2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Costa Rica

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In the strict sense, I realize, a rainforest is not a garden. However, in the sense that it is a collection of plants coexisting in one space, it comes close enough that I don’t feel that I am straying too far from the “gardens of the world” theme of this article. In fact, it is quite wonderful to observe what Nature does when left to do her own designing.

I was able to see the Costa Rican rainforest from both the land and the water, beginning with a thrilling ride in a pontoon boat on the Tortuguero canals. These natural canals run all the way to Nicaragua, and they and the surrounding rainforest are the home to an amazing amount of flora and fauna. Given where Costa Rica is, in the center of the “bridge” between North and South America, there is a dense concentration and mixing of
species. Costa Rica has more plant species per square mile than the Amazon jungle, and more animal species than the US and Canada combined. 

The rainforest was dense and lush, with not a spot of bare ground showing. Growing in abundance by the bank were Ylang-ylang flowers, the source of fragrance for a number of perfumes and even bug spray. The scent is very sweet, and “loud”, if a smell can be thought of as loud. Reaching to the sky were Costa Rican Nightshade vines, their proliferation of blue flowers contrasting wonderfully with the bright yellow blossoms of the 100+ foot Tabebuia trees. There is so much plant life per square yard that it is hard to visually tweeze out the individual plants for identification unless they are covered in blossoms.

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About half way through the ride we went under a bridge that caused one passenger to exclaim “Oh, my God!”, and so the Oh-my-God-bridge it became. It didn’t look like it could support one human, let alone the banana train which crossed it twice a day. As the next part of our journey involved a ride on the banana train, we all eyed it with considerable trepidation.

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The “Oh, My God” bridge

We made it across the Oh-my-God bridge without incident, I am pleased to say, and the train lurched and rattled and clattered and groaned through small towns, (“populated areas” is perhaps more correct) through more jungle, and past row upon row of banana trees which reminded me of cornfields. The people living along the tracks were out in their gardens, machetes in hand, taking care of their lawns and small flower beds. They seemed to have a lot of pride in their little pieces of land, and they grinned and waved as we went past.

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Although not technically a garden, the Rainforest is definitely worth a visit. Mother Nature certainly had a lot of fun when designing it!

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A sloth watches us go by.
2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Alnwick Garden, UK

A modern take on the traditional garden

   

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The formal garden at the top of the Grand Cascade

     About 35 miles from the Scottish border lies the town of Alnwick (pronounced “AN-ik”), a picturesque little market town on the River Aln with a population of approximately 9,000. It is also the site of Alnwick Castle and Gardens, which has been the home of the Percy family, (eventually given the title of Northumberland), for over 700 years. The current Duke attained the title upon the premature death of his elder brother, and thus suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in charge of 125,000 acres, comprising some 500 farms and 700 houses. The garden had once (200+ years ago) been glorious, but was now a shadow of its former glory, and as the Duke was busy learning about the running of the Estate, he asked his wife if she would like to do over one of the gardens. Although he thought she would plant a couple of roses and call it a day, the Duchess (who is quite young; 59 now, 38 when she started) embarked on an ambitious and visionary plan to turn the land into a garden that would be classic and yet use all that modern technology had to offer. It was not to be a private garden, either, but to be open for everyone to enjoy. She interviewed designers and began to raise money, and now, about 8 years and millions of £ later, the garden is being called one of the most important gardens of modern times. 

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     Often, when in beautiful gardens, I find myself wishing that the other visitors would all disappear so that I can fully enjoy what is around me. Quite unexpectedly, during my visit to Alnwick, I found the opposite to be true, as it is designed for people, and people are part of it. There are fountain gardens, some of which encourage children and those who are children at heart to play in them, and there are formal rose gardens, and walled gardens bursting with perennials of all colors, shapes and sizes. There is even a Poison Garden (more about that in another writing), enclosed in a high wall and accessible only with a guide through iron gates marked “These Plants Can Kill”. The Grand Cascade is worth the trip alone. Framed by Hornbeam pergolas that form tunnels that you can walk through, the water in the cascade tumbles down 21 weirs, as fountains jet water in intricate patterns, sometimes soaking the spectators! The garden is open year round, and even the Grand Cascade plays a part in the winter, as it is carefully monitored so that there is only just a skin of ice on it, which, when lit, creates a magical effect.

