Square One

The Color Purple

July 21, 2014

The Golden Raintree is blooms in mid-summer. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Golden Raintree is blooms in mid-summer.

Purple is a great color – regal, royal, romantic, and more.  No matter the time of year, whether it is purple kale in winter or purple irises in summer, you can’t go wrong with purple.  The exception is when it comes in the form of small ripe cherries splatting down from the cherry tree beside the patio where they smear when walked on, are tracked into the farthest reaches of the house, and are digested and copiously excreted by birds overhead. 

The weeping cherry tree on my patio, dazzling for a week every spring -- sweet white petals profusely cascading down its long, pendulous branches -- turns into an unbelievably messy tree by early summer with a malevolence that reminds me of the transition of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.  It has just finished four weeks of dropping its amaranthine fruity load onto chaise lounges, the white market umbrella, and unsuspecting people.  As the hard green cherries began to ripen, squishy fruit and violet-white bird poop rained down vigorously, especially when squirrels and birds were dining.  In short order, the flagstone terrace looked like a poor imitation of a Jackson Pollock canvas, and violet splats covered every surface beneath the tree’s benign-looking canopy. 

The point is that there are good trees for small gardens and terraces, and there are messy trees for small gardens and terraces.  Most complaints about are evergreen magnolias that drop large leathery leaves,  mulberry trees that drop large sticky crimson berries, and female ginkgos that drop delicious nuts encased in foul smelling plumy fruits. 

Fringe Trees have unusual flowers with a pleasant fragrance. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Fringe Trees have unusual flowers with a pleasant fragrance.

And weeping cherry trees.  Lately I have been fantasizing about chopping that tree down.  After all, if George Washington can do it, then so can I.  I would replace it with something beautiful and well behaved.  A Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) might be a good choice.   An Asian native, it is a fast growing tree that will reach up to 30-40 tall and wide, but can be pruned to keep it in check.  One of its attractions is that it blooms in summer when relatively few other trees are blooming.  Panicles of small, bright lemon-colored flowers appear in July and August and morph into clusters of brown seed pods in fall that persist into winter when they provide texture and interest.  Its leaves are comprised of small leaflets arranged along a center stalk that become a good yellow-orange in autumn. Golden Rain Trees do self-sow so its seedlings need to be pulled each spring.

A smaller alternative would be the American native, the Fringe Tree, (Chionanthus virginicus), which George Washington actively sought for Mount Vernon. Fringe Trees grow slowly up to 15-20', to it is ideal for a small space.  Its flowers are unusual – bouquets of long, fringy white flowers that exude a delicious fragrance -- and appear in late spring.  In summer the flowers become loose clusters of blue olive-shaped berries (not toxic) that birds relish and in fall its leaves fade to gold.  Fringe Trees are low-maintenance trees prefer that fertile, moist, well drained soil, and will tolerate full sun or part-shade.  It is interesting to note that there are male and female trees, though they are not usually labeled as such as hollies often are. 

Dogwoods have year-round interest, an important feature for small gardens. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Dogwoods have year-round interest, an important feature for small gardens.

As long as we are talking about native species that George Washington collected, we should mention dogwoods  (Cornus florida).  It is difficult to think of another species of tree that is more perfect for small gardens than the dogwood.  My regular readers know that I prefer trees and shrubs with multi-season interest, and dogwoods fit the bill perfectly.  In winter, the black alligator bark stands out sharply against snow and sky and the delicate twigs bear little knobs that turn into large flowers (actually small clusters of flowers with large colored leaves called bracts) in mid-spring.  In summer dogwoods produce cheery red berries (non-staining), and in fall their leaves turn deep maroon to cherry red.  I find their fall color combined with their bright red fruits just as beautiful as their spring displays.  Dogwoods are susceptible to anthracnose, a fungus, but there are several resistant cultivars, both pink and white, available.  As is true of all trees, a properly planted dogwood, located in full or part sun with adequate air circulation and in good soil, will thrive.   

Sweetbay magnolias can be semi-evergreen in mild winters and protected places. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Sweetbay magnolias can be semi-evergreen in mild winters and protected places.

