The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Charles Platt grants permission

Villa Gamberaia

View from the garden toward the house

Water Parterre

The Grotto

Granite stairs on axis in my garden

Symmetrical beds with a granite bench as a focal point

The view out the French doors in the lower garden

When I began to make a garden on my small property in the village of Peterborough, NH, I was at a loss on how to arrange the garden on a steep hill which had glimpses of a view of Mt. Monadnock from the side yard. In the beginning, I concentrated on planting flowers that I liked and then I visited Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH. Aspet was the home and artist's studio for the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1884-1926). Saint-Gaudens may be best remembered for the Shaw Memorial in Boston. Aspet has a formal design and has garden rooms with white pine and hemlock hedges.

As I studied the Cornish Colony, I learned of the influence of formal Italian gardens in New Hampshire. Charles A. Platt (1861-1933) was a respected architect and later landscape architect who admired Beaux-Arts architecture and studied Italian renaissance architecture. In the early 1890's, Platt traveled to Italy with his brother to study Italian architecture. In 1894, his landmark book, Italian Gardens, was published. Platt moved to Cornish after he returned from Italy and built a house, studio and garden. Judith Tankard, in her book A Place of Beauty: The Artists and Gardens of the Cornish Colony, wrote that "Platt's intention as an architect was not to reproduce what he had seen in Italy, but to adapt its spirit to an American context." Platt's own house and garden has formal design with paths laid out axially in relationship to the house and terraces. The house is nestled into a hill and has a commanding view of Mt. Ascutney in Vermont.

In 2000, my wife's family planned a trip to Tuscany and I had the opportunity to see Italian gardens for myself. While the rest of the family took a day off from sightseeing, I traveled to the hillside of Settignano outside of Florence and visited Villa Gamberaia. Villa Gamberaia is probably the quintessential Italian villa and garden. Its intimate scale makes translating the formality of the garden into a small American plot possible.

When I returned to New Hampshire, it became clear that I was going to make a formal, terraced Italianate garden which related to the house. It was also clear that my version of an Italian garden would be a very humble permutation of Platt's adaptation of an Italian garden in an American context. I believe that Charles Platt created a New Hampshire tradition that made my garden have a sense of its own place. In essence, he gave me permission to build my garden.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Time to Shovel the Boxwoods

The front garden before

The front garden after
The hall with balls
We got 18 inches of wet snow today, so it is time to shovel the boxwoods. I have 37 rounded boxwoods in my garden. They are mostly a Sheridan hybrid called Buxus x 'Green Gem'. The Sheridan hybrids were developed at the Sheridan Nursery in Oakville, Ontario. They are a cross of English box, B. sempervirens, which gives them a nice dark green color, and the excellent hardiness of B. var. koreana. They have been quite happy in the exposed areas of my garden which often experience extended periods of -20 degrees F.
I first fell for boxwoods while visiting North Hill, the Readsboro, VT garden of Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. Near the house and throughout the garden, they planted rounded boxwoods. Sixteen boxwoods add punctuation and provide a repeated rhythm in their rose garden. In 1997, I took a design class at North Hill and Joe and Wayne were talking about the importance of repetition in the garden. I decided to add spherical boxwoods to my garden to provide a unifying presence throughout the property.
In the upper front garden, I copied Bunny Williams' paired rows boxwoods on either side of the pathway. I have under-planted them with Epimedium pinnatum ssp.colchicum. I selected that plant because it is a distinctive but vigorous ground cover with handsome foliage and yellow flowers in May.
I planted 17 boxwoods on the step garden which links the upper garden to the lower garden. I like to call it the Hall with Balls. This time, I under-planted the boxwoods with the lesser known native American pachysandra, Pachysandra procumbens . I wanted to emulate the mass of round shrubs that I had read about in the late Nicole de Vesian's garden in Provence. I felt that garden should not be busy with flowers but should be an area where the visitor would "cleanse their palate" before entering the floriferous lower garden. I have also been working on pruning the Cornus officinalis tree to accentuate the bark and branching pattern of the trunks. Another Provence gardener and land artist, named Marc Nucera, has inspired me to pay closer attention to the pruning the trees as if they were sculpture.
When all the shoveling is done, I find the dark green rounds popping their heads out of the snow quite satisfying. For me, it is a subtle reminder that come summer these rounds will be popping out of foliage textures and flowers.
You might like these two books by Eck and Winterrowd: Our Life in Gardens and A Year at North Hill. Louisa Jones has two books that include the work of Nicole se Vesian and Marc Nucera: The French Country Garden and New Gardens in Provence. By the way, I think Joe Eck has written one of the most concise books on garden design called Elements of Garden Design. It has about 30 4-5 page essays on topics like intention, structure, repose and children in the garden. Each a very quick, enjoyable and informative read.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Back from Cap Haitien

