Square One

A Perfect Garden Set

August 28, 2017

It’s not often you get an invitation to help paint a set for an amateur theatrical production.  It’s even less so when the set that needs painting is in Wales, so when I a friend asked me to lend a hand, I readily agreed. 

The drive from London through the beautiful midsummer countryside took us past Stonehenge and endless fields of gentle golds and greens punctuated with dark green hedge rows and dotted, occasionally, with sheep or cattle.  A typical English summer, the skies varied from partly cloudy to dark and somewhat threatening with an intermittent squall.  All to be expected.

What I did not expect was that the set we were working on was temporarily warehoused in the set designer’s newly-built gorgeous stone garage across from a similarly gorgeous stone Victorian house, situated in a heart-shaped nine-acre garden.  To be fair, I had been promised garden, badger hide, and stunning accommodation but I was still surprised.  It completely exceeded expectation.

It was impossible not to fall in love with the place and its welcoming creative owners, Mr. and Mrs. O.  To begin with, there was a walled courtyard the size of a large Georgetown garden.  Paved in the local gray stone (so no mowing or maintenance issues), roses and clematis spilled over top of the wall suggesting lush plantings beyond, and pots of herbs, perennials, and annuals adorned its interior where a table and chairs promised a quiet meal. A water rill ran through it, waiting (until the next day, as it happened) for sun to activate its solar-powered fountain. 

Heading south. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Heading south.

As you crossed the courtyard from the car park to the archway leading to the garden you knew in what direction you were heading thanks to the graceful stone letters, “S” and “N”, leaning theatrically at either end of the space.  The letters are left over from a project which the owner’s company had completed for a client.  Lacecap hydrangeas brightened the stone walls through the archway and clipped into an old beech hedge across the lawn surrounded by a diversity of shrubs and trees another archway beckoned.   Judging by their size, some of the surrounding trees could easily date back to the 1870’s when the house was built. 

A quick peek through the hedge at the veg and perennial gardens where verbenas and daisies were in full glorious bloom, and then to work, enchanted and armed with paint brushes and gallon cans of paint.  I didn’t want a lot of drama about my slacking off -- I was there to work, after all, not to dawdle over lilies and roses. We spent a productive and amusing afternoon working on the set (discussions of trap doors and set changes all being well above my paygrade) before a thorough garden tour was offered and readily accepted. 

It began at the owner-designed pond.  Mr. O delivered an enthusiastic and colorful soliloquy about the property’s history as Mrs. O fed the resident goldfish but I was distracted by the fantastic diversity of textures, forms, and colors surrounding us. 

A light pink knotweed growing near the pond. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A light pink knotweed growing near the pond.

A healthy and robust planting of light pink knotweed, (Persicaria campenulata) had caught my eye first.  It is a Himalayan native that is semi-evergreen and grows waist-high in either full sun or partial shade in lovely great clumps.  Thought it doesn’t tolerate drought, it’s a tough plant that looks lovely in winter and blooms for weeks in mid- to late summer with sprays of tiny whitish flowers and pink orbital buds. I’ve never seen this perennial before and it was love-at-first-sight.

Evening primrose growing through dark pink mountain fleece. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Evening primrose growing through dark pink mountain fleece.

It’s cousin, mountain fleece (Persicaria amplexicaulis), an old favorite,was blooming prolifically on the opposite bank.  I have always adored its tiny,dark cerise flowers arrayed at the tip of a long stem – they look like tiny bright lipstick colored bottle brushes. Egg-yolk colored evening primrose (Oenethera) and the quickly spreading lemony circle flower (Lysmachia coronaria) grew through the mountain fleece in a cheering color combination that defiantly proclaimed summer, in spite of steel-gray skies overhead.

Butterbur has been planted to prevent erosion. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Butterbur has been planted to prevent erosion.

I loved how this collection of wispy delicate perennials contrasted with the enormous leaves of adjacent butterbur (Petasites). Though I have seen it growing in a Georgetown garden, I always associate butterbur, a European native, with waterways and ponds. This planting, about 100 feet long and 3 feet high, had been installed to prevent erosion, but looked perfectly natural.   It’s leaves usually seem oversized, but these were dramatically dwarfed by the larger-than-life leaves of a lofty gunnera that punctuated the end of the pond next to a little deck.  I have only ever seen these growing in arboreta, so it was exciting to see a stand so well-placed in an actual garden, its leaves floating 10 feet overhead and shading the path that ran below the pond.  Walking beneath them and looking up felt like I was on set in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and I half expected fairies to peer out from beyond the gunnera’s thick, thorny stalks.