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Did I mention that there’s a huge tree house, complete with restaurant?
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And a bamboo maze!

     I was so impressed by the garden, and its accessibility to all, that I wrote to the Duchess of Northumberland, and was pleasantly surprised to get a long, thoughtful letter in return. “So much has changed in garden design over the past 16 years since I began the project.”, she wrote, “In those days children weren’t welcome in gardens and what I was planning was unusual. Nowadays most newly designed gardens consider not only children but also families and local communities, which is as it should be!”

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The Grand Cascade
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Inside the Hornbeam walk along the side of the Grand Cascade
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A July border
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Alnwick Castle, in its Capability Brown setting. (Some of Harry Potter was filmed here!)
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The Gardeners Cottage
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Inside the vegetable garden

    The Alnwick Garden is an inspirational place, and I highly recommend a visit. Another time I will tell you about the Alnwick Poison Garden, which is certainly very interesting, although hopefully not inspirational!

2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Akureyri, Iceland

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When anticipating a visit to northern Iceland, gardens never entered my mind. Instead, there were images of volcanoes, barren hillsides, and geothermal pools, punctuated by flocks of sheep. I had done my research, and knew that the Icelandic people paid 50% of their income in taxes, getting healthcare, education, and a high standard of living in return. (This was before their financial crisis, which has since stabilized.) I knew that Iceland was on its way to becoming a global supplier of liquid hydrogen, and that most of their heating was achieved by taking advantage of its geothermal energy. I even knew that Iceland was the world’s leading consumer of soft drinks. But beautiful gardens in Iceland, 62 miles from the Arctic Circle? Impossible!

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I was proven wrong in Akureyri, a small, extremely pleasant town set along the Eyjafjordur Fjord, midway along Iceland’s northern coast. Surrounded by mountains, and with a protected harbor, the conditions are the best in Iceland for growing plants, and thus is home to the Botanical Gardens, the most northerly botanical gardens in the world. The gardens encompass several acres, terraced on a steep hill by a maze of reddish painted railroad ties. From a design standpoint, this is rather distracting, but in an area that is covered in snow from October to April, the need for such strong structure is quite understandable.

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Despite the fact that Akureyri averages only 1047 sunshine hours per year, the gardens manage to grow a very respectable number of plants without the aid of a greenhouse, from Delphiniums, to Bleeding Heart, to Rhododendrons. The taller plants grow on a slant because of the wind, but they are healthy and vigorous and in some ways, it is very like home, as the plant palette is quite similar to that of New England.

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But the best part was the huge bed of Himalayan Blue Poppies. (Meconopsis betonicifolia.)  Looking just like the poppies that we all know except that they are an amazing shade of true blue, they resemble the coloring book of a child who has decided to color using imagination instead of convention. They just don’t look real. I have tried to grow them, with no success. Besides being fairly picky about their environment, (they originally come from the Tibetan mountains), the seed has to be meticulously prepared for germination. Without going into the exact specifics, I’ll just tell you that the seeds need to be kept wet and cold in the dark for a month, then wet and cold in the sun (but not direct sun, mind you, just bright light) for another month, and then, if you are lucky, they germinate. Then, if you can protect them from rain yet keep them wet, keep them out of the sun while giving them light, and protect them from slugs, then maybe another six weeks later you can plant them in the garden… Well, you get the picture. Suffice it to say that I was thrilled to see so many healthy plants, and to be able to be in their exotic presence, which someone else’s slave labor had helped create. 

And you can enjoy them, too, if you find yourself just south of the Arctic Circle, with a sense of adventure and the desire to discover something special.

