The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Garden Read: Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Essay on Gardening by Henk Gerritsen

I first discovered Henk Gerritsen when I read Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, a book he coauthored with celebrated Dutch plantsman and garden designer, Piet Oudolf. I have been following his work and writing ever since. Henk Gerritsen was also a Dutch garden designer with decidedly wild tastes. He had a dry wit and a love of nature. He started his career as a biology teacher and became interested in gardening after visiting the garden of Mien Ruys in 1976. Ruys was major force in Dutch garden design. She was known for using a simple palette of plants that had structural form combined with a very modernistic bent in design. He said visiting her garden " was a culture shock, a slap in the face. Although the bold combinations of deep blue delphiniums, bright orange Alstroemerias, vivid yellow Ligularias and pink-reddish phloxes hurt my eyes, which were accustomed to the pastel colours of nature, I still found it fascinating to see: this was not a baboon's bum, this was art. I had never realized that something like this was possible with plants. I wanted to do this as well. But then differently." Two years later, he began gardening at Priona Garden, the parental home of his partner, Anton Schlepers.

His first tentative title for the book was Playing Chess with Nature. The idea being that when gardening, humans are playing a game of chess with nature. "They can only settle for a draw instead of being checkmated. Winning is not an option, and cheating is altogether useless: at best, the latter will result in a Pyrrhic victory and ultimately a devastating defeat." The gardener needs needs to come to terms with this fact and work with, not against, nature.

The book is a series of essays that describe Gerritsen's philosophy on gardening and the journey it has taken him on. It is divided into three main sections: Inspiration, Garden Ecology and Building Blocks of a Garden. Every section is filled with beautiful photographs that illustrate each topic superbly.

In the Gardening Ecology section, Gerritsen recommends "gardening like a cow." By that he means "grazing" or pulling the weeds "without attempting to remove the roots from the soil. When plants have to keep putting energy into creating new offshoots, their hearts literally sink into their roots and...the soil is not disturbed. Because if there is anything that encourages the growth of perennial weeds, it's the constant disturbance of soil." Practical advice prescribed with a deadpan delivery. Gerritsen also has some excellent advice garden design and the appropriate placement of exotic plants in a the garden.

Essays on Gardening is a very timely book that I believe will become a garden classic. It is written in an original and often humorous voice and is filled with practical information and stunning photographs. It gives excellent advice on garden design and the appropriate placement of exotic plants with a cutting edge gardening philosophy about plant ecologies. At the end of the introduction, he says "I will no longer be at a loss for words when someone asks me for the umpteenth time to explain what kind of garden I have... now I can refer all inquiries to this book." Henk Gerritsen died in 2008, several months before the book became available in English in the United States. Lucky for us, Essay on Gardening is here to answer our inquiries.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

And Now For a Little Color

It has been nearly a month since I have had a post with any color whatsoever. Well I guess that is the whole purpose of a spring flower show and the Boston Flower and Garden Show did not disappoint. I arrived early on the last day of the show with a friend before the crowds descended. The Boston Flower Show had been discontinued for a year and it has been reestablished as a new smaller show at the Seaport World Trade Center.

My favorite display was designed by (disclaimer: Karen Howard and Chris O'Brien, owners of Howard Garden Designs, are good friends) Howard Garden Designs/Weston Nurseries/Downing Landscape Construction. Karen and Chris have done many award winning displays at the Boston Flower Show over the last dozen years. This year, their collaboration was an excellent combination of well designed hard scape, water feature and spectacular plants. They chose a daring chartreuse/melon-rose/orange color palate. Even the furniture cushions and pillows were color coordinated! All the plants looked very fresh and healthy and not a bit wear weary on the last day of a five day long show. I especially appreciated how beautiful the garden looked from every angle.