Feeling dwarfed by the huge stalks and leaves of gunners. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Feeling dwarfed by the huge stalks and leaves of gunners.

We continued our walk through the grounds, enjoying views of the hills beyond and of meadows where sheep were peacefully grazing.  We sat briefly in the badger hide, a beautifully crafted hut perched on what were once the legs of a formidable snooker table, walked through an orchard with aged plums, apples, and cherries, through woodland and meadow, and finally ambled up a drive that was once frequented by horse drawn carriages that inevitably yielded, in time, to new-fangled automobiles.

As we returned to the house for drinks, we paid homage to an enormous conifer with a massive girth that reminded me of trees in the old-growth forests in Western Washington where I grew up.  The owners weren’t certain of its species, but after sending a photo of its foliage and cones to the Royal Horticultural Society we were told by RHS senior botanist Neil Lancaster that it may well be a “Thuja plicata, a large-growing, evergreen species native to western North America. It is an important timber tree, being the source of the “western red cedar”, much used where weatherproof timber is required.”  The western red cedar was introduced to the UK in the 1850’s as a timber tree and can grow up to 5 meters in diameter.  The oldest specimens are estimated to be hundreds of years old and it seemed very likely that this one was well over 100 years of age.

The great Western red cedar on the property surely dates back to the 1870's (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The great Western red cedar on the property surely dates back to the 1870's

As I walked through this gorgeous garden, I felt like I was walking from one beautifully designed set to the next.  Although Mr. and Mrs. O are not garden designers, they definitely have a designers’ eye and green thumbs, and their garden shows it.  In all, the garden and its setting – and Mr. and Mrs. O's generous hospitality - were perfect: A stunning combination of gracious grounds belonging to an age where garden labor was still affordable, and modern comforts and plantings, all nestled into a landscape that has been cultivated for over a thousand years. A perfect place to be working on a theatre set with friends.  It was hard to leave.

Did I mention the show, “Dick Barton, Special Agent” is on this week? It’s being presented by Red Herring Theatre in association with Span Arts at Manorbier Castle near Tenby, Wales. If you are in the area, you won’t want to miss it.   Bring a blanket and a chair!  

Check out https://span-arts.ticketsolve.com/ for tickets...






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The State of the Union

January 30, 2017

Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons.

It’s that time of year again when the garden’s drab greens and browns are more than a little depressing.  Ornamental cabbages and pansies are tired and worn looking, and most evergreens seem as though they are gasping for a warming sun and longer days. A sad state of affairs.  A little like the state of the union?  Perhaps it’s best to leave sleeping dogs lie.

Garden catalogues and magazines are somewhat cheering but this year they are not enough to get me out of a mid-winter funk.  Playing hooky from obligations and chores, I found myself flipping through my garden photos instead, trying to find the most colorful garden I’ve photographed in the last year.

I knew what I was looking for so it didn’t take long to find it.  It was an award-winning exhibition garden I saw at the Chelsea Garden Show last May built by the Irish garden designer, Diarmuid Gavin.  Sponsored by Harrods, his design was quirky, even gimmicky as the garden was populated with topiary that, every fifteen minutes, began to rise, twirl and bob, lifted by unseen levers and computerized pulleys, as a pair of mechanized pruners seemed to sheer a revolving tree.  Adding to the visual cacophony of moving parts was an actual band playing an English folk song. 

Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Chartreuse euphorbia are perfectly combined with fuchsia penstemons.

The special effects were not what I found memorable, however.  What stuck in my mind was Gavin’s bold color choices and textures.

In theory, there were two planting schemes though one seemed to flow into the other.  The first included white, orange, chartreuse, pink, and yellow perennials interspersed by clipped boxwoods – and the dancing topiary.  I especially loved the way the plumy orange-creamsicle colored foxtail lilies (Eremus ruiter “Pinocchio”) punctuated the beds as they stood just above many of the surrounding flowers.  With good sun exposure and well-drained soil these tall, elegant, spring-blooming perennials are supposedly easy to grow and will even naturalize.   Even better, they also come in white, soft pink, and a sweet soft yellow.

