If I see one more struggling potentilla…

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What I would like to see in ‘natural’ plantings

I saw those perfect donut peaches at the market on the weekend and thought of all the wedding table arrangements I’ve seen recently on Instagram with peaches, apricots, plums, and cherries on the branch, or scattered loose down the tables. A bacchanalian scene complete with dripping currants and cherries. Sometimes I dare to cut apple branches and occasionally one can find a use for the bright red Evans cherries, but otherwise we would go bankrupt trying to use that fruit here.

It got me thinking about using natives or commonly found things here – it’s uninteresting to be honest. I mean I love all the alpine wildflowers, but they’re basically out – I’m not going to grow them for cuts and I’m sure as hell not going to be foraging them. Even in this year of green abundance, there’s not a tonne that is appealing. Rosehips, I suppose. Some prairie grasses.

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Dad and I were discussing natural plantings in Edmonton – they lack a certain picturesque quality that Oudolf interpretations of mixed prairie plantings evoke. Perhaps it’s the lack of biodiversity and inherent scrubiness in Aspen Parkland. There’s only so many times one can see poplar or birch under-planted with grasses and asters, or god-forbid, potentilla and spiraea. And surely this won’t catch the eye of most citizens. It blends nicely into the contemporary urban landscape, softening edges, but failing to evoke anything bigger.

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I think this is why it’s important to move beyond natives when designing public planting schemes in Edmonton. I’m not saying that our river valley is ugly or there isn’t beauty in the gently undulating landscape of Central Alberta, with its fields and gullies, and shallow windbreaks. But there’s nothing to inspire curiosity or evoke awe of the natural world. It’s too familiar, and planned representations fail to draw anything more significant out of the limited palette. And no, it’s insufficient to chuck in a swathe of a newer rudbeckia variety, in case you were wondering. TRY HARDER. I honestly think people, particularly children, would be more impressed by a wooly burdock or common verbascum grown to full size. Not that I would ever advocate for the use of noxious weeds….

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It might be over soon

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There’s some new Bon Iver stuff out, repetition and melancholy. Perfection. When I look for confirmation of myself in music, it’s usually Bon Iver. I like the routine, and the emptiness that is allowed around it. When every day is your own to make, the space seems interminable.

I love the phrase melancholy and the landscape. I saw it the other day on Federal Twist, in a post that reflects a bit of what I’ve been thinking about lately. Why aren’t photos of bright English borders making me feel anything? Why do I feel a fondness for kale in a mixed border in the evening light? Why am I loathe to stake anything? Why am I so uncomfortable being lonely now when it used to be as natural as breathing?

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It’s a recalibration, coming off a few weeks of working on weddings, and back to my own, solitary existence. Back to a garden that will be taken apart and redistributed in a few months. I make flowers with the mildew ridden ‘Graham Thomas’ roses, sunbleached yarrow, and drying astilbe. I cut whatever I want from the shrubs because who cares, I’ll be gone. There are luxurious bouquets of Koko Lokos and Distant Drums.

I’ve let the frosted explosion grass and cosmos self seed, making the main bed near impossible to get through. It takes me practically 5 minutes to get to the zinnias 3 meters away. It doesn’t have to be this way but I like encouraging the plants’ agency (and aphids). Every spring I never seem to be able to remember just how big individual cosmos plants get. I think I can leave them in between the rows of other plants. Always a mistake.IMGP3643

 

The pounding rains have forced me to corral the sweet peas (now reaching 6 ft and going for broke) with hastily erected trellis I had lying around, and a prison of twine. It looks vicious but already the vines are growing through and softening the look. I can hardly imagine the painstaking work that must go into cordon training them. If I manage to prevent them from going to seed another day, I pat myself on the back.

My garden is not melancholic. It’s just a lot of flowers growing every which way. Flowers everywhere. It’s a mess. Can your own garden ever be melancholic? Melancholy suggests a longing and aloofness that’s difficult to feel about your own work (or lack thereof). Although, yes, it is true that death is always around in gardens and the season might be over soon. Might be over too soon.

