Orient gardener tells his story in new memoir

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Skip Wachsberger holds his memoir in the living room of his Orient home. Behind him are some of the hundreds of plants he has grown.

When Skip Wachsberger first bought an 18th century barn-turned-house on Village Lane in Orient in the early 1980s, his real estate agent warned him he was moving into a fishbowl.

He took the plunge anyway, all the while dreaming of creating an ideal backyard garden at his new place. That dream sprang from a seed planted when, as a child, he coaxed buds from a peach pit and brought peonies in from his yard as a centerpiece for his family’s dining room table. As an adult, while living in a New York apartment and working as a trompe l’oeil artist, he yearned to have his own garden.

Mr. Wachsberger, 66, and his partner Charles Dean, the maitre d’ at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, now have one of the best-known gardens in Southold Town. While Mr. Wachsberger’s story is well known in the fishbowl of Orient, his newly released, privately published memoir, “Into the Garden with Charles,” tells his garden’s history; the continuing love story of his life with Charles, his partner of nearly 15 years; and his ongoing battle with prostate cancer.

He began the book 10 years ago, with the idea of recounting his life through the story of the 12-month cycle of his garden. But that was before he joined Orient neighbor Karen Braziller’s writing workshops. Mr. Wachsberger and Mr. Dean had previously edited a compilation of garden stories for Ms. Braziller’s small publishing house, Persea Books, called “Of Leaf and Flower,” released in 2001, with illustrations by Mr. Wachsberger.

When he started “Into the Garden with Charles,” he knew he wanted to write about the garden and Charles, but he’d not yet been diagnosed with cancer, hadn’t yet become the proud owner of a Havanese pup named Rover and hadn’t yet filled in every inch of the garden with rare trees and flowers. Finally, last spring, after one last tough re-write, the writer’s group convinced Mr. Wachsberger that the story had enough of an arc to be considered done.

“People said it was impossible,” Mr. Wachsberger of his initial concept for the memoir, “but I had a deep core feeling that my story was inseparable from the garden. I’ve changed the structure so many times.”

He spoke of the project on a recent cold Saturday, during a brief visit to his Orient home between treatments at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Much of the garden was buried under a thick blanket of snow, and his living room was crammed full of tropical trees and bushes, all waiting for the warmth of spring, when they will rejoin the hardier plants in the garden.

Mr. Wachsberger is a master watercolorist who has honed a unique technique of painting scenes from family photographs so vividly that they look from a distance like photos. Scenes from his garden, painted with the same technique, grace the pages before the each chapter of the limited edition book, just like the fairy tale books Mr. Wachsberger remembers reading as a child.

He pre-sold the 150 signed and numbered books to friends before this past Christmas to cover the printing costs. For a premium, several collectors also purchased the original watercolors.

The books were printed on heavy paper stock by The Studley Press in Dalton, Mass., which specializes in quality color reproductions.

Mr. Wachsberger and Ms. Braziller are now seeking a trade publisher, though they doubt a commercial publisher would match the quality of the original private edition.

“One of the reasons we made this edition was we were able to do it exactly as it should be, without having to compromise,” said Ms. Braziller. “I might never be able to do that again. But we’re satisfied we’ve done the perfect book.”

Mr. Wachsberger’s story is full of miracles, from how he found Charles’s personal ad, which had inadvertently run in an East End newspaper, far from Charles’s Manhattan home, where Skip saw it, to the flock of hummingbirds that gathered on the trees outside Charles’s mother’s window just before her death, as if coming to say goodbye.

He said that the initial draft of the book told of even more miracles in his life, but that another member of the writing workshop, poet L.B. Thompson, told him he needed to “kill some of his darlings” to make those that remained really shine.

Pruning the garden proved as much a leap of faith as pruning the text. Mr. Wachsberger had to avert his eyes as Charles first pruned his magnolia trees, when the two began gardening together in Orient. He wanted to save every branch, but Charles convinced him that every cut would sprout five new branches. By taking the leap of faith that the tree would thrive, Mr. Wachsberger started to find the core of trust on which to base a life-long love.

By the final year of the memoir, 2010, the garden had become more lush than ever. Mr. Wachsberger said that, in the back of his mind last year, he thought that the garden might have been putting on a final show for its caretaker. His thoughts turned to what would happen if he were gone and the house were sold to a stranger who couldn’t appreciate the garden.

He has never asked his doctors how long he has left to live, in part because of his own hope for another miracle — that he will see his garden come into bloom many more times.

With the garden, Charles, Rover and the constant presence of neighbors and friends who want to sneak a peak into the garden, “I consider myself the luckiest person in the world,” he said.

Mr. Wachsberger has begun work on another book at Ms. Braziller’s workshop, this one about Rover, and the first buds will soon be here, as will his and Charles’s 15th anniversary.

Joyce Beckenstein, a writing workshop participant, has donated a copy of “Into the Garden with Charles” to the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport, where it will be available in the near future.

“He’s just a fabulous writer. He’s a kind, gentle, unostentatious, generous man,” said Ms. Beckenstein. “He is a treasure.”

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