Winter is the season that separates real gardeners from garden dabblers and real garden lovers from armchair garden admirers.
Real gardeners are the ones who, when December seed, plant, and tool catalogues cascade through the mail slot, display strong preferences about vendors and make well-conceived plans. They have a certain smug gardeners’ “savoir faire”.
Not so me. I am a garden dabbler. A B- gardener. When I pick up a pair of pruners my shrubs and perennials quiver in trepidation.
On the other hand, I am a real garden lover. Sitting in a comfy armchair poring over catalogues and magazines, is fine as far as it goes, but I prefer to be in a garden, especially in winter, when it is easiest to embrace its silence, simplicity, and structure.
When the pile of garden catalogues and magazines reached a critical mass last week I was in New York and I resolved to revisit the Conservatory Garden, on the upper east side of Central Park. It was built by WPA workers in 1937 on the site of an old conservatory, and is the only formal garden in Olmstead and Vaux’s masterpiece.
A client took me to see it a few Septembers years ago just as summer’s glory was segueing into the abundance and looseness of fall. Summer colors clashed with emerging autumn colors, seed heads were forming, and the leaves on the trees were just beginning to drop. It was gorgeously distracting from the garden’s layout.
Not so last week in single digits and worse with wind chill. Snow lay on the ground. The paths were icily treacherous. The garden’s skeleton, the bare black branches of trees, the endless play of light and shade, and its winter silence was completely accessible. The scene was well worth braving polar conditions.
You enter the Conservatory Garden through the Vanderbilt Gate at East 104th Street in the center of the 6-acre garden. The entrance is at street level but a gracious wide staircase takes you down to garden level. Before you stretches a long, wide lawn flanked by clipped boxwood hedges and double allees of mature crabapples. At the far end a pair of long staircases on either side of the lawn lead you up to the enormous ironwork pergola smothered in almost ancient wisteria. The two gardens on either side of the lawn are obscured by the crabapple trees and include distinctive curvaceous walks, water features, and clipped shrubs. Their more intricate and complicated designs, each unique, contrasts with the simple, formal central space.
I walked down the broad steps and turned left toward the section where my client had shown me the profusion of flowers and colors that appealed to her. In the quiet of this sunny snowy January day, those colors had faded to green, white, and beige. Black benches provide accent and echoed the dark branches overhead. Patches of muted gray and brick hardscape peaked out from the snow underfoot. It was almost a different place.
A sudden blast of Arctic wind suggested that I was a little crazy. Who goes walking through gardens in a minus something wind chilled garden?I came up with at least half a dozen reasons to do so.
First, in winter, whether cold or not, you can really see the way a garden flows – how one path leads to another, and how they interconnect with spaces, entries, and enclosures. Look at your own garden now and you can see the same thing.
Views become very important. In the Conservatory Garden, spring, summer, and fall foliage and profusion block out the city. In winter, the geometry of the buildings on Fifth Avenue becomes its backdrop and the inner geometry of the garden brilliantly reflects the strong vertical shapes of the buildings on the horizontal plane in a back and forth visual conversation. The relief of non-linear shapes – curved walks, bench details, the arch of the pergola, and the shapes of pruned hedges ease the harshness of the urban surroundings. If you are a gardener, real or dabbler, this is a good time to look at your own garden to determine what views you might want to integrate – or what you might want to block.
In the Conservatory Garden I found that the absence of leaves, children playing, dog walkers, flowers, and all the liveliness of other seasons leaves a minority of residual details that become all the more important: A robin eating frozen crimson berries; the icicle hanging from the iron work; the shadowy depressions in the snow on top of low clipped boxwood hedges that hint at the “parterre de broderie” beneath; the intricate strength and patterns of bark, branches and trunks inside and outside of the garden. A well-designed garden makes these details, fleeting or fixed, possible.
Winter light is different than the other seasons. Lower in the sky, the sun casts extra long tree shadows in perse patterns so unlike the gray, bulky shadows of trees in spring bud, in summer’s full leaf, or in the tattered partial leaflessness of fall.
And the details are much cleaner and tidier. There are no flowers that need deadheading, no overgrown annuals casually hanging in paths, no colors hot or cool. There is nothing to distract you from seeing the quality of stonework, the strength of layout, the relationship of vertical to horizontal structure – the elements some refer to as a garden’s “bones”. If a garden is well designed, it is a pleasure to look at it anytime of year.
Perhaps the best thing about walking through a garden in winter is the sense of being suspended between one moment and the next: The past isevidenced in the filigreed seed heads of long finished asters or the dried bracts of last summer’s hydrangeas. The future is anticipated in the frames of flowers supports awaiting the delicate stems of top-heavy peonies and the emerging pubescent buds of deciduous magnolias. The garden in winter reflects a time of peacefulness, clarity, nostalgia, and expectation.
One can breathe and reflect. But only if one gets out of the armchair.
