Anatomy of a Garden: Meadowburn Farm

The house today at Meadowburn Farm

The house today at Meadowburn Farm

To restore a historic garden is to play the roles of archaeologist, historian, and horticulturist all at once – one must carefully recover the remnants from years of neglect and decay, understand the creator’s style and philosophy, and recognize the surviving desirable plants among the weeds. It is a monumental task that Quill faced with magnanimity upon taking on Meadowburn Farm.

The bones of the garden, however illegible underneath tree roots and overgrown shrubbery, persist, and archives, the tangible documents of the creator, hopefully preserved and catalogued elsewhere. Hardy plants from an era still eke out a brave existence and may be linked to cultivars lost to cultivation. A team of eight gardeners once tended the estate under Mrs. Ely’s direction; today the same responsibility falls on Quill and her small team.


 The Formal Garden

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Very little of Ely’s original plantings survive to this day – the boxwood hedges and Catalpa standards have all, but disappeared and native goldenrods and weeds encroached where perennials and biennials petered out. The pergola has not changed, although the arches are now blurred from the rampant growth of the wisteria. However the Virginia creeper that once decorated the colonnade is gone, although it is still found in the neighboring woods.

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To rid of the Formal Garden the perennial weeds like bindweed and Pinellia, Quill dug up the entire beds and saved, cleaned and transplanted the worthwhile plants temporarily to the Picking Garden. She then began the slow, but necessary process of spraying herbicide and using a cover crop to suppress any remnant weeds. It is a time-consuming process that can save years of headache from controlling perennial weeds in old gardens. Tom Coward faced the same challenge of eradicating bindweed at Gravetye Manor when he undertook serious restoration of the garden – the beds were dug up, sprayed, and planted with annuals because perennials infested with bindweed are difficult to clean.

The Evergreen Garden

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The Evergreen Garden is entirely devoid of flowers for good reason – Mrs. Ely wanted to demonstrate the beauty of evergreens, particularly conifers. In the Practical Flower Garden, she wrote: “All evergreens inspire me with a feeling almost akin to worship, possibly a heathen trait which has survived generations of civilization, so that it is a great trial to me not to be able to grow the evergreen family successfully.” Despite the climate Ely’s perseverance led to a  few of the conifers, Juniperus virginiana and Tsuga canadensis, successfully establishing and surviving neglect and deer to give the Evergreen Garden a protective enclosure of greens. However, the scale has changed – no longer do the different conifers (presumably dwarf varieties) in the left of the historic photograph exist (probably shaded out by the trees) nor does the hedge appear discernible in the right photograph. The stone terrace have lost its definition, and the fruit stone urns now are out of sight rather than flanking the steps.

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Slowly step by step is the Evergreen Garden beginning to regain its former semblance during Ely’s time. The misplaced Colorado blue spruce has been removed, permitting a clear view of the stone reliefs behind the fountain. On the left, fencing has been set up to confine the goats to the area in need of clearance from undergrowth.

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Quill has reinstated the original Thuja hedge to screen the adjacent road. The hedge has been planted with a mixture of ‘Green Giant’ and ‘Steeplechase’ to create privacy within reasonable time.


The Stone Terrace in the Evergreen Garden

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Already buckling from the tree roots, the stone terrace was initially covered with moss, grasses, and weeds that took advantage of organic debris accumulated over the years between the crevices. Quill cleaned the stone terrace of its vegetative covering and this past autumn her mother assisted with leveling the stones (no easy job that called for heavy lifting, crowbar, and spade).


The Picking Garden

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The central axis of the Picking Garden is relatively unchanged prior to Quill’s arrival. In 2012, the dahlias were not tied regularly and their stems heavy with flowers flailed without support. However, Meadowburn Farm was running on limited help and the gardeners, especially Walter DeVries did keep the plants going from year to year. When Quill stepped in full-time in 2013, the dahlias received greater attention and the cedar stakes are scarcely visible. In addition, the turf path was mowed and the beds were edged.

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A decision was made to remove the turf pathway in favor of a gravel pathway since wear and tear from frequent foot traffic was causing turf to die back in sporadic spots. Turf maintenance then was lessened, leaving Quill and her team to concentrate their energies elsewhere. The beds also received generous amendments of compost, causing a tremendous improvement in vigor and flowering of the dahlias (plants were high as 7′ tall and could be seen across the road). It enabled Quill to supply cut dahlias for florists in New York City, a source of revenue for Meadowburn.