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Uncategorized

Design Demystified: Bone Structure

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At this time of year, when the plants have gone dormant and are building strength for the spring, we once again get to see the understructure of the garden. Evergreens that may have been eclipsed by brighter perennials, stone steps or pathways that have been used but not noticed, and the shapes of borders suddenly take center stage again. Without them we would not enjoy the things we take for granted in the garden so much, like the way our eye moves from one part of the garden to another, or the easy access to a favorite seat. When the garden is in full bloom, some of the framework gets lost. But then winter comes, and once again we see the bone structure.

This is a chance to see what we like and don’t like, where things might need fixing, or adding to. Perhaps a boring corner of the garden could use a fun path, or maybe an evergreen would be just the thing to look out the kitchen window at on a cold winter morning. Now is the time to assess.

“Ok”, you say, “but now you’re getting all designer-y on me, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.”  Fair enough. Here are some pictures to try to help explain. 

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This garden is a mess at the moment. (It’s mine, so I can say that.) But it does have things that are interesting even when the plants have gone dormant. The boxwood “gatekeepers” where you exit the garden add color and form to the garden. The statue in the middle and the path configuration are interesting to look at. While some tidying is in order, you have to admit that you do spend a little time looking around before you decide there are better things to look at. 

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This small garden at the Denver Botanical Garden (The DBG is worth going out of your way to see, by the way) has something of interest in every season. Predominantly hardscape, it has a balance and structure that is pleasing to look at.

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Also at the Denver Botanical Garden, this Japanese-style garden does the opposite of the formal hardscape garden. Here, evergreens of different textures that are trimmed to be formal, yet natural, and sweeping beds of mulch vs areas of lawn create the structure. A rock adds contrast, the way the minimal plantings in the hardscape garden did.

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This rock garden isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it is interesting, and gives a texture to what would otherwise be a rather boring hill. And in the summer when the plants are in bloom, it’s a riot of color!

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And finally, here’s a way to create an interesting pathway, complete with swirls and eddies that make you think of water. The fallen leaves look like jewels against the grey, and can you imagine it with a dusting of snow? It also massages your feet if you walk on it in thin soled shoes. 

So look out of the window this winter. Wander around and see if everything flows like you want it to. Now is the time to make mental notes about what you like and don’t like about the garden, without all the flowers. After all, around here, it’s a long winter. Shouldn’t the garden be fun to look at all year? 

2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Eze- an exotic garden town on the French Riviera

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I am lucky enough to have seen some interesting gardens in my travels, and in 2019 am going to share one of them with you each month. So without further ado, let’s go to France!

Less than 6 miles  from Monaco, along the Middle Corniche, lies the town of Eze, one of the diamonds in the extravagantly bejeweled crown that is the French Riviera. Built on a cliff about 1400 feet above sea level around the ruins of an ancient château, Eze has a medieval section which  is comprised of tiny streets which are at most about 12 feet wide, and therefore, there are no cars. These streets rise steeply uphill and curve and split off from each other like a maze, with surprises around every corner: a café, a shop; a wall completely covered in blossoms, or a quiet, shady corner with a seat.  The slope of the streets makes for an unhurried climb, with time to notice these things and enjoy them at leisure (Unless, of course, you are a UPS man or a valet bringing luggage up to the luxury hotel at the top, both of whom I saw and felt rather sorry for!)

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Eze itself is like a well built garden, complete with patios, walls, and pergolas, and planted with trees and vines that we, here in New England, can only dream about growing. Bougainvillea and Plumbago foam from every opening, tropical vines scramble up walls, and olive trees have been trained against the walls so as not to impede the flow of foot traffic. Although it is now a town, you can see how it was once private property, and there is a distinctly home-like feeling to it. As a visitor, one feels quite at leisure to explore, discover, rest, and enjoy it all.

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For those with a sense of adventure and a head for heights, the climb up to the very top of the town to the Jardin Exotique d’Eze is a must. The view from the top, looking out over Monaco to the east, and Nice and the Côte d’Azur to the west, is stunning. The garden, created in the 1950’s by the designers of the Jardin Exotique de Monaco, is full of Cacti and Succulents from all over the world. There are collections of Agave, Aloe,Yucca, and Euphorbia, to name a few, and Cacti of every shape that you can imagine, including ones that look like they could be rather comfortable to sit on, until you get close enough to see their two inch spines.

