Category Archives: Amy

Conservators of the Gravel Garden

The gravel garden on August 31st.

Got home from Dublin last night, a wonderful visit with Aideen and her new puppy. Today it was back to weeding and cutting back in the gravel garden.

July 27th

At the end of the day we walked around identifying tasks for the next week, which include weeding and cutting back in the water garden and reservoir garden. 95%* of our time is weeding and cutting back. Very little time is planting or doing anything else really.

But it’s hard to fault this when the garden looks so good.

June 21st

I know I’ll never be able to resist the allure of combining dahlias and other annuals with my perennial plantings, and won’t have the patience for leaving my borders alone for years on end. But being here teaches one the value of an almost pure perennial border, basically an exercise in restraint.

June 22nd

This is particularly true of the gravel garden. Plants interact with one another but are mostly given their own space to fill out naturally. Knowledge of their growth habits and careful positioning allows them to contribute to the implied pyramids and asymmetrical weighting that make the beds visually appealing, without much intervention from the gardener. Hardly anything gets moved or planted, the self-sowers are truly self-sown. All the gardening comes from dead-heading and cutting back at the right times, careful pruning, editing of self-sowers, and endless (endless) weeding. It’s dynamic through the seasons, yet essentially frozen in time (beds are occasionally renewed but are usually so in tune with existing plantings that the visitor would be hard pressed to notice). We are essentially conservators.

June 28th

 

June 28th

June 21st

Gardening in this way requires a shift in mindset. At Dixter, it’s about dreaming and scheming for new combinations – how to push brighter and bigger and faster and weirder – while also spending an inordinate amount of time trying to make plants do what you want them to through massive amounts of staking, watering, replanting, etc. Here it’s about maintaining some of the most successful, stylish plantings you will ever see. Going over them again and again to get them looking better all the time, but essentially allowing the existing plants to grow naturally (until we cut them down…).

June 30th

 

As we come out of the Dutch Wave, we take naturalistic planting for granted, but when Beth began gardening in this naturalistic but artful style it was brand new. Her Chelsea stands, her books and the garden itself provided inspiration to so many gardeners and designers looking for a more ecological approach. The gravel garden may no longer push boundaries, but it still looks damn good pretty much every day of the year. A living legend.

June 16th

June 16th

May 27th

May 30th

May 30th

May 15th

April 27th

April 9th

April 1st

April 1st

March 16th

March 7th

 

March 7th

March 2nd

February 18th

January 18th

*I made this up. Maybe it’s slightly less. We also have the benefit of not having to do any mowing or hedge trimming and our time spent on watering/irrigation is minimal (right plant, right place!). Also no staking. Thank god.

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Homes, places we’ve grown

Most evenings I wander the Beth Chatto Gardens, where I now live, alone. I don’t quite have a route like I did at Dixter – but the spaces are slowly becoming familiar to me. Since the snowdrops peaked about a month ago, spring has accelerated to that point where the daily growth is now visible. Things bud, bloom and fade in what feels like a matter of days, especially in the woodland and shade beds, which are crammed with all manner of tiny gems.

Today I spent some time on my knees admiring the Erythronium ‘White Beauty’ dotted amongst a sea of Anemone nemorosa ‘Flore Pleno.’ They harmonize beautifully, with contrasting foliage and inflorescence, but the same flushed cream buds and pure white flowers.

While the woodland garden is very much a ground level show, the panorama views in the water garden are sublime, especially with the slanted evening light. Prunus ‘Tai-haku’ is absolutely stunning right now. The clouds of white blossoms with delicate pink stamens, reach down to meet the emerging fern fronds below. It stands out against a background of just barely budding trees and the enclosing black outlines of oaks.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know everyone at Beth’s and we’re slowly settling into some semblance of a routine. I alternate 4-day weeks in the nursery and the garden, with a flexible Friday that has lately been dedicated to things like making flower arrangements for the house and shop, and devising installations for the tea room, in addition to potting up various bulbs and tubers, and pricking out seedlings that are destined for my cut flower border. The joy of cutting and arranging from the garden hasn’t worn off, nor the pleasure of such tasks as cutting all the yellow hellebores in the stock beds (the flowers are just a waste of energy when the plant is to be divided).

