The two feet of snow Winter Storm Jonas has dumped on our Nation’s Capital has not only covered up walks, roads, and cars, but conceals a multitude of mid-winter garden sins as well. “Sins” is probably not the right word, but beneath the snow lie autumn leaves that fell after the last fall-clean up, winter-burned ornamental kale, and the crispy dead new growth of perennials and bulbs that, duped by unusually warm December weather, sprouted too early only to freeze in mid-January.
Beautiful as the snow cover may be (beautiful, that is, depending on how much shoveling you have had to do), I am snow blind. Several days of white on sparkling white and a pile of new plant catalogues have left me day dreaming about colorful plant combinations. Instead of catching up on my too-big pile of work over the past snowy weekend, I was on my computer feasting my color-starved eyes on some of my favorite garden photos. It was an absorbing activity that unquestionably cut down on my productivity, but what good are snow days if you can’t goof off?
I have thousands of garden photos, but I knew where to start: I went straight for my photos of a display garden at the 2014 Chelsea Garden Show, the colors and textures of which especially stand out in my memory. Though the garden featured interesting water features and various structures, it was its plantings that have stayed with me. Its designers artfully created a color palate that was enhanced by the unusual combination of woodland and garden plants and textures. Starting with David Austin roses, (deep crimson Rosa Darcy Bussell, ivory Rosa Winchester Cathedral, and Rosa Queen of Sweden, a pale pink repeat bloomer), the garden included dark pink peonies, slender stems lined with tiny sunset-colored coral bells (heuchera), and white foxgloves punctuated by the occasional deep navy purple columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris “Black Barlow”). Slightly spiky masterworts (astrantias), chocolate-colored cosmos, and tall white and pink mulleins added delicate height but the detail that made this planting a show stopper was the unexpected use of soft, silky bright green grasses (Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldschleier' and Pennisetum orientale ‘Karley Rose’) which bound the plants together into a coherent harmony. Just gorgeous.
Next, I pulled up photos of a garden I visited late last summer to contemplate a more surprising plant combination: A mass of bright lemon-yellow coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) and mauve-pink Japanese anemones. I found the pairing surprising because the only time I have ever put mauve and yellow together in my garden it was an unpleasant shock. I had confidently planted winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) tubers among a group of Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis). I’d never grown winter aconite before, but knew it bloomed early, naturalized easily, and was low growing. I had also read that its buttercup-like flowers were a stop-sign yellow sure to cheer up bleak late winter days. Unfortunately, the hellebores I planted at the same time were supposed to be light pink but turned out to be a dark muddy mauve that begged for pink chinodoxas or pure white snowdrops. The hellebores and winter aconites bloomed at the precisely the same time late the following February, clashing violently in a landscape with little else to distract the eye. While I’m not going to rush out and plant rudebekia among my anemones, the late summer coneflower/anemone combination, was much prettier than I would have expected. I am still puzzling over this. Perhaps it was the orange centers of the anemones that made the colors more compatible or was it the quality of August sunlight?
A less shocking color combination is red and silver. One often sees red geraniums planted with silver-leafed plants like dusty miller but silver and red perennial combinations seem less common. Piet Oudolf, the Dutch plantsman who designed the plantings in both the Highline and the Battery in Manhattan, has combined silver sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) with red lobelia (Lobelia x speciosa) in his garden in Hummelo, NL. It is a wonderful sight, but what is really extraordinary is that sea holly, a prickly, spiny plant native to the British Isles, is a fairly drought tolerant perennial that prefers sandy well-drained soil. Fussy lobelia, on the hand, prefers moist, peaty soils and tolerates part shade. Obviously coupling sea side and woodland plants “works”, but perhaps only in the garden of someone who is as knowledgeable and talented as Piet Oudolf.
For a similar effect, I think I’d plant white and dark red astilbes together like a planting I saw in a seaside garden in Camden, Maine. The two were placed in front of a classic New England dry stonewall, its patina achieved by years of natural weathering augmented with a mottled coat of lichen providing the versimilitude of silver. Stonewalls are a fabulous background for flowers and it is difficult to think of a color combination that would fail to be enhanced by one. While Gertrude Jekyll was right to believe a yew hedge, with its uniformly dark green needles, was a perfect backdrop for a perennial border, a good old-fashioned stonewall can be just as effective.
Similarly, stone-gray pots enhance the colors of flowers. Although some can be too bright (a coating of buttermilk or plain yogurt can tone them down), the subdued grays of metal buckets and tubs are terrific. I was reminded of this when I came across an arrangement of orange Asiatic lilies and white hydrangeas placed side-by-side in gray pots in another Chelsea display garden. So simple and so appealing. I associate orange strongly with early spring and fall, and consequently find it tricky to work with in summer. It never fails, however, to look fabulous opposite white, and the combination of creamy white Annabelle hydrangeas and ordinary orange day lilies, which always reminds me of Creamsicles, is absolutely delicious. It’s lovely to imagine white and orange pansies growing in my gray urns this spring. Just another 6-8 weeks or so of winter and they’ll even be available.
Of course, a more classic color combination is yellow and blue. Last summer I fell in love with purple nightshade. Their star-shaped flowers are really more light blue than purple and have yellow centers, but it’s important to know that the fruits are toxic. Purple nightshade stands up brilliantly to cadmium yellow lantana. Both are reasonably drought tolerant as long as they are infrequently but well soaked, so can comfortably share a pot or place in a garden. The two look amazing beside yellow tipped junipers.
Though the snow and ice still linger, I can no longer play hooky. It’s time to close the photo files, put the plant catalogues away, and put my nose back to the grindstone, but I am still daydreaming. Let’s hope there are no more snow days and that Puxatony Phil doesn’t see his shadow next week.
