I love botanic gardens and have visited many, from Hong Kong to Madrid, and New York to Amsterdam. Botanic gardens, and their forebears, physick gardens, originated in the 1300’s to collect, study, and display plants. Many now offer design and education programs as well and I seem to learn something every time I wander through one. Visiting the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland (RBGE), last week, proved no exception.
It was a chilly day, but the gardens were filled with visitors of all ages and many nationalities. I strolled through the various display gardens, impressed by how beautifully maintained they were. Not a leaf was out of place, everything was perfectly pruned, and each flower and shrub bed was precisely edged. It takes a good deal of work to make an autumn garden look this good, so it was surprising to find that many of the perennials had not been cut back after they’d finished blooming: In fact, they’d gone to seed.
A little further on was an attractive group of black and white seedheads that looked almost, but not quite, like a species of onion. To read the accompanying label I guiltily crossed a lawn that looked like it had been recently combed. It seems these were not onions but primroses (Primula sikkimensis), cowslips as the British call them, which come from the spring-wet meadows of the Himalayas. They bear rounded clusters of small, fragrant buttery yellow or white flowers in the late spring on 1-3 foot stems, which is relatively tall for a primrose. They would be beautiful combined with bulbs and hellebores. The Himalayan primrose is supposedly easy to grow from seed. Even though primulae generally do not flourish in our hot summers, especially if they get dry, it may be interesting to give these a try if you can find them – and, of course, letting them go to seed so you can grow them again if they don’t survive our heat.
Around the corner in a shady wooded spot was a very colorful group of white berries clusteredon crimson stems that I could not take my eyes off. They belonged to white baneberry or doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), a North American native that I have seen growing in small clumps in the Connecticut and Maine woods. They always catch my eye and here, grown in a substantial mass as part of a flower border, they are simply breathtaking. In summer, baneberry has attractive small white flowers that are look like a loose bottlebrush but the flowers are far less showy than the berries. A word of caution: I remember my 8th grade teacher emphatically impressing upon us that white berries are always poisonous and indeed, white baneberry is toxic.
There were many other perennials that had gone to seed, including ligularia, astilbes, iris, and several I didn’t recognize. The one that stands out was the blue flax lily (Dianella tasmanica), an Australian native from the forests of Tasmania. If the name isn’t exotic enough, the cerulean blue berries, clustered on slender stalks amidst dark green strappy leaves, were visible from a long way off in that autumnal garden. Its flowers are small and blue as well, but nowhere near as striking as the berries. Apparently a variegated form is commercially available, but I can’t help thinking that white striped leaves would detract from that amazing color blue.
Moments after admiring the Dianella tasmanica (what a name!) I came across a large patch of tiny plants that would be sensational growing beside it. Only 2-3 inches tall, they had striped cobalt blue trumpets facing heavenward. They grew so closely together that from a distance they appeared to form a small floral carpet. Once again I found myself on that impeccable lawn reading the label, which told me that they are gentians (Gentiana ternifolia cangshan). There are over 1000 species and they grow on every continent but Antarctica and in all kinds of environments. While gentians are often blue, there are other colors as well. These beauties are a Chinese species that was collected in the early 1980’s on a joint Sino-British expedition (http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~gdk/stabg_new/poms/2011/may11pom.htm). They are to die for, as are the lighter blue ones that were planted near by. They hadn’t yet gone to seed, obviously, but I can’t help mentioning them because they were exceptional.
As I walked away from the Garden, having whiled away several hours, I kept thinking about how marvelous it was that these perennials had been permitted to go to seed in such a well-manicured landscape. The contrast between the maintained grounds and the slightly unruly seedheads made me think of the Dutch designer, Piet Oudolf. Oudolf, who is best known for his planting of New York’s Highline, famously prefers perennials that produce seedheads in the fall both because they are attractive and they provide food for birds. He has developed a garden style that is very natural looking, but is meticulously planned, planted and maintained. It seemed to me that, whether inspired by Oudolf or not, the ERBG’s approach is a more controlled means of achieving the same thing – permitting seeds heads to contribute to the splendor of the fall garden and providing food for wildlife in a disciplined planting style.
Either way, I concluded, that going to seed is a good thing.
Why does the onset of October always feel like a Category 3 hurricane? With the return of school, traffic, and over-commitment, and holidays just around the corner it’s hard not to feel buffeted by forces beyond our control. This October is more chaotic than usual: Political upheaval, refugees, market “vol”, and, yes, even a hurricane brewing in the Atlantic. Ah, to escape to somewhere peaceful, bereft of wifi, cable news, and deluge.
True to form, my perfect escape would be found in a garden, where fragrance, sound, color, and beauty would obscure the swirl of reality. And I know just the garden. If I could escape, I would check into the Parador San Francisco, a hotel in the heart of the Alhambra in the hills above Granada, Spain.
I have wanted to visit the Alhambra since attending a lecture on great garden design years ago. Moorish rulers began constructing palaces and gardens within its walls in the 1300’s, and after their defeat in 1492 by Isabella and Ferdinand, Catholic monarchs built a new palace and more gardens.