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Too, one has to be melancholic, or at least suggestive towards it, to let the surrounding melancholy seep in. Otherwise the garden just looks shabby, tawdry, distasteful. The landscape evokes but I think more often it confirms. Like listening to music or viewing a dance performance, really any art, you either feel the weight of a piece or you don’t. You can learn from something or appreciate it, but not feel it.

Just because something doesn’t strike you one day, doesn’t mean it won’t another, and vice versa. I think this is why good gardens have a variety of spaces, and there is always some point that lets you breathe. Maybe it’s why we love long views ending in classical statuary. Really, is there anything more melancholic than a yew hedge, lawn and a crumbling Aphrodite? A few days since that lawn was mowed, a few decades since that hedge was planted, and a few centuries since that sculpture was discovered, in pieces, in a cave; millennia since it was first made. Time.

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely
in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on the edges
of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then
have to be human–and, escaping from fate,
keep longing for fate? . . .

From The Ninth Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Getting lost in a garden, or having the sensation of disconnect, is another way of approaching melancholy. It’s good to have curving paths and small alcoves. It’s good to be alone.

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And why should it be melancholic? I suppose because there’s a peace to melancholy, there’s no expectation of excitement, joy or curious engagement. It has a realism in its embrace of age, bitterness, and death. It accepts the ephemeral nature of plants and the garden. It opens space for quiet longing and gratitude. At its best, a melancholic garden takes you outside your lonely self and into the company of those others who aren’t present but surely have felt the same resonance of the space. It confirms, and envelops, then fades softly in memory into something more beautiful than it was.

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Walking Great Dixter

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The first erythronium

For those first, heady weeks of spring, when the ephemerals began to bloom, a few of us played a little game: who can find the first bloom of x or the emergence of y. Initially, it was just me being stupidly excited by the first Tulipa turkestanica or frit in the meadow. The first violets, erythroniums, Narcissus cyclamineus. Sophora microphylla ‘Sun King’. I would drag everyone over to admire the miracle and they would all nod patiently. For a week or two it got so intense people started humoring me at lunch: “Ok, Amy, we’re ready for today’s nature walk. Lead on to the next 5 cm plant.”

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Ophioglossum vulgatum

They ended up being some of my favourite times with the gardeners and students because they were always generous with their knowledge of the plants – even if they’d seen something bloom many times before – and they usually took you to see some of their favourites as well. A stray comment about an anemone (pavonina or fulgens) blooming alone in the meadow, had Fergus telling us about how it had been there thirty years and never seemed to expand. Then, he suddenly dropped to his knees to look for yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) germinating, which reminded him it was a good time of year to look for Ophioglossum vulgatum and so we all trailed after him through the meadows, squinting (some were eventually found in the same spot Christopher Lloyd first identified them after waking from a nap in the lower meadow). Or poor Graham, who patiently tolerated my hellebore ramblings and then showed me the best erythroniums and the location of the only yellow snowdrop. Things got a bit dicier with the students – some accusations of blatant cheating and an imposed rule of latin names – but you know, that’s only to be expected (if I’m playing…).

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It’s interesting how little you end up walking around and just looking at a garden when you work in it, so I made a conscious effort to walk regularly, alone. In the morning, the dew or frost glistening, it was usually a brisk stroll, just to check on something from the day before, or maybe to visit the blooming Corylopsis glabrescens. And in the evening, it was often to catch the setting sun, or see what a warm day had pushed into blossom. At lunch though – those were scouting missions. It takes focus to be aware of the garden and small changes. Even now I can mentally walk through the garden with clarity. It’s a comfort that I left when the tulips were at their height – my Great Dixter is perpetually roiled in spring colour.

