Square One

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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Born To Be Wild

August 25, 2014

Willow flowers, a non-native, have naturalized in woodlands. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Willow flowers, a non-native, have naturalized in woodlands.

It has been a wild summer.  I don’t just mean world news, which I have assiduously avoided because it’s been so grim.  I mean that it has been a fantastic summer for wildflowers, starting with iris, lupines, foxgloves, and columbine and now peaking with golden rod, black-eyed Susans, and tall grasses gone to seed.  It seems that abundant rain and not-so-hot temperatures have been ideal for run-of-the-mill wildflowers as well as some unusual ones. 

Orange day lilies are an import from Asia. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Orange day lilies are an import from Asia.

In July, my Maine neighbor showed me a flower along our dirt road that she did not recognize.  It had a spectacular spike of candy-pink ruffled orchid-shaped flowers arrayed in orderly profusion along a tall stem, and was growing in a delightful tangle of ferns and sedges.  I had no idea what it was, so I sent a photo to my friend, Stephanie Oberle, Director at Brookside Gardens and plant expert extraordinaire.  She instantly recognized it as a  "Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid" (Platanthera psycodes) -- a wild orchid.

While most orchids with which we are familiar are epiphytes, plants that absorb oxygen, nutrients, and moisture through exposed roots, the fringed orchid is terrestrial, meaning its roots must be in soil. There are about 200 species of terrestrial orchids in the US and Canada, including the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid, which, though uncommon, is found inmoist swamps, marshes, wet meadows, and boggy ditches from the upper Midwest to the East Coast and from Georgia to Hudson Bay.  Excited, my immediate reaction was to plant more, but unfortunately, this July-blooming, butterfly-attracting beauty is difficult to propagate and is not commercially available.  It grows best uncultivated in the wild.

Valerian was imported by early colonists. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Valerian was imported by early colonists.

A few days later, I happened upon a treasure trove of light blue flowers growing in the woods. Though I recognized them as campanulas, I'd never seen this color nor had seen them growing wild before.  Fresh from the orchid discovery, I was confidant they were another unusual wild flower but when I looked them up I learned that they are probably willow flowers (Campanula persifolia), a native of Europe, North Africa, and parts of Asia.  Obviously they had escaped the confines of a gardener's perennial border.  Unlike the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid they aren’t native, though they are obviously “born to be wild”.

Determining that these campanulas are imports had me wondering about other flowers I thought were “wild” by which I mean native flowers that grow uncultivated in natural areas rather than species introduced from other parts of the globe.  I looked up orange daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), sure they fit the bill.  After all, they grow in abundance and almost everywhere.  I long to stop along a roadside to dig them up and plant them in my garden.  I am not too cheap to buy them but these ordinary, long-blooming lilies are not available at local garden centers or in catalogues where you can only find refined cultivars with fancy names like "All Fired Up", "Cosmic Hummingbird", or "Flaming Frolic".  A quick peak at the American Hemerocallis Society website revealed that they are actually native to Asia.  I confess I was a little disappointed to find that orange daylilies are just another garden-escapee posing as a wild flower.

This impatiens from the Himalayas is an invasive. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) This impatiens from the Himalayas is an invasive.

I looked up another favorite.  Tall graceful valerian (Valeriana officianalis) grows wild in meadows and along roads throughout the Eastern US and elsewhere.  It blooms in midsummer, producing flat clusters (cymes) of tiny white flowers on slender 2 to 3 foot stems, and is spectacular when it grows in colonies through wild grasses and other meadowy plants.  It is so common, it seems like it would have to be native, a but a little delving revealed that valerian was introduced to North America by early colonists who used it as a sedative to treat insomnia and anxiety.  (Please don’t try this on your own without consulting a doctor.)  Valerian, having broken free of its cultivated confines, has also naturalized, perhaps inspired by its cousin Valeriana sitchensis, a true native indigenous to the western United States.

Blue asters are beautiful additions to any perennial border. (Photo by: Gwendolyn van Paasschen) Blue asters are beautiful additions to any perennial border.

Purple jewelweed, (Impatiens glandulifera), a cousin of the ordinary garden-variety impatiens, was next on my list.  It seems to be everywhere this year, growing in moist lightly shaded areas to about 3 feet tall, with long leaves and disproportionately small orchid-like blush-pink flowers.  A little research quickly revealed that this is a Himalayan native that made its way with a little human help to North America in the early 1800’s.  Purple jewelweed and its relations (orange and yellow) are prolific self-sowers, as each plant produces hundreds of seeds that are explosively released from its pods to ensure they are distributed as far as possible away from the mother plant.  Jewelweeds are considered invasive because they spread so quickly, taking over the habitats of native plants.

I was pleased that the next flower I looked up is a native.  The Smooth Aster, (Symphyotrichumlaeve), is one of the 180 species of asters that are native to the US and is a sweet periwinkle blue, the perfect accompaniment to perennials and annuals of almost any color.  They and other North American asters are commercially available and grow best in full sun.  Smooth Asters attract various butterflies and grow 2-3 feet tall, so are good back-of-the-border plants.  Pinching them once or twice early in summer will make them lower and bushier so less likely to need staking.  Just to confuse everyone, in 1994 experts determined that North American asters differ from asters found elsewhere in the world and so changed their classifications and Latin names.

Just as many plants brought to North America have “gone native”, some so completely as to have become invasive, many North American perennials have done the same in other parts of the world.  Once established in far-away gardens, they have naturalized in fields or marshes or woodlands, growing wild where they find conditions conducive to their specific needs.  It is the nature of things:  “Like a true nature’s child, they are born to be wild”.

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