The garden and nursery do lay bare the yawning gaps in my plant knowledge and I wear my company shirt with a bit of dread these days as more and more plants catch the visitors’ notice that I don’t know. I’m picking things up, but realistically I should be studying more. It’s hard to find the energy after work though, and I try to get a good chunk of socializing in on the weekends to stave off any feelings of being trapped in the middle of nowhere.

It’s strange to compare the differences a year and a new garden bring. I often felt like I was losing touch with reality at Dixter, high on plants and people willing to talk about them. April proved particularly surreal. The weekdays passed in a haze of weeding, planting, and potting on, and the weekends were consumed with road trips and gardens (Rousham, Stourhead, Gravetye, Sissinghurst, Chatsworth…). I moved into the house, with its particular smell of old fabric and woodsmoke, constantly creaking stairs, the tiny gabled kitchen that hardly had room for the five of us students, and happily shared a room overlooking the long border. I relished the constant company.

This exact weekend last year, we were caught up in the whirlwind that is the Dixter spring plant fair. I was in charge of organizing the plant stand and we duly cut down a willow tree to cascade over it, spent hours moving hay bales and trolleys of plants, baked lots of cake for the cake stand and over two days made countless pots of (bad) coffee and tea. I fawned over Barnhaven’s primulas and Monksilver’s tiny treasures, and bought Beth Chatto anemones as a present. It was exhilarating and exhausting; we ended up hiding out in the bluebell woods for a bit.

This year, I went down with the Beth Chatto crew on Saturday morning, gratefully free of the responsibilities Dixter-ites bear. We quickly set up the stand and were selling plants within two hours of arrival. Apparently we even had a sales record this year!

I have to admit, I was more excited to see everyone than the garden itself. The people are as warm as ever, but for all that the garden once felt like home, it is now largely impenetrable to me. I’ve been twice this spring and both times found myself staring with bemusement at the overflowing beds (although the crocus lawn this year had me on my knees with joy).

After a stumble through the stock beds, it was a relief to emerge into the familiar confines of the Peacock Garden. The view down towards the cat garden, with the flowering prunus in the meadow just visible over the top of the long border hedge, is a week or so away from exploding into technicolour with tulips and ferula. It immediately reminded me of the weeks we spent carefully tiptoeing around the hundreds of bulbs while weeding, planting, and (god help us) tickling out.

I miss being part of that motley crew some days, but I hope a few will come visit me. I keep offering a (non-luxury) stay in my caravan, but somehow that hasn’t been a selling point. The banana cake and peanut butter muffins I distributed at least proved I can still put together a decent tea. I thank Amazon for my toaster oven every day.

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Weekly links: Pro-PC/Post-Election edition

Surely all of us are feeling suasion whiplash after reading 4000 post-election think pieces. It was the party’s fault, Hillary’s fault, racists’ fault, liberal elites’ fault, fake news on Facebook, Russia and James Comey, and pandering to immigrants… The first few days I felt guilt (alongside crushing despair and grief) for falling into the trap of thinking that Trump was too preposterous to ever win, instead recognizing the power of his various anti-establishment, anti-civil society narratives to the downtrodden white middle class. I tried hard to sympathize and understand how they could feel left behind and angry enough to vote so destructively. But when I found myself potentially nodding along to an article that suggested that it was the Democrats’ focus on “identity politics” that galvanized whites into feeling like minorities and lost all of us the election, and that going forward we should be less focused on diversity messaging, I had to take a step back.

One of the best things about being a liberal elite is that I take “political correctness” (spawn of “identity politics”) as a given among my friends. I love it. I fucking love it. Now more than ever. It makes me feel safe and cared for and caring. It opens spaces for dialogue that provoke insight and push us forwards towards greater empathy and understanding. It means that I have to think hard about value judgments and what my statements might imply. It means that sometimes I realize I am prejudiced and have to address it. It means sometimes my friends call me out for things I say. It means I actually have to work on myself.

Consequently, I struggle to find people who argue against “political correctness,” who say that we’re all too sensitive and it stops people from speaking the “truth” – and let’s be clear that what they’re arguing against is really just making an effort to be inclusive of others and not undermine them based on factors outside their control like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. – as anything other than lazy and selfish.* Maybe they also lack imagination. Kim and I were discussing this the other night, the lack of imagination issue, since law school collects those lovable white bros who think that we’ve made progress and now it’s going too far, or maybe it’s just not totally necessary you know? … Are they really unable to recognize their privilege? Do they really think women or minorities can go a day without trying to understand the world through the position of a white male? Or maybe the issue is an abundance of imagination and they believe we’ve achieved gender parity and ended racism??