It was a dream come true, then, to be there last month. Even a brief, two-hour tour with a pushy guide was sufficient to see that despite having been intermittently built, neglected, revised, and restored over the past 800 years, the Alhambra epitomizes good garden design. As my friend and fellow garden designer Katia Goffin often reminds me, “A garden should be a haven – serene. It is almost like a philosophy regarding life”. And that is exactly what Alhambra is: An ideal composition of architecture, water, color, seating, walks, plants, shade and light that conjure a sense of serenity and stillness, inspite of an impatient tour guide.
We started with the Generalife, originally a hunting lodge that was converted to a palace with garden courtyards in the 1300’s. Any guidebook will tell you that the Arabic name “Generalife” probably means “The Garden of the Architect”. The real meaning of Generalife could just as easily be “The Garden of the Garden Architect” because its’ gardens’ lush tranquility is inextricably integrated with the architecture of the buildings that surround them. It would take days to truly comprehend how finely balanced its infinite details are, hence the lure of the parador. I would love to wake up early in the morning and leisurely walk its grounds before the madding crowds materialize and to walk them again in the evening beneath a starry sky, long after the crowds have disappeared.
The Generalife’s main garden is the Patio de la Acequia, a beautiful courtyard featuring a long reflecting pool lined with jets of water that arc up and audibly splash, making a musical watery hum. The pool is bordered by profusely planted flowerbeds that are restrained by sharply clipped myrtle hedges while small pruned trees and potted boxwoods provide height. Walkways invite visitors to linger in either sunlight or shade and I found it easy to imagine the Generalife’s long-gone inhabitants lingering by windows or in the open arches of the gallery, attracted by the courtyard’s exquisite sounds and floral splendor.
Incredibly, the Jardin de la Soultana, just outside the fabulously ornate Royal Bedroom (Sala Regia) is even more stunning: Would that I could transport it to my garden! At its heart is a delicately carved marble fountain shaped like a birdbath and set in a square pool amidst myriad spouts of water that constantly reflect and refract shimmering light. Square beds of red roses and the ubiquitous clipped myrtle lie on either side and all three are surrounded by rectangular pools of water punctuated by still more jets of glittering water and bordered by perfectly maintained hedges. Ivy drapes the brick and stucco walls, and an open, two-story walkway borders one end, scented breezes wafting through its arched windows. An enormous cypress whose ancient trunk is held together by bands of steel, throws off the symmetry of the courtyard just slightly.
It is in this garden, legend says, that the Sultana met her lover whose ill-fated family was subsequently murdered in retribution by the Sultan upon hearing of his wife’s infidelity. I could see how lovers might suppose their whispers were rendered indistinguishable by the murmuring water.
Throughout the rest of the gardens, walks are lined with towering cypresses that lead the eye heavenward, and hedges are pruned into archways that beckon you to enter the next garden room.
Flowerbeds are vividly planted with scarlet salvias, blue ageratum, orange and yellow Mexican daisies, and pink roses. Intricate patterns are set in the walkways, comprised of small stones in shades of gray, and that attract your eye downward. Bowls of burbling water, rills of still water, water flowing from carved spouts, and reflecting pools are ever present. Courtyards with bold geometric planting beds and others with small simple plantingsare interspersed between palace walls and inner sanctums. Series of metal arches reminiscent of Giverny are placed over walkways and are covered with roses and oleander. Brick pillared pergolas supporting vine shrouded wooden beams form wide, shady outdoor hallways, a contrast from brilliant sunlight. Open walkways supported by stucco arches and pillars link building to garden to building.
In all, every detail in each garden room complements the hardscape that surrounds it, and no detail feels out of place. It seemed to me that this is what we all should strive for in our own gardens – a balanced, symbiotic connection between home (inside as well as out) and garden. I felt myself slowing involuntarily and even stopping, to gaze and admire. I longed to tarry on one of the benches but the guide was unyielding.
Yes, the Alhambra is the place to which I would escape. There is undoubtedly both wifi and cable at the parador, but they would be easy enough to avoid. The hard part would re-entering the real world. Perhaps they need a resident garden writer.…
My mother always told me that the best way to dispel discontent is to think about something happy. As snow and cold ushered in the month of March like a polar lion on the prowl, burying hellebores and barely nascent snowdrops, I took my mother’s words to heart and found something very happy to think about: The Jardin Serre de la Madone in Menton, last stop on the French Riviera before the Italian border.
Lawrence Johnston, who bought the property in 1924, created Serre de la Madone which he owned until his death in 1958. Born in France to an expat Baltimore financier and his English wife, Johnston became a British citizen and fought in the Second Boer War in South Africa after finishing his education at Cambridge. Major Johnston, a man of independent means, was a passionate plantsman, so when his mother purchased Hidcote Manor in 1907, he set to work creating what is now one of Britain’s most famous and influential gardens.
