Frosty Nights and Tropical Warmth

Dear Jimmy,

It has been a while since we last corresponded through letters, and your last letter on Cordoba had me longing for warmth again. However, yesterday was the winter solstice, which means that the days only become longer in tiny increments, giving me hope for the new year’s spring. I took a day off two weeks ago to plant all the bulbs in the ground, and the anticipation of their shoots breaking through the soil later always make me smile. It is miraculous to believe that the unremarkable bulbs can proffer promise of color, although one needs the foresight to plant them in autumn. Inside the greenhouses, the South African bulbs are waking up to spread their cheer as I see specialist plant blogs with exciting news of the latest Nerine or Lachenalia in flower. However, we need the darkness to appreciate the brightness of plants escaping dormancy because neither dark nor light are exclusive. Peresphone’s abduction by Hades into the Underworld and her mother Demeter’s joyous embrace of Peresphone upon her earthly return is an ancient acknowledgement of the highs and lows that define human lives, not to mention the natural world. No one wishes for a long winter, but on the other hand no one desires a perpetual spring because we cannot appreciate the changes essential for the cycle of life.

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Frosty days have been rare, and while frost is a destructive element in the garden, its crystalline beauty is undeniably photogenic. This year’s December has been mild, compared to last year’s forceful and frigid winter, giving me little reason to complain. Instead, the days have been like those of the British Isles, darkly damp that perennials left uncut look sodden, not structural. Only the woody plants, especially broad-leafed evergreens, look magnificent. I always envied those in milder climates, especially Mediterranean ones, for their choices of evergreens – in Australian gardens, I loved the bay laurels (Laurus nobilis), rosemary, and myrtles (Myrtus communis), all contributing their resinous aromas with the native eucalyptus, while in English gardens, camellias, cherry laurels (Prunus laurocerasus), rhododendrons, boxwood, and mahonias come to the fore after the thunderous colors of annuals and herbaceous perennials. To see the green foliage lustrous, healthy, and cold resilient is a continual reminder that not all plants recoil from winter.  You may feel more comfortable in the north European gardens, but the trip to Cordoba appeared to be an eye opener in the joy of fragrant and evergreen plants.

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I look back to our posts we had painstakingly written, edited, photographed, and shared with our readers in 2014. It is remarkable how that fateful day in February 2012 led to Plinth et al. Doing this blog has acquainted me with interesting individuals and gardens, as well as cementing our friendship and love for all things horticultural and artistic. The hard part is opening up because privacy is an endangered species now, and rare is the time when we are not parked in front of brightly lit screens. It will be the last letter of 2014 as we welcome 2015 in a matter of a week. I’ll be visiting family in Taiwan, and the subtropical weather will be welcomed. Stay tuned for the terraces of Taipei!

Happy Holidays!

~Eric

A Soliloquy to Nature

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Dear Jimmy

As I feel the Mediterranean warmth in your description of Cordoba last week, the autumnal nights have already arrived in eastern U.S. In place of orange groves and formal fountains are deciduous trees and dewy meadows. A few weeks ago I was fortunate to spend a few days at Meadowburn Farm, a place as secluded and rural as one can be near the border of New York State, and a slow rhythm replaced the maelstrom of my urban life. It is easy to see why the rural reaches of upstate New York and northern New Jersey inspired American transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Logan Bryant who discovered internal spirituality through communion with nature. Rural landscapes, like gardens, blur the distinction between man and nature – the glimpse of a pioneer tree sapling in a less browsed meadow hints at the stealth hand of nature poised to strike when our control is relinquished. In suburban developments, the houses and their surroundings often appear independent of one another as the houses are carbon copies and tight foundation plantings and tidy lawns subjugated. Such sameness seem less symptomatic of rural landscapes, and an early morning walk at the farm confirm the continual changes.