When I tell people I visited the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced “eye-lah”) over New Year’s, but didn’t tour of any of its 8 whisky distilleries, I am met with understandable confusion. After all, Islay’s single-malt whiskies are world-renowned. My favorite is Lagavulin, a smoky whisky from the south end of the island. Laphroaig is well known for its smoky earthiness while Bruichladdich whiskies are reputed to be among Scotland’s most “heavily peated”.
Confusion morphs into eye rolling when I explain that I toured a garden instead. After being driven through beautiful landscapes; taking a stroll on a sandy beach cleansed by salt-spraying breakers that reminded me of childhood walks on Washington State’s Pacific coast; and visiting one of Islay’s ruined churches, my hosts, a generous Edinburgh couple, indulged me with a walk through a centuries old vegetable garden, now in its second iteration. As a garden designer, I was thrilled.
You might wonder at the impulse to visit a garden at this time of year, especially when warm whisky tasting rooms beckon, but I find that winter is when many gardens are at their most interesting. The wintery Islay House Community Garden, surrounded by a lichen-covered woodland and flocks of geese flying overhead, was no exception. In fact, it was pure heaven.
The 4.5 acre garden began providing produce for the Campbells, the hereditary owners and Lairds of Islay, in the early 1700’s, and continued to provide Islay House residents with vegetables until the 1960’s. Thereafter it fell into disuse and by 2005 was utterly overgrown, its greenhouses derelict and beyond repair. The Bridgend County Centre Committee, a group of citizens, leased the garden, and fortified by volunteers and partner organizations, has transformed it back into a productive and working kitchen garden, growing and selling a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The island newspaper, The Ilieach, and the garden’s Facebook page advertise what is available and, as late as Christmas proclaimed that the garden was still offering sprouts, parsnips, red cabbage, green cabbage, kale, peppers, garlic, and “the last of the year’s potatoes”.
I managed to wrestle the rain-swollen door open and stepped onto the elevated walkway that runs along the base of the wall. It was like stepping into Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “Secret Garden”. Before me was a large, complex garden just waiting to be explored.
The upper walkway was bordered by perennials, shrubs, and trees, beautiful stone work, pathways, and blankets of thick, verdant moss worthy of Kōinzan Saihō-ji, the famous Moss Temple in Kyoto. The surprising collection of yuccas, fatsias ((Fatsia japonica), pampas grasses (Pampus cortidaria), and other exotic shrubs lining the walk evidently comprise a plant collection that was imported from as far away as New Zealand and Chile during Victorian times. The garden is even known among tree enthusiasts for its “champion trees”, including a large New Zealand Ribbonwood (Plagianthus regius), which is has been entered into the UK Tree Register. These plants and trees must have been difficult to procure in the 1800’s, and were probably even more difficult to import since they would have had to come by wagon and boat. They would have been highly prized and assiduously tended by teams of laborers in a time when labor was relatively cheap. It is easy to imagine the proud
owners of Islay House bringing visitors to see their burgeoning plant collection. Would they have shared cuttings of their shrubby treasures?
Given the unusual mildness of the current UK winter, several perennials and plants were unexpectedly in bloom. Especially eye-catching was a Laurustinus (Viburnum titanus) that was covered in small flat clusters of tiny pure white flowers. I love this spring blooming viburnum, though I am disappointed that it doesn’t have a fragrance comparable to some of its other early blooming cousins. A large clump of May-blooming spurge (Euphorbia characias subsp. Wulfenii), growing beside the Laurustinus was also in full, but unseasonable bloom. Together they made a pretty composition on this leaden day.
On the garden’s bottom level, the remnants of last autumn’s veg crop were still growing in well-organized beds. Several rows of unpicked Brussels sprouts had been allowed to grow out of control to the extant that the sprouts resembled mutant cabbages. Beside them grew rows of tall dark purple kale next to dark green kale, contrasting beautifully with one another. Several rows of Swiss chard, a cheerful show of red, green, and burgundy leaves in the bleak, fading light, was ready for harvest. A little further on was an emergent crop of leeks, harbingers of spring’s earliest crops.
Fortunately, the garden’s formal architectural and planting features have been preserved, a reverent acknowledgement of its heyday. They were situated at the same end of the garden as the door through which we’d entered. A simple boxwood parterre divides wide, gracious steps leading from a sundial and a hornbeam arbor up to the site where the greenhouses once stood. The building that once comprised the back wall of the greenhouses still stands and it is easy to imagine smoke curling from its chimneys on cold days when fires were stoked to keep tender plants warm. Perhaps inside were potted fruit trees, forced to bloom early, were carefully pollinated by gentle gardeners who dabbed pollen-covered rabbit foot brushes across cherry, peach, or apple blossoms to stimulate an unseasonably early crop of fruit. There must have been pots of exotic flowers that could be taken to the house for decoration and trays of early greens.
In place of the long-gone greenhouses, three white plastic “tunnel houses” (amusingly dubbed “Tom, Dick, and Harry”, like the tunnels in “The Great Escape”) looked startling modern in this landscape. I didn’t dare peak inside, but suspect they were full of flats planted with onion and garlic seedlings and even annuals, all to be planted outside after being carefully hardened off in warmer weather.
By the time we’d completed our circuit and found ourselves back at the door in the wall, the daylight had waned and it was time to return to the house on Loch Indaal for the traditional New Year’s Day meat pie supper. After dinner, my hosts brought out a beautiful bottle of Bruichladdich whisky and a small pitcher of water: The final touch to a perfect New Year’s Day.
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.