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.
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.
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….
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.
Sorry for the radio silence, I’ve been in Toronto and New York for the last two weeks drinking endless bubble teas and pounding the pavement. It snowed a few times and the wind was brutal, any dreams I had of magnolia were crushed. Instead, I made do with snowdrops, hamamelis, aconite and crocuses, along with afternoons spent in the Avery Library at Columbia reading through their garden design collection and two lectures by Peter Wirtz and Robert Mallet.
Sometimes I worry that after four years of mainly engaging with gardens as visitor or a reader, that any legitimacy I might have had to call myself a gardener will be lost. But the more I listen to other great gardeners whom I admire, the more I realize how important it is to have a good eye and that developing that eye takes time and experience – so just looking and studying is never a waste of time. Frank Cabot’s ‘The Greater Perfection’ is an excellent lesson in this – he has exquisite taste and pulls from great gardens he has seen, as well as his skills as a plantsman, but he also relies on the eyes and skills of artisans to bring his vision to life.
Garden books seem to fall into two main categories – intensely personal memoirs of a garden such as ‘The Greater Perfection,’ or Dan Pearson’s ‘Home Ground,’ and general manuals on growing plants. Right now I find myself craving something a bit more – Russell Page’s ‘Education of a Gardener’ or perhaps Gerritson’s ‘Essay on Gardening.’ It’s not to say that these two are not also intensely personal, with art it seems most things are, but they also lead to broader conversations on the purpose to gardening and human intervention in the landscape.
When I first started gardening as a child, I just wanted more flowers and weird plants – I quickly learned I had to make some compromises due to climate and sunlight, but I never wanted to spend my money on more than one of each kind of plant because where’s the fun in that?! Having visited enough gardens now, I am beginning to understand the beauty in restraint. Even as I get more excited about plants every day, my eye is drawn again and again to more restful landscaping that feature layered hedging or the repetition of plant communities such as one finds in a meadow (Giubbilei’s Chelsea Garden 2009 is perfection in my mind). In a small space especially it’s easy to overwhelm with ideas and plants.
All this is to say that while I feel my eye has improved, my thoughts about meaning in the garden don’t seem to have progressed. Does a garden always have to have meaning beyond simply beautiful plants? Is it enough to hope to evoke peace or to match the architecture? I just want to look at certain plants together. It’s funny, after reading Page and Gerritson, Giubbilei’s book along with Wirtz’s talk both seemed so straightforward: clear design voice and clean plant pallette. I strive for that simplicity, but hope at some point to have conversations on a broader scale. Especially as the way we garden shifts to keep up with changing climates and depleted resources.
While this blog lay dormant I was catching up with some now-familiar parks and gardens, the first of which was the New York Botanical Garden. I had never seen the water lily collection or the rock garden before so it was an especially valuable trip. Each time I see alpine plant collections I get grabby fingers and start dreaming of alpine houses and crevice gardens.
In fact, I just watched an interesting video from the Great Dixter plant fair featuring Peter Korn, who has a seemingly supernatural ability to grow any alpine plant in his zone 4 (!) garden in Sweden, speaking about growing plants in pure sand. Needless to say, his garden has been added to the list of places that I must visit eventually and I am contemplating digging out our lawn to make a sandpile.
Anyways, back to the NYBG; the native garden looked spectacular as usual. Nothing like a large focal water feature to really give you a sense of the space. I also delighted in wandering the azalea garden, where I discovered the hydrangea featured below, Hydrangea aborescens ‘Haye’s Starburst,’ which is hardy to zone 3a. The bushes veritably dripped with the lime green and white flowers. Even more interesting is that Stokesia laevis (pictured below) is apparently native to Alberta. I think its clear blue and textured flowers would be a welcome addition to the garden.
Allium ‘Millenium’ and Stokesia laevis
A close up of Stokesia laevis ‘Peachie’s Pick’
Epimedium grandiflorum ‘Waterfall’
‘Pink Enchantment’ reminded me strongly of a tree peony
The water lily collection is stunning at this time of year. Find them tucked behind the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
Lots of crocuses at the Arnold Arboretum
It’s finally spring in the northeast. Once it comes it seems to be here all at once. The cherry trees and magnolias are blooming full on in Central Park along with the daffodils. The tulips are slower to come but many are already blooming, especially in the tree wells that line the streets of the Upper East Side. One thing that’s nice about living in one of the richest zip codes is that many people and businesses put effort into maintaining their beautiful old facades, window boxes, planters and small front beds.
Last weekend I went up to Boston with a workmate and stayed with her family. Her neighborhood of Jamaica Plain is full of gorgeous old homes, I wanted every other one of her street it seemed. Lucky for us, it was a gorgeous spring day and we saw the nasturtiums at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and then wandered over to the Arnold Arboretum. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to visit again in the summer to see the trees leafed out because the collection at the Arboretum is extensive.
Last snowdrop picture of the year – this one was from a rainy day visit to the NYBG
Hamamelis at the NYBG
Magnolia stellata ‘Waterlily’ at the Arboretum
More crocuses at the Arboretum
Evening walk through the Conservatory Garden