He applied the lessons he learned at Hidcote to Serre de la Madone, much less famous, and is the only other garden he created. It was here that this very private man brought the tender exotic plants he adored to be tended by a team of 12 gardeners, and where he could experiment with the hundreds of plants he collected, purchased, and was given. While the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, and others cocktailed, wrote, painted, and designed in the more glamorous nearby Riviera towns of Cap Antibes, Villefranches, and Monaco, Johnston traveled the Alps, South Africa, and Yunnan Province, collecting specimen plants and converting the ancient, terraced hill-side olive orchard into a sophisticated garden and aviary. In spite years of neglect after his death, and with the help of a recent renovation, Serre de la Madonne still embodies his passion so intensely it seemed his spirit was present last spring when I was fortunate enough to visit.
Now, as we are once again surrounded by slush and melting ice, it is delicious to remember arriving at the warden’s lodge at the bottom of this uniquely peaceful place. The terracotta-colored lodge, its teal shutters nearly hidden by an enormous climbing white rose, is small and full of gifts and books. When you walk through the lodge and step out the back onto a tiny shaded terrace you enter the magical path that leads up to the villa.
The garden, now maintained by the Conservatoire du Littoral and other organizations, is somewhat derelict but forgivably so, because it is a herculean task to maintain 25 terraced acres of intricate planting. In a way, its rumpled state enhances its charm. Maundering toward the villa from the lodge, slowly taking one hairpin turn after another in the gentle play of sunlight and shade, you progress from the informality of the entrance toward the formal gardens near the villa. You are in another world.
The plant collector’s obsession is everywhere in evidence along these lower walks, with orange and yellow proteas and sunset orange alstroemerias from South Africa blooming beside pink centranthus and blue salvias, jumbled amongst a variety of palms, yuccas, and other exotics, and thriving amidst a complex tumble of native plants. Many of the imports and natives have gone to seed, proliferating and thriving exuberantly side-by-side beneath Asian magnolias, giant umbrella pines, bamboo, and eucalyptus.
Major Johnston was well known for his plant combinations at Hidcote, having drawn inspiration from the likes of Gertrude Jekyll and William Robinson, and it is indisputable that he applied this gift at Serre. I especially loved how, in one bed, he mixed Larkspur (delphinium) with kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos) from Australia, and Mediterranean Euphorbias. The rich colors – blue, burgundy, and chartreuse -- and textures – spiky, fuzzy, and soft -- blend beautifully in shards of light and patches of shade, revealing his gift not only for combining color and texture but also his gift for knowing what plants are compatible and will grow well together.
What makes Serre magnificent is that Johnston balanced his plant collecting and experimentation with fantastic and durable design. This balance becomes obvious when, after climbing halfway up the garden levels, each turn leading to a new plant combination and ever more significant statuary, stone steps, planters, and pergolas, you arrive at a terrace of garden rooms that are as rich in design detail as in diversity of flora and fauna. The honey-colored villa presides from above, and “Mrs. Johnston”, the female statue at one end of a formal pool edged with green Anduze urns, gazes watchfully, at the Orangery at the other end. It was in this Orangery, amidst tender citrus trees, that fellow plant collectors, some of whom Johnston sponsored, must have revealed their treasures and recounted their adventures, and where Johnston nurtured his most precious plants. The small green bistro table and chairs must have been used as frequently for afternoon tea or perhaps a drop of absinthe on lemon-scented evenings as they were for taking cuttings and sorting seeds.
It is on this level that the formal gardens really come into their own and that the views of the surrounding hills begin to become part of Johnston’s composition. You need only to walk along the beige gravel walk a short way, past a circular pool, to reach the terrace where the valley below and the hills beyond are visible through olive trees older than the garden itself, mature cypress trees, and the fronds of imported palms. Gazing from this lush, green paradise at the rocky, arid Mediterranean landscape is like looking from an oasis at the desert beyond. A few moments sitting on the stone wall and contemplating this contrast is the restorative equivalent, I’m sure, of days of quiet meditation.
Of the several other enchanting garden rooms that make up the upper portion of the garden, I especially loved the Moorish terrace. It is a small space adjacent to the west of the villa and features a rectangular pool of water with water jets reminiscent of the lost gardens of Islam, planted with feathery papyrus, and surrounded by clipped hedges. There are views of the lower gardens on one side of the terrace, and tall shade trees preside above it on the other. The terrace is adjacent to a loggia decorated with Moorish tiles and offering shade on hot days. One can well imagine Johnston sitting here on warm Mediterranean evenings, shirt sleeves rolled up and a straw hat laid absent-mindedly to the side, listening to the play of water and chatting with friends. How lovely it must have been to be one of his guests, sipping a glass of wine, nibbling locally grown olives, and contemplating where possible locations for latest shipment of unusual bulbs, and how robust the giant calla lilies are, and daydreaming about where to put a new statue.
Daydreaming, in fact, is what this is all about. Lemon trees, Mediterranean nights, and remote garden walks lined with beautiful flowers and shrubs -- So much happier than icy March sidewalks and delayed openings. My mother was right.