2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: RHS Wisley, England


I can never go to England without visiting at least one garden. But when the only day available to see one is a rainy, cold day in mid-December, the options can be severely limited! RHS Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society, never disappoints, however, and is suitable for visits in any weather as they have a large glasshouse to go along with their gardens.

Wisley, located in Woking (just a few miles south west of central London),  was given to the RHS in 1903, and since has become the hub of all things Horticultural, encompassing acres of trial gardens, model gardens that showcase different types of gardening situations, and areas where cultivation techniques are rigorously tested. Set up as a charity, its mission is to educate people and instill a love of gardening which it does through so many avenues that you are hardly aware that you are learning. Their monthly magazine, The Garden, is worth the price of membership all by itself, even if you never take advantage of the free admission to hundreds of gardens nationwide.

Beech cylinders


These plants with glowing stems are a type of Salix, a.k.a. Willow.

My visit in mid-December was wet and cold and the sort of day that only the insane, garden crazed types would find themselves out in. But it was still beautiful, as all well designed and well cared for gardens are. Outside, the red-twigged dogwoods  were in their glory, lighting up the grayness with their vibrant stems. The grass was still green, and the Beech hedges, cut into rigid cylinders, stood like a row of proud soldiers, oblivious to the weather. The ‘bones” of the garden were such that there was order and beauty even without flowers.


All that said, it was nice to go into the glasshouse to dry off, absorb some color, and enjoy the rich warm smell of earth. There were numerous displays of succulents and tropical plants to enjoy, and for the holidays, they had created a display of Poinsettias of all different colors, arranged like Christmas trees.  The Poinsetta being a Mexican native, legend has it that a little Mexican girl, ashamed that she had no gift for the Christ child, picked a handful of greenery by the side of the road and placed it beside the baby. In the morning, the plants had turned a bright red.


Red is the color that we most associate with the Poinsettia, but they also come in pink, white, and yellow, and some are even speckled! The colored parts are actually not flowers, at all, but are modified leaves called bracts; the flowers are the little, rather uninteresting green parts in the center. Introduced to the United States in 1825, the Poinsettia has since become an indisputable symbol of the holidays, as was proven by the festive displays at Wisley.

A pink one! The flowers are the parts in the center.

All in all, it was a great way to spend a rainy day. 

In case you are wondering about how to care for your Poinsettia plants at home, here are some useful tips: Try to keep them warm, and give them indirect light. Don’t keep them in the window, as the proximity to the cold glass will damage them. Only water them when the soil feels dry, and don’t fertilize them while they are “flowering”.

A robin begs for crumbs inside the glasshouse.
2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: A private garden in Finland

In previous blog entries, I have largely concentrated on public gardens, but this month I would like to introduce you to a little jewel of a private garden, hidden away in the Finnish forest, just  20 minutes from Helsinki.

Harriet in front of her garden

The garden belongs to Harriet and Reijo Nurmi; Harriet is the designer, and Reijo the caretaker. They have lived in their house for about 40 years, and have created an idyllic spot that is both off the beaten track and accessible to anywhere that you want to go. Their house is completely integrated with the garden, with a Virginia Creeper  happily swarming up the side of the house, and perennials such as Peonies, Roses, Hostas, and Delphiniums filling the beds in the front. To one side of the house is a pond with a bridge and a fountain, whose sound permeates the air, complimenting the cooing of the wood pigeons. The result is a feeling of coolness and peace, and stresses evaporate immediately.

Harriet and Reijo’s shed

Harriet is one of the most welcoming people that I have ever met, and that is translated into her garden. Behind the house, through the door from her dining room, is a small sunken flagstone patio with seating for six around a table made from an old mill wheel, bought at an auction. A pot of scarlet impatiens cheerfully fill the hole in the middle. Around the perimeter of the patio are evergreen shrubs and perennials, making the patio private and cosy, and almost invisible from the field in the back. 