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It was still dark when I pulled apart the curtains of my bedroom, but my feet felt the perceptible chill on the wooden floorboards. Swaddled with layers of warm clothing, I ventured outside to see the air heavy with mist and the light bravely breaking above the trees. Only the braying of the cows awakened and led to another pasture pierced the cold stillness of the scene.

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The panicles of the timothy grass quivered animatedly, gilded with silver from the first morning rays and not trampled by livestock hooves.

 

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Crossing the road and upwards the hill I started to notice more things – how oblique the angle of the wooden gate looked with the horizontal plane of the woodlands in the distance, but playing off the slope of another hill on the right.

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The mist continued to seep in, washing out colors and giving an otherworldly feeling that I felt like an interloper who suddenly found an alternate realm.

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Clearingentrance

Where the trees began to taper towards the field’s boundary on the opposite side, a portal could be glimpsed and compelled me to walk closer and closer to it. But something else diverted me from that route.

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A white oak perfectly proportioned and not hemmed by neighboring trees had spread its branches out and wide like an arboreal monarch. I wondered how it had escaped the scythe of the agricultural machinery or the hungry livestock set to graze here.

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Underneath its canopy, one could see its boughs furrowed with age and snaking directionless at every point. Not a leaf rustled in the still morning air, and for a moment I closed my eyes knowing full that a whole day still beckoned. The spirituality of being underneath the tree quietly biding its time season after season needed no words or no soundtrack.

~Eric

Dear Jimmy: Ode to Orange

 

"Orange and Red on Red" by Mark Rothko (image courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

“Orange and Red on Red” by Mark Rothko (image courtesy of The Phillips Collection)

Dear Jimmy:
As I leaf through the spring bulb catalogues and mark the daffodil and tulip varieties of interest, I notice that I am finding the orange ones appealing (apart from white and black). Perhaps orange is such an unexpected color in spring – its warm piquancy in sharp contrast to the cooler vernal tones. It never disappoints for it seems a simmering preclude to the full volume of summer. The color appears to debut with quietude and grow vulnerable like a flickering flame that leaps into a conflagration in summer. I always thought how fun the concept would be to set a border to orange, not necessarily a monochromatic one, but one that begins with geums, Tulipa ‘Prinses Irene’ and Euphorbia polychroma, swells up with Digitalis ferruginea, Eschscholtzia calfornica, and Stipa gigantea, and tapering off to the last Kniphofia, Leonotis leonurus and rosehips.

Left to right clockwise: Narcissus 'Geranium'; Geum, Kniphofia; Digitalis ferruginea

Left to right clockwise: Narcissus ‘Geranium’; Geum, Kniphofia; Digitalis ferruginea

 

The orange whorls of Leonotis leonurus are often the last to flower, and if frosts haven't threatened, the flowers look appropriately festive during Halloween.

The orange whorls of Leonotis leonurus are often the last to flower, and if frosts haven’t threatened, the flowers look appropriately festive during Halloween.

It is hard to understand why people harbor deep-seated prejudices towards orange – either orange or yellow is shunned while other colors are more or less welcome. White can be cold, pink insipid, and blue wishy washy if placement and tone is not considered. It is hard to find fault with orange. No matter how red or yellow the color orange registers on the spectral scale, it never lets go its sunny disposition. I cannot help smile in orange’s presence – and you can begin to see why Indians love the color in their jubilant celebrations – the marigold garlands, the billowing saris, and spices and seasonings. Even the Buddhist monks in Thailand and southeast Asia don orange vestments, a more lively foil to the ascetic white garments of their Japanese contemporaries. Unfortunately I cannot wear orange for my yellow skin looks sallow with it. Individuals with olive or even fair complexions look flattering in orange. However, I have no problems inviting orange in the garden – under sunny or overcast skies, it is a cheerful color. Sometimes our inclinations towards orange or other colors develop from our emotive reactions to the surrounding environments.