Sunday morning found me drinking coffee in my garden. I was up early enough to hear the first planes taking off from Reagan National and to watch the sky lighten. The remarkable thing was not that it was so early on a Sunday. What was remarkable was that I was sitting in the garden in a light sweater with a cup of coffee on the first day of winter. It was a balmy 72 degrees!
The best part was that there is still so much to enjoy in the garden, small as it is. I have always disliked looking at bare beds in winter. Gardens need ‘winter interest’ and this year, the winter interest takes the form of perennials and even spring bulbs as well as shrubs. The first shoots of my hastily and haphazardly planted bulbs are starting to appear, confirmation I didn’t get them in too late. I cut it pretty close, though, when I planted them around Thanksgiving.
There is also some very pretty foliage that has endured our recent cold spells. I planted three kinds of heuchera last spring with the intention ofhaving something to see in the garden during winter and I’m not disappointed. The one called ‘Green Spice’ is especially pretty, because the leaves have green edges and white centers and maroon spidery veins creating a delicate lacy pattern throughout. Small as the plants are, having been in residence for just six months, I can’t help noticing these details each time I walk past them. They will be really beautiful when they are larger. I have sung the praises of heuchera’s before and now am even more convinced that they are indispensible.
The hellebores look great, too. I planted three kinds of these as well, two of which are already blooming. One is the appropriately named Christmas Rose, (Helleborus niger ‘Jacob’), which has responded to the warm weather by pushing out its white flowers practically while you watch. The other is a great favorite, the stinking hellebore for its faintly icky smell (do not cut this one and bring it inside!), which stands tall with vermillion blooms. This will bloom longer than the Christmas Rose, and in spring will be a smashing combination with the various spring bulbs I planted at its feet.
The third hellebore I planted, ‘Helleborus x hybridus ‘Golden Strain’, is new to me. I was beguiled by the promise of a yellow star shaped inflorescence with multiple light yellow petals. At the moment it is showing promising buds but I can’t tell if they are leaves, which hellebores push up in late fall, or the flowers. I can’t wait to find out.
The Christmas roses are planted in two small clumps, both next to deeply colored leaves. One is planted nextto a red leafed heuchera called ‘Palace Purple’, and the other is planted next to Bergenia cordifolia ‘Alba’. The common name, I’ve heard is Pig Squeak so I stick to the Latin. Bergenias, which bears a 12” stalk with a cluster of pink or white flowers at the top in late spring, sport broad waxy leaves that are a perfect glossy green in summer. Their real garden moment is in winter, however, when the same leaves turn deep pinkish red that emphasize the hellebores’ pure white flowers. The combination is visible from my dining room window.
The grasses are cheery, too. There are two. The first was already in the garden and has been moved several times, but seems tough as nails. I am not sure which one it is, but I believe it may be Golden Variegated Sweet Flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’). It looks just as fresh in high summer as it does right now. It, too, looks fabulous against the red heucheras. The Japanese Forest Grass, (Hakonechloa macra‘Aureola’)on the other hand, has turned a light straw color. I love this effect because it contrasts prettily against the dark green ivy covered walls and camellias. Crazy as it is, the combination always reminds me of a ‘60’s vintage bottle green MGB with tan leather seats. Go figure! I may plant more of both grasses in the spring. Full disclosure: My cats love eating the Forest Grass, so be prepared if you have felines.
I mentioned camellias, yes? A previous gardener planted them along the walls of the garden in an apparent attempt at espaliering them, but they were never consistently pruned correctly so they are very uneven. I’m going to shape them into a narrow hedge instead by pruning them in late winter, before they set their buds. They started blooming profusely in November and there are still a few that made it through the frosts of the
past several weeks. While I love the white flowers, (I think they are Camellia x‘Winter’s Snowman’) I’m determined to plant the orange/red ones (Camellia sasanqua) in the front of my house next year. I first fell in love with them in Williamsburg, and then was completely dazzled by them in their native Japan on a trip to Mount Fuji. They were planted in a hedge in the median of a four lane high way. The hedge was perfectly pruned and was miles long. That late Japanese fall day they were in full bloom, miles of reddish orange blossoms – incredible.
Pulling it all together are the pots that I’ve placed around the garden. I usually planted them with white kale and pansies – so predictable! I found myself at the nursery as Christmas greenery had overtaken fall planting, though, and the selection was at a bare minimum. Fortunately, however, there were enough purple Kale and blue pansies to fill my containers, and I snapped them up. It is a pretty combination and I’m quite satisfied with the effect. I tossed some tulips in beneath the pansies and am curious to see how that will look. I have not planted tulips for years because I lived in deer country but I have always wanted to try this trick. Stay tuned.
By the time this goes to press (can one really say that with an online publication?) the weather will have turned colder and wetter, and it will be back to fleece lined boots, warm coats, and holiday madness. I wish my readers Happy Holidays and a Blooming 2014.
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?