A cheering, if somewhat gaudy color combination. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A cheering, if somewhat gaudy color combination.

I also loved a more classic fusion of chartreuse euphorbias with fuchsia beardtongue (Penstemon “Garnet”).  Penstemons are native to the US and thrive in full sun and medium dry soil.  They also attract bees and hummingbirds and bloom from summer to fall.  They wouldn’t normally bloom at the same times as foxtail lilies, but it’s Chelsea, where a little artistic license, like combining spring and summer blooming perennials, is a good thing.

Gavin’s second planting scheme was stronger still – a combination of sapphire blues, rosy pinks, regal purples, cerise reds, and lemony yellows.  It sounds gaudy and so it was, but tasteful just the same.  Combining red and blue salvias with pink shrub roses is a trick that I’m not sure I could pull off but somehow it worked in this eccentric garden.

Looking at my photos was definitely cheering.  It’s hard to look at pleasing images and stay somber but the question remained:   How to make my garden colorful enough in deep winter to avoid these mid-winter blues? 

Mahonia's yellow flowers will brighten any garden. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Mahonia's yellow flowers will brighten any garden.

As it happens, my garden has become quite shady over the past couple of years, presenting me with an opportunity to replace roses and other plants that no longer bloom with plants that make winter seem brighter and still complement summer flowers.  I’ve long wanted to plant Oregon grape-holly (Mahonia aquifolium), a plant I grew up with in the Pacific Northwest.  It’s sharp, spikey dark green leaves will serve as a contrast to my camellias and ivy, and its late-winter racemes of small round cadmium yellow flowers will brighten any winter day.  The blue berries that follow won’t be especially noticeable, but they will nourish birds like the cedar waxwing.

Variegated green and yellow leaves would look great with crocuses and snow drops. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Variegated green and yellow leaves would look great with crocuses and snow drops.

The mahonia’s flowers will look especially good with the variegated euphorbias (Euphorbia x martini) I planted last summer because their cheery narrow leaves are edged with creamy gold and tinged with just a hint of copper.  I really love this euphorbia because constantly catches my eye.  I didn’t plant enough of it, however, so I think I’ll planted a good deal more.  I have a feeling that they could be stunning if combined with purple crocuses and crisp, white snow-drops and I’m looking forward to their lime green flowers in late spring.

And my final addition will probably be winter daphne (Daphne odora ‘Aureomarginata’).  

Daphne's blossoms perfume the late winter air. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Daphne's blossoms perfume the late winter air.

Its leaves are also tinged with a creamy yellow and will complement both the yellow mahonia and euphorbia.  It’s small clusters of tiny rose-colored flowers, which emerge in early spring, are deliciously fragrant which is another reason to plant them – there is nothing like it’s perfume on a warm early spring day.  Unfortunately, daphnes are notoriously fussy, but it’s worth the effort of trying to make them happy by keeping them moist but not wet, and making sure they are sufficiently mulched and kept out of full sun.

Variegated leaves, of course, fall far short of the color feast in the Gavin’s display garden, but will improve the looks of my winter garden significantly and should help minimize those winter blues. 

If only fixing the state of our union was as simple ...  



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A Gardener's High

October 5, 2016

On a warm Sunday morning last August, I found myself deadheading roses at Denmans, the garden in England that belongs to my friend, John Brookes. 

A well-known international garden designer and author, John has gardened at Denmans since 1980.  At 82 (he turns 83 on October 11th) he still works in his garden every day and that particular morning I found him outside, secateurs in hand, piles of branches and weeds mounded around the terrace, and that euphoric look in his eyes that gardeners get when they are in full gardening mode. 

I know that feeling.  Think runners’ high; a surge of endorphins.  There is also something about gardening that is peculiarly relaxing -- your mind can wander freely when your hands are occupied.   There’s no list writing or fact checking, and texting is just a bad idea with dirty hands.  Gardening permits a steady flow of thoughts to bubble up and be gently pondered against the backdrop of steady physical labor.   John’s euphoria inspired me to ditch my computer in favor of deadheading roses -- and pondering.

Deadheading, in horticulture at least, means to remove spent flowers.  You do it to encourage a plant to produce new blooms, prevent plants from going to seed and generally to make the garden tidier. 