Rusty Motifs (clockwise beginning upper left): Wire Urn; welded abstract tree and corten steel planters; fuel barrel remade into a mailbox; shed with painted rust orange door - all in Australia

Rusty Motifs (clockwise beginning upper left): Wire Urn; welded abstract tree and corten steel planters; fuel barrel remade into a mailbox; shed with painted rust orange door – all in Australia

Australians are inordinately fond of brown, copper, and rust in the garden – perhaps they are responding naturally to their landscapes brushed with ochres and vermilions from the blazing sun. And their country itself is an incendiary one if you discount the tropical rainforests of Queensland and karri groves of Western Australia. Eucalyptus, which constitute much of their forests, are essentially matchsticks, fueled with combustable oils in leaves and branches that leave the trees a smoldering mess after a wildfire. Nonetheless the Australian embrace of earthy colors lends itself well to the rusticity of gardens. Gates welded of iron, barbed wire recycled into sculptures, and even oil barrels re-purposed into mailboxes. These ornaments would appear discordant in an English landscape, which is replete with green. Perhaps on a shingle beach like the late Derek Jarman’s iconic Dungeness Beach garden would distressed agricultural or industrial implements be appropriate.

Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

Orange lichen-encrusted rocks at Bay of Fires, Tasmania, Australia

Where other colors look dispiritedly bleached or withered under the intense Australian sun, orange matches the sun’s ferocity with its brilliance. As the sun weakens its glare, orange seems to glow more intensely than it did in midday. I remember walking through the Bay of Fires and Freycinet National Park, Tasmania, Australia during early evening when the lichen encrusted rocks literally became animated with orange. The color matched the crystal clarity of the blue skies, the angular contours of the rocks, and the blinding purity of the white sands. I felt swept up in a dreamscape only possible in a surrealist painting. Without orange, the coastal landscape loses its brilliance that is distinctly Australian. All these hikes served to heighten my appreciation for orange in all guises.

An edible study in orange: Salmon carpaccio with salmon roe, radish, and potato chips with breadsticks

An edible study in orange: Salmon carpaccio with salmon roe, radish, and potato chips with breadsticks

Sometimes the appeal of orange finally does not become apparent until one cooks and feasts with sensitivity for color on the plate. A memorable appetizer was a salmon carpaccio spangled with salmon roe, sliced radishes, and micro-shoots with a drizzle of aioli. Two breadsticks placed perpendicular to the plate broke the circular theme. What made this dish riveting was the color, that same saturated orange I saw on those coastal rocks, the Rothko paintings, and the tulips. I am sure that you would understand from living in Spain where oranges are unavoidable. May orange embolden your health!

~Eric

 

 

 

Fragile and Resilient as a Poppy

Dear Jimmy,

Late May to early June is usually a jubilant time for me – the late spring growth has rapidly matured, the evenings stretch longer, and the vitality of foliage, still pristine and relatively unmarred, awakens the eyes jaded from winter. It is too the time of poppies -even the name ‘Poppy’ itself has a playful, pop-up art connotation, a concept that doesn’t take itself too seriously. And the color synonymous with poppies, a bright red unadulterated by blues or yellows, jolts the senses in its unabashed brilliance.
In the chalk fields of the Norfolk Broad a few years ago, I witnessed hundreds of Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas), dabbed like the red spots of a pointillist painting. At Chanticleer, parts of the Pond and Gravel Gardens become a sea of red, as long as winter has been merciful enough to let any seed or seedlings survive (this past winter was a brutal one, reducing the sea to more of a trickle). The poppy seems a symbol of beauty at its fullest and most fragile – a rainstorm easily send the curtain down on the flowers – that belittles its resilient profundity. Each flower dwindles to a capsule that expels hundreds of black seeds, a fraction of which secures the plant’s future. I’m often taken by surprise at the number of seedlings appearing in the garden the following spring. A seedling then quickly mushrooms into a fat clump transmogrifying into an airy framework of wiry stems and flowers with heat. After a few weeks, the entire plant becomes a desiccated skeleton having fulfilled its purpose. We pull it out, scattering its seeds wide in hopes of seeing more next year.
In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.

