5-10-5: Kate Blairstone, Illustrator and Print Maker

In a twist of fate, I had not realized that the Kate who had waited on our table during my February trip in Portland was a talented artist herself! Only a month later did I happened on her floral prints in her Instagram account. Her webpage is as colorful and cheerful as her personality, and Kate recently launched her online shop selling a few prints (I particularly like the Euphorbia print).


IMG_4173Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kate Blairstone – I’m 33 and live in beautiful North Portland, Oregon with my husband, dog and two cats.
Summer pink on pink: herbaceous peonies swim among rock rose (Cistus), a combination feasible in climates like that of Portland where Kate is fortunate to reside.

Summer pink on pink: herbaceous peonies swim among rock rose (Cistus), a combination feasible in climates like that of Portland where Kate is fortunate to reside.

The arts or horticulture? 
Both! I find that my many creative outlets inform and pollinate one another – it just depends on how much time there’s left in a day.
The 'Beware of Wisteria' should probably replace 'Beware of Dog' sign', and the juxtaposition, intentional or not, speaks a certain cheekiness, which Kate expresses somewhat in her work.

The ‘Beware of Wisteria’ should probably replace ‘Beware of Dog’ sign’, and the juxtaposition, intentional or not, speaks a certain cheekiness, which Kate expresses somewhat in her work.

Did your interest in gardening develop simultaneously with your professional development in art? 
Yes, in that they developed next to each other – it’s only recently that they’ve really overlapped. I’ve always been an artist, but it’s only since I’ve become a homeowner that I’ve been able to call myself a gardener. You have to have a garden to garden, right?
Like most creative types, you have a full time job at the Portland institution Besaw’s that pays your bills while you are able to produce your artwork, namely prints. How do you juggle the demands of a full time job that can limit creative output? 
When I first started at Besaw’s, I used to feel like the work depleted my creative energy available for my own outlets. In the last year I’ve been focusing more on my creativity as a practice, which really means that I can compartmentalize my output in proportion to the activity I’m working on. I’m much better at allocating only a certain time frame to a work project. I’m more efficient.
I’ve been successful at building my art practice at home by creating parameters for my work: a consistent format, process, and schedule. I feel the same way about my garden – it takes ongoing maintenance. It’s always evolving, and if you don’t stick with it it can get away from you. My husband is also an artist, so we’ve made our studio time something we do together.
Creativity can be capricious – funneling it into a productive and lucrative endeavor is always a challenge facing creative types. It’s all too easy to elapse into a dilettante when priorities divert commitment. Do you set aside blocks of time closed off to interruptions and obligations? 
I try very hard to limit my social obligations, which has been a funny transition as I’ve come out of my 20s. I used to worry over not having enough time to do everything; now I’m just much better at scheduling my time. I’d love to build my practice into a sustainable career, but at this point I’m happy to be able to create consistently. It’s gratifying to be able to see your own progress and track it over time, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.
Artists sometimes take years to refine their techniques before they are almost confident of them. At the same time their styles evolve with age. Sometimes mastering a new tool that can bring a new dimension to your work can add to the development process. What did your education in printmaking teach and did not? 
I have a funny relationship with art school. I’ve always been someone who’s taken to lots of interests, so in some ways my choice of Printmaking as a course of study was a bit arbitrary. I transferred to art school because I wanted to take more art classes. I started out in Photography but decided I didn’t like that because it wasn’t hands-on enough, and the Printmaking department at the time had the most agreeable faculty.
I didn’t use any printmaking in my work for years after college, and still don’t print my work myself, but I think it shaped my way of image-making. I tend to think in terms of surface design and flatness; I love textiles and folk art, the way craftspeople have been interpreting the world around them for hundreds of years.
A solitary Coulter's Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) peeks forth from the chartreuse Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae; such surprise combinations inspire Kate's graphic prints.

A solitary Coulter’s Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) peeks forth from the chartreuse Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae; such surprise combinations inspire Kate’s graphic prints.

How often do you play around with colors and spacing until you are satisfied with the resulting print? I find it overwhelming to pick out colors that really complement or scream the personality of the plant whenever I set to depict it in paintings. 
I usually start out with a realistic color portrayal, and then stray from there. It’s funny – some pieces are much easier than others. Sometimes I get the color relationships where I want them right away, and sometimes it takes hours. It doesn’t help that I tend to like unexpected color combinations. I love the filters in VSCO – I like to play with screen shots of my work on my phone. Sometimes the filters will tweak colors in interesting ways that I hadn’t considered. Placement is much easier, as I try to work within the same format every time.
Kate's ceramic vessels play host to enthusiastic, unrestrained bursts of floral arrangements.