Immersed in my task and not a little pleased with myself, I found myself thinking that deadheading also seemed an apt metaphor for the current political mood in the US and in the UK where voters seem to be intent on removing spent politicians  – and that was as far as I got with that line of thinking.  The day was far too lovely to dwell on politics. 

The dog rose drops its petals and forms beautiful rose hips. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The dog rose drops its petals and forms beautiful rose hips.

Moreover, the rosebushes I was tackling (shrub roses called “Little White Pet”) required close attention as only some of their small white flowers needed clipping.   “Little White Pet’s” blossoms are arrayed in large airy bouquets interspersed with tight dark pink and white buds so an inattentive snip and  half-blown roses or buds are on the ground instead of dead ones.   “Little White Pet” is a great rose because it is hardy, vigorous and blooms from early summer through fall with proper care.  It has small, glossy dark green leaves and more than the occasional thorn -- another reason to be attentive.

While most roses benefit from deadheading there are others that bloom only once a year and then produce gorgeous rose hips.  The dog rose (Rosa canina) is a good example.  Its fragrant, five-petaled blossoms, light pink or white, also grow in loose clusters, and are exceptionally delicate.  Their sprawling stems, on the other hand, are viciously thorny.  The hips that that follow are bright orange and persist through early winter.  Tremendously ornamental, they are also high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and are used to make tea, marmalade, and it is said, even wine. 

Astrantias have showy bracts that last for many weeks. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Astrantias have showy bracts that last for many weeks.

There are perennials that can be deadheaded or not, depending on a gardener’s preference.   One of my new favorites is great masterwort, or Astrantia major.  Hardy in zones 4-7 and a great favorite with butterflies, this beautiful perennial flowers on 1-3 ‘ stems in part shade starting in mid-summer.  Their leaves are dark green and resemble Italian parsley.  Showy bracts – colored leaves that pass for petals -- range in color from white to dark pink and remain attractive for many weeks though removing them can promote more blossoms.  Easy to grow, the one thing it doesn’t like is to dry out.

Acanthus leaves are reason alone to grow this perennial. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Acanthus leaves are reason alone to grow this perennial.

And then there are the plants you deadhead when they start looking sloppy.   Bear breeches, or acanthus can look remarkably messy when finished blooming.  Their long-lasting flowers are usually a lavender-purple or white, almost tubular in shape, and grow along a strong, tall stalk as much as 3 feet high.   The seed pods that follow are brown capsules and the flowers dry to a darkish brown – a look that doesn’t work in every garden.  I like to remove them before they become unattractive.  Fortunately the remaining bold and spiky foliage is a dramatic contrast to just about any other plant you can think of.  Its leaves are so architectural, in fact, that they have been sculpted and painted in one form or another for thousands of years – think Corinthian columns.  

Yellow foxgloves naturalize beautifully under the right conditions. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Yellow foxgloves naturalize beautifully under the right conditions.

Putting up with seedpods is unavoidable if you want a plant to naturalize.  I am especially partial to yellow foxgloves (Digitalis ambigua, or, as it is now known, D. grandiflora).   Its 1-2 foot stalks bear light lemony yellow flowers in mid-spring and when happily established in a moist location – woodlands are perfect – they will self-sow.  Unfortunately they look pretty ragged by the time their nut-colored seed capsules finally release their infinite minute seeds.  Selectively removing the most obvious stalks or cutting them down by half, leaving the lower halves to be hidden by other plants, helps conceal them.  The seedlings take a year or so to mature but unlike biennial foxgloves, they will last for years, forming attractive clumps.   It’s wise to remember that like all foxgloves they are toxic (and deer tolerant). 

Porcelain berry is highly invasive, so its berries should be removed before the birds eat them. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Porcelain berry is highly invasive, so its berries should be removed before the birds eat them.

Finally, there are plants that you will want to deadhead no matter how attractive the seed heads because they self-sow prolifically and become a nuisance.  Porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) comes to mind.  It is an Asian native vine that resembles a grape vine in its growth habit but its berries ripen to the most eye-catching variation of dark and light turquoise.  Unfortunately it is terribly invasive, so it’s environmentally responsible to remove the berries (in this case deadheading the fruit instead of the flower) before birds can broadcast them.

I finished deadheading the roses -- and pondering --  all too quickly that summer morning.  Though back at my desk and hard at work, I was relaxed, rejuvenated, and still self-satisfied. 

Yes, I thought to myself, gardening definitely produces a gardener’s high. 


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