Mary-Liz Campbell at home in her garden
The Magic of Gardening, According to Mary-Liz Campbell
By Janice Llanes Fabry
Mary-Liz Campbell is a landscape designer whose gardens tell a story. For the last two decades, her passion, creativity, and conceptualization have served her well, both in business and in her own home garden.
“I wanted to create a sanctuary and I wanted a garden with something going on all year round, even in the snow,” noted the longtime Rye resident. “I have plants with different bloom times, so there’s something beautiful to look at any season.”
It’s hard to believe now, but horticulture wasn’t always a part of Campbell’s life. She majored in psychology in college and later became an interior designer in New York City. As a matter of fact, she was unaware she had an artistic flair until she picked up a pencil and began to draw in an interior design class at Parson’s School of Design.
She did, however, have an instinctual appreciation for vegetation. When she first moved to Rye in 1983, she remembers, “driving along the Hutchinson River Parkway and realizing I’d never seen anything so lush, so beautiful. It was nothing like where I came from in northern Ontario.”
The Canadian native naturally gravitated towards Rye for its proximity to New York City and Long Island Sound, “along with the community, the library, the art scene, and the fact that my two daughters could walk to school.”
Campbell also vividly remembers her first spring here. “I had an old house with a
garden designed by a landscape designer. I stepped outside and it was a fairyland,” she said.
It wasn’t until she was laid off from her job as an interior designer during the recession of 2008 that she pursued the outdoors with new-found vigor and began puttering in her garden.
Upon relocating to her current house in Rye, she learned a variance was required to make changes she envisioned for her front yard. Having discovered that landscape drawings are a vast departure from the interior drawings she was accustomed to, she took a sight analysis course at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG).
“I fell in love with it,” she admitted. “My daughters were already in high school, so I decided, at age 50, that this is what I wanted to do. I took classes for a year-and-a-half and they changed my life.”
Lucky for Campbell, she had her own new grounds on which to practice. She honed her skills through a “wrong plant, wrong place” trial-and-error phase. Moreover, the fact that her home is on a hill presented a number of complications. But when on a NYBG tour of Italian gardens she learned about terracing, her ideas flourished, and her garden soon bloomed.
“It was a wonderful creative challenge,” recalled Campbell, who started working as a full-fledged landscape designer when an acquaintance took a chance on her. Through word of mouth, her business grew to include homes throughout Westchester and Connecticut.
She attributes her success to unearthing what is truly special to her clients. “I don’t have a signature style. Rather, I try to elicit the kind of feeling clients want in their gardens,” remarked Campbell, whose portfolio demonstrates a wide-ranging plant palette, from tightly manicured to looser, more textural.
Today, she underscores the fact that she is not looking for more business. “I’m slowing down, so I am more selective about the kinds of work I take on. It has to be creatively inspiring,” she noted.
She enjoys introducing her grandchildren to “the magic” of gardens and plants. She has a secret garden with a bench, bleeding hearts, climbing hydrangeas, trolls and fairies. The long-blooming and aromatic <agastache> on her patio, which she sees as an extension to her home, draw a multitude of hummingbirds.
Among the diverse flora in her garden are versatile viburnum, which bloom in early spring, vibrant hydrangeas for summer, hardy Northwind tall grasses whose blades turn red in late summer, and a selection of delicate ferns. There are redbud and river birch trees, smoke trees with purple leaves, styrax japonicas, and Japanese maples.
When she is not tending her own or other area gardens, Campbell goes on international garden tours. To date, she’s been to some of the best in Italy, Scotland, Ireland, France, and England.
“I love to travel and the gardens and landscapes give it a focus. It’s interesting what people do with different spaces in different parts of the world,” she said. “But I’m always glad to come home and enjoy my