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, 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?