It will be a good month before northern New England experiences the spring flush of color my childhood home of suburban Philadelphia now enjoys. The Boston Flower and Garden Show was the perfect antidote to the beginning of the mud season here in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Getting the Boccelli Garden Ready

Boccelli Garden Before

Boccelli Garden After

Viburnum sargentii ' Onondaga' and Rosa rubrifolia in foreground

Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' and Gleditsia 'Ruby Lace' in foreground

Hydrangea paniculata 'Pink Diamond', Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', center,

and Salix purpurea ' Nana', right

Ribes alpinum 'Aureum' with box balls and yew pillars

Aralia elata 'Aureovariegata'

Miscanthus floridulus 'Giganteus

The Boccelli Garden, a mixed border, was cleared and prepared for the growing season. All the spent stems of the perennials were cut back. The leaves of the hellebores were removed to make way for the emerging flowers. The large grasses, Miscanthus floridulus 'Giganteus' and Miscanthus sinensis 'Silver Shadow' were cut to the ground. The rigid 8 foot long stems of Miscanthus floridulus 'Giganteus' are stored because they make excellent supports when staking plants during the growing season.

Three trees or large shrubs, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea', Gleditsia 'Ruby Lace' and Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple', are stooled, each to about 18 inches, to encourage robust new foliage. The catalpa leaves are huge chartreuse paddles that contrast well with the small leaflets of the purplish bronze compound leaves of the honeylocust tree. The rich maroon-red foliage of the smoke bush looks stunning against any foliage or flower color imaginable. In general, red, chartreuse and grey foliage are effective mixers with both hot and cool color schemes.

The seven foot tall Viburnum sargentii 'Onondaga' was limbed up so its branches do not overpower the underlying perennials. It was chosen for this border for its velvety maroon young foliage, creamy white flowers and red fall fruit. The old black stems of Rosa rubrifolia were thinned out to encourage new growth from the ground. The foliage has a beautiful grey color with a copper cast to it; the pink flowers are an added bonus.

The Ribes alpinum 'Aureum' was shaped slightly. Dan Hinkley, the famous plant hunter and founder of Heronswood Nursery, described this currant in the 2000 catalogue: "I have brought this back from England on three occasions, each time from suckering stems offered by Christopher Lloyd while walking his remarkable, cherished Dixter, and each time, but the last, losing the plant. Finally, we have this established in our garden, and finally we are able to offer but a few, with small brilliant yellow foliage (fading to lime as the season progresses), on stems forming compact mounded shrubs 4 ft. by 4 ft., in full sun and well-drained soil. For no extra fee, the magic of Dixter is eternally bound to each and every plant." Well, that sold me!!!

Finally, several dead or damaged branches of the Aralia elata 'Aureovariegata' were removed. This connoisseur's small tree has a bold winter skeleton and large compound leaves with golden edges. This particular specimen is the largest and happiest I have ever seen in a garden. To be quite honest, I am not sure why. I have killed the same plant in my own garden.

Now the garden is ready for the season to begin. You can see the Boccelli Garden in its full glory in the slideshow on the sidebar. Christopher Lloyd's book, Succession Planting for Year-round Pleasure, is an excellent resource on how to build your own mixed border.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Patience is a virtue.
Possess it if you can.
Seldom found in a woman,
Never found in a man.

You can see what I'm waiting for on the slideshow of my garden on the sidebar.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wave Hill and the High Line in March

Structure in the Flower Garden with views of the Palisades

Formal Obelisk in the Flower Garden

Evergreens and gazebo in the Wild Garden

Rustic Obelisk in the Wild Garden with a glimpse of the Palisades

Garden Path on the High Line

Railroad Tracks

Gridded Grove of Acer Triflorum

Garden View: Frank Gehry building and Jean Nouvel residential tower

I had an optometry symposium in New York City this weekend which gave me the opportunity to visit some public gardens in the Big Apple. On of my favorite gardens is Wave Hill, often called one of the most beautiful places in New York, which is in the Bronx. It is right off the Henry Hudson Parkway just north of the George Washington Bridge. It is one of the most southern of the great estates along the Hudson River and has magnificent views of the Palisades across the Hudson River. It became a New York City Park in the 1960's. The High Line is a brand new park on the West Side of Manhattan. It was originally an elevated railroad that was built in the 1930's to keep dangerous freight trains off the city streets. During the 1950's the trucking industry eclipsed rail traffic and the ultimately closed the High Line. In June, 2009, it became an elevated public park. Last Friday was my first visit to the High Line.