While evergreen magnolias are too large and messy for small gardens, their native cousin, the semi-evergreen Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a drought-tolerant charmer.  I was first introduced to this tree at the National Arboretum and it was love at first sight.  I’ve never had a good spot for one, but I managed to persuade a neighbor to plant one once, and I made a point of visiting it (and her) when it was blooming just to drink in the classic magnolia scent from its waxy ivory flowers.  The flowers are reminiscent of those the evergreen magnolia but are smaller and appear sporadically from mid-summer to fall instead of having an intense, one-time display like some of its deciduous spring blooming cousins.  Sweetbay Magnolias will reach 15-25 feet, developing a pretty rounded shape, and can grow in a variety of soils as long as it doesn’t dry out.  Its foliage is semi-evergreen during warm winters and in fall, its red berries, arrayed on cone shaped spikes, are a great food source for mockingbirds, catbirds, bobwhite, and your pet wild turkey.

Crepe myrtles are ubiquitous and bloom well into early fall. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Crepe myrtles are ubiquitous and bloom well into early fall.

Chopping down that cherry will give me enough sun for a Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia), native to India and other parts of Asia.  Though available in shrub and dwarf forms, I prefer the tree form, especially when they have not been over-pruned into nubs as they too often are.  Crepe myrtles seem especially ubiquitous this time of year, so it might be too obvious a choice, but they make excellent specimen trees that meet the multi-season interest test.  They do not begin to leaf out until late in spring, but are otherwise splendid the rest of the year.   The real show begins in summer when dense bouquet-like clusters of crepe-papery flowers emerge.  The flowers last into well into fall, an advantage over trees with shorter bloom times, but that means you must select a color of which you do not tire easily.   I would plant a white one, rather than one of the varieties of pink, red, and lavender because white is easier to work with in my garden. Crepe Myrtle leaves are quite small and tidy, and turn radiant shades of orange and red in the fall.  In winter, the cinnamon colored bark exfoliates giving it a mottled appearance, and its dark brown seed heads add interest, especially when snow or ice-covered.  Mildew can be problematic, so look for a cultivar specifically bred to be mildew resistant like “Hopi” or “Zuni”.

Choosing the right tree for a small garden should not be hard, which makes me wonder who’s bright idea it was to plant that cherry.  The trick is, as always, to determine the conditions and size of the space and to work within those parameters.  Height, spread, seasonal interest, sunlight requirements, soil conditions – all are important features you should take under consideration when you select a tree.  The one thing that is different about trees for small gardens is the messiness factor.  A messy tree will make you see red.  Or purple of the not regal, royal, or romantic kind.



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Fifty Shades of Blue

June 22, 2014

Blue geraniums combine with loosestrife and masterwork in a controlled meadow planting. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Blue geraniums combine with loosestrife and masterwork in a controlled meadow planting.

I have the blues.  A raccoon has been roto-tilling my garden in search of late night snacks – worms, presumably.    Several times a week I find my garden in a state of upheaval with plants that have been pulled up and dirt that has been dislocated by this unwanted intruder.  

On the advice of friends and neighbors I sprinkled coyote urine granules (yes, you read that correctly) around the garden, thinking that might foil him but it seemed instead to have served as an amuse bouche.  Generously distributed mothballs have not deterred him either.  So, blue, I sat down amidst the mess and closed my eyes, my thoughts drifting to my trip to the 2014 Chelsea Garden Show.

Thinking about Chelsea was soothing for many reasons, not the least of which was that the immaculate display gardens were weed and, more significantly, raccoon free.  Not a petal out of place.  No dirt strewn thoughtlessly on paving or plants lying at precarious angles.  And, coincidently, this year there was a lot of blue.  Yes, blue - a multitude of shades from sapphire Siberian iris to indigo lupines (peaking along the coast of Maine just now) to cobalt columbines and more. 

The Telegraph Garden was meant to evoke the colors of the Italian Lake District. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Telegraph Garden was meant to evoke the colors of the Italian Lake District.

The color blue is indispensible in a garden.  Blue enhances other colors, there are few colors with which it clashes, and blue-on-blue looks terrific.   For example, the combination of blue violas (Viola cornuta) and blue Siberian iris (Iris siberica “Shirley Pope”) in the center of the Brewin Dolphin Garden designed by Matthew Childs, was stunning.  Part of what worked so well was the difference in the heights and shapes of the flowers he chose, and part was just the serenity of the composition.  Blue-on-blue is very calming. The walkways and other bits of hardscape in the garden were also tinged with grayish blue, serving to pull plant material together harmoniously with stone, pergola, and decking.  Despite the informality of the mossy boulder, the simplicity of the monochromatic color scheme lent the garden an almost tailored feel.

The Viking Cruses Garden borrowed the reds from an adjacent garden to contrast with blue and white perennials. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Viking Cruses Garden borrowed the reds from an adjacent garden to contrast with blue and white perennials.

