2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’Gardens: The Alnwick Poison Garden

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“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…

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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.

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   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!

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Visby, Sweden

 

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 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.

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    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! 

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travelers’ Gardens: Villa D’Este, Italy

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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.

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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.

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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!

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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…

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2019, Gardens of the World, Uncategorized

Armchair Travellers’ Gardens: The Vatican

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The retirement of the former Pope and his new lodgings in the Vatican Gardens had more meaning to me than it might have had a few years ago. In the summer of 2011, I was lucky enough to have been given a tour of the Vatican Gardens, and it is certainly a lovely place in which to retire.

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     Dating back to Medieval times, the gardens encompass 57 acres of Vatican City. They were enclosed by walls in 1279, and some of those walls still stand today, although the majority have been replaced in the intervening 800 years. You can see the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from almost everywhere in the garden, except, perhaps, from the wood, a quiet, peaceful retreat peppered with statues and fountains and places to sit, some fairly modern, others very old. The walls tend to keep out the majority of  four legged marauders; wildlife seemed to be represented mainly by green parrots, which were noisily chattering overhead most of the time I was there. Their huge nests hung in the trees; “parrot condos”, as parrots apparently have family nests, rather than one nest for each couple. 

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     Apart from the wood, there were formal gardens made up of patterns of boxwood, small private gardens, grand allées and 100 year old olive trees in terra cotta pots. Not far from the largest “olive tree in a pot” that I had ever seen, was the Pope’s helicopter pad, which still managed to look like it is an inevitable part of the garden, despite its modernity. Further along the road, there were loggias, fountains, grottoes, and although there were not as many flowers as one might expect, the bourganvillia, wisteria, and trumpet vines (some 50 feet tall!) more than made up for it. The air was heavily perfumed with bay and boxwood. One could imagine the Pope walking in the gardens, getting some peace from the mob in St. Peter’s Square, and though I am not Catholic, I was in no way immune to the power of that place.

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     Although it was a blisteringly hot day, Vatican dress code  still requires covered shoulders and knees, so the many fountains provided a welcome relief. Some of the older ones were encrusted with calcium deposits and sported beards of moss, the result of which was visually cooling, and the occasional spray from an over exuberant jet was not unwelcome. 

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Trumpet Vine

 

    I imagine that there must be times at which the Pope feels something of a prisoner given his celebrity, but what a jail..

2019, Design ideas, Garden ramblings, What to do in the garden

Garden filmography

No, I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth. It’s been a crazy winter and an even  crazier spring, so I haven’t been writing as much. However, this weekend I’m out in my garden for the first time this season, taking stock of things, and what I’m finding has motivated me to write.

It was a tough winter and spring for plants. The early freeze last fall damaged a lot of Rhododendrons, and the deer got at many of the rest. On NH’s Seacoast, there was precious little snow cover, so the plants didn’t get insulated from the freeze-thaw cycles that followed, and then the spring was so wet that things rotted. The deer, who will usually stay away from certain plants, munched away indiscriminately, despite the fact that without the snow, much more food was available and they could have been choosy. It was the worst winter for deer damage that many have ever seen.

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In my garden, I’m noticing gaps where things are missing. My Shasta daisies, which we usually refer to as “cockroaches” because they will survive anything, are shadows of their former selves, if they are there at all. The Lavender is history. My Nepeta is mostly gone-  Nepeta! Another cockroach! It boggles the imagination. Weirdly, the roses are looking lovely, and the ferns have gone bezerk, perhaps because they enjoy the moist “English” weather. The irises are everywhere, now.

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The Tree Peonies are having a banner year.

 

Professionally, clients are confused. Some are upset, understandably, that their investment has been eaten, or rotted, or just not come back as healthily as we all would have liked. I feel their pain. Unfortunately, neither landscape designers nor landscapers can predict what sort of unusual weather will come next these days, or what the deer will eat or not eat. I used to feel that I could put plants in a garden that would reliably be left alone by the deer; not any more.  The landscape, quite literally, is changing.

So what is a homeowner to do? Well, I would politely ask that first and foremost, they not blame their landscaper or landscape designer. While we can certainly be blamed for bad planting decisions like placing  a hosta in full sun, we can’t control weather or animals, and are always struggling to contend with both. However, we can be your best source of information when it comes to keeping up with the changing times. We read articles. We talk with colleagues and friends about what has and hasn’t worked in the garden. We discuss this A LOT. And most importantly, we are in gardens, either our clients’ or our own, each and every day and we see what is going on from all different perspectives. We see that Mrs. Smith’s catawbiense Rhododendron got eaten by deer, but Mrs. Jones’ yakushimanum Rhododendron didn’t. We will notice that boxwoods did well in one spot but not another. And we know about plants and their needs and are able to draw conclusions from these observations, and adapt accordingly. So while we aren’t able to guarantee the success of replacement plants with respect to animal damage and extreme weather, we can certainly help with choices that will have the best chance of doing well. We are your best front line of defense.

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In my own garden, while I’m sorry to see plants go, I consider every death an opportunity. The loss of a large stand of Shasta Daisies allowed me to plant a funky evergreen called Thuja ‘Whipcord’, a funny looking, dreadlock-covered shrub that looks like it’s about to scuttle across the garden muttering darkly to itself. It makes me happy in ways that the Shasta Daisies never would have. And while there is all that space devoid of plants, I’m taking the opportunity to lay down cardboard to smother the Goutweed which thought the winter was just fine, thank you very much, and is making an enthusiastic bid to take over the world.

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I’m letting the buttercups flower this year. They are pretty, and I can deal with their invasiveness later. In the mean time, they are filling the gap left by the Nepeta. I keep reminding myself, and others, that gardening is a film, not a still picture. Weather patterns change. Gardens become more or less shady, and so the growing conditions can cause one plant to die out while another thrives. This transience is one of the reasons I love gardening and designing gardens, because there is always a chance to try something new. So don’t worry, it will be all right. Go with the flow, ask the advice of experts, and don’t forget to enjoy the movie!

(PS. There’s a lovely Iris called “Buttered Popcorn” that you can even have with it.)

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Lots of gaps, lots of opportunities.
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Happy Pulmonaria, even with the obligatory Goutweed photo-bomb.
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Nothing seems to faze Bleeding Heart.