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The Jardin d’Eze is a definite must if you are ever in that area of the world; bring your curiosity and comfortable shoes!

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2019, Plant-of-the-month, Uncategorized

Plant-of-the-Month: Winterberry Holly

 

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People are often surprised that Winterberry Holly, or Ilex verticillata, is a holly at all, because it doesn’t have the glossy, spiky leaves that you think of when you hear the name Holly. And unlike the traditional Holly (Ilex meserveae cvs), it loses its leaves in the winter, which also seems foreign to “Holly”. While this is often seen as a bad characteristic, in this case it is when Winterberry shines, as the female plants are covered from head to toe in bright red berries. A hedge of Winterberry Holly can be a real showstopper in the snow, and the berries persist a long time- or, at least, until the birds are done with them or you have picked them for holiday decorations!

‘Red Sprite’ Winterberry grows to be about 3-4’ x 3-4’ and us very compact. It is hardy to Zone 3, so will tolerate some pretty cold conditions. ‘Sparkleberry’ is similar, but is bigger, at 8-10’ x 8-10’. Both plants will produce more berries if a male is somewhere in the vicinity, so get a ‘Southern Gentleman’ or a ‘Jim Dandy’ and stick it somewhere inconspicuous, as there are no berries and the flowers are inconsequential.

Winterberries prefer full sun to part shade and can be used in wetland areas as well in places with normal amounts of moisture. They won’t do as well in very dry conditions, although I have been surprised before.

Try some! They will make you happy when the landscape begins to look a little forlorn.

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2019, January, To Do

It’s a long winter… Or is it?

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Happy New Year to everyone! I hope that this finds you all in good health and that the holiday season has treated you well. Here in Northern New England, the weather has been weird, to say the least. Two measurable snowstorms in November, followed by a month of rain, has left everything covered in slime, including people’s spirits as we try to avoid getting weather whiplash. What I think I know for sure, though, is that the weather this winter will undoubtedly result in our staying inside quite a bit. So what’s a gardener to do, besides look longingly out of the window and dream of flowers and mulch and fresh vegetables?

Luckily for us, the seed catalogues will come soon, to add some amount of reality to our daydreaming. But if that’s not enough, there are some wonderful escapist videos out there. Here are a few of my favorites. They are available on Netflix or Amazon Prime (as specified), but are probably also available on other platforms. 

Currently on Netflix: 

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Big Dreams, Small Spaces.

This is a series of garden transformations, hosted by the impeccable Monty Don. Don is an English gardener and presenter who is probably one of the most well known tv personalities in the UK. In this series, he oversees gardens that are transformed by their owners, or by friends for friends. It is very down-to-earth and interesting to see what can be done in small gardens.

 

 

If garden history and virtual garden touring is more to your taste, try Monty Don’s French Gardens and Monty Don’s Italian Gardens. Yes, Monty Don again. He is very prolific!

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For a show with instant gratification, try Love Your Garden, hosted by Alan Titchmarsh. Second only perhaps to  Monty Don in the Garden Presenter Hall of Fame, Titchmarsh chooses people whose gardens have gone to rack and ruin for one reason or another and swoops in to create a new garden for them, almost overnight.

Available on Amazon Prime, but not on Netflix at this time, are other beauties:

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Great Gardens of England brings you on a tour of National Trust Properties.

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The Secret History of the British Garden (Monty Don again!) is a wonderful historical series with lots of eye candy.

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For something closer to home, try The Gardener, a documentary about Henry Cabot’s Les Quatres Vents, in Quebec. It’s a fascinating look at an intriguing garden!

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This Beautiful Fantastic, while not a documentary, is a wonderful escapist film about unlikely characters bonding over a garden.

And somewhere out there Audrey Hepburn has a series on gardens, but try as I might I can’t find it again. But if you can find it, watch it. Or any other Audrey Hepburn film, really.

There! By the time you have gotten through all those, it’ll be spring, and you’ll be absolutely bursting with ideas for your garden. Do you have any favorites? Please share any others I have missed- there are so many good videos out there!