The other end of Childs’ garden, on the other hand, was definitely informal, a controlled meadowplanting.  Here he combined blue Cranesbill (Geranium phaeum, not to be confused with “pelargoniums”  which are commonly called “geraniums”) with pinkish burgundy loosestrife (Lysmachia atropurpurea)and white masterwort (Astrantia major ), both of which have a faint bluish cast.  I loved this planting not just for the colors, but for its contrasting textures that really evoked a meadow.  My only reservation was that the  yellowish-green flowers in the background clashed jarringly with the pinkish burgundy.

A blue teahouse at Chelsea. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A blue teahouse at Chelsea.

The same color, more of a chartreuse, was far more effective when combined with sky-blue bearded iris (Iris 'Blue Rhythm’ and Iris 'Jane Phillips’)and dark blue bugloss (Anchusa azurea'Loddon Royalist’)in the Telegraph Garden, designed by Tommaso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitz. The chartreuse here was mainly woodspurge (Euphorbiaamygdaloides var. robbiae) complemented by fennel.  A note on fennel:  While my thyme died and my rosemary took a serious hit this past winter, for some inexplicable reason my fennel returned with gusto and looks absolutely smashing among my roses, salvias, and Japanese anemones.  I only wish I had planted more of it and next year I will.  Both the bugloss and woodspurge are native to northern Europe, including northern Italy, and Italians practically invented how to cook with fennel, so this garden, which was supposed to evoke the Italian Lake District, also suggests that a culinary and botanical sojourn among the Italian lakes may well be in order.

Shades of blue in a Chelsea dining display. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Shades of blue in a Chelsea dining display.

I used to find red-leafed plants difficult to work with until I saw a planting of reddish-purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria)and blue mist shrub (Caryopteris x clandonensis) planted side by side in a Connecticut garden.  Now it is one of my favorite combinations, so no surprise that I loved the Viking Cruises Garden, designed by Sadie May Stowell, complete with the prow of a Viking ship, runes, and real-life sweltering Vikings in chainmail and those nutty hats.  Incongruously, one of the Vikings, with a green plastic watering can, set about watering the white and blue plantings that were meant to bring the sea to mind.  The color combination I liked in this garden was made up of red maples and smoke bush behind those blue and white flowers that included white foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea alba), white fringed flower campion (Silene fimbriata ‘Alba’ ), and white columbine (Aquilegia‘Green Apples’).  Tying the purples, blues, and whites together, was a perennial that I am dying to get my hands on – a purple Queen Anne’s Lace.(Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’).  The red maples and smokebushes were actually part of an adjacent garden, but the effect was gorgeous. 

Maybe dryer sheets will keep this raccoon from roto-tilling my garden. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Maybe dryer sheets will keep this raccoon from roto-tilling my garden.

Because the red leafed shrubs were in the other garden, this was also a great example of a “borrowed view” or the incorporation of features outside of the garden in a way that enhances what is inside.   

The blue theme didn’t stop at plant material.  A blue teahouse around the corner caught my eye.  A small structure like this in a small garden could be a great asset, especially if it had lighting and an outlet for charging computers and running fans.  It could even include a sound system.

On the other side of things, an open-air dining space had been set up that featured blue light fixtures, and other blue touches, creating a very appealing space.  Just outside the dining area in the same display, a portion of fence was painted powder blue, carrying the color theme throughout the garden.  Blue hostas and other plantings provided finishing touches.  This was a reminder that it is always important in a small garden to make sure themes are consistent and continuous or it can quickly begin to cluttered.

My meditation on the color blue has helped dispel the blues, but I still have the raccoon problem.  He and his partner are too cute to exile, but there has to be a way to deter them from their wicked ways.  I hear dryer sheets work … 

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The Devil Is In The Details

June 1, 2014

Sculpture by day, romantic by night. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Sculpture by day, romantic by night.

They say the devil is in the details, and when it comes to gardens, “they” are not wrong. 

Thursday was a rainy day and I really wanted to work in my garden, but spoiled by the recent warm weather or perhaps still chilled by this winter’s excessive, prolonged cold spells, I decided to wait until it warmed up a notch.  Instead of gardening I pulled out my photos of the Georgetown Garden Tour, which was a few weeks ago.  It was another tour-de-force (pun intended) carried out by the Georgetown Garden Club, so it should come as no surprise that I took loads of photos.  What did come as a surprise is that of the hundreds of photos I took, it is the details of the gardens that really stand out.  Some years it’s the plants that grab me, some years it’s design or color, but this year it was detail. 

