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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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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2018, December 2018, Plant-of-the-month

Plant-of-the-month: Holly

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Holly is a quintessential December plant. It is hung about the house at Christmas time, and is steeped in religious tradition. The Druids believed that Holly stayed green in the winter and had red berries so as to keep the world looking beautiful when the Oak was without leaves. (Many a landscape designer has had that same thought, too.) Holly has been thought to keep away lightning, frighten off witches, and keep goblins away from little girls. Some say it brings about sweet dreams, and others say you can use it to make a tincture to get rid of a cough, although from what I have read, ingesting holly would only relieve a cough by giving you something much worse to worry about, so best leave holly out of any cold remedy.

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The Holly pictured above has the typical holly look: shiny, prickly evergreen leaves, and lustrous red berries. You need both a male and a female holly plant in order to get berries, which appear only on the female. Some grow to be 15-20 feet tall like Ilex aquipernyi ‘Dragon Lady’ while others are considerably shorter. Some are pyramidal in shape, some are tall and very thin, while others are rounded. If prickly leaves aren’t for you, Ilex glabra, or Inkberry Holly, has rounded leaves a lot like Boxwood, and is a decent substitute if you don’t like Boxwood’s smell. If bare branches covered with berries is more your style, Ilex verticillata, or Winterberry Holly, is a deciduous version that looks fantastic in the winter. All hollies like full sun to part shade, and moist, well drained soil.

 

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Winterberry Holly

 

Plant one or two to keep away the elements, witches, bad dreams or to just keep the world looking beautiful in the winter, it’s up to you. There’s a holly for everyone. All you have to do is find the one that makes you happy.

 

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Winterberry Holly outside my phone booth/tool shed.

 

 

2018, November 2018, What to do in the garden

Take care of tender perennials

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It’s starting to get colder, and soon the snow will start to fall. This is great for the plants, as snow is an excellent insulator. But what if it doesn’t snow? What if it’s just really cold for awhile, first? Straight – up cold can be devastating for perennials, especially tender ones that are at the limit of their cold hardiness, or new ones that got planted late.

What to do? Well, it’s better to hedge your bets and give your most precious plants some protection than just hope that there will be snow. This doesn’t mean anything too complicated – just cover the crowns of the plants with salt-marsh hay, or evergreen tree boughs. (You can supplement these later with boughs cut off your Christmas tree, if you have one.)

Roses can also benefit from a little cover. Plastic fencing or chicken-wire, wrapped around them, and stuffed with leaves works well. You can also buy things made especially for roses, but then you have to figure out where to store them the rest of the year. But in the end, it’s up to you. Anything you can do to help the plants will be greatly appreciated by them, and they will reward you in kind in the summer.

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2018, November 2018, What to do in the garden

Time to do your future self a favor

The gardening season has pretty much wound down by now, and before the holiday season starts up and while the garden is still fresh in your mind, you can do your future self a favor and prepare for next spring, now, by getting organized so that when the time comes, you won’t be searching for blunt tools or wondering why your peony hoops have become inexorably tangled with the gardening twine. It’s rather like taking the time to put the Christmas lights away properly so that you won’t have a tangled nightmare next time you need them.

-While your gardening tools are all in one place (or if they aren’t in one place, get them in one place), go through them and see which ones can be sharpened and either sharpen them yourself or bring them to a professional. There are some inexpensive kits out there, and it’s not hard to do. Then rub a very light coat of oil on the blades to help prevent rust, and put them away somewhere where you will remember to find them in the spring! For more on this, click here.

-Sort through the area where you keep your gardening tools, and make sure that everything is in good shape. Get new wooden handles, if necessary, throw away anything which is beyond fixing, and clean off any soil from shovels and spades.

-Paint the wooden handles of your garden tools. I can’t tell you how many pairs of pruners I have lost, but I can tell you that the ones that I have had the longest have red or orange handles. Some came that way, but others I painted myself. I just taped off the business end of the tool and sprayed the handle scarlet. Not only are they easier to pick out when you have gotten distracted and put them down amongst the flowers, but people are far less likely to walk off with them thinking they are theirs!

-And finally, get the oil changed in any power equipment that you have that needs it. You wouldn’t want to wait until the first snowfall to get your snow blower serviced, and you wouldn’t want your string trimmer or blower to fail to start the first time you feel inspired to use it. We all know how long it takes for that inspiration to come back.

Just a few preparatory steps now and you will be patting yourself on the back in the spring. So go ahead! Set yourself up for success! You’ll be thanking yourself before you know it.