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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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!