As in so much of life, the details in the garden, or lack of details, make a palpable difference.  Take “hardscape” for example, hardly a popular cocktail party topic but terribly important, nonetheless.    Hardscape is the components of the garden that is made of stone, cement, or brick, etc, i.e., the hard materials that hold everything together.  Badly executed hardscape can make a good design look like a bad Rolex knock-off on a high-end model in a designer suit.  

A touch of whimsey in a serious vegetable garden. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A touch of whimsey in a serious vegetable garden.

Well done, or better yet, creatively and well done, hardscape can make a design fantastic.  There was a lot of good and creative hardscape on the tour this year, and I especially liked the steps made of brick, granite, gravel, and a pair of what might once have been corbels from the cornice of a building.  It is hard to combine so many elements in such a compact unit, but this effort was quite good. The bricks tied the composition to the surrounding and previously existing brick walls; the corbels on the sides of the steps were an imaginative touch and worked perfectly with the balusters nearby; and the dark granite treads added a weighty gravitas.  I am a great fan of gravel walks, because of the crunching sound your feet make as you stroll along, and, in this case, its texture and color served successfully to connect the colors of the balusters, treads, and flagstone.

In addition to hardscape, lighting is a big deal.  Bad lighting can ruin a garden.  The lights in the one very modern garden on the tour, however, were especially chic.  By day they were a sculptural feature that didn’t dominate the small space despite their size, probably because they were white against a white wall.  By evening, this pair of lights undoubtedly glows softly, providing just enough light to make the garden rather romantic – quite a coup in a modern garden with very clean lines.  Perhaps next year’s tour will be in the evening so we can enjoy this scene.  Cocktails, anyone?

A beautifully composed garden vignette. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A beautifully composed garden vignette.

Sculpture, in general is a great addition to most landscapes or gardens but can detract if overdone orbadly done.  On this tour, there were several beautiful pieces.  Some were very serious and others were traditional.  One of my favorites was the rooster in the impressive and skillfully designed potager adjunct to the tour’s largest and most complex gardens.   Part of what I liked about this touch was that the rest of the garden was an impressive series of “rooms”, handsome and impeccably maintained, and above all, immensely tasteful.  All the more delightful, then, to turn the corner and find this bit of whimsy presiding over what promises to be a productive vegetable garden. 

A clever table idea. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A clever table idea.

Details in the form of vignettes are also effective.  They quickly reveal the vision and style of those who occupy the garden, and are especially powerful when the style of the gardener and the style of the garden merge.  The gray pots on the brick terrace in one of the tour’s larger, more traditional gardens, coupled with a vintage watering can, was especially sophisticated.  There were several (but not too many) perfect vignettes in this garden and it was difficult for me to choose which I liked best.  I chose this one because its choice of colors, plant materials (white New Guinea impatiens and the perennial gray Japanese Painted Ferns (Athyrium niponicum)set against a background of dark green box), and the counterpoint of the watering can, which, informal and functional, in contrast to this otherwise formal scene, was brilliantly balanced and elegant.  It “works” because the whole garden is elegant and simultaneously livable. 

A study in color and detail. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A study in color and detail.

Classy casual functionality was also in evidence elsewhere.  I especially appreciated a small side table made of a glass circle atop a detailed terracotta pot.  It was so simple and clever, and best of all it went perfectly with its surroundings.  An ideal touch.  I can well imagine sitting there on an afternoon with a drink and a snack, with a book in hand, taking frequent peeks at the charming surroundings. 

Waiting for next year's Georgetown Garden Tour. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Waiting for next year's Georgetown Garden Tour.

And pots, of course, are always important in and of themselves.  Every year I promise myself that I will not let pots proliferate in my garden; Will not let my garden resemble a country garden shop with all merchandise for sale.  I never succeed, this year, perhaps, least of all.  There are pots of basil, heliotrope, catnip, begonias, clivia…you get the point.  They are not all well placed nor all beautiful, so it was with admiration tinged with a drop envy that I spotted this gray-blue pot in a niche in the eastern wall of another garden.  What I like about this pot is the texture of its plantings that contrast beautifully with the ivy on the wall.  I found myself wondering if I could use such a pot somewhere, but quickly reprimanded myself for the thought.

And so it was a wonderful garden tour again, and God, not the devil, was absolutely in the details.  I can’t wait until next year’s tour.


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