Gnomes were coming out of the woodwork at the Chelsea Flower show last month. So intent was I on the fabulous display gardens that I didn’t notice until a pair of gnomes were interviewed by Sarah Lyall of the New York Times right in front of me. That’s not something you see every day.
I only had four and a half hours to see everything at Chelsea before the announcement inevitably came asking everyone to leave (very politely) because the Royal Family was about to arrive. You would think four and a half hours would be plenty of time, but it wasn’t. I never even made it into the Grand Pavilion.
The most striking garden this year was designed for the Telegraph by the UK’s hot designer, Christopher Bradley-Hole. Inspired by plants frequently found in the English landscape, by Japanese gardens, and by modern art, Bradley-Hole brilliantly combined geometrically clipped boxwood and yew hedges with soft grassy flowering perennials and black basins of still water to create a pattern of dark and light greens and reflected light. Rough-hewn vertical timbers delineated the dark L-shaped walkway on the garden’s perimeter, providing a strong contrasting vertical pattern. It was gorgeous; very sophisticated. As I gazed at it appreciatively, though, something nagged at me. It struck me that there was no place to sit, not even in the surrounding walkway.
Some gardens are made exclusively for looking at, but it seems to me that a garden without a place to sit is missing a primal element. As Jane Austin’s character, Fanny Bryce (Mansfield Park), says, “To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment.”
As a consequence, I became obsessed for the rest of the day not with gnomes, but with garden seating. All gardens, urban, suburban,
or country, need seating. Where else can a gardener rest and take in his or her work? a lover woo? a reader read? entertainers entertain?
As it was, the Chelsea Flower Show, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, included numerous diverse and beautiful seating arrangements. Several offered perfect inspirations for Georgetown gardens.
For instance, the elegant garden designed by Robert Myers for the investment firm, Brewin Dolphin, included both informal and formal seating in a very modern garden planted with plants native to the UK. The informal seating was comprised of four giant river stones that an adult might not sit on for long, but children indubitably would be tempted to play on. The stones bridged the gap between the formality of the garden’s strong geometric spaces furnished with white chairs and tables, and the softer plantings in the quadrilateral planting beds. Boxwoods sculpted in similar forms and set amongst the plantings repeated the stones’ rounded, organic shapes. It was just the right arrangement and tone for entertaining.
Another garden, done for the City of Stoke-on-Kent, presented sunken areas for dining and seating. Sunken gardens can be difficult to build in small level gardens, drainage and other considerations being what they are, but a wall or hedge can be used to replicate the sense of being nestled into a secret, intimate space. The intimacy of the seating area was irresistible in the Stoke-on-Kent garden. One could easily spend hours here, deep in conversation, distracted by nothing but soft planting, the sky, and one’s companion. The pillows would inevitably wind up on the ground, but no matter. Confidences and good gossip could be privately shared here without fear, dare I say, of government surveillance.
A more solitary seating arrangement formed the core of the Massachusetts Garden designed by hand bag designer Susannah Hunter and garden designer Catherine McDonald. It seemed ideal for a good long read, so it wasn’t surprising that it was inspired
by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Two features I especially loved in this garden, enhanced by large leather-embossed panels and a pool of water, was that a small table accompanied the chair – so practical but not always though of – and the fact that it was sitting on gravel. Somehow the crunching offootsteps on gravel always lends the verisimilitude of being once removed from reality. Who doesn’t love escaping now and then? I can envision this small setting being replicated in one form or another in the smallest Georgetown garden with complete success.
A garden bench in the Centenary garden was similarly inviting, and was clearly where Fanny Bryce would have been at home, sitting in the shade to “look upon verdure”. This garden, designed by Roger Platts, was a celebration of 100 years of British gardening trends and elements. Set against a brick wall amongst miraculously overgrown rhododendrons and various perennials (the miracles of English nurseries were in abundance
throughout the show), the bench was clearly meant for a brief sojourn. It didn’t look comfortable enough for an afternoon’s read but it was certainly adequate for a good chat with a friend or fifteen minutes rest and contemplation. And so easy on the eyes! Just looking at it conveyed solace and peace. I could see this in a long narrow garden where there’s just enough room for a walk and a strip of planting.