I shouldn’t put white men on the spot like this – Trump’s election is almost assuredly the patriarchy’s fault (and economic inequality didn’t help). We’re all human and hurting and we all need to work together to build a more compassionate, open community. It’s idealistic, but I’m not willing to give it up – especially not in the face of white nationalism. And there is some comfort in knowing that Hillary won the popular vote and there are millions that agree. In my dejection two weeks ago I was scoffing at all the #love posts but I guess that’s what it’s about at the end of the day, although it’s a complex love, that is forced to reckon with personal shortcomings and the challenges of living next to one another.

It feels more imperative to be open and sincere generally (#love). It’s the best we have. “Post-truth” is more terrifying to me than Trump. I don’t know how we recover from it. It gives me no comfort that John Herrman, my favourite writer of the internet dystopian narrative, was predicting fake news years ago and is now saying it misdirects from the real issue, that there is no trust in “real” news. Honestly, I’ve been disappointed with the NYT coverage lately; I don’t want to see a front page article on Hamilton tweets – now is the time for substantial pieces. They hyped their meeting with Trump so much, and for what? He just pandered to them like he panders to everyone else. I have no solutions for coverage, but this clearly is not it. The Washington Post seems to be doing better – doing actual investigative reporting instead of reacting to social media posts. I shouldn’t be so hard on the Times, but like, now is not the time for click bait. Click bait is the problem. Click bait brought us to fake news.

In an effort to intellectually engage in something non-election related this week (ok, ok, it’s election-adjacent), I re-read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (published 1928), which implores women to put their writing out into the world. I couldn’t have been more delighted by how gently she calls out several centuries worth of mansplaining. So sensitive and yet so firm in her conviction for what women need in order to write and write well. I got to the end though and I couldn’t help but think of Marie Henein’s brilliant op-ed in the Globe (published two weeks ago) regarding the visibility of women needed to ensure we one day get a female Prime Minister or President. Eerily they end the same way. Virginia writes: “As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born…she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would be impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.” Marie writes: “This is what I would like you to tell your daughters today: engagement on every front is the only answer. It means that young women must participate. I do not care where. I do not care what view you take. I do not care what your political stripes are. I do not care whether I agree with you or not. What I care about is that you are seen. In every boardroom. In every school. In every C-suite. In every political party. Engineer. Artist. Judge. Politician. Doctor. Until you cannot be overlooked. Until seeing you in the highest office anywhere is as normal as breathing. The sky is not falling. It just feels a little darker right now. She is out there. I know it in my core. In some school. On some playground. In some boardroom. She may not even know it yet. And our collective job is to light the path so everyone else can find her.” 90 years and the fight remains.

*Like foragers! Tragedy of the commons is real y’all and this time we’re talking about collective human dignity and casual acts which diminish it!

Other links:

From the London Review of Books: Is this how democracy ends?

From Foreign Affairs: The globalization of rage

From Mother Jones: Van Jones: “Hope for the Best, Expect and Prepare for the Worst”

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I hope she gets to say it all

“[T]he out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.

Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence.”

I recently discovered Rebecca Solnit’s graceful essay “Men Explain Things to Me: Facts Didn’t Get In Their Way” and thank god. I know I’m not alone in saying that this US election campaign has made me feel acutely feminine and emphatically feminist; by that I mean, I feel threatened as a woman, but more determined to speak out in defense. I caught myself after the last debate thinking for a minute that Trump had performed better, and then collected myself, because there is absolutely no way he is capable of performing better as an intellect and leader. But he does a better performance of the ‘masculinity’ we face too often – the kind wrapped in hubris and callous disregard. The kind that we meet with slow nods, half smiles and fake laughter when we encounter it in the workplace or on a date. The kind that eats into our time and our well being.

Inhabiting my femininity has felt like a work in progress. Law is, despite a growing number of women entering the field each year (my law class was evenly split), still dominated by men. They’re more likely to be partners, judges, and appear as counsel in civil and criminal cases. I feel lucky to have been admitted to the bar while working for a talented, nurturing boss who gave her support and knowledge freely. Actually, all my colleagues were wonderful women and I looked forward to working with them every day. But court was a different story; there are other women representing clients, but you never see them in the coatroom or standing in noisy knots in the hall. I felt my femininity and youth acutely every time, and was easily frustrated by the petty games and ego-stroking necessary to lubricate settlements in cases, that, quite often, were brought against single mothers (or grandmothers). The structural barriers my clients faced in court, in the welfare system, in the healthcare system, in the workplace… it’s better not to get started. The patriarchy didn’t make me quit (like aversions to lawyering and living in New York did), but it made me wary.