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The thing about Great Dixter is that almost every day a plant (or five) is putting on a new display. There are just so many plants, so many different plants. It’s hard to overstate. And if they don’t have it now, they’ve probably tried it. We’d go off to gardens or nurseries on the weekends and bring back plants we were excited about and Fergus would invariably have grown it before (and actually, it was growing right now, this very second, in the Vietnam stock bed!). It was overwhelming and thrilling. There’s nothing better than seeing plants you’ve only read about come to life in front of you. Well, except, digging it up, dividing it and potting it on?

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Gardening practice at Dixter is idiosyncratic, as one would expect at a garden created by intense individuals living in the middle of nowhere, England. Four months in the garden has infused me with a new confidence in plants. There are so many forces acting against them – clay soil and poor drainage, clumsy students, neglect, badgers, competitive neighbors and rampant self-sowers, etc., that some days we joked about how they have to really want to live to make it at Dixter.

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Sometimes, the jumble of plants at Dixter is oppressive. The garden drives home the maxim ‘less is more,’ and a light hand when editing a bed full of self-sowers manifests over a period of weeks as plants fight it out. My eye would tire while staring down the Long Border or parsing the combinations in Vietnam. It would tire, and it was only winter/early spring, nothing like the chaos of high summer or the bounty of fall… It’s not that I didn’t know what I was getting into, but experiencing it in person is something else. Walking endless loops failed to inure me to some garden moments. My catchphrase was ‘burn it’.

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And yet, I catch myself looking at our plantings at home differently now – contemplating how another layer of planting might be worked in, or why it might not be totally offensive to have those lime Aquilegia ‘Mellow Yellow’ close to some purple cotinus (perpetually dwarfed by our climate).

Just kidding. I still think it’s offensive. I suggested Geum ‘Mai Tai’ instead of the aquilegia.

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It’s difficult to separate out the garden, the garden walks, from my emotional attachment to the place. I made an effort to look at the garden, but I also lived, worked and socialized in the garden. The beautifully worn York paving stones that define the garden, are also the same ones I’ve spent days weeding; the walled garden is full of the work of decades and an ancient Cistus, but also hundreds of larkspur and nigella that Aideen and I planted; the weird trial strip by the fruit cage is ugly and dedicated to stock but it’s where Susan and I had a fun day working with volunteers, where I spent a few quiet days with Lewis and Aaron when I most needed them, where I watched the tulips succumb in days to fire blight, where I managed to get some cell signal… I have a fondness for it, despite its overabundance of bergenia.

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It’s hardly fair to talk about Dixter without disclaiming my gratitude towards the people there. They gave me months where I had no imperative except to show up to work on time, take in as many gardens as possible, and be with people who love gardens. At Dixter, the world of gardening expanded before me.

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But I also reveled in the smallness of it all. I walked the garden in hopes that I might somehow come to know it intimately, bounded as it is by hedges, fences and property lines, and hundreds of sheep. In spring, their baa-ing was incessant. But like any garden, it grows and changes, even before my eyes I watched beds swallow newly planted seedlings never to see them re-emerge, or a magnolia appear at the back of the long border like a mirage, with a few white flowers faintly outlining it, how had I never noticed it before? And of course I can never know the weight of history, the layers of imprinted knowledge of warm spots and cool, frost pockets, where the wind does particular damage, those are beyond the reach of my casual observances in a short time. But there’s still something to the containment, a satisfaction that each day you are getting better, that you could one day know the paving stones and trees at least, even if the plantings are ever changing or the shrubs sometimes pruned into dramatically different shapes. Even the topiary lawn took a butchering while I was there.

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It’s almost better to think of it as an extended pilgrimage – enlightenment through pacing and futile weeding of the topiaries in the midst of the meadow. What’s done today will need to be done again tomorrow, or maybe in two weeks, or maybe two years, but it’s rarely the last time something needs to be done. The garden is decades of memories of planting, pruning, weeding, staking, soil amendment and the like.

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As Robert Macfarlane so aptly says: “The journeys told here take their bearings from the distant past, but also from the debris and phenomena of the present, for this is often a double insistence of old landscapes: that they be read in the then but felt in the now.” I came to Dixter for its history and plants, and felt Christopher Lloyd’s presence every day through stories, reading, a well-chosen tree, but my day-to-day experiences are superimposed on it, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. There’s no objectivity to my understanding of the garden. I respect it for what it is, and hope that it respected my efforts (and wild enthusiasm) in turn. The pilgrimage complete.

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Did I say I hated forget-me-nots?

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The Solar Garden at Great Dixter

If you’ve read some Christopher Lloyd, I suppose the tulip/forget-me-not combination isn’t that surprising. It’s a “classic” for a reason – the forget-me-nots have a rangy habit and form an airy mat below the tulips, the blue lending the tulips a fresh and springy energy (although it fails to redeem the godforsaken Tulip ‘Malaika’). Both flowers tend to finish at roughly the same time, making bed turn over an easy decision as well.  And once you have forget-me-nots you will rarely be without them, so you can prepare for next year’s display by simply letting a few plants go to seed (as a bonus the clumps of seedlings will choke out other emerging weeds through autumn) and then transplanting as necessary (they’re exceptionally hardy so feel free to dig them up, leave them in a bag in the shed for a few weeks, and then lovingly chip them into frozen soil – not that I’ve done that).

It’s possible, that while transplanting the 3000th forget-me-not in late March, I swore I would burn every one in my garden when I got home. It’s also possible that I scoffed at the Solar Garden bed when the bubblegum pink tulips emerged over those perfect baby blues in a display worthy of Disneyland. What is certain, is that within 3 days of being home I transplanted roughly 100 forget-me-nots as a “joke” and then watched the compliments roll in. Classic. CLASSIC.

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Our Edmonton version of tulips and forget-me-nots

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Forget-me-nots with ‘Shirley’ in the Peacock Garden at Great Dixter

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With ‘Queen of the Night’ in the Peacock Garden

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With ‘West Point’ and hellebores in one of the Orchard Stock Beds

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Tulip ‘Red Shine’ (?) with Euphorbia wulfenii and Acanthus mollis Hollard’s Gold behind

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With Tulipa bakeri in the Peacock Garden

 

 

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Fancy or folly?

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Occasionally, while everyone was sitting around in the gardeners’ mess room, the topic of garden criticism, and specifically written garden criticism, would come up. Each time, it would be harshly denounced as unnecessary – ‘Would we tell artists they’re using the wrong colours?’ ‘How can we cast judgment on something as personal as a garden?’ – and the conversation would peter out. Frankly, I found it surprising that the same people who engaged in discussions on other gardens and planting styles, plants, etc., would then turn around and be so defensive regarding written commentary.

Maybe it’s a protective instinct or maybe it’s born from an appreciation of the difficulties of gardening. After all, so much in gardening is outside of our control, and when the garden is open to the public, all you can do is try your best to overcome climactic, pest and soil issues, not to mention human error, so that on most days the garden is looking good (or at least part of it is). But I also think that much of ornamental gardening is about casting judgment and making decisions based on taste, interest and expression – it’s a visual art form. And when the public is invited in to view a garden, and pays for the privilege, why should we not engage in criticism and reflect on how the garden works or doesn’t work. I know, I’m being reductive on this criticism argument (one could read for days on the purpose and merit of art criticism if they so chose), I just happen to believe that criticism of a garden has the potential to be insightful and thought provoking. Reading it and engaging in it myself has certainly changed the way I view a garden and sharpens my eye and mind.

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Perhaps I should have prefaced this by saying that in the past 5 months, I’ve visited dozens of gardens with others, while also working in a pretty interesting one, Great Dixter. We visited gardens for many reasons, I suppose, but mainly because we like to see how people solve design problems and use plants. We’re always looking and talking about how the gardeners are growing, pruning and maintaining their material. On the ideal garden trip we get the full tour of tool sheds, compost heaps and glass houses, a discussion of their plant propagation and sourcing, and their design methodologies. Basically, we’re insatiably curious.