Late March is a great time to travel south when you live in New Hampshire. While we tend to remain blanketed in snow, spring is sprouting in New York City. Wave Hill and the High Line both offered excellent examples of public garden design. While they are very different, they have many similarities. The both have excellent structure which can be easily observed before the plantings emerge.

Wave Hill's Flower Garden is formally designed and is enclosed by a cedar fence which has a benches on two ends. It has what they call lozenge-shaped yew domes flanking the brick pathway. Later in the season, the garden will be full of an informal array of vintage and modern shrubs, perennials and tantalizing tender exotic plants.

The Wild Garden is inspired by William Robinson's writings in the early twentieth century. It contains plants from around the world and is planted in a "planted-by-nature effect." It has an antique gazebo, meandering gravel pathways and many varieties of evergreens which provide a backdrop to the elaborate plantings.

The High Line feels extremely modern, urban and gritty. Many of the plantings were designed by Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf specializes in perennial gardens that are influenced by the American prairie. The plantings were inspired by the self-seeded grasses and perennials that established themselves on the obsolete railway. The concrete plank pathways have a very contemporary feel to them. Sections of the rusted railroad tracks remain in their original location and are integrated into the plantings. The Asian tree, Acer triflorum, and our native grey birch, Betula populifolia, add bark interest and winter structure.

When I return from visiting inspiring public plantings in late winter, I try to take a hard look at my personal garden and the public parks that I work on in Peterborough. I ask myself what changes could be implemented to make the garden picture more beautiful and interesting in the winter and early springtime. I make every effort to visit excellent and diverse gardens and public places at different times of year for inspiration. Wave Hill and the High Line have a spirit of their own place and marry strong structure with unique (and in the High Line sometimes common) plants combined in very interesting ways.

Both Wave Hill and the High Line have plant lists on their websites that I found very helpful when I was studying their designs.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Drawing Gardens

North Hill, Readsboro, VT
I made this drawing on September 22, 2004 while visiting North Hill, the garden of Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd. When I look at it, I am immediately brought back to that day. I remember the light, the temperature and the experience of being in the garden.
I believe that visiting well-made gardens is the best way to become a better gardener. Early in my gardening life, I began to keep a gardening journal. I now have five large books full of plant lists, observations, recommendations and, most importantly, drawings. Whenever I visit a garden, I try to take a moment to make a drawing. In this drawing, I wanted to remind myself of the effectiveness of hedges in creating garden rooms. I was struck by the horizontal line of the yew hedges and the opposing vertical lines of the clipped evergreens in the foreground and the natural arborvitae hedge forming another wall in the next garden room. I also wanted to make note of the negative space that is so effectively marked by the shrub and perennial silhouettes in front of the yew hedge.
The her book The Making of a Garden, Rosemary Verey talks about the importance of drawing gardens. She instructs any student interested in a career in garden design to "draw-even roughly-the shapes of trees and shrubs." It is very easy, when visiting a garden, to move too quickly without taking the garden in. Drawing forces us to to sit, observe and take in every aspect of the garden. Drawing a perennial or tree that is new to us is the perfect introduction to that plant. Usually it is my drawing, not my description of a plant, that enables me to identify a plant in a garden I have just visited.
The next time you visit a garden take a seat on a garden bench and give yourself ten minutes to make a drawing of the garden. You can focus on a plant, garden ornament our an interesting view of the garden. Don't be afraid if you don't believe you have any skill at drawing. Take that moment to be in that garden and truly experience it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

First tulip of the season in New Hampshire

Tulipa protosflorum

Tulipa protosflorum literally means first flowering tulip. This tulip was given to me by a gardening friend and is always the first bulb to bloom in my garden after the snow melts in late winter. In fact, I find it to be one of the only species of tulip that blooms constantly in my garden throughout the year. Talk about a great plant.