In the early morning light, Papaver rhoeas (Flanders poppy) glow crimson at the Rock Ledge, Chanticleer, Wayne, PA.

The Flanders or corn poppy has become a floral remembrance of WWI and WII battlefields – it has been said that poppies emerge thicker where bloodshed was the heaviest. Farmers regard them as agricultural weeds, although modern farming practices have more or less obliterated them. These poppies are ‘relics’ of a cultural landscape in which organisms had evolved in sync with traditional principles of animal husbandry, delayed tilling, and hedgerows.
Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.

Paler strains of Flander poppy, sometimes called Shirley poppies, are selected for their colors and can revert back easily if not kept pure.

Horticulturists took among themselves to select and breed for paler colors, which collectively became known as Shirley poppies. Shirley poppies will often revert to the standard red species if not carefully edited for rogue seedlings and separated physically. Their flowers have a silvery shimmer, a pearlescent quality made surreal during cloudy days.
The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.

The Oriental poppy is a portrait of sumptuous opulence, a voluptuous self of its wild cousins.

The Oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) seems to be a hypersexualized version of the Flanders poppies – its petals have become larger, fuller, and deeply crinkled like the finest chine crepe, its stamens and anthers sultrier like mascara-lined eyes, and its colors ‘less’ pure in red, washing into pinks and creams. Even its basal rosettes are bullies, making the Oriental poppy less of a partner to tango with than the Flanders poppies, which pirouette gracefully and spontaneously amidst other plants. In large gardens they look stunning with bearded irises, peonies, and other traditional cottage garden perennials.
The opium poppy has a duplicitous status  - it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).

The opium poppy has a duplicitous status – it simultaneously produces narcotics and culinary seasonings (seeds and oil).

Ever since the Wicked Witch of the West sent Dorothy and her entourage into a soporific slumber with a field of poppies, the opium poppy has had a less salubrious reputation as a source of narcotics, including its derived product heroin. It irreversibly altered history when China was forced to concede Hong Kong to Great Britain in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. With darkness comes benevolence – the poppy seeds beloved in breads and cakes and poppyseed oil are from the opium poppy.
The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.

The individual black splotch on the red petal of the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum) adds a bold tension with the bright red.

My heart belongs to the ladybird poppy (Papaver commutatum), which possesses the same saturated red of the Flanders poppy, but stamped with the trademark black splotches.Without these black splotches, the flowers look rather ordinary and merely attractive. At Great Dixter this poppy flowers with the magenta Gladiolus communis ssp. byzantinus at Great Dixter – it is a daring combination the late Christopher Lloyd loved in its irreverent cheekiness. Unfortunately the ladybird poppy is not a reliable self-seeder. The best way to hedge against no-shows next year is to start them from seed under cover, prick the seedlings individually into plugs, and plant as soon as possible when the roots have filled out. Autumn sowing is best as it goes for annual poppies. As you know, the effort is always worthwhile and I often dream of combinations with the ladybird poppy – the bright blues of Centaurea cyanus ‘Blue Ball’, the whites of Orlaya grandiflora, or orange geums. A field of them would be magical, evoking what John Keats wrote in Endymion: “Through the dancing poppies stole A breeze most softly lulling to my soul.”

~Eric

 

île de jonquilles

Dear Jimmy,
Your post on daffodils reminded me how late spring has been this year in eastern U.S. Winter has been behaving like a dinner guest whose welcome has gone beyond stale, hence our ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and ‘Ice Follies’ have not flowered as they usually do at this time. The daffodils are only emerging, buds intact and tightly sheathed against the elements. However, their resilience has always reassure that winter has relinquished its grip, ushering in spring without delay. I long for warm days, with snow having lost its novelty.  My friends’ photographs in the Pacific Northwest already show Corylopsis, rhododendrons, and various spring ephemerals in full glory.
Narcissus 'Ice Follies' flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer - these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.

Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer – these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.

Islands seem to be flush with daffodils – the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of Cornwall, UK, and Tasmania. Warm sunny summers and cold moist winters on the islands create optimal conditions for growing bulbs. The mild climate in the Isles of Scilly allowed the islanders the bragging rights to the first daffodils of the UK, as well as a head start on the cut flower industry; large quantities of cut daffodils were dispatched by boat and then transported on the rail from Penzance to London. In fact, cut flowers formed the cornerstone of the Scillionian economy for over 130 years. The majority, if not all daffodils grown are tazetta-types, which produce up to 15 highly scented flowers per stem. Tazettas need dry warm summers during dormancy for successful flowering, and the long season of Isles of Scilly from May to August, combined with sandy soils, makes a significant difference. Another crucial factor in the industry’s success was the use of windbreaks, an absolute necessity on the gale-exposed islands. Growers depended on two salt-tolerant and wind-resistant New Zealand shrubs, Pittosporum crassifolium and Olearia traversii
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)

A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)

Daffodils are popular in Tasmania where the Tasmanian Daffodil Council promotes them.  You can expect at least three months of daffodils if varieties selected for different bloom periods are planted, and the cold nights certainly enhance flower longevity. The nucleus of Tasmania’s daffodil industry began in the 1920s when several enthusiasts imported bulbs from England and started breeding programs themselves. Their work was exhibited at the Hobart Horticultural Society’s annual daffodil show. Dr. Tim Jackson, one of the early enthusiasts, eventually started a business still going strong today. Evidently his passion rubbed off on the second generation, and one of the Jacksons who fought in the World World II even kept a pot on the British naval warship HMS Wanderer. A cousin, a warplane navigator, was once invited to a country estate near his airfield where the owner boasted a new daffodil, exclaiming: “You’ll have never seen anything like this before”. One only can imagine the owner’s surprise when the cousin recognized the hybrid and credited its origin to his grandfather.
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On a blustery gray day, my friends and I drove out a hour away for an open day hosted by Jackson Daffodils near the Southwest National Park, a scenic area. Their bulbs can be bought from an Oregon firm who sells them for a princely sum. They are not the ‘bulk bag’ types one can purchase inexpensively at the local home improvement center. The fields were resplendent with varieties in whites, yellows, oranges, and pinks, and the gusts played up the flowers’ robust gaiety. Even my friend’s dog was excited, recharged by the new scents of the landscape. Who knew how much glee these flowers imparted? Forgetting the dull skies, we left smiling from the simple pleasure of seeing them.
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Across from my friends’ coastal property used to be a commercial bulb farm that exported bulbs and cut flowers to the mainland. Although the majority of the bulbs were dug up and sold before the operation ceased, surviving remnants still sprout defiantly each spring. I learned from my friend that flowering bulbs can be dug up and transplanted without problems, taking out the problematic guesswork that accompanies dying or dormant bulbs. The bulbs need to be planted deep. After obtaining permission, he was able to replicate those naturalistic groups of daffodils without that hodgepodge effect. At first I was skeptical, only to be convinced the following spring when the same bulbs returned to flower. They look terrific under the vibrant green drapery of silver birches.
Tazettas have been 'rescued', collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.

Tazettas have been ‘rescued’, collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.

No matter how many bulbs we dug up, there were always more. The sandy loam soil made it easier to retrieve the entire plants, bulb and all, easily from the ground. Occasionally we did accidentally cleave a bulb, but once you gained experience, you were able to gauge how deep and what angle your spade went in, teasing out the plants out without much damage.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.

Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.

The Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) is considered the centre of diversity for Narcissus. Several years ago, I remember seeing wild white daffodils growing in wild scrub near the Spanish border – we never disembarked from the car to identify the species. Perhaps one of the days you will have a chance to drive to northern Spain and bear witness to fields of wild daffodils.  Sad as Narcissus and Echo’s fates were in Greek mythology, a love affair with daffodils is hardly narcissistic.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

~Eric

Winterscapes

The pearly winter sunrise over the Cotswolds countryside

The pearly winter sunrise over the Cotswolds countryside

Dear Jimmy,

Snow had fallen at Chanticleer in the last few weeks. I remember a visitor interested in seeing Chanticleer during winter, only to have her hopes deflated upon discovering that we were closed after October.

The Pond Garden in Snow at Chanticleer

The Pond Garden in Snow at Chanticleer

It reminded me of how much I gleamed about winter structure in United Kingdom after the masses and voids of plantings have been stripped away, leaving little to distract the eye from the permanent elements. When I saw the Wyeth paintings at the Brandywine River Museum, their economical spareness of colors and subjects revealed a depth similar to those wintry landscapes I enjoyed in United Kingdom. The grays, browns, and dark greens may have a somberness that dampens one’s psyche, but they allow our eyes, loosened from the vise of bright colors and light, to relax. Your images of the Spanish farmlands carved with crop lines, mountains, and forests reflect that chromatic subtleties on our moods, and I returned to the moments of walking through empty Cotswold gardens and villages in early winter mornings.

Brown Swiss by Andrew Wyeth

Brown Swiss by Andrew Wyeth

Hidcote Manor Garden is not open during winter, but my friends and I gained access through the generosity of the Head Gardener Glyn Jones. Perhaps weary from the onslaught of visitors and luxuriance of its beds, the garden slips into a soporific stupor, acquiring a restfulness rarely seen at other times. The French and Italianate influences on its creator Lawrence Johnston are now more apparent – the pleached hornbeams, the holm oak cubes, the gazebos, and the pool take on the starring roles after having ceding to the lush plantings. Without these structural elements the plantings could fall apart and the intriguing secrets of Hidcote cease to exist – just as a woman wears a necklace, a plant is as beautiful as it can be in the right setting. The mystery and drama of Hidcote in winter is strong as it is in spring and summer.

Stripped and cleaned for the year, the Red Borders now frame the gate of the Stilt Garden by letting the eye hone on the geometric lines towards the top. In the Stilt Garden, the angular cubes of the pleached hornbeams echo the gazebo shapes while the two Quercus ilex tower behind like clouds above the hornbeams.

Stripped and cleaned for the year, the Red Borders now frame the gate of the Stilt Garden by letting the eye hone on the geometric lines towards the top. In the Stilt Garden, the angular cubes of the pleached hornbeams echo the gazebo shapes while the two Quercus ilex tower behind like clouds above the hornbeams.

Denuded of their leaves, the pleached hornbeams become wiry edifices that play off texturally the solid boxwood and yew hedges, and the grass panel, walls, and gravel paths are tonally different from the clipped plants.

Denuded of their leaves, the pleached hornbeams become wiry edifices that play off texturally the solid boxwood and yew hedges, and the grass panel, walls, and gravel paths are tonally different from the clipped plants.

Reflected in the still waters of the Bathing Pool Fountain is the cherub and the dolphin centerpiece.

Reflected in the still waters of the Bathing Pool Fountain is the cherub and the dolphin centerpiece.

The yew columns define the separation between the house and the Theatre Lawn.

The yew columns define the separation between the house and the Theatre Lawn.

The view through the yew hedge towards the Beech Allee

The view through the yew hedge towards the Beech Allee

Dwarfed by the beech trees, the gate looks comically out of scale, but forces our eyes to pause and compels to explore beyond its boundaries.

Dwarfed by the beech trees, the gate looks comically out of scale, but forces our eyes to pause and compels us to explore beyond its boundaries.

A lesson can be learned in the nearby villages, and Chipping Camden near Hidcote Manor Garden conveys well the architectural detailing that has long drawn out-of-towners and tourists to this region of United Kingdom. Weathered by the patina of age and time, its stone buildings bespeak not only of the area’s vernacular and heritage, but also the craftsmanship that once characterized the Cotswolds’ hub of the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. While the front cottage gardens are not at their best, all manner of the buildings’ scale and proportions, their walls, and the link with the outlying countryside held enough interest for a solitary walk.

Andrew Wyeth could have enjoyed painting the front facade of this house - the damp gray cold has darkened the otherwise warm honey-colored stone.

Andrew Wyeth could have enjoyed painting the front facade of this house – the damp gray cold has darkened the otherwise warm honey-colored stone.

The zig-zag framework of this gnarled apple tree is etched in sharp relief against the mist.

The zig-zag framework of this gnarled apple tree is etched in sharp relief against the mist.

The West Banqueting House, a Jacobean building, looks forlorn among the remnants of the Old Campden House destroyed in a fire in 1645.

The West Banqueting House, a Jacobean building, looks forlorn among the remnants of the Old Campden House destroyed in a fire in 1645.

Textural contrasts of natural materials: wood and stone in the West Banqueting House

Textural contrasts of natural materials: wood and stone in the West Banqueting House

Framed by the arching tree, a porch light flickers like a beacon of optimism.

Behind the arching tree, a porch light flickers like a beacon of optimism.

As dispiriting as winter, especially its holidays, may seem for us gardeners, it teaches us restraint and sobriety before the floral excesses of spring engulfs our senses. There is something said about the ability of a bracing walk to contemplate and innovate. And there is always the promise of catalogs to dream, snowdrops, hellebores, and witch hazels to welcome, and a chance to breathe. See you in the New Year!

Take care, Eric

In this warmer corner of the house is the surprise sight of narcissi flowering. The neutral colors of the stone wall flatter the yellow flowers and green lawn.

In this warmer corner of the house is the surprise sight of narcissi flowering. The neutral colors of the stone wall flatter the yellow flowers and green lawn.

Autumn Wildflower Muses

Dear Jimmy,

How are you? I hope that you’re well and are enjoying what Gravetye offers as its last seasonal hurrah – the bounty of the walled kitchen garden, the borders bustling with dahlias, grasses, asters, the misty landscapes. It is the same here at Chanticleer. Looking for a respite away from the city and its suburbs, I accepted an invitation to spend the weekend at a friends’ Poconos retreat. The last time I visited, it was summer and we had an evening campfire after a day of cooking and swimming. Although autumn had not made its official start, the night was chilly, motivating us to lit the fireplace for toasty temperatures.  The sumach (Rhus typhina) had already turned aflame and traces of red appeared on the red maple (Acer rubrum). At the farmers’ market, I bought decorative gourds and apples while trying to resist cider donuts. It would be the last week for stone fruit and tomatoes. On the drive back, we saw that the fields were already colorful from autumn wildflowers. It occured to me that some of them have been muses for early 19th century American writers.

Milkweeds (Ascelpias syriaca) and goldenrods (Solidago) signal the start of autumn in a roadside meadow.

Milkweeds (Ascelpias syriaca) and goldenrods (Solidago) signal the start of autumn in a roadside meadow.

Grows a weed

More richly here besides our melllow seas

That is autumn’s harbringer and pride…

The goldenrod upon a thousand hills

This is the autumn’s flower, and to my soul

A  token fresh of beauty and life

by Richard  Watson Gilder

Goldenrods were at their best, making me wonder briefly why they haven’t gained acceptance in contemporary naturalistic plantings. It’s a shame that their thuggish tendencies in the garden lead to their exclusion, but for good reasons. I once grew Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’ with Sedum ‘Matrona’, Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, and Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ until I had to remove it from spreading into other plants. Pulling any goldenrod needs a good dose of strength – their roots run untrammeled and deep! Now I’m happy to see them brilliantly  golden and buzzing with insects in open meadows.

Particular about its habitat preferences, the fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is a true blue, a catchy color amidst the yellows and reds of the landscape.

Particular about its habitat preferences, the fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is a true blue, a catchy color amidst the yellows and reds of the landscape.

The GENTIAN weaves her fringes,

The maple’s loom is red.

My departing blossoms

Obviate parade

by Emily Dickinson

Under flawless blue skies, we pulled over by the roadside to admire up-close the colonies of the fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita). I remembered seeing this gentian in upstate New York when my naturalist friend and I drove to a wildflower preserve where the flowers lit up the tawny meadow like sapphires. Individual plants are short-lived, growing only a year or two, but will reseed if happy and given the right conditions. The fringed gentian is somewhat particular in its habitat requirements, preferring shallow, magnesium-rich soils in moist sunny meadows, and strangely has found disturbed roadsides to its liking. It’s amazing how a rather nondescript plant can abide its time for a year and wait the following year until late summer to mid-autumn to flower.  Once  those 1 1/2″ to 2″ flowers reveal their fringed and spreading tubular flowers, the long wait is forgotten. Blue flowers always carry that rarified air and the fringed gentian’s specific needs remind me of how we labor to grow blue poppies or delphiniums well. In this case we need not to toil for the flowers, enjoying them as the 19th century writers William Cullen Bryant, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau did once on a blue sunny autumn day. It seems a bit melancholy to discover how rare the fringed gentian are due to habitat loss.

Aster_novae_angliae

Born to the purplest purple, deep, intense,

Mocking the gentian’s fringe with hue more rare,

New England Aster! – What can be more fair! –

Child of the ripe year’s calm, serene, suspense,

Star of September’s glory!  say, O whence,

‘Mid golden-rod, and golden sunflower’s blaze,

Comes the deep tone of those cyanic rays,

For long-lost violet more than recompense?

by George Lansing Taylor

New England asters (Aster novae-angliae) were flowering as well, their regal purples a foil to the goldenrods and grasses. I can’t be without asters now. They can be forgiven for their tatty mildewed leaves and splayed centers in exchange for their late seasonal flowers. The Europeans have a better appreciation for our asters – have a look at the Autumn Garden at Le Jardin de Plume where asters are like cloudscapes from which grasses, Persicaria orientalis, and bugbanes (Actaea) fly forth. It’s interesting to observe how lanky the unadulterated New England aster is since breeding clearly has shortened the stems, making for a fuller dome shape. However, I find its wild lankness in the open fields a visual advantage for towering over neighboring plants. Having said that, I used to look carefully in search of variants worth introducing, a rather fruitless endeavor if you consider the New England aster’s European education!

I find it comforting to see the same wildflowers that were muses to our country’s early writers, especially in the apocalyptic sounding  times of climate change.

Not all the autumnal fame belongs to leaves in trees - the extinct Franklinia alatamaha still offers its camellia-like blossoms late in the year.

Not all the autumnal fame belongs to leaves in trees – the extinct Franklinia alatamaha still offers its camellia-like blossoms late in the year.

On a last note, do you know Franklinia alatamaha? At my friends’ Philadelphia garden, it was covered with white flowers that always evoke camellias or stewartias, both of which share the same family Theaceace. The seed capsules have a curious zig zag shape worthy of a jewelry design. Up north in the Boston area, the leaves turn scarlet at the same time as the flowers. I have not seen this tree in the British Isles, which may not have the summer heat for growth. Franklinia has a storied history linked to Philadelphia as the Philadelphian botanists John Bartram and his son William discovered it along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia. Shortly after the Bartrams introduced the tree to cultivation, Franklinia was never rediscovered despite a second sighting in the 1770s. Sadly its extinction in the wild meant no posthumous eulogies spun by our writers even if its fame as the ‘lost camellia’ prevented its obscurity.

Take care, Eric