When I decided to start my own flower business, I made a point of introducing myself as a floral designer, “sorry, a what?”, a florist. I’m a florist. Maybe I would say it with a slight blush or a tone of defiance, I tried to be nonchalant. Then my friends would interject, “but she also went to law school!” I hope it’s because they found the career change interesting and not because they felt I needed boosting in the eyes of others. I hated, still hate, having to explain the change, dredging up as it does all my insecurities and an endless stream of cliches, cloaked in the privilege that I have been gifted and am grateful for, mindful of. But I also feel defiant of the assumptions made in contrasting law and floristry: it isn’t a profession requiring a degree, I am self-taught; my daily work is not preventing injustices against the disadvantaged, I just brighten peoples’ day; and while anyone who has worked in the flower industry knows this isn’t true, I assume my peers see it as the realm of dreamy women, not assertive, ambitious ones.

I find a lot of joy in being a florist – growing flowers and arranging them for myself and others; working with other creative, gifted women; helping mainly female clients bring their beautiful dreams to life. Weddings, my primary source of work, are a satisfying rush of competence and hands on labour, laced with ribbons and pearl-headed pins. I’ve even gone so far as to call myself an artist on occasion. And it’s let me embrace my emotionality and sensitiveness, my desire to please, instead of constantly fearing a show of weakness.

I can’t say the gardening world has been as welcoming. Again, there are talented women working in gardens and/or designing them, who own nurseries and write newspaper columns, but they’re still in the minority when it comes to more high profile positions. At Chelsea this year, there were complaints about the dearth of female judges (none in the prestigious show garden category), although the RHS was quick to point out there was an increase in the number of female designers presenting gardens. It still seems like a conservative, old boys club. Just this morning I was reading Robin Lane Fox’s ‘Thoughtful Gardening’ and came across the essay “Gendered Landscape.” He reconciles the dominance of men in the history of land ownership with a few paragraphs on women in gardening (some of whom, like Vita Sackville-West, gardened “in a gendered male slipstream”), but ends the essay rather more emphatically.

“Those haystacks and hedges, those pleasant little coverts, those magical clumps of beech trees: all of them go back to men in the landscape, imposing their masculine gender for the sake of artistry, profit and their beloved country sports. The landscape has a masculine orientation. It is so masculine that I even risked putting the fact to a free-thinking feminist over lunch and asking her what she thought. How would she feel driving home now that she realized that the landscape is imprinted with the tyranny of the phallus and the patriarch? ‘Sexy,’ she answered, ‘incredibly sexy: it really grabs me.’ An alternatively gendered landscape is not what the other gender wants.”

Really, Robin. Thanks ever so much for your contribution. I can’t say the young men in gardening seem any better – hard to say whether this is a function of Britain’s general acceptance of sexism and racism on the street, in the pub, in the newspapers and on their tvs, or just, you know, boys being boys while bonding over manual labor. Regardless, during work, vulgar comments and period jokes are fair game. I should just be flattered that I’m pretty strong for a girl. Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, and I’m sure not all experiences will bear this out, yet I can’t imagine the impetuous to change is high unless more of us enter the profession or society stops finding such microaggressions unacceptable. I’m also sure some men will want to explain to me how there are no problems with sexism in gardening and I will smile politely, cough, agree with- wait no. I will say no. You can and you will do better.

The specter of Trump haunts me. I imagine all the people throughout his life who fake laughed and coughed politely as he spewed hate and lies. In his total confidence, I’m sure he rarely knows the difference. All he cares about is the attention – some article today tried to argue that Trump is compelled to pander to the crowd, hence why he has declared he wants to start a witch hunt against Muslims, but he probably doesn’t actually care that much about them one way or another, so maybe his presidency wouldn’t be as bad as we think (sometimes the content mill generates real hogwash). Watching his fragile male ego self-destruct in big ways to even the smallest of perceived slights illuminates all the small detonations we women face every day, or at least it does for me. And it’s frightening and exhausting, but also a reminder not to stand for it.