Kate’s ceramic vessels play host to enthusiastic, unrestrained bursts of floral arrangements.

You enjoy collecting antique Asian ceramics. I detect a similarity between the floral motifs on these ceramics and those of your work – sometimes the juxtaposition of colors recall Asian pairings rather than Western ones. They seem lurid in the mind but they always turn out beautiful and contemporary. The Austrian-born Swedish artist and designer Josef Frank’s work comes close in the Western world. 
I love both those comparisons, thank you so much! I work often in ink, so I look at a lot of Asian porcelain, which often has a very similar line quality. I also find that the flowers and foliage depicted are often of actual plant species, rather than imagined ones. As I get to know different plants through both horticulture and drawing, I feel that I’m connecting to a long history of botanical surface design. I enjoy recognizing the plants others have drawn as well – peonies, dogwood, bamboo, chrysanthemums & bonsai – especially on antique pieces.
Josef Frank’s surface design has a similar feeling of flatness and layering, partially because we both use similar production methods. I love love love his overgrown and colorful aesthetic.
Lately I’ve been digging 60s and 70s illustration and surface design – the psychedelic color relationships remind me of golden hour in the garden.
The Swedish-Austrian designer Josef Frank's graphic botanical prints have a lot in common with Kate's work, and it isn't surprising to discover how she enjoys their playful feel.

The Swedish-Austrian designer Josef Frank’s graphic botanical prints have a lot in common with Kate’s work, and it isn’t surprising to discover how she enjoys their playful feel.

Do you have a preferred medium or media in which you render your prints? Are graphic design programs or digital printing part of the process?
I love working in ink – that’s how much of my work starts. It can be loose and heavy, or light and scratchy. I build up parts of each plant in layers of ink on tissue paper. Then I scan each layer, and colorize them in Adobe Illustrator. It’s instant gratification, but also keeps my work hands-on for much of the process.
Bright colors always tickle Kate's aesthetic senses - her photograph of these red chairs against the green foliage of cosmos reflects that preference.

Bright colors always tickle Kate’s aesthetic senses – her photograph of these red chairs against the green foliage of cosmos reflects that preference.

Retro prints are enjoying a revival as people crave bright colors as an antidote to our modern, monochromatic styles. Have any of your prints been reproduced for wallpapers and home decor? 
I’ve sold work for home decor, and would love to produce a line of wallpaper. That’s my dream! If I could have wild prints everywhere I would.
Unexpected sights, such as swags of red roses gracing the front facade of this modest house, always inspire Kate to pause and take photographs.

Unexpected sights, such as swags of red roses gracing the front facade of this modest house, always inspire Kate to pause and take photographs.

No plant seems to escape your attention – orchids, succulents, euphorias, and even temperate woody plants have been immortalized in your bold and colorful patterns. Where are you likely to seek plants for floral and botanical inspiration? 
I help with social media for the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, so when I get a chance, there are many fabulous open gardens throughout much of the year here in Portland. I also take tons of pictures everywhere I go. I often pull off the road when driving to take pictures of plants!
Irises are a favorite of Kate who favors their brilliant colors and sword-like leaves.; here a few iris flowers really steal the scene here.

Irises are a favorite of Kate who favors their brilliant colors and sword-like leaves.; here a few iris flowers really steal the scene here.

Portland has a vibrant horticultural community that benefits from its ideal climate for plants. What are some of your favorite gardens and nurseries to visit in Portland? 
I love to visit Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose and Cistus Nursury on Sauvie Island. On a sunny day, that beautiful drive (plus free chocolate chip cookies at Joy Creek) is my favorite day trip. This year I went two weekends in a row to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. I am now a huge huge fan of iris. I love getting to see a huge variety of the same species all together like that. I also love the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and Pacific Bonsai Museum outside Seattle. So good.
Any advice you wish to impart to those seeking to blend their artistic ambitions with plants and the greater natural world? 
For me, making art is about seeing, observing. It is also a practice. Going out and looking at plants, working with plants, studying their structure and growth season all contribute to understanding how they might translate artistically. I favor illustration and printmaking as well as folk art when looking for inspiration (and comparison); it’s not about realism, it’s about style and mood.
An unlikely combination made possible in the maritime Pacific Northwest climate: Tetrapanax papyrifer with Cornus.