Two schoolgirls waiting at the clinic

Saint Anthony's Clinic
Getting a lift to the clinic

Children at St Anthony's

Me and my new friend

I have just returned from a week-long eye care mission in Cap Haitien, Haiti. I was a member of the VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Service to Humanity) DelVal team. We were part of a multidisciplinary medical group delivering health care in northern Haiti. Most of our work was in and around the second largest city, Cap Haitien.

This is the fourth time I have been to Haiti but I had the most trepidation about this trip because it was only a month after the earthquake. Although Cap Haitien was not directly affected, I was unsure if it was a good idea to be giving non-emergency care this soon after the disaster. Our contacts in Cap Haitien assured us that our presence would be a positive thing and we went on with our plans and I am very glad we did.

We saw nearly a thousand patients and provided eyeglasses to patients who needed them. We also treated patients with glaucoma and eye infections. Patients with cataracts were referred to ophthalmologists for surgery.

I think the most profound thing we did was to not cancel our trip. Nearly every patient we met had a relative or loved one killed or injured in the earthquake. People have been displaced to Cap Haitien and rural areas in the North. Many of these people are having nightmares and can not sleep. The main fear by the coast, is the threat of tsunami if there was an earthquake along the fault line in the sea north of Cap Haitien. I would like to think that we provided a small glimmer of hope for the future and some amount of reassurance that they would not be forgotten in their hour of need. And that need is enormous.

You can read more about our clinic at: .

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pumpelly Ridge on Mount Monadnock

I hiked the Dublin Trail to the summit of Mount Monadnock (3159 ft.) with a gardening friend today. Mount Monadnock, also known as Grand Monadnock, is reputedly the second most frequently climbed mountain in the world. It has commanding views, even Mount Washington can be seen on clear days. Today, it was about 20 degrees with gusty winds to about 30 mph or more. This is a view of the Pumpelly Ridge looking toward Dublin, NH and beyond.

As I hike, I like to observe plant associations. There is always something to learn, even in winter. I can see how the trees shift from deciduous to conifers as I ascend the trail. Moose maple, Acer pensylvanicum, with their striated bark, and the pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, are common near the trailhead. There are also many beech, Fagus grandifolia, and sugar maple trees, Acer saccharinum. Hobblebush viburnums, Viburnum alnifolium, are common in the moist lowlands. The prominent evergreens are white pines, Pinus strobus, hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, and red spruce, Picea rubens.
Last fall, I collected seeds of the hobblebush viburnum on the Spellman Trail. I had spied some individuals with a particularly vibrant claret foliage last year. When I returned in October, I found the population and collected seeds that I hope will one day flourish in my woodland garden. I also collected seeds of the red elder, Sambucus pubens, on Pack Monadnock. Red elders are very shade tolerant and have handsome red drupe that are favored by birds in June.

