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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Dewy

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A few weeks ago we had one of those perfect, misting rains where the drops cling to everything. I rushed outside when it slowed up to take pictures. I love the way they draw attention to the form of the plants.

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The garden has been good to me this year – more successes than failures. I have a lot of bulbs on order which I’m hoping will arrive in the next few weeks. And I’m starting to take notes and reflect on the season. I had a lot of dahlia failures, but mail-order roses were generally a win. Amaranth and ‘Frosted Explosion’ grass were outsized performers and popular with everyone. I had beautiful cornflowers and some nice zinnias – next year I will give both more room and hopefully will be rewarded with even more blooms. Feverfew got destroyed by bugs so I probably won’t bother with it again. Sweet peas – can’t grow enough.

I continue to be inspired by garden designers and I see their influence sneaking into my floral design. I think as I become a better gardener I will also become a better designer. Both require spacial awareness, and a good sense of colour and texture. Both require so much knowledge of plants – knowledge that I try and absorb every day as I walk the garden.

Links:

Dan Pearson’s Old Rectory at Naunton and related – Pearson’s journal post on visits to Sissinghurst and Great Dixter

Ginger Peach Rum Punch

The work of Marianna Kennedy from Pentreath and Hall

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Already August

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August comes with a certain sense of melancholy – the garden has exploded with flowers, weeds, thrips, ripening apples, fluffy seed heads, you name it – but the geese are already flying over, and the nights are starting to cool down. We haven’t had near enough rain but steady watering has kept most things going. Now I wonder if the dahlias and cobea vine will actually bloom before the first frosts hit. I start contemplating what it will mean to make flowers in early October. I place bulb orders. I think about winter.

When the End of Civilization Is Your Day Job

And another piece on climate change from Rolling Stone

The Strategists podcast – if you like discussing Canadian campaign strategy here’s some guys who can elevate your conversation, particularly if you live in Alberta

Sky ladder made of fireworks

Selfie with Sunflowers

Gorgeous cover of ‘Yellow’ and my favourite song of the summer

 

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Love Calendula ‘Bronzed Beauty’

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Nigella – probably ‘Delft Blue’ but potentially just a random from a Chiltern Seeds mix

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Zinnia ‘Queen Red Lime’

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A non-trifling amount of trifle

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Summer means trifle in our house. I made two huge ones for my grandparents’ 60th anniversary, and also a chocolate and vanilla layer cake with swiss buttercream. I was so delighted by the flowers I put together on the top – phlox, sweet peas, oregano and geranium leaves. Ignore my super crooked writing though! And the little raspberry cake pictured below we ended up eating the next day with some unexpected guests. Always fun to share cake! I used the sour cream chocolate cake from Sky High which you can find on Smitten Kitchen, and then two different vanilla cake recipes also from Sky High. I still prefer the buttermilk one that I’ve posted here. To punch up Smitten’s swiss buttercream I added raspberry jam.

The garden continues to explode with flowers and I’m so excited that the roses have started! All except Poseidon I’ve never seen in person so it’s been fun to study them as they open. Incidentally Poseidon has the most immature buds of the 7 bushes but it’s also the most shaded so perhaps that’s why it’s slower. It’s gotten overwhelmed by the cobea vine which I am contemplating butchering if it doesn’t bloom in the next two weeks.

A good read from Wired on the DNA editing technique Crispr

The best of Poppies and Posies’ bouquets

A review of Hidcote

I always appreciate the sneak peek at Molly’s cookbook shelf

The raspberries are almost done but I might try and make these fresh raspberry scones

Fascinating article on two sets of fraternal twins who were actually identical twins

A quick recipe for zucchini

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Les Quatre Vents

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Two weeks ago we finally made the trek to La Malbaie, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, to see Les Quatre Vents – Francis Cabot‘s garden of ‘Greater Perfection.’ Les Quatre Vents is considered one of Canada’s finest private gardens and is only open to the public four days of the year. After reading about it in various places and being excited by the prospect of seeing a distinguished garden in a climate zone close to ours, we started getting serious about planning the trip last November. It’s hard to believe all that’s left now is to post some pictures (including some from my aunt).