Behind the house, and although not strictly speaking part of the garden, is the forest, through which a narrow road leads to a lake. The forest contains many white birches, whose trunks contrast beautifully with the evergreens. Below them, the forest floor is covered with ferns, heather, lingonberries and blueberries, (you can pick handfuls as you walk, with Harriet and Reijo’s blessing) and  looks like it has been manicured. Through the trees a small lake is visible.


The garden, forest and lake home to many animals and birds; voles, rabbits, moose, deer, lynxes, swans, cranes, and ducks are common sights. Some get very near the Nurmi’s house, no doubt lured in by the smell of Harriet’s Karelian pies with egg butter! Harriet takes it all in stride. She enjoys the four seasons, despite the challenges that the weather presents to gardening, from the unpredictability of the winter (sometimes they get quite a lot of snow, yet sometimes it’s warm and snowless) to the cold and wet spring/fall weather. For Harriet, gardening in the middle of nowhere yet being close to a big city is the best of all possible worlds. Given the delightful afternoon that I was able to spend there, I couldn’t agree more. 


2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’Gardens: The Alnwick Poison Garden


“These Plants Can Kill”

 In March I wrote about the gardens at Alnwick Castle, in Northumberland, and the Duchess of Northumberland’s visionary plan to create classic, yet modern gardens on a large scale. This month, with Halloween just around the corner, I thought it fitting to write about one specific part of her garden, the Poison Garden.  You aren’t allowed in without a guide, and you are warned in advance not to touch anything…

Some of the most toxic plants are kept in cages.

      The Poison Garden is cut off from the rest of the Castle’s gardens by high stone walls. To enter, you must pass through tall, iron gates, embellished with two sets of skull and crossbones, and words which read, “THESE PLANTS CAN KILL”. Everything in the garden can hurt you in one way or another, from causing a simple stomach ache, to causing a gruesome, agonizing death. The flame shaped beds are edged in Boxwood (the leaves of which cause everything from nausea to respiratory failure if eaten) and contain all manner of plants, a great many of which are ones that we have in our own home gardens. There is Digitalis, (Foxglove), which has been useful in medicine to stabilize an irregular heartbeat, despite the fact that too much of it will stop the heart altogether. There is Nepeta (Catmint), which is said to make humans quarrelsome, as well as act as a sedative. Apparently executioners used to chew on catmint so as to be in the right frame of mind to do their job! There are also Castor Bean plants from which castor oil is made, as is also the deadly poison for which there is no antidote, Ricin.

     An enormous specimen of what looks like Queen Anne’s Lace takes up much of one corner. It is Giant Hogweed, the sap from which, if you touch it, will change the molecular structure of your skin so that forevermore, that area, when exposed to ultraviolet light, will act as though it has third degree burns. Next to it is Oleander, a plant which if eaten, can cause gastrointestinal, cardiac, and central nervous system damage. Beside that is the comparatively innocuous stinging nettle which, when touched, simply hurts – A lot. And the list of harmful plants goes on and on, many of which are familiar faces to even the most novice gardener.


   As you leave the Poison Garden, you pass a black coffin, under a canopy of ivy (Eating ivy can make your lips and tongue swell, by the way.) In its lid there is a slot for donations towards helping those with drug addictions. 

    A bit dramatic? Perhaps. But you certainly get the point. It is good to be educated about what is around us, and to do a little research before eating, touching, or burning plant material. Just ask anyone who has burned Poison Ivy and has developed the rash on the lining of their lungs from inhaling the smoke. I, for one, am grateful to know what Giant Hogweed looks like so that I can give it a wide berth should I ever encounter it again. A little knowledge could save someone a really bad day, or worse!


2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Visby, Sweden



 Off  the southern coast of Sweden is the island of Gotland, an idyllic place full of farms and villages, and even the summer house of the King and Queen of Sweden. It is also where the town of Visby is located, a terra cotta-roofed, church spire-studded little town, much of which is located within the medieval city walls. The town boasts a spectacular Botanical Garden, but even before you get there, you feel as though you are in a garden, as roses and other flowers burst from every opening; some growing where they were planted, others “volunteering” wherever there is enough soil for them to thrive.  You get the feeling that if you stand still for too long, someone will plant a rose at your feet. If you walk down the rather incongruously named Fish Alley and you will see white and yellow houses covered with red and pink roses, with Lavender and Daylillies, Cornflowers and Campanulas growing lusciously in front. Everywhere there is an opportunity for plants to grow, they will be growing, even if they are just poppies eeking out an existence in a crack at the foundation of a house. And the residents of Visby seem happy to let them grow, and leave them to strut their stuff.

