INTERVIEW BY ANNE WELLES
EDITED BY KAREN MA
Our Chapter has a dynamic and varied membership, with over 70 members from 12 counties (and parts of CT and NJ). Get to know your fellow members in this regular series. What they say just may surprise you!
MEET MEL BELLAR
APLDNY: What made you decide on landscape design and where did you acquire your skills and training?
MB: I got introduced to gardening by friends in the Catskills and Berkshires who had gardens. In the 80’s my friend in the Berkshires had a little house that was built as the part of a community that made cannon balls for the Union during the civil war.
It was totally cute. It had little eyebrow windows upstairs and it had a white picket fence framing the garden with an arbor over the front gate entrance; an old stone retaining wall in the back of the house with raised stone beds. I loved his garden with vines on the arbor, roses along the fence, and tuberous begonias in the raised beds. In those days I was much more impressed by the flowers. I remember hating the Tradescantia even then—and I still dislike that plant to this day.
I knew nothing about gardening at that time but I did learn the name Tradescantia and thought that it was the oddest thing. My best friend in the Catskills had a Victorian with rambling wild gardens in the back with huge lilacs, ostrich ferns, hellebores and tons of bulbs. It was great. I went to England with him and his partner in 1998 and we toured a bunch of gardens, including Sissinghurst. I think that trip really planted the seed.
Then we bought a home in the Catskills and became fanatics about our garden and landscaping.
After getting laid off from a corporate job in technology in 2003 in the middle of the dot-bomb period we decided to move to our house in the Catskills and chase our dreams. I proceeded to get a certificate in Landscape Design from NYBG and went through the Master Gardener training at the CCE in Greene County. I started my business in 2005.
APLDNY: Where did you grow up? If it was different from where you are now, what is the biggest contrast?
MB: I grew up in Louisiana where I had little understanding of or interest in gardening. It is very hot and tropical there with huge live oaks covered in Spanish moss and beds bordered with monkey grass (Liriope). While I would never live there again, I have to confess, the thought of creating a garden with those incredible lush tropical choices does have appeal.
I moved to NYC to chase a musical dream and fell in love with the seasons, culture and diversity. I love the mountains, big rocks, clear running streams, pea gravel and bluestone. It is quite a contrast to land that is flat as far as the eye can see, intense heat, slow moving brown bayous, red clay, oyster shell driveways and cracked concrete.
APLDNY: Who inspires you and why?
MB: I am probably very influenced by the work of Oehme van Sweden. I do love sweeps of mass plantings, letting particular plants make a big statement and create grand gestures. I think OVS pretty much get credit for bringing that into my consciousness as well as for many others. I have to mention that when I discovered Andy Goldsworthy I was stunned. I believe he had a profound impact on me and my aesthetic. I think that his imagery and playfulness with nature create the most wonderful and inspiring pieces.
I am really not much of a history enthusiast. Although I think I should be, I don’t really study what came before with gusto. I love looking at gardens and landscapes wherever I go and take ideas from anything that strikes me. I do a lot of garden tours and love looking at other people’s work.
APLDNY: How would you describe your style?
MB: That is a hard question. My style is very architectural with strong curvilinear lines and contours, utilizing a lot of paths and hardscaping elements of stone and wood as well as trees, shrubs, evergreens and mass plantings to create a solid design feel and structure for the garden throughout the year.
I also love doing a variety of things including creating a flower garden or shade garden with lots of interesting plants to discover, as long as there are a lot of stone, paths and old branches involved.
APLDNY: What important changes or new techniques/skills are you working on? (e.g.: apps, software &/or mobile devices, use of natives, organic materials/recycling, etc)
MB: I live and work in a very rural area of the Catskill Mountains which makes the challenges and opportunities of my business a little out of the ordinary.
As the name of my company suggests, I specialize in the specific challenges of a zone 4 environment in the Catskills. These challenges include very rocky clay soil, constant grade changes (often dramatic), limited nursery resources, many critters, only well water and a very sparse population.
Another aspect of working in the boonies is that it is very hard for me to scale up because of the lack of a good and interested workforce, although there are abundant “mow and blow” operations around. I actually have a lot of work (maybe partly due to little competition) so I haven’t really had to innovate much in the marketing arena for which I am very grateful because I really do not enjoy the social media world.
I was a computer professional for 25 years and developed my own website (which I am going to redo this winter) but I have no plans to delve into social media. I do hope to have my website work well on smart phones and other devices as I do accept this is the future.
We have an abundance of large fieldstone boulders on our area and I can get a truck load delivered and dumped fairly cheaply. For numerous reasons I find them extremely rewarding to use. They look great! They hold up forever. They avoid the need for a mason to stack stone (they are many up here but the few really good ones are booked forever) and the other ones (well). The installation is faster. They create cool separations, retaining walls and seating. What is not to like.
APLDNY: What are you reading or listening to these days?
MB: I have to confess that I don’t do a lot of listening or reading. I mostly listen to NPR on Sirius radio in the work van and watch the digital screen with laptop in lap during my little down time at home. I read my wife’s yoga blog (mandatory), the VERY local newspapers, Fine Gardening and Horticulture and I have been listening to Abby Newton play Scottish music on the cello when in the car without the Sirius. I think the new generation of TV is worth watching. I love Orange is the New Black, Ray Donovan, Newsroom and of course, the soon to be completed, Breaking Bad. But to continue my confession I also can’t miss True Blood or The Walking Dead!
APLDNY: Do you have a favorite plant?
MB: What a mean question. I have lots of favorite plants but right now I am in awe of the Geranium macrorrhyzum; it is such a useful, reliable and attractive plant that has no pest a far as I know, including deer.
It quickly creates such a dense matt that it really shades out the weeds once established. It is good-looking until the snow covers it and then again shortly after the snow melts; I love its fall color. I love the way it smells; it is really great in full-shade to almost full-sun. What’s not to love?
Located in Andes, NY, Zone4 Landscapes Ltd. designs, builds and maintains gardens for residential clients in the Catskills. For more about Mel’s business, visit http://zone4landscapes.com
Anne Welles is a landscape designer with Terrain, Urban Outfitters’ home and garden line.