Square One

Escape to Alhambra

October 4, 2015

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.

The Parador San Francisco is in the heart of the Alhambra. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Parador San Francisco is in the heart of the Alhambra.

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 Grenada, 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.   

The main water feature in the  Jardin de la Soultana. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The main water feature in the Jardin de la Soultana.

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.

Pergolas covered with roses and oleander shade walkways from the brilliant Spanish sun. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Pergolas covered with roses and oleander shade walkways from the brilliant Spanish sun.

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. 

Soaring cypress and prolifically flowering flower beds are an eye-catching combination. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Soaring cypress and prolifically flowering flower beds are an eye-catching combination.

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. 

Benches and water fountains invite visitors to slow down and drink in the garden's serenity. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Benches and water fountains invite visitors to slow down and drink in the garden's serenity.

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.…


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My Mother Was Right

March 10, 2015

A yellow protea Johnston brought back from South Africa. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) A yellow protea Johnston brought back from South Africa.

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. 

Larkspur, euphorbias, and kangaroo paws in bloom. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Larkspur, euphorbias, and kangaroo paws in bloom.

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.

(Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) "Mrs. Johnston" maintains a watchful eye across the water towards the Orangery.

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.

Green Anduze urns stand on either side of the formal pools. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Green Anduze urns stand on either side of the formal pools.

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.  

Johnston incorporated the views into the formal garden rooms. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Johnston incorporated the views into the formal garden rooms.

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.

The Moorish Terrace derives its influence from Islamic garden design. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) The Moorish Terrace derives its influence from Islamic garden design.

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New Year's Resolutions and Mistakes

January 20, 2015

I might break my only New Year’s resolution: To make no New Year’s resolutions this year.  I make them perennially, and sometimes even keep them but this year I resolved to wing it.

A couple of sentences in Robin Lane’s Fox’s garden column in a recent Weekend FT are compelling me to reconsider.  He writes  “I bet that, like me, you have been sitting on mistakes without realizing them.  It can take years for an owner to see that an inherited or misplaced plant is in need of removal”. 

It is unimaginable that RLF is sitting on mistakes, but this hit a nerve.  I know that I am sitting on mistakes but I am not good about making hard choices in my garden.  I am downright spineless. 

These anemones may need a new home. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) These anemones may need a new home.
For instance, I have an “inherited” tree that is a nuisance from the time it finishes blooming until it drops its leaves in fall.  It is the aged weeping cherry tree about which I have written before, and that for weeks drips overripe purple-staining cherries all over the terrace, chairs, umbrellas, and us.  To add insult to injury, it drops copious leaves all summer.  I’ve consulted arborists, sent leaf samples to be analyzed, fed it, sprayed it, watered it, scolded it, encouraged it all to no avail because it is dying.  I dread a repeat performance in 2015 but it is so lovely for the 7 days it blooms and it must be more than 50 years old.  How can I justify taking this venerable tree down?  And yet, is it is certainly a mistake not to.  Perhaps it’s time to make that hard choice.  A New Year’s resolution?

Another mistake is hanging on to the pink Japanese anemones that bloom all fall.  You might ask what fault one could possibly find with healthy, long blooming perennials.   In theory there is none, but pink just isn’t the right color for my garden and at 4 feet tall, they require endless staking.  They are robust and beautiful so I have resisted taking them out and last year lamely shuffled them into a corner, but they still are out of place.  They really need a new home.   Could letting them go be another resolution?


These intruders will not be welcome this year (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) These intruders will not be welcome this year

And then there are the raccoons whose diurnal visits in search of snacks caused no end of mess and miserylast summer.  The main perp was caught red-handed in that same weeping cherry, his little masked snout peering resentfully at my dinner guests, willing us to go inside to eat so he could come down and do the same.  Who knew that raccoons are four-legged roto-tillers who use the kitty’s water dish as a finger bowl?  What a mistake to tolerate their intrusions!  By the time I launched into a hilariously feckless series of efforts to deter these adorable pests, they’d procreated and done expensive damage.  Coyote urine, mothballs, full frontal attacks with water spurting from my garden house, hurling unprintable epithets, and other “sure-fire” remedies failed.  I finally lined the top of the ivy covered garden wall with driveway stakes that protrude from under the ivy like medieval spikes.  This seemed to help, but the pointed yellow and orange stakes violate my color scheme.   Could another resolution be to make these raccoons wish they lived in the middle of the I-95 corridor the second they show up again?

Snowdrops for sale (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Snowdrops for sale "in the green" at the Royal Horticultural Society.

Last year I started keeping a running list of every cultivar in my garden.  The list is in the cloud and accessible on my phone, so I am never without it at a nursery.  I did not, however, keep track of where my bulbs are – what an admission for a Dutch woman!  Every year I think I should photograph the flowerbeds so I can see where and what I should be planting in the fall.  I have never done it so I’m always at a loss when the fall bulb catalogues come through the mail slot.  Could be a very easy resolution.

An alternative fall bulb project would be to plant bulbs like snowdrops, anemones, and scillas in small pots to be installed in Spring 2016 where they are needed.   You can buy all kinds of bulbs “in the green” in springtime at any UK nursery specifically for this purpose, and it seems such a good and simple idea; I wonder why I don’t do it, too.  This could definitely be another resolution – a fun one. 


Bearclaw hellebore and Tasselform provide great winter interest. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Bearclaw hellebore and Tasselform provide great winter interest.

The problem with making New Year’s resolutions is that I never know when to stop.   Thank goodness I havea word limit here to restrain me.  The list I started before writing this piece began to feel endless so I’ve prioritized.  In the meantime, when I went into the garden for a breath of air the other day, I came up with the one resolution that I will keep.  Standing in the bright mid-January sunshine, I noticed that there actually is a lot of winter interest in my garden, which is to say that the past few years of planning and planting have paid off.  Bulbs are poking up, hellebores are blooming, and the leaves of some of my heucheras and bergenias have become a gorgeous red.  There are ferns and grasses.  Leaf-mold mulch makes the beds tidy and insulated.  It is very pretty.  What a mistake it is not to pause and admire it! 

My resolution to make no resolutions this year is hereby officially broken:  I resolve to take more time to simply enjoy the garden.  And if that means taking down that damn cherry tree, I’ll do it.







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