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Dating from 1917, the original 160′ Thuja hedge (Thuja occidentalis ‘Nigra’) (far northwest corner of the photograph), which divides the Picking Garden from the Formal Garden, had lost its linear symmetry as age and bad weather decimated some plants.

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In fall 2013, a new hedge replaced the old one, returning the garden a sense of structure.


Natural Weed Control at Meadowburn Farm

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Unwanted weeds, especially perennial and woody ones, are sometimes difficult to eradicate in neglected gardens, and unfortunately poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) (in autumn glory on the left photograph) is a constant battle for Quill to remove from the garden. Anyone who has suffered from a bout of poison ivy can attest to the irritating painful rash from the plant’s sap. Cue in goats who will happily devour poison ivy, and Quill brought in two young goats named Moses and Tucker (the right photograph) to rid areas infested with poison ivy, barberries, and other weeds. However, the goats will not touch Ageratina altissima (syn. Eupatorium rugosum), a white-flowering herb poisonous to livestock. Because goats eat almost indiscriminately, fencing is needed to confine them and protect the garden from being emptied of its desired ornamental plants.

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The tactic of using goats as green machines is surprisingly effective when one sees the results afterwards. The photograph above shows how this slope once covered with barberries and other weeds has been cleared, saving manpower elsewhere where goats cannot be used.


Photographic Credits: Historic Photographs – Walter DeVries and B. Danforth Ely; Before Photographs – Quill Teal-Sullivan

Dahlias of Meadowburn Farm

“The many varieties and wonderful colors of the modern dahlia make it a totally different flower from the one our grandmothers knew. The names are descriptive of the different varieties, and as there are so many of them, and they bloom from early in June or July until frost, a garden of dahlias might be very interesting.” ~ Helena Rutherfurd Ely in The practical flower garden

No picking or cut flower garden is complete without dahlias, which have enjoyed a renaissance from the local cut flower movement, and Mrs. Ely was right to enthuse about their shapes and colors.  The survival of the Meadowburn dahlias is largely due to the three generations of Furman family who painstakingly dug up and overwintered the tubers, divided and replanted them in spring, and staked the plants unfailingly with cedar posts.

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Top Row (Left to Right):  ‘Helena Rutherford Ely’, ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’, ‘Jane Cowl’

Middle Row (Left to Right): ‘Meadowburn Albert Furman’, Assorted varieties, ‘Clara Ellen’

Third Row (Left to Right): ‘Danny Bea’, ‘Meadowburn Walter DeVries’, ‘Meadowburn Old Tweet’

 For more information regarding these varieties, please visit Meadowburn Farm’s page on dahlias.

Tubers of these varieties can be ordered and dispatched for early spring delivery as soon as weather permits. Please contact Quill at info@meadowburnfarm.com for availability and ordering information.

5-10-5: Quill Teal-Sullivan, Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm

UPDATE:
Quill is now the Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens, Seattle, Washington State.


Like her classmate Wonsoon Park, Quill Teal-Sullivan was a Longwood Graduate Program student whom I became acquainted at various public garden events in the Philadelphia region. Her graduate studies led to her current position as the garden manager of Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the New York State border. A West Coast transplant from Seattle, Washington State, Quill comes from a very creative family – her mother is a garden designer and horticulturist, her father a potter and architect, and her sister an artist and designer!  Her boundless energy and enthusiasm comes across in her work and her personality! I was very fortunate to have her company during my too brief idyllic stay at the garden.


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Can you introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Quill. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. I currently direct the preservation efforts of the 130-year-old gardens at Meadowburn Farm, which were designed and built by Helena Rutherfurd Ely.


 

Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden's character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden's pastoral settling and its age.

Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden’s character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden’s pastoral settling and its age.

The arts or the garden?
Gardens as art!


 

What is your first gardening experience?
I have been gardening alongside my mother for as long as I can remember. When I was around 5 years old she gave my sister and I our own little garden beds where we could plant anything we wanted. I planted sky blue delphiniums that grew so big!


 

Baking and gardening are analogous - both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.

Baking and gardening are analogous – both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.

You worked in Seattle bakeries prior to your full dive into horticulture. Baking and gardening are nearly analogous – both, being an art and science, require patience, nurturing, and senses. As far fetched as it seems, how has baking help you become a better gardener?

It is so very true that gardening and baking have much in common, and it seems that people who enjoy gardening often enjoy baking. Although, in the early mornings when the sun rises and the birds awake, the bakers day is ending while the gardeners day is just beginning. This fact makes a world of difference. I would say that, more than anything else, my experience as a professional baker gave me great practice in putting my work out for the public to see, experience, and critique. This took me a long time to be comfortable with – to be accepting of potential failure for all to taste and see. I feel the same way about gardening sometimes. Especially as there is point in both gardening and baking when you have to relinquish some degree of control over your product: when the cake goes into the oven or the bulb is planted in the ground – you have to let go and hope for the best.


As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.

As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.

Deb Wiles, who has long been an advocate of garden history and design, lamented the fact that garden history is not offered as a separate discipline, like art history. Programs exist in UK, but not in US, yet you were able to tailor your dissertation at Longwood Graduate Program towards garden history and preservation. How did your topic come about and how were you able to convince your academic advisors/mentors about the topic’s merit?

One of the great things about the Longwood Graduate Program (LGP) is that students tailor their thesis and coursework according to their individual interest and career goals within public horticulture. I applied for LGP wanting to focus in garden history having been inspired by my time working in historic gardens. I liked the idea of focusing my research on one landscape – it was an opportunity to become intimate with a specific site. I asked Bill Noble, formerly of the Garden Conservancy, if he had any recommendations, and he connected me with the owners of Meadowburn Farm. It caught my interest, especially since the garden was designed by a woman. So, out I went to visit Meadowburn and fell head over heels with the garden. My excitement about it was enough to convince Dr. Lyons, my advisor, that this was the topic for me. The trickier part was convincing two very kind professionals to join my thesis committee and commit to reading and editing 300 pages of research.

The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was depicted in old photographs.

The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was seen in old photographs.

Gardens seem to still take the back seat behind art and architecture in our culture. I would have loved the opportunity to take more focused garden history courses in school. In LGP, I complimented the more traditional coursework with general architectural preservation courses, and used individual assignments to apply the lessons to gardens and landscapes. In a sense, this likely helped me be more rounded in my knowledge than I would have been in a strictly garden history course. But, it does not provide the stimulation of working with a professor and classmates in the same discipline. Attending historic landscape symposia was another way I could learn more about the field. I also reached out to several landscape architecture historians at universities throughout the country, all of whom were very supportive and gave of their time and thoughts generously – almost like private tutorials.

 

Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts is not reliable for re-imagining the garden in its former self. Quill's meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.

The Formal Garden at Meadowburn depicted in A Woman’s Hardy Garden; Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, re-imagining the garden in its former self would have been difficult from sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts. Quill’s meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.

In our digital era, the notion of talking to people first-hand and leafing through dusty volumes for research seems archaic. But researching a history of a garden is a fun mystery! What aspects of the research did you enjoy the most? And what fascinating information did you discover about Helena Rutherford Ely during your research?

Such a fun mystery! Researching the history of Ely and Meadowburn was the most exciting and rewarding part of my thesis project. In the beginning I was told there was very little information out there about Ely and Meadowburn. There are no ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ papers in a library anywhere. The Garden Club of America created an archive on Meadowburn at the Smithsonian in 1999, which compiled the limited information that was known to exist. In it was a reference to Ely’s grandson who I was able to find. He and his wife were very generous with sharing the information they had on Ely – including a guest book from Meadowburn dating from 1899 to 1917!! A treasure! This [lead] opened a Pandora’s box of new things to look into. That was a very exciting discovery.

I often followed strange leads – like researching people that she mentions in her books, or the publishers she worked with, or the seed companies she ordered from. This meant there were very frequently days spent in libraries that turned up no information at all. But, oh! the joy when I found something! One time I came across a box of original photographs of the garden in an archive with not a single mention of Meadowburn or Ely – just sheer luck. I started shaking from excitement and overwhelm – I had to put the pictures down because I thought my shaking hands would shred them.

Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.

Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.

 

Now and then - This image from Ely's A Woman's Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.

Now and then – This image from Ely’s A Woman’s Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.


 

Dahlia 'Helena Rutherford Ely' is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6', but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.

Dahlia ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6′, but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.

Historic cultivars, such as the Meadowburn dahlias, are always prone to falling out of favor and lost to cultivation. How do you plan on safeguarding the historic cultivars at Meadowburn?

I believe the best way is to propagate and distribute the Meadowburn cultivars to other historic gardens, botanic gardens, and collectors, and encourage others to grow and safeguard them, too. The dahlias are particularly precarious as they are easily wiped out in one season. This is why there are not many dahlia cultivars still in existence that date to the early 1900’s, where as there are many old peonies cultivars from this era that are still widely grown and readily available on the market.

Dahlias in the Picking Garden

Dahlias in the Picking Garden

We are fortunate at Meadowburn to have had three generations of the same gardening family caring for the grounds since 1883. Albert Furman, Sr., the first generation gardener, was especially fond of the dahlias, a sentiment inherited by his son, and then passed to his grandson as more of an obligation to legacy than a fondness. But Walter DeVries, third generation gardener, has continued to take great care of the Meadowburn dahlias because of the tradition. He is now teaching me about Meadowburn dahlia culture, which comes with many funny anecdotes and stories from over the years – this makes the task of hammering large cedar stakes into the ground quite enjoyable.


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Gardens on the East Coast tend to be rooted in classical tenets of Europe, whereas those on the West Coast combine different cultures, leading to distinct regionalism. What Pacific Northwest perspective do you hope to bring to Meadowburn?

This is a tricky question. Since Meadowburn is a historic landscape inspired by classical tenets of Europe, it would be hard for me to take too much liberty in introducing a Pacific Northwest perspective. But what I appreciate about West Coast gardening culture is that people seem more willing to take risks and work outside the box than on the East Coast. When I first moved East for LGP, I was shocked by the incredible amount of mowed lawn. Never in my life have I seen so much turf! Perhaps this response is indicative of a free and informal West Coast influence – and I imagine this will manifest subconsciously in my work at Meadowburn. Stay tuned!


Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits: http://www.tuinenmienruys.nl; http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/page/beth-chatto-2; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)

Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits: http://www.tuinenmienruys.nl; http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/page/beth-chatto-2; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)

When we think of eminent women in garden design or landscape architecture, we often think of those overseas, especially Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto, or Mien Ruys. It seems that our rich tradition of American women in garden design and landscape architecture (i.e. Helena Rutherfurd Ely, Rose Standish Nichols, Beatrix Farrand) has not been accorded the same recognition and fame. Why do you suppose that this oversight is such?

Europe had a head start in the field of landscape design and horticulture, and gardening continues to play a much more central role culturally, at least in the U.K, than in U.S. Europe is also more advanced with issues of gender equality than the U.S., which plays a big role in the recognition of women in any professional field.

On another note, prominence in garden history for women might be correlated with the interest of an individual or group who recognizes the significance of her work. Is it my understanding that Gertrude Jekyll’s return to fame was in the second half of the 20th century when her papers, which had been saved by Beatrix Farrand, became accessible. This allowed scholars to research and publish on her work, and thus revive her story. And there is now new light shown on Beatrix Farrand with the work of organizations like the Beatrix Farrand Society. In time she will be increasingly recognized. So perhaps women in garden history need champions to resurrect and tell their stories. I hope to be Ely’s champion.


 

Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely's time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill have to prune them!

Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely’s time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill has to prune them!

Historic gardens are often criticized for being ‘ossified’ or ‘frozen in the past’. It’s a difficult task for horticulturists to innovate without disrupting the historical precedents, yet had the original owners or gardeners been alive, they would have moved forward, using better plants or even removing overgrown trees. How do you plan on keeping one eye on the garden’s historical legacy and the other on the future?

I hope to balance the preservation of the physical aspects of garden with the preservation of her greater gardening philosophy – one of experimentation, trial and error, change, conservation, practicality (more or less), and nostalgia. Ely was on the cutting edge for her time, and she would certainly be the first to rip everything out and change the garden up, I am sure! Ely had a very strong vision, one that influenced gardens throughout the country at a very formative time in the history of American horticulture. And the historical context in which she built these gardens and wrote about them is an important element in the garden’s significance. But to recreate the gardens as they were in 1903 or 1916 would be impractical. The bones of the garden still exist – hedges, hardscape, fountains, statuary, etc., and restoring these elements is important. But within this structure there is flexibility to creatively interpret her vision and philosophy.

The stump of a deceased beech behind the house - a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.

The stump of a deceased beech behind the house – a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.


Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained - the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.

Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained – the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.

Opening or preparing a historic garden for public visitation is not without its challenges. Heavy foot traffic can damage turf, plants once flowing onto the paths become hazards, and wheelchair access is difficult in some parts. How do you aim to preserve the atmosphere of Meadowburn without compromising public access?

Whatever changes and improvements are made to the landscape must be in keeping with the character of the garden. That is what makes Meadowburn special. As one of the owners says, “We do not want to look like an institution”. This may mean that we will never be 100% accessible. We do not have a complete plan yet for visitor amenities and circulation, but my hope is to have one accessible route through the garden that is interesting throughout the season. We plan to ease into public visitation – starting with limited tours by appointment. This will help inform us of the limitations of the garden, and what further changes should be made. A critical part of our plan, and my job, is to generate revenue from the garden. This means that some areas will need to accommodate events in a way they were not originally designed for. But we are fortunate to have a lot of open space, both in the garden and surrounding the garden, so I do not anticipate it will be difficult to integrate these new uses.


What advice do you offer to those interested in garden history and conservation?
Read a lot. There are so many great books about historic gardens and designers available. Attend lecture series and symposia. Get involved in a historic garden or conservation organizations. Reach out to people in the field and ask for advice. Take your favorite garden historian out for coffee. And most fun of all, visit lots of gardens.


 

Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill's inspiring natural areas

Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill’s inspiring natural areas

What gardens and places have inspired you?
The redwood forests of Mendocino, California. The wildflower meadows of the Talkeetna Mountain range in Alaska. My mother’s garden in Seattle. Quirky nurseries owned by passionate plant nuts.


 

Dahlia 'Meadowburn Byba Vincenza' named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.

Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’ named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.

Ely is a well-seasoned traveler who interpreted what she saw overseas in her garden. What are a few of the gardens overseas you wish to visit and want to take from them?
More than anything I want to visit the gardens abroad that inspired Ely. This will help me better understand her work at Meadowburn. I also want to spend time in Italy researching the current owner’s great Aunt Byba Vincenza Giuliani who owned Meadowburn after the Ely family. She was Italian, and spent the winters at her villa and gardens in Florence. She introduced her own flare to Meadowburn – she planted all of our bearded iris in the 1940’s. I would like to understand her influence and this part of Meadowburn’s history. And then I would like to go to Jeju Island in South Korea to see my friend Wonsoon Park, which he says is the most beautiful place in the world. Then to South Africa to visit my friend Martin Smit at Stellenbosch Botanic Garden, and see him float his baby girl on a water lily pad.


What is your desert island plant?
A giant redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, because I could climb up to a nice branch and make a big nest to sleep in. And the canopy is an ecosystem in itself – berries and rhodies and little trees grow in the nooks and crannies, and little animals to make friends with. Then I would climb to the top and wave to the rescue plane overhead.


The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely's time.

The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely’s time.

What do you look forward to the most?
I look forward to the day when I have a garden of my own, and the time to make it everything I want it to be. And then, to have people come and visit me in my garden and to serve them lime popsicles. Eventually I look forward to gardening with my children and grandchildren, but that is a long way off.


 

Thank you Quill!

~Eric

Stoking the Fall Fire

Salvia guaranitica and Dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ with Dahlia ‘David Howard’ in the background

Autumn is an excellent time to evaluate combinations in the garden especially when one needs to consider what tender perennials and spring-planted bulbs to dig up or propagate for the following year.  With the classic blue skies, the golden autumn really highlight bright colors.  As cool nights return, dahlias are stepping their game again after their initial flush of flowers in early summer. Dark-leafed cultivars, especially the Mystic Series from the New Zealand plant breeder Keith Hammett, continue to be introduced. Few have surpassed ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, which remains a gardener’s classic, like a black cocktail dress for women. There’s something arresting about the unadulterated bright red flowers jumping fiery-eyed from its dark moody foliage. ‘David Howard’ is another dark-leafed variety that has catapulted into the classic arena of mixed borders. Its orange is soft, not glaringly brash, making it easily compatible with most plants. It is taller and larger than ‘Bishop of Llandaff’, requiring staking to prevent the stems from toppling over. Salvia guaranitica, a South American native, has been flowering steadily throughout summer, and its almost true-blue flowers add a cooling note to the fiery colors of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ and ‘David Howard’. This trio of dahlias and Salvia guaranitica can be quadrupled for a late summer to autumn bedding scheme.

The key thing is to keep the combination simple, restricting the plants to two to three for that elusive artful balance.