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   The Botanical Gardens, although fairly small in size, make up for it in content. There are shady gardens with lichen encrusted urns, the mossy ruin of a building (I never did find out what it had been) and a bridge over a small stream. When I was there, someone was playing a flute, just out of sight, and the notes hung over the garden and mixed with the bird song. It was an idyllic place, but the jewel in the crown was the Rose Garden. There, a pergola with a white climbing rose (Rosa x helenae ‘Hybrida’) foaming over the top provided the background to what must have been close to a hundred different species of roses, with perennials such as Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Hemerocallis ‘Stella D’Oro’, Salvia, and Dianthus planted in the front. The scent was heavenly. Each arch of the pergola created a separate “painting”, and it was like being in a living art gallery. I passed the gardener who was busy deadheading the roses, and had almost filled up a wheelbarrow with the most beautiful collage of different colored rose petals. It was a feast for the soul.


    If you ever find yourself in Sweden, a trip to Gotland is well worth the effort. Once you find yourself in Gotland, a visit to Visby is a must. Just don’t stand still too long! 


2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Villa D’Este, Italy

The View from the street level

Rome is a lovely place to visit, and I would jump at an opportunity to go back at any time of the year, but in the heat of summer, sometimes the sultry streets are too much, no matter how much gelato is put in your way. The antidote is a trip to Tivoli, a small town about an hour to the north, to visit the gardens at the Villa D’Este.

Commissioned and built in the 1550s by Ippolito D’Este, the villa and gardens are still much as they were then. Built into the side of a very steep hill, the Villa is hardly recognizable as such from the street; you goe through a small, rather unassuming door, and suddenly you are in a mansion with frescoes, gilt molding, and even an indoor fountain. It is grand and impressive, but as soon as you walk outside, it pales in comparison with the garden.


The garden is not what you might expect in that there are very few flowers; certainly no effervescent flowerbeds or rows of neatly planted annuals. Instead, different shades of green and textures of leaves combine to give a sense of peace and coolness. The garden is very formally laid out, with long, curving staircases and winding paths, and the plants act as frames for the garden’s most impressive features, the fountains. There are hundreds of them, and the sound of water permeates the atmosphere as much as does the spicy perfume of the bay hedges.


The fountains also date back to the 1550s. The water that they use comes from the nearby river, travels along underground aqueducts, and then stored in multiple cisterns before being pumped up to the fountains via hydraulics. As one looks at them all, it is hard to remember that no electricity is being used to run them. And, let me say again, there are hundreds of them. First, you must walk along “The Walk of 100 Fountains”, which is well named because it consists of a mossy wall with scores of stone lion’s heads and other openings through which the water flows. Next is the Fountain of the Organ, which is built so that when water is forced through its pipes, it makes a sound that resembles  that of an organ.  Nearby is the Fountain of the Birds, which includes several bronze birds that have pipes inside so that they warble when the water courses through. Every so often, however, a bronze owl swings in front of the birds, and when he does, the birds go silent, and all you hear is the hoot of an owl. And remember – no electricity!! This is only the tip of the iceberg; I only wish I had space enough to do the other fountains justice.

You can spend a delightful day there, discovering each fountain and its story, walking the shady pathways, and working up an appetite for the tremendous Italian meal that is sure to follow. When in Rome… But first, check out the Villa D’Este!


2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Peterhof, St. Petersburg, Russia


Located on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland, on the easternmost point of the Baltic Sea, lies St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. It, and its environs, is home to some of the most opulent palaces that were ever built, complete with formal gardens that rival their gilded interiors. Peterhof, built for Peter the Great and the favorite summer residence of Tzar Nicholas I, is one such palace. Inside, the walls gleam brightly with gold; murals, carvings, and mirrors adorn what space there is left on the walls, and even the tremendously high ceilings are covered in intricate paintings. Through the tall windows one can see the gardens, which stretch from the palace all the way down to the Baltic Sea.