In England, there’s always another garden to visit. Many of the historic properties (of which there are hundreds) have some sort of garden or landscape park which is maintained to varying degrees. There are botanic gardens attached to universities and colleges, national collections of plants, nursery show gardens, and so on, not to mention the thousands of private gardens full of treasures and personality. As a Canadian, I found the sheer volume of gardens astounding. What was less surprising was how rare it was to find an excellent garden.

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What does make a good garden and how much of our impressions are dictated by the circumstances of our visit? It’s such a broad question and one that better writers than I have lingered over for chapters. But over the next few weeks, as I sift through all the winter and spring pictures I took and post some, maybe some threads will become clear.

Or perhaps it will be a case of the less you know, the better… that pure enjoyment of gardens as beautiful spectacles, the passing glimpses through the hedge transporting the imagination, the instant gratification of a change in atmosphere, a sense of enveloping shelter, how when one is left alone in them they might imagine all the things they might do if they too had endless resources and a modicum of good sense.

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First few weeks at Great Dixter

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The High Garden at Great Dixter

I’ve been a student at Great Dixter for 3 weeks now. It’s kind of like going to gardening summer camp – we’re in the middle of nowhere, our internet access is questionable (hence the poor blogging), accommodations are dated, and we spend most of our time together, whether working or going on garden expeditions or group grocery shopping excursions. The outside world seems far away and I don’t bother reading the news anymore – just gardening books. Perhaps the greatest part has been meeting other young people who are equally, if not more so, obsessed with gardening and plants. It’s a revelation.

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An avenue of yew at Sissinghurst

In the past week or so we’ve gotten toured around Sissinghurst, Elizabeth Strangman’s garden (renowned for her hellebore breeding), Nymans and Gravetye Manor. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to see gardens of different scales and learn from gardeners who have been at it for years and years. Even comparing tool sheds has been fascinating.

As to what we’re doing in the garden these days… well today it was raining so we potted up hundreds of seedlings and lined them out in the cold frames (while singing Mary Poppins). In the past week I have also weeded the paving stones and under hedges, potted up divisions of perennials from the stock beds for the nursery and for the garden, cleaned up and dug over large portions of stock beds (including lifting perennials and dividing them), planted new areas of the stock bed, and cut back grasses, ferns and various perennials. We also split and stripped wood for a new support for an espaliered pear using traditional methods (I say we but I mostly just watched). The list of gardening chores is endless, I’ve discovered. And if nothing else, one can always sweep the paths.

My current favourite plant in the garden (after the hellebores and snowdrops) is Chrysoplenium macrophyllum, which is a beautiful, bergenia-like ground cover, that I will have to get a good picture of. It’s at the back of the border so I need to use something other than my phone!

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Sissinghurst. Classic.

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The back of Great Dixter as the sun rises

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Teasel in the Peacock Garden at Dixter

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Hellebores from Elizabeth Strangman

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Snowdrops in the Peacock Garden

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Gravetye Manor (originally William Robinson’s garden and now a hotel)

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Fall in a NY minute

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October, like last year, was full of garden chores and much digging. We planted 1000 bulbs and dozens of new trees and shrubs, moved a few dozen more perennials and roses, and cleaned up all the beds and mulched. In between we argued about everything from edging type to bulb planting techniques, moved a billion wheelbarrows full of dirt, and generally enjoyed the warm temperatures. When I left on the 22nd there were still a few struggling sweet peas, while the anemones were happily turning out several flowers a day. It was hardly recognizable as fall in Edmonton.

But I had no regrets leaving for NYC. October is a beautiful month there too. I hit up all my old haunts – the Conservatory Garden, High Line, NYBG and Wave Hill. Of course it rained while I was at the NYBG and was entirely too sunny by the time I got to Wave Hill, but that’s just par for the course. I also had a little nap in the sun in the Conservatory Garden before proceeding over to my friends’ place – just like old times. Sorry for the purely phone photography.

 

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