I also have planted several analogous Asian trees in the Woodland garden that mimic their American relatives. I bought a rare Asian striped bark maple, Acer pectinatum ssp. forrestii, at Broken Arrow Nursery in Hamden, CT. The catalogue states that it "exhibits white-striped branches that turn maroon-red in winter. Bright butter-yellow fall color adds seasonal interest." In their trials, they found it to be "more tolerant of adverse conditions than other striped maples." I planted a European beech, Fagus sylvatica 'Tortuosa'. I first saw a 25 year old specimen at Kris Fenderson's garden in Acworth, NH. This beech will grow to about 10-15 feet tall and has a uniquely twisted trunk and branches. I also planted a Cornus controversa 'Variegata' in the wild garden. The giant dogwood hails from Japan and is larger than the pagoda dogwood. It has creamy variegated leaves that grow on tiered branches. My intention is that all these trees will feel at home in my New Hampshire garden but create a slightly more refined picture.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Joanna's Hands

Joanna Reed sent me this picture along with her Christmas card in 2000, less than two years before she died at the age of 85. I grew up in Malvern, PA, but it took me 16 years after moving to Colorado and then New Hampshire to find a gardening mentor in my home town.

Joanna and her husband, George, moved to their home, Longview Farm, in Malvern in 1940. The house was built in 1780 and was in desperate need of repair when they bought it. Joanna's gardening career began when she had a chance meeting with Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Dr. Barnes collected fine art and formed the legendary Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA and his wife, Laura, had launched a tuition-free school of horticulture at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum. Dr. Barnes had car trouble in front of the Reeds' house and asked to use their phone. While waiting for a tow truck, Dr. Barnes convinced Joanna to enroll in the first class at the horticulture school and she began to study and propagate woody plants.

I had heard about Joanna and finally met her in 1996. I was just beginning to make my own garden and she encouraged me to learn my shrubs and trees. I was inspired by the huge katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, that she had propagated from her classes some 50 years earlier. It was in her garden that I saw hellebores and epimediums for the first time. I was also introduced to one of my favorite trees, Magnolia sieboldii in Joanna's garden.

I got my own katsura tree in 1997. When I was visiting Charles O. Cresson, another wonderful and very generous gardener from Swarthmore, PA, and he offered me a 3" tall katsura seedling. I planted it on axis with wooden steps to the lower woodland garden and waited. Last spring, I installed the French doors on that same axis. Now when I open the French doors, I see a 25 foot tall Cercidiphyllum japonicum. It is a reminder of my dear gardening friend and her constant optimism to plant small trees and watch them grow in your garden.

Joanna's garden is profiled in three books: The Authentic Gardener by Claire E. Saweyers, The Unsung Season by Sydney Eddison and Star Ockenga's Earth on her Hands.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Ruin Garden at Teixeira Park

Teixeira Park is one of the public parks I work on in West Peterborough, NH. It was donated to the town of Peterborough in 1971 by Pearl Teixeira. Pearl was the widow of Louis Teixeira, a former Peterborough selectman. Louis was born on the island of Madeira and came to Peteborough in 1929. Her intention was that the park " shall be used for the increased beauty of the town of Peterborough".

The park is situated on the Nubanusit River. For many years the park was neglected but in 2006 a renovation process was begun. We decided to keep the park rather wild and to try to attract birds and wildlife. The granite wall was built by Ron Higgins, a resident of West Peterborough. Ron describes himself as a stone mason, carver and sculptor. His website is: He used granite that the town had on hand from a previous project. Ron let the stone speak to him and created this low wall with an archway. We planted the inner space with plants that would attract humming birds and butterflies. I like to call it the Ruin Garden. As the stone ages and the plants tumble over the walls, It will look more and more like an old New England foundation.

The structure looks particularly strong in the winter months. Children like to play and jump off the walls and we tried to plant the beds in a way that invited the children to play without disturbing the plantings. In future months, I'll show you how the garden progresses throughout the growing season.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Harold's Enclosures

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson's Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, England is a great example of structure enclosing textures and flowers. They began making the garden in the 1930's. The design was built around the existing walls and dilapidated buildings. Harold added more brick walls and hedges of yew, box and hornbeam. He described his aim as "a combination of expectation and surprise" or a "succession of intimacies". I took these photographs from the top of the tower where Vita did her writing. Although Vita's plantings are the more famous, Harold's structure makes the garden special. Some gardens have beautiful plants and other gardens have excellent bones but a select few have both. For me, the most satisfying gardens have a strong and well thought out structure and distinctive plants grown in an environment that makes them happy.


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