I have men in my life who are loving and supportive, who have never made me feel less or threatened because of my gender, who choose not to make sexist jokes or accept them from others. But this is not enough. Trump and his ilk show how the slippery slope of sexism trips into misogyny, both verbal and physical. I am optimistic given the recent polling on minority turnout (especially among women) in the advance polls, but he lingers as an ever-present threat.

Solnit closes her essay: “Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. Things have certainly gotten better, but this war won’t end in my lifetime. I’m still fighting it, for myself certainly, but also for all those younger women who have something to say, in the hope that they will get to say it.” I hope Hillary gets to say it, everything she believes in and hopes for, on Tuesday. I hope we all do.

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July Wildflower Expeditions

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We were just 10 minutes into the hike, one we’d decided on almost randomly the night before and spent an hour preparing for, filling our packs with power bars and peanut butter sandwiches, when we were stopped dead on the trail by two rangers carrying dart guns. Instructed to follow 100 ft behind them back the way we came, we asked our fellow thwarted hikers what was happening – a “sick bear” behaving “erratically.” In those tense 10 minutes back down the trail we made jokes loudly, and darted nervous glances at one another. I wondered how often the rangers practiced firing their dart guns and how long it took for them to work on bears…

Safely back on the other side of the fence, we formulated a new plan. We would do a much longer hike up to Healy Pass. To this day, I thank my lucky stars for that sick bear as otherwise I may have missed the most stunning flower meadows I have ever had the fortune of witnessing; “no imagining can come near to the beauty of things seen.”

Wait, what? Sorry. Been reading too many plant hunting ‘epics.’ Bless.

Anyways, we did end up at Healy Pass (in Banff National Park) back in early July and it was magnificent. I haven’t shared any pictures from that trip, and inspired/threatened by William Robinson’s exhortations on true art, “which is always marked by respect for Nature and by keen study of her,” I thought I should do so immediately. Over the course of the week, we also hiked up to Ptarmigan Cirque, and Eiffel Lake, which had different sub-alpine and alpine plant communities. Only saw one grizzly bear, on the side of the highway, which Sam proclaimed looked “small.” See if he ever gets a 20 page spread to recount his adventures with that attitude…

(This is actually only a small fraction of the plants we managed to see – in the interests of not boring you overly, I’ve included only a selection of photos and plants. Apologies in advance for the suspect plant IDs. There are no rare plant photos because I can barely identify the common ones… I strive to improve in the coming years.)

Healy Pass (maximum elevation 2360 m)

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Veratrum viride, Thalictrum occidentale and Erythronium grandiflorum

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Castilleja, Valeriana dioica, Aster alpinus

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Claytonia lanceolata

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Erythronium grandiflorum and Claytonia lanceolata

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Valeriana, Senecio, Ranunculus, Delphinium bicolor, Aster alpinus, Erigeron

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Castilleja rhexifolia (?)

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Agoseris lackschewetzii

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Valeriana dioica, Castilleja, Ranunculus, Delphinium bicolor

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I have a million photos of castilleja – sadly my ability to differentiate the species is currently non-existent

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A beautifully coloured Myosotis asiatica Sam found

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Cypripedium passerinum

Ptarmigan Cirque (maximum elevation 2415 m h)

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Evidence of recent bear activity

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Anemone parviflora

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Gentianella amarella?

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Silene acaulis

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Micranthes lyallii?

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Androsace chamaejasme, Potentilla, Salix, Myosotis asiatica

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Eiffel Lake (maximum elevation 2225 m)

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Morraine Lake from the trail up to Eiffel Lake

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Anemone occidentalis emerging after snowmelt

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Ranunculus escholtzii emerging after snowmelt

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Phacelia sericea

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Neottia borealis

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Gentianella amarella

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Saxifrages!

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Saxifraga bronchialis

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Micranthes odontoloma

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Eiffel Lake

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It’s fall, technically

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Dixter mid-September

I really hate this time of year – it’s hard coming back from 10 days on the East Coast, which is just approaching peak fall, asters everywhere, to snow and a dead garden. Sure there’s still bulbs to plant, but it won’t be last year’s gentle slide into winter. It’s over. It’s done. I miss my flowers already. Nothing to distract me now from the doldrums of winter except thinking about the gardens I’ve seen this past month.