~Eric

Henry Mitchell on gardening

“Still, as I went about my potting on a glorious afternoon, one small treasure after another, the world of nature that is so terrible and so beautiful appeared only in its sweetest aspect.”  (On Gardening)

Henry Mitchell and his beloved dog by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Henry Mitchell and his beloved dog by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Like a pair of time-worn secateurs or a beat-up crock pot, a favorite book can reverberate – the pages dog-eared, pock-marked with coffee stains or biscuit crumbs, and stained from peripheral notes,  the spine coming unhinged, and the dust jacket long gone. As midsummer approaches, I start to peruse my shelves for any books worthy of summer reading even if they already have been read. Only did I realized missing Henry Mitchell’s On Gardeningand unfortunately never remembered to replace it.  On Gardening caught my attention when I was browsing the local library shelves for something literary and horticultural to read. It wasn’t a weighty tome and its length felt right. Each chapter was enjoyable and I kept reaching for my pen to copy down some of his quotes. With reluctance, I returned the book and soon I found and bought a secondhand copy at a bookstore. On Gardening introduced me to Mitchell’s other books, The Essential Earthman and One Man’s Garden, both of which were equally enjoyable 

Ming Dynasty-style Dog Sculpture in Mitchell's garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Ming Dynasty-style Dog Sculpture in Mitchell’s garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Henry Mitchell wrote a gardening column “The Earthman” in the Washington Post for 20 years until his death in November 1993, and these published pieces were often wry, humorous, and informative. The garden writer Allen Lacy wrote that “Mitchell was the best garden writer in America, but he was more than that. He was a master essayist, with such a highly distinctive voice and style that his newspaper pieces didn’t really need a byline. Two or three sentences were sufficient to make it clear that Mitchell had written them.” Rarely did you not read his writings and not utter in agreement at the same trials and tribulations of gardening. It might be fair to say that Mitchell was the Julia Child of gardening – he preached improvisation and spontaneity as long as certain cardinal rules of gardening were followed. Like Julia Child, Mitchell did not come from a horticultural or related professional background. First and foremost he was a journalist whose stints were at the Washington Star and Commercial Appeal before writing for the Washington Post in 1970. Mitchell’s weekly gardening column “Earthman” began three years later and continued to entertain his readers until he died in 1993. Just as Julia Child invited television viewers into her ‘kitchen’ through her cookery shows and demonstrations, Mitchell opened his garden to his readers through his column. His garden was not of immaculate perfection, and its lack of pretensions underscored Mitchell’s humbling approach towards gardens.  Its slightly disheveled appearance had a particular charm that would have pleased the British garden writer Mirabel Osler who shunned “zealous regimentation” in A Gentle Pleas for Chaos. And certainly Mitchell’s book was the antithesis of the glossary coffee table garden books I indulged in.

by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Front Facade of Henry Mitchell’s House by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

“Often when people see such things they think the gardener does not know how big plants get. Ha. The gardener knows quite well, but he is greedy and wants both. Greed in this case is not far from love, both of which exact a price in this world.”

Mitchell nails the psychology of us gardeners  – like other human beings, we often see, covert, and hoard things, find ourselves aching and longing for another climate, another paradise where plants perform enviably well. On plant acquisitions, he likens the thrill to sex, warning us that excitement is at best fleeting. Our foibles are reflected in our gardens. We knowingly overplant for a full effect, ignoring the future price of editing and replanting when giving adequate space between the plants is more sensible. By exposing our oversights, Mitchell catch us red-faced, but he might as well as make us laugh by underscoring the absurdity behind serious gardening. The best of garden literature playfully convey our struggle for orderly  artistry in nature. More telling is how relevant Mitchell’s observations remain today. 

Rose Arches in Mitchell Garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Rose Arches in Mitchell Garden by Nicholas Weber via kind permission of David Neumeyer

Plants still remained the focus of Mitchell’s writings. Mitchell had a soft spot for sensual flowers – irises, roses, sweet peas (“chancy beasts”), tuberoses. Roses were his favorite – aboard Mitchell visited rose gardens, such as Roseraie de l’Hay in Paris, and at home, he had roses cascading over arches and filling out garden beds. He too loved dahlias for their winsome colors and shapes.  “Sometime in late August there suddenly comes a hint – maybe you feel something in the air – that summer is passing. It is then dahlias are in their glory, and while none have yet been bred that are quite as large as TV sets or as bright as atom bombs, they will bloom magnificently and conspicuously enough through September and October, when few other things do.” Revisit this section on dahlias in September and October, and you’ll find yourself basking in their glory as much as Mitchell did. He tried hard to remind us of seasonal flowers we sometimes overlook in our madness to keep our gardens from becoming too wild.  

~Eric

 References: Henry Mitchell on Gardening and Life