In the end, I could not resist the whimsical wood and glass capsules offered for sale on the farside of the Grand Pavilion. Anyone longing for a quiet place to sit in a garden dominated by urban noise (say, planes flying overhead and sirens sporadically blaring) would be drawn to these "rotating sphere loungers," as they are called by their vendors, Ornate Garden. Used as a small dining or seating nook, these space-age rooms are weather-proof and noise-quelling. I was a bit nervous about sitting in one, however, fearing that they might really be teleporters or time-travel pods. Who knows where you could wind up?
In a garden populated with gnomes, perhaps?
If T.S. Eliot had spent Aprils in Washington he might have started “The Wasteland” out differently. In Washington, April is hardly, as he famously wrote, “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs from the dead land”.
At least not this past week or so, when days have been relatively warm and sunny, and the buds on every tree and shrub visibly swell with each passing hour. When it hit 80 degrees last week, I headed for the nursery.
This was my fourth nursery trip this year – and it is only April. My first was in mid-February when I wandered off to one of my favorite nurseries in Connecticut. Covered in snow, it was closed. In early March I found that though the nurseries here weren’t closed, they weren’t carrying much besides pansies and other annuals.
So last week, I was ready. I’ve just finished the long planned revision of my garden in which, to the horror of a surprisingly large body of friends, I replaced every blade of grass with gravel and paving. It’s lovely. Spacious and open, it has plenty of room for entertaining and lounging, as well as three tracts of empty soil just waiting to be planted.
My thought is to plant my garden in pale yellows and bluish greens, with lots of texture and, of course, year-round interest. For me, pale yellow does something special to a garden. It feigns sunlight in dark or dappled places, sets off brighter colors, and never seems to fade in the heat of a Washington summer day. Pale yellow and bluish greens are gorgeous together. I plan to have big pots of annuals, so my borders need to be neutral enough to work with anything I choose to put in the pots in the years to come. Orange, pink, white, apricot, and myriad other colors complement pale yellow and bluish green.
As I drove out River Road, the excitement of finally planting my new garden overwhelmed my training and experience as a garden designer. Discipline yielded to exuberance and impulse. I didn’t care. I had a serious case of gardener’s spring fever.
All winter I have dreamed of planting yellow Knockout roses. It’s a bit of an experiment because my garden is not especially sunny, but I can’t waitto try them in the one spot where perennial salvias bloomed last year (casualties, alas, of the excavation for the new stonework). Disease resistant Knockout roses start blooming in May and persist well into late fall when they finally succumb to the first serious frost.
I have also been thinking I might try Annabelle hydrangeas. They are not exactly yellow but a creamy white that fades to light green as summerprogresses. Then there are azaleas. And I wants lots of yellow foxgloves, euphorbias, forget-me-nots, ferns, hostas, toad-lilies and and and …
By the time I pulled into the crowded parking lot (I wasn’t the only one with spring fever) I had worked myself into a frenzy. I picked out a pair ofshovels and loaded five or six bags of potting soil in the car. Then, it was off to the plants. There were lots of early blooming perennials but I just couldn’t pick so I drifted up past the vines to the shrub department. The evergreen Armand’s clematis (Clematis armandii) was in full bloom (I had spotted it weeks ago on a fence in the East Village) but I wasn’t sure where I’d plant it or what its’ sun requirements are. There were no roses, no hydrangeas, no late summer blooming perennials like hostas. What a disappointment! Perhaps April is the cruelest month, I thought, after all.
Slowly, disappointment gave way to sanity. Other than a color palette, I had to admit I had no plan. I had no idea what I wanted to plant besides Knockouts, yellow foxgloves and hellebores. Did I even want shrubs? What was I thinking?
I slaked my plant appetite with begonias and clematis, and drove back to Georgetown silently lecturing myself about the need to make a planting plan so I could proceed exuberantly but sanely. I sternly reminded myself of my own planting rules.
First, I must make a list of what’s important in this space. If possible, every plant should have more than one season’s interest, especially in a small garden. That could be any combination of bark, foliage, inflorescence, texture, or berries. My second requirement is that everything has to be a super-favorite plant, a delight in deer-free garden.
Next comes the color palette. My summer palette will be yellow and blue, but it should change throughout the seasons. I love unrestrained color in early spring and lots of fall colors with a good dash of purple worked in for autumn. In winter it can be reds, whites, and even yellow or chartreuse.