Last week, I tagged along with the Chanticleer team to see the most beautiful meadow-style planting at a private garden designed by David Culp. It was a minimalist matrix which allowed the few non-grass perennials and self-sowers to fully express their forms. Seen through the veil of spent grass they appeared especially sculptural. It was expressive and tuned into the space – and the evident control exercised over it, in the way a minimalist interior expands before the eye, gave it all the necessary gravity to command attention.

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Chanticleer first week of October

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The beautiful work of Lisa Roper and the Chanticleer team

It was a subtle end to a day spent on sensory overload at Chanticleer. There’s so much to be said about that garden (beyond that I think Lisa Roper is a genius, which is what I spent a good chunk of time silently exclaiming). There’s just an overwhelming sense that the gardeners delight in plants and how they can be combined, and that they’re open to the visitor lingering and looking (I may disagree with the paint jobs on the chairs, but I love that they’re everywhere). I knew it was going to be a good afternoon when there was a stunning combination of a cactus and asters, abutting some eucomis in the tea cup garden… hello. I mean, I don’t even like agaves and yuccas, etc., but Lisa had me believing they have always co-existed naturally with nicotiana and asters, combining in some kind of pastiche on Mediterranean abundance (what?!).

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There’s just something so natural in the way that Chanticleer unfolds – I know I’ve said this multiple times, but the more I visit other gardens the more I enjoy the subtle transitions, the rolling landscape, the curving paths, and the trees. Beth Chatto’s resonated immediately with me because of its mature trees and I wonder if it’s because I’ve spent so much time in East Coast gardens where it’s not about hedging, it’s about copses of trees and shrubs. And the forest is always just beyond, closing in on you and the garden (although in NY and PA it’s of a more reasonable proportion than North Carolina’s slightly terrifying overgrowth). It makes the garden feel much more organic and of place; and I readily excuse the messiness of autumn because that’s reflected from the trees down.

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I’ve never really liked colchicums – in the garden they tend to look patchy and collapse at the slightest hint of moisture or wind (and it’s fall… so poor planning on their part?), but I have to admit they livened up the car park at Beth Chatto’s a few weeks back and they were delightful spilling down a grassy hill at Chanticleer. I love a good bulb meadow and on the grey day, the pinky-purple fairly glowed. On closer inspection, they were a mixed assortment at Chanticleer, with doubles, and different colours. I think what I like about bulb meadows in spring and fall, is that, for the most part, you can easily see the shapes of each plant and flower. I’m struck by the multitude because I can distinguish amongst it.

Great Dixter long border

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Great Dixter high garden (of helianthus)

So we come to my struggles with visiting Great Dixter a few weeks back. I arrived on Friday and we stumbled through the garden just as dusk was falling. Maybe I was jet-lagged, maybe it was the lighting, maybe we were too hasty, but, aside from the beautiful pot displays, the exotic garden, a spare moment on the long border where I suddenly didn’t hate the pine and yucca (should have been a sign that I was not at my best), I could barely understand what was happening. That night I had the sensation that the long border had been wallpapered onto the hedges, the high garden was a seething mass of helianthus and the orchard garden a disorder.

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I have not been cut off from Dixter wholly in the past few months – a perk of friendship – and I have read enough Christopher Lloyd books by now to know that much of Dixter’s summer/fall plantings are not especially to my taste. And so maybe I came to it unfairly, primed for disappointment. We went back the next day for a slightly more leisurely stroll and then worked there on Tuesday and Wednesday. Every day I could feel myself softening towards it – the long border gained depth, the peacock garden resolved itself into a space I could recognize again, I appreciated the plantings around the pear espaliers, I said hello to the hydrangeas in the blue garden that we pruned so many months ago.

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Dixter forces a confrontation with the border taken to the extreme. So often with borders (all art, really), complex representations don’t appeal on first glance, and coming at it from an Albertan scale of plantings certainly didn’t help matters – the visual leaps were that much bigger. Heavily amended soil and constant division means that plants are primed to explode into maximum growth and they do. No one could accuse the gardeners at Dixter of not knowing how to grow plants. They do big square blocks of plantings and the plants sit as close together as possible. The impression is a rich tapestry of colour and texture. When my eye finally resolved the borders into constituent parts, I was astonished by the plants used, particularly in the long border.

