email


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