As with the Manor house, the gardens at Sylvester Manor have seen great changes over the centuries as dictated by evolving tastes and needs. The garden planted by the Sylvesters in the 1650s would have included vegetables and herbs, and records show that an orchard of fruit trees was laid out at the NE corner of the current garden site. Though ornamentals would not have been a priority at a site so raw, remote and dedicated to commercial food production, Grissell Brinley Sylvester is credited with bringing cuttings with her from England in 1651 and establishing the first boxwood in America at the Manor. Several generations of Sylvester descendants have used box prominently in their garden redesigns, while other family members took cuttings home and spread new generations of Manor boxwood across Long Island and New England.
The current 2-acre garden is what remains of Cornelia Horsford’s grand 1908 reshaping of the property as a Colonial Revival showpiece. Over the 18th century axial plans laid out by Brinley Sylvester, who had planted the gardens for esthetic and commercial use, Cornelia cut back and transplanted the box hedges, built terraced and parterre flower beds, and, perhaps in homage of the Sylvester’s Amsterdam origins, included a sunken Dutch flower bed, accessed by a graceful staircase descending from the rose garden. In the NE corner of the former rose garden still stands the 18th century privy (or outhouse), painted the same soft yellow as the house, and paneled inside with wainscot removed from the Ladies parlor during a late 19th-century remodeling.
By 1950, Alice Hench was already a passionate gardener at her family’s Dering Harbor property when she met Andrew Fiske, and came to humorously credit their marriage on a shared love of tending plants: “Mr. Fiske came to visit one weekend and said, ‘You have some very fine boxwoods. Why don’t you bring them to Sylvester Manor?’ By Monday, we were engaged.” Thus Alice Fiske began a long and famous tenure as mistress of the manor gardens, often driving the tractor herself. She indelibly left her own mark on the Manor gardens with massive plantings of her signature daffodils and well-tended roses, while faithfully caring for the beds laid out by Cornelia in 1908.
In 2021, the Garden Conservancy (TGC) awarded Sylvester Manor a Gardens for Good grant that supported Anna Kellerman, then nearing graduation from UMass Amherst’s Landscape Architecture Masters Program, in producing a Sylvester Manor House Landscape Study of the plantings around the c. 1737 Manor House. This report will guide us during the upcoming rehabilitation of the Manor House, helping to protect historically significant plantings such as the American Pillar Roses climbing the side porches. View the report here.