By Jodi La Marco
Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano have been creating nature-inspired artwork for decades. Levy arranges seeds, leaves, and insect parts to create thoughtful, patterned collages. Serrano’s interests manifest in detailed paintings reminiscent of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century botanical drawings. Levy’s need for plant materials and Serrano’s search for natural, living models prompted the couple to start planting. “For Allyson it was flower petals and seed pods. For me, it was my interest in insects. I was breeding American silk moths and I began to plant things specifically for that,” says Serrano.
Soon enough, the pair realized that they were repeating each other’s gardening efforts and decided to get organized. “There was a point when I realized that both Scott and I were putting in the same plants, just in different areas of the garden. I thought, maybe we should think of a design plan so we can move forward together on this,” recalls Levy. And so they did. The couple began labelling their plantings and took notes on the growth habits of each species. After a few years of planting and note taking, the two realized that they had unwittingly created an arboretum.
“We had these books of information on the plants, and we realized very quickly that what we were doing is what arboretums do. They record and they make notations,” says Serrano. In time, the three-acre garden in Stone Ridge—named Hortus Conclusus, latin for enclosed garden—would meet the requirements of a level two arboretum.
In addition to cultivating species related to their artwork, Levy and Serrano also collect rare, edible plants from around the world. By taking notes on how these plants behave when grown in our region, the duo is actually conducting research that other local growers can benefit from. “If there was another arboretum in our part of the United States that wanted to know if something could survive here, they could visit our website and see what we have. Some of the things we have are really rare, and we’re growing them on an experimental basis. Nobody knows if they’ll survive in a particular area or not,” Serrano explains.
Data like this, he adds, could also help species threatened by climate change or human destruction. For example, Hortus has become home to a rare variety of Chinese hazelnut. “It’s only from one mountain in China. There’s no other place on earth that it grows,” says Serrano. This indigenous and exclusive habitat is slated to be clear-cut, making specimens such as those at Hortus Conclusus vital to the species’ survival. “It’s a plant that will probably disappear within our lifetime.”
Closer to home, a beetle known as the emerald ash borer has devastated the region’s ash tree population. In an intersection of her art and garden work, Levy decided to embed a patterned collage of ash seeds in encaustic. “Maybe in 100 years, if you wanted to plant that seed, you could dig it out of the painting. Then you’d have those viable seeds. I had read that when the Europeans came over, they would encase seeds in wax to preserve them,” Levy explains. “Maybe when Cornell or the government can figure out how to deal with this issue and the time comes to replant, the collage will serve as a seed bank.”
“We’re testing things all the time; foods we’ve never heard of or things that we didn’t think could necessarily grow here. For instance, we’re growing a hardy citrus that produces small oranges. You can’t eat them out-of-hand, but you can use them as a fruit for making a drink or sauce. We’re also growing monkey puzzle trees which believe it or not is an edible. It produces nuts. That died back, but its root system still seems fine and it started up some new growth. If an arboretum was doing a data base search to see if anyone was growing monkey puzzle in New York State, they could see that we are, and that it’s struggling. Is it something we recommend? No, but we’ll continue to grow it because who knows what could happen,” says Levy.
Specimens like these have made Hortus Conclusus a living textbook. Serrano and Levy have teamed up with Wild Earth to host monthly classes at the gardens from June through October. The gardens are also open to the public for thematic tours once per month throughout the growing season. “We do an edible landscaping tour about unusual fruiting shrubs and trees. We’ve also partnered with the Garden Conservancy. This year—and hopefully from now on—the gardens will be open to a wider public than just the people in the Stone Ridge area who know us,” says Levy.
Though the gardens themselves have become the focus of much of Serrano and Levy’s attention, both have also continued to pursue their art. On August 31, the couple will display a retrospective of their artwork entitled, Hers and His: Twenty five years of marriage and art. “It covers our different approaches to similar themes,” says Serrano. Appearing at the Muroff Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge, the opening reception is on August 31 from 5 pm to 7pm. The show will then be on display through September 28. For more information on Hortus Conclusus, visit their website at Hortus.biz .