Unfortunately, this hard to find bulb has no root system or photosynthesis capabilities. Worse yet, it is not alive. Tulipa protosflorum is in fact the result of a gardener's prank. Two years ago, someone placed this plant, in what looked like a pot, in Depot Park in Peterborough. Every week as the garden volunteers weeded the garden, we marveled at how long the tulip bloomed. About mid-July, I looked carefully at the plant and realized that it was in fact not alive at all. It was one of the most realistic artificial flowers I had ever seen. The volunteers decided to leave it in the garden but by the end of the September, it disappeared.

I didn't notice it again until the first hard frost and it emerged from the wilting foliage in my upper border. It took me several days of sleuthing to determine that Laura, one of the volunteers in the Peterborough Parks, had played a prank on me. I left the tulip in my garden and I had many passersby comment on it last fall and early winter. Now that the snow has melted, it is back.

Tulipa protosflorum is a reminder for me to keep having fun in the garden and to not take anything too seriously. A friendly prank can be just what is needed during the hustle-bustle gardening season. And who knows what Laura will find growing next in her garden? When she least, expects I will make a retaliatory strike!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Education of a Public Gardener: 9/24/97

Lynden B. Miller (standing with red sweater) leading volunteers at the Conservatory Garden

Lynden's collage

The Conservatory Garden in Central Park

Bryant Park

Shady Border in Bryant Park

Cool beds in Wagner Park in Battery Park City

Wagner Park

Hot Beds in Wagner Park

My life as a gardener changed course on September 24, 1997. I had met public garden designer, Lynden B. Miller, in her Sharon, CT garden (under a foot of snow) for a winter garden tour in 1996. I returned to Sharon the following summer to see her garden and she was kind enough to extend an invitation to visit her in New York City and see her public gardens.

Lynden originally studied art at Smith College and was trained in horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden and Wave Hill in the 1970's. About 30 years ago, she spearheaded the restoration of the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. She went on to design public gardens at the New York Botanical Garden, Bryant Park and the New York Public Library Gardens, Wagner Park in Battery Park City and Columbia University to name a few.

When I visited Lynden and her husband, Leigh in New York, I got the chance to see some her artwork before visiting the gardens. Her collages were an early indicator of her eye for color, form and texture. Early the next morning, we walked to the Conservatory Garden on 105th Street for a volunteer gardening session. Lynden instructed the volunteers in a fall planting of pansies. The volunteers excitedly went about their given tasks for a couple of hours until the project was completed and Lynden gave me a private tour of this six acre oasis in the city. Her plantings looked magnificent and were having an end of the season grand finale.

Lynden then whisked me to the subway and we traveled from uptown to midtown for our next stop at Bryant Park on 42nd Street, behind the Public Library. Lynden buzzed like a bumblebee from one end of the park to the other with the head gardener discussing the changes that would take place during the next growing season. We hopped back on the subway for our final destination, Wagner Park, at the southernmost tip of Manhattan in Battery Park City. From the park, you can see Lady Liberty in the Upper Bay at the mouth of the Hudson River. The garden had been recently opened and had two sections. One section had flowers in hot, bright colors and the other area was comprised of cool shades of blue, mauve and pink with complimentary gray foliage.

That day was an exhilarating day for me. I knew I wanted to create something like this in my own town. Lynden taught me how to get volunteers to work together and how to procure the public and private funding that would be necessary to get the job done. I learned about designing a mixed border and she introduced me to dozens of plants, many that I use regularly now, for the first time. Her message, that became my mantra in the public gardens I helped create in Peterborough, was to "take on only what you can maintain at the highest level and to make it gorgeous and keep it that way."

Lynden specializes in urban parks and public places. She has repeatedly transformed neglected, derelict and dangerous public spaces into serene and beautiful parks that provide a moment of respite for the city dweller. But these principles can apply to any public space in the country or the city. I have used Lynden's formula in the parks in Peterborough, NH. Lynden has written a new book called Parks, Plants and People: Beautifying the Urban Landscape. In it she "describes the elements of successful public space and explains how to design, improve and maintain year-round plantings." If you are interested in improving the public spaces and parks in your town , this book should be your bible.


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