The gardener's eye

The Gardener's Eye

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Early Magnolia Season in the Elliotts' Garden

The Entrance to Bill and Eileen Elliott's Garden

Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel'

The Newly Formalized Vegetable Garden

Plant Labels: Discarded Flatware from the Recycling Center

The New Lutyens Bench Border

The Compost Pile

A Woodland treasure: Hepatica nobilis

In a normal year, late-April is the beginning of the magnolia season in Bill and Eileen Elliott's garden. This year is different (every year is different for a gardener) and the season has begun about two weeks earlier than usual. So this morning, I drove with my friend Susan to the Elliott's garden in the rural village of Hancock. You see, the magnolia I helped Susan plant in her garden several years ago isn't doing so great and she may need a replacement. I thought the Elliott's garden would be the ideal place for Susan to see how well various varieties of magnolias fared in New Hampshire.

I met the Elliotts in 1997 in Joanna Reed's garden in Malvern, PA. They, like me, had traveled from New Hampshire to visit Joanna's garden. Joanna was a superb plantswoman and had a garden chalk full of unique and interesting plants from all over the world. Joanna, a former president of the Herb Society of America, also studied at the Barnes Foundation Arboretum and was well know as an expert in woody shrubs and trees. Joanna, in her late 70's at the time, was leading several visitors around her garden and I struck a conversation with an interesting couple who were also fascinated by Joanna and her garden. As it turned out, they were from nearby Hancock, New Hampshire and were keen gardeners with a special interest in woody plants. One of trees that I saw in flower for the first time is a favorite magnolia of Eileen's, Magnolia sieboldii. In New Hampshire, Magnolia sieboldii blooms in late May. It has white cupped flowers with a delightful citrusy fragrance and 2 inch long carmine fruit which are a garden feature in August and September.

When we arrived at the Elliotts' garden, you could see the Magnolia x loebneri 'Leonard Messel' from the street. It is a cross cross of M. kobus and M. stellata. It has fuscia-pink flowers and is hardy to Zone 4. The Elliotts also have the cross 'Merrill', an Arnold Arboretum introduction with magnificent white flowers. They have several of 'The little Girl Hybrids' in bud, ready to flower in the next week ot two. The hybrids are a cross of M. lilliflora 'Nigra' and M. stellata 'Rosea' and are all shrubby growers with reddish purple flowers. The have girl's names, 'Ann', 'Betty', 'Jane', 'Judy', Ricki' and 'Susan'. They were selected for a slightly later blooming time in an effort to avoid the frost damage of M. stellata. Later in the season, the yellow flowering magnolias will be followed by M. sieboldii. Bill mentioned they also planted a bigleaf magnolia, M. macrophylla, I believe, which is not fully hardy in Zone 5 and has never flowered for them.

The Elliotts live off the grid, without electricity. They were early followers of Helen and Scott Nearing and share their philosophy of living off the land. The grow their own food in a large vegetable garden. Eileen had just planted some of the seeds and showed me her new labeling system: old knives they reclaimed from the recycling center. In the last several years, they have been adding formal elements to the vegetable garden and new paths paved with granite cobblestones.

Somehow they have also found the time to have a large ornamental garden with all kinds of unusual and hard to find trees, shrubs and perennials. Any plant that has any unique and garden-worthy characteristics that are hardy in Zone 5 are sure to be somewhere in their garden. While I was there, I spied an especially beautiful hepatica with red foliage and light purple flowers blooming in their woodland garden.

In the next several weeks, I hope tho visit the Elliotts' garden to follow the progression of magnolias. I will also have the opportunity to find plants with simultaneous blooming times that I can use as companions to magnolias or to place as a much needed contributor to the early spring gardening picture in my own garden or the public gardens in the Peterborough Parks.


  1. Dear Michael, The Elliott's garden is of great interest and I have looked very closely at your images as one is always able to learn from other people. That they are plantspeople is without doubt and the Magnolias, aristocrats of any garden, should be lovely. 'Leonard Messel' has been known to me for years and would certainly earn a place in my top hundred plants [but that changes almost daily].

    I am slightly perplexed with the design of the garden but this may be totally unfair as I am basing my opinion on pictures rather than first hand experience. That said it seems to me to be a fusion of the formal with the informal but not in a way I personally find satisfying. Formal structures seem to be placed but without relating one to another so the garden looks to lack any kind of coherence. It is, in my view, so important to connect.

    How interesting that the Elliotts should live without mains services.

  2. How interesting! How lovely those bare structures would be when twined and wrapped with greenery!
    I agree with Edith about the lack of coherence. Mind you, I am no expert, and this is a layman's perspective.

  3. Dear Edith,

    Thanks for your comments. I am afraid my humble photographs do not do the Elliot's garden justice. It is a true plantsperson's garden with a heart. It is a very personal expression of a couple that live a life true to thier convictions which I greatly admire. The plants are impeccably cared for and are healthy and beautiful specimens; not an easy feat in itself.

    Although each part of the garden does not line up in the way Sissinghurst or Hidcote does, it is a garden where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I think it is the kind of garden that one must experience in person to understand how special it really is.

  4. Dear Chandramouli,

    Thanks for your comment. You are quite right. The structures are very beautiful when the vines with exuberant flowers and foliage are clambering up them!

  5. The rustic structure marking the entrance to the garden is just exquisite! It is clear they have developed a garden to please themselves and their passions! I would love to see photos as the season develops!

  6. Tim,
    I think you nailed the essence of the Elliotts' garden! Bill built the gate as the main entrance(it is also part of a nearly invisible deer fence) and it is exquisite. When you go through that portal you are entering a very special place. I will try to take some more pictures throughout the season. Thanks for your comment!

  7. As a big fan of the Elliots, what one does not get from the photos, but does get in situ, is the great love they have for plants and the natural world. Yes, their garden is not always "classic" but I always leave inspired, impacted and with a greater sense of peace. In the end, isn't that what really matters? Sometimes a gardens impact is not in what we see, but feel.

  8. David,
    Thanks for your comment. As you know, I am also a big fan of the Elliotts. I agree, their garden has a wonderful peaceful feel to it.



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