Then I will make a list of all the perennials, trees, and shrubs, I want, based of course on my first two lists. It is important to have a good sense of the soil and sun/shade conditions before beginning this process. My list is long, but I surprised myself by I ruling out most shrubs and trees once I actually thought about it.
I will take this third list and sit in my garden to review and try to envision where each plant will be. My rule is that if you can’t envision it, it’s off the list. The final list usually needs one more cut if you are plant crazy. I know from experience that a garden often ends up looking like a plant sale or a pig’s breakfast when you try to fit everything in. It’s better to plant fewer different species boldly than to plant a little bit of a lot of different things.
Finally, I need to measure my borders and draw them to scale so I can mark down where my choices will be installed. You can take a photo of yourspace and mark that up if it is easier. This will help me determine quantities. Then I will return to the nursery to buy what is available on my list, leaving spaces for anything that won’t be in stock until later in the season. If you can’t bear empty spaces, you can always tuck a few annuals in as fillers.
A true gardener will always be tweaking and bringing home something new to tuck in somewhere, but as long as you have a plan, you will start the process off without too many costly mistakes. April is not so cruel after all.
This week is going to be hot. After walking on the sunny side of the street to stay warm for the last three months, I am looking forward to being warm enough to walk on the shady side of the street. Thanks to Trees for Georgetown and the street trees it has planted over the past 14 years, there is always plenty of shade to go around.
The tradition of planting trees began with Thomas Jefferson, who was distressed over the destruction of natural groves of trees in Washington which were being felled as the city grew. Unable to stop this trend, Jefferson directed that Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra), a native of Italy, be planted along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House – the first recorded planting of street trees in Washington, DC.
According to Melanie Choukas-Bradley and Polly Alexander, authors of the excellent book, “The City of Trees”, the practice of adding and preserving trees in Washington was continued on by the landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, in the mid-1800’s; Alexander ”Boss” Shepherd (the second of two District Governors); and the planting of the cherry blossoms given to the United States by Japan in 1912. Today, Washington boasts one of the most diverse and extensive tree canopies of any city in the world.
Street trees need to be maintained and replaced when they die. Fortunately for us, Trees for Georgetown, a volunteer committee of the Citizens Association of Georgetown oversees this effort in our community. This year, Trees for Georgetown hopes to plant up to fifty trees.
“We’d love to plant more, but it all depends on how much money we raise at this year’s Spring Celebration on May 8th”, says Betsy Emes, long-time chairperson. “Every year we lose trees and it’s important to keep replacing them. One of our oldest trees was lost to Hurricane Sandy last fall, and another was knocked over in a traffic accident. Other trees have been lost to drought, and other acts of God and people so we are always replacing them.”
On May 8th, Trees for Georgetown will hold its annual spring celebration and fundraiser to help raise money for its work. It is also launching a new program that will help Georgetown residents connect and care for its street trees. Called the “Georgetown Initiative for Family Trees (GIFT)”, the program ‘s mission is to “root the people and businesses of the community to the trees that shade our streets”. Jackie Pletcher and Constance Chatfield-Taylor, two of the co-chairs of the Spring Celebration, are excited at the prospect of connecting residents and their trees.
“When I was a child, we planted mimosa trees in our garden, and we watched them grow as we grew up”, said Constance. “GIFT gives people and families right here in our neighborhood a chance to do the same thing."
Georgetowners will be able to sponsor a tree, whether to celebrate the birth of a baby, commemorate the passing of a milestone, memorialize a special person, or even to honor a pet. Each sponsored tree will be marked with a tag containing a QR code that will list the reason the tree was sponsored, by whom, and what species of tree it is. QR codes are the next generation of bar codes and can easily be read with a smart phone equipped with a special app that can be loaded for free. GIFT’s vision is to fill every tree box and maintain and name every tree in Georgetown.
Since its inception in 1989, Trees for Georgetown has planted over 2000 trees, provided tree box fences, and watered our street trees in partnership with the Urban Forestry Administration and Casey Trees.
The Spring Celebration will be held on May 8th from 6:00-8:00 pm. For more information on how to sponsor a tree ($500) or have a tree planted ($1000) by GIFT, please call 202.345.2400 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org