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Amicia zygomeris in the foreground, Dahlia ‘David Howard’, Tetrapanex and Musa basjoo (a hardy banana)

I do feel like the endless lectures of gardening for foliage are slightly hypocritical when looking at summer/fall borders like Dixter’s (I am mainly referring to the long border here). You can’t even see the foliage. Or what you can see is quickly mildewed, desiccated, frayed. The best foliage is unarguably in the exotic garden, which was everything I could have asked for – lush and humming with its own green energy. It’s a stroke of genius that rewards time and again. There, the overwhelming nature of the plantings work.

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Begonia ‘Burle Marx’ underplanting

The exotic garden also rewards the visitor with a close look at unusual plants that have been allowed to maintain their form (as opposed to be grown so closely together they meld into one mega-plant). I was struck by Amicia zygomeris and Telanthophora grandiflora. And the textural carpet of begonias (‘Burle Marx’) is yet another reason to celebrate bedding out. (Honorary mention goes to a beautiful moment in the barn garden with melianthus, a dark red dahlia and one of the osmanthus. The lower steps from the mosaic garden also had a beautiful pot display of hostas, begonias and other foliage-rich plants.)

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Symphyotrichum laeve ‘Les Moutiers’

A few days later, after more heat, the asters started to bloom in the peacock garden, lightening the space. There’s nothing like a good aster. ‘Little Carlow’ and ‘Les Moutiers’ are standouts. I learned the name of the mystery, feather-leaved plant I kept batting off while going into deadhead – Helianthus salicifolius (of course it was a helianthus….), cursed the beautifully treacherous Rubus thibetanus, and got some lessons in Dixter staking. And every time I came down the steps with a full bucket of weeds, I took a moment to appreciate the Plectranthus argentatus, with its beautiful silvery foliage.

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Plectranthus argentatus above the cat garden

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Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders,’ Verbena bonariensis, and the spent seedheads of Selinum wallichianum (and a bit of the insane 10 ft cosmos…).

I saw the Plectranthus again in a private garden headed by another Dixter alumnus and the same Helianthus appeared in the Chanticleer cut garden which is presided over by a past Dixter scholar. It’s fascinating to see Dixter re-imagined by others. In the private garden, annuals are used more sparingly, but gracefully, in the long border, and the overall effect is softer and invites the visitor’s eye into the very back of the bed. The colour schemes are more harmonious. There was a particularly good moment at one point, with Salix purpurea ‘Nancy Saunders,’ Verbena bonariensis, and the spent seedheads of Selinum wallichianum. It’s still Dixter in its sensibilities and plant choices, but the plants are given more space and support.

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Chanticleer cut flower garden in early October

The Chanticleer cut flower garden was stunning. As with the private garden, there is a huge reliance on cannas for height, colour and foliage impact. But putting them on the outside of the border as punctuation was so fun, especially in combination with Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’, Persicaria orientalis ‘Shiro-Gane Nishiki’ and Dahlia ‘Glorie van Heemstede.’ (Side note: thank you to Eric, who makes the best plant lists of any garden). It felt like what Dixter’s high garden could be. Height on the edges is engaging, but only if you can see through to the center and I appreciated the Chanticleer beds for the editing. Even in the late season chaos, it was engaging and beautiful. It was a strong entry for why deep beds that rely on annuals (or perennials used as annuals) can be powerful and worth the effort.

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Canna ‘Bengal Tiger,’ Eupatorium capillifolium ‘Elegant Feather’ and Dahlia ‘Glorie van Heemstede.’

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And while we’re on the subject of annuals, I thought the addition of zinnias and verbena to a grassy area was clever and fun – the possibilities for a loose meadow-based matrix then become endless. Have I mentioned how I much I enjoy the playfulness of Chanticleer? I also love the invitations to sit in the garden. I miss that at Dixter – there are few spots to just luxuriate in the surroundings or that suggest to the visitor a particularly nice view. Maybe that’s what makes the experience that much more overwhelming – you never get a rest!

Dixter continues to be an outsized influencer, with good reason. It is always full of gorgeous, surprising plants, and possesses a tangibly generous spirit. If anything, seeing its distinguished traits translated into new spaces by different gardeners, has gotten me even more excited about the coming years in our garden. As always, Dixter and its people, past and present, were warm and endlessly hospitable. It has been such a treat to spend time with so many gardeners (at Dixter, Chanticleer, Beth Chatto’s and private gardens) in the past month and I’m grateful to all of them for sharing their time, knowledge and enthusiasm.

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My favourite part of the Dixter long border

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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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