The gardens are significant, and one could spend the better part of a day there. The Upper Gardens, the part that most visitors see first, consist of about 37 acres of formal plantings, tile work, and fountains.  Designed by Jean Leblond and Nichola Michetti and completed in 1724, they showcase what can be done in a climate that can be quite forbidding. Being on the sea, they are subject to winds and salt water, and the steep incline means there are many different microclimates to contend with. The incline was turned into an asset, however,  when the Grand Cascade and other fountains were added. Underground springs fill reservoirs at the top of the hill, and the pressure from the water running downhill feeds the fountains, so no pumps are necessary to propel  jets of water many feet into the air. As with the inside of the palace, everything that can be covered in gold, is, including a three tier fountain of Neptune and his trident with his escorts, and another of Samson ripping open the jaws of the lion, symbolizing Russia’s victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War. And that is only the beginning. The effect is bright, and opulent, and completely over the top.


To rest your eyes from such splendor, you only have to look to the left or the right, where peaceful lawns lined with colorful annuals , and ornate patterns in the grass made of different colored stones offer a more sedate view. Called the “Versailles of the North”, the layout is extremely formal, with a grand allee running down the center,  and the water from the fountains flowing into a long pool which runs all the way to the sea, some considerable distance away. To either side there are orchards, pools, bridges, and acre upon acre of parkland to be discovered.

If in the St. Petersburg area, the Peterhof gardens should not be missed. Try to visit in the morning when the crowds are less dense, and prepare to be impressed.


2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark


If you are in the mood for a fun, colorful way to spend a day while in Copenhagen, then Tivoli Gardens is for you. Founded in 1858, Tivoli is the oldest amusement park in the world, even acting as inspiration for Walt Disney’s Disney World. There is a bewildering array of stomach-dropping, vertigo-inducing rides all destined to separate you from your lunch, as well as arcade games, and more sedate rides, but what makes it different is that it all takes place in a garden.


As a landscape designer, I am always interested in how (or if) a garden relates to its surroundings; in this case, the many rides, stalls, buildings, and restaurants. This was particularly interesting to me as, even had there been no plants at all, Tivoli would be a riot of color, as there has been no holding back when it comes to colored paint. Also, the vastly different areas of the park call for different plantings, with separate feelings, color schemes, and functions. How to make it a cohesive whole, especially when it was already rather visually chaotic? In my view, the plants and the design had a rather difficult role to fulfill, that of peacemaker.


But it has been done… and done well. In front of the Indian Taj Mahal-like building which greets one at the entrance, is an elaborate formal garden, with clipped hedges, a pool with fountains, immaculately pruned roses, and crowds of Allium, which add a modern feel to the formality. The effect, despite its complexity, is calming, and suits the building perfectly. Not far from there is a large pagoda, with red and gold and lions carved out of stone. Next to it is an oriental garden, monochromatic and cool to look at in its shades of green, with stepping stone paths disappearing around corners, trickling waterfalls, and bridges going over dry streams. Connecting the splendor of India with this peaceful garden is a shady area filled with azaleas and two boxwood rings out of one of which, if you watch long enough, comes a short jet of water which appears to jump out of  one ring and land perfectly in the center of the other. A miniature train winds its way through the plantings. Across the path are more Allium. These Allium, however, are not freely standing about like the others, but have been corralled by a privet hedge several feet high.


Although it is true that more and more garden space has been eaten away over the decades to make more room for rides and games, Tivoli Gardens is still very much a garden, or, at least, a series of them. They are important players in the overall party, not just window dressing for the “main event”, those things that make money. Somehow, they all blend together without being jarring, and although they add to the overall riot of color and general visual chaos, the effect is not unpleasant. The design could have gone so wrong… but it didn’t. 


Even if you aren’t interested in the rides, go just for the gardens. They are worth every Krone. The Danish pastries are worth the trip, too. But that is another story…