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The drive to La Malbaie from Quebec City is incredibly hilly and probably holds a Canadian record for most signs per capita warning for moose. Nonetheless, it is quite beautiful and affords some top-notch views of the St. Lawrence. I would like to say we spent some time in La Malbaie but truthfully we only came for the garden and left immediately afterwards.

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We had no trouble finding Les Quatre Vents and the organization was very impressive, with lots of volunteers helping out. We had bought our tickets for one of the mandatory guided tours in December, but I was not quick enough to secure a spot on the one English language tour of the day so we were committed to 3 hours in French beginning at 8:30 AM. And it was 3 hours in French that we got. We had brief hopes that one of the volunteers who chatted with us at the ticket area might lead our group but it was not to be.

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I guess I thought it wouldn’t really matter whether I could understand the guide or other people on the tour since I’ve never been very good with group garden visits (they get in the way of appreciating the plants, the space, my personal reactions to it all). But it did matter when we were supposed to pay attention to the (long-winded) guide and were stopped from wandering off by another volunteer, when I couldn’t understand what the other people on our tour were doing (many were wearing safari-type hats and kept taking pictures of the whole group), and when it got tiresome trying to separate out enthusiastic ramblings (“C’est sublime au printemps!”) from instruction. At the end they all sang a traditional song to the guide and other volunteer while we looked on in confusion. It was a strange cultural immersion that left me at a remove from a garden of intimate spaces and beautiful long views.

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And yet, it is a truly remarkable garden and obviously well cared for. If you have been to Stonecrop then you might understand why we went in with low expectations, but the buildings were all beautifully kept up and the plantings lush and healthy. Cabot’s use of hedging and large scale perennial plantings (particularly for shade), plus a clever layout, makes it an astonishing garden to move through since the rooms are very enclosed and each quite different from the last. One of the best discoveries was that almost every room features water – ponds, pools or rills, plus the stunning waterfall in the Japanese garden.¬† I want to re-read ‘The Greater Perfection’ now that I have walked through the whole thing and gotten a better sense of the scale. When you’re there certain rooms seem so much smaller than in photographs but the views seem longer than ever.

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Unlike Stonecrop, Les Quatre Vents is free of plant identification labels. I was a bit sad that our guide warned upfront that he did not know specific names of plants (which was basically the only question I practiced asking in French ahead of time). Accordingly, he did not seem interested in pointing out special plants (of which there were many!!) or giving us much time to closely examine anything (would have killed to spend another 20 minutes in the primrose dell). It was luck, and the sudden relenting of the volunteer in charge of making sure we were on time and didn’t stray, that I managed to get some pictures of the beautiful primroses still in bloom and catch a glimpse of some dainty cypripediums.

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At the end of a quick three hours, after we emerged from the singing circle and walked across the field to our car, we proceeded to spend the rest of the day discussing our impressions of the garden and the tour (two very separate things). My uncle asked at one point whether I preferred Chanticleer or Les Quatre Vents and honestly it’s hard to say.¬†Chanticleer is easy to fall in love with (although I was so sad to read in ‘Hummelo’ that Piet Oudolf hated it). The experience of going to Chanticleer and being able to move along the gently undulating paths at your own pace with no one distracting you from the incredible plants and softly defined spaces- I now see it as the privilege it is.¬† Les Quatre Vents is a harder garden to access in all senses of the word. The spaces are quite formal in tone and overwhelmingly, almost imposingly, enclosed through tall hedging or green walls of plants – being herded through them in a group does not make the garden feel any warmer. But Les Quatre Vents does picturesque like nothing else and takes you all over the world when it comes to influences – it’s clear Francis Cabot had excellent taste. Pitting them against one another is like choosing between decadent chocolate cake and a Pierre Herme macaron – both delicious but one is indulgently pleasurable while the other provides you intense bursts of flavour and sometimes makes you work for it.

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Ultimately we were happy to have made the trip – Les Quatre Vents is undoubtedly beautiful in a way I’m not sure you can see anywhere else in Canada, at least on this scale. Many thanks must go to the Cabot family who continue to open the garden to the public and maintain it at such a high level, as well as the volunteers who make the day possible. They are very gracious hosts. My only suggestion would be to offer a silent tour – I would wake up even earlier to try and get tickets for it.

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