An unlikely combination made possible in the maritime Pacific Northwest climate: Tetrapanax papyrifer with Cornus.

If you do have a garden, could you say that it is an extension of your personality you confidently exhibit in your prints? I imagine a garden full of graphic architectural plants paired with softer romantic ones – such as the dogwood with Tetrapanax you posted on Instagram. 
My garden is two years old, and started as a very weedy patch of grass. Much of it is still that way (we’re gradually working on that), but it’s now much more colorful. My husband and I got married in our backyard last August, so I spent a lot of time last year creating my “wedding garden”: brugmansia, Yucca rostrata & lots of kniphofia. As Mexican as possible! I think you’re right, though, my favorite combination is my Tetrapanax and white Japanese anemone. As my friend Kate Bryant says, they’re gonna fight it out!
Your desert island plant? 
Can I lump all the poppies together as one plant? If not, I’m in love with Lewisia. #OregonNative!
We creative types never cease to have something coming along shall our interests flag. What projects do you have in the pipeline? 
My husband and I recently went to Croatia for two weeks! I saw and drew as many unusual Mediterranean plants as I can. After that, I have plans for some limited run screen printed editions and hopefully some wallpaper!
Select 6 prints and explain briefly their inspiration behind them. 
Peony & Wisteria
Peony & Wisteria: Honestly I was surprised that these bloomed together this year. Am I crazy? I was looking at vintage Uzbek Russian Trade Print Cotton fabric at the time – which is loud and bright and floral and retro: a fun eBay search when it pops up.
ItohPeony
Itoh Peony: My Coral Charm bloomed, and it was amazing! I was playing with grass textures, and enjoyed the juxtaposition. One of my favorite design challenges is “Vintage 70s Tea Towel.”
Poppies
Poppies: I often work in flat, digital color, so I’m always looking for ways to imply texture. This was another 70s Tea Towel Challenge- but maybe somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Aeonium
Aeonium: For a while we didn’t have a scanner, so I was taking pictures of my ink drawings with my phone, emailing them to myself, and then manipulating them in Photoshop and Illustrator. A pain in the ass, but an unintentional, happy result is the way the layers are offset. I like that hand printed, vintage feel. I studied this aeonium for a long time while drawing; it’s great meditation.
Euphorbia
Euphorbia: This Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ was one of those plants I thought hadn’t made it – there’s a good amount of neglect in my garden – and it suddenly reappeared this spring. I love that bright center; the huge clump of it at Joy Creek is one of my favorite things in their display garden.
PeggyAnne
Peggy Anne:  I love illustrating variegated plants. It’s a way to gradually convince myself that they’ll be cool in my garden. I spotted Peggy Anne on my visit to Schreiner’s. Adelman Peony Garden is just down the road, which made for a fabulous nursery trip. Those splotchy Itoh peonies were a natural pair – I wish my yard were that adventurous!

 Thank you Kate!
~ Eric
 

Plantsman’s Corner: Darmera peltata

 DSC_8178_final

I was walking in Salzburg University’ s small but quaint botanical garden a while ago when I stumbled upon two young gardeners (students?) cutting back a big patch of Darmera peltata.  My initial thought was why destroy such a beautifully established plantation, but as kept  walking along the waterway that separates the garden in two, I realized that it had maybe taken over too much ground and needed to give space over to others.  Darmera is not an invasive plant but it certainly knows how to fight its ground. It is very competitive and precious little can dislodge it once established. I left a clump unattended for more than 10 years in a field and when I went back, nothing had succeeded in growing through it, not even tree saplings.

The Darmera rhizomes are very tightly wound together that weeds and other plants have a difficult time establishing a foothold in an established Darmera colony.

The Darmera rhizomes are very tightly wound together that weeds and other plants have a difficult time establishing a foothold in an established Darmera colony.

This giant saxifrage used to be known under the descriptive name of Peltiphyllum (from the Greek peltos, shield, and phyllos, leaf) for its beautiful round plate-size leaves (glossy and slightly concave, unlike the similar but matte and convex Astilboides).  It had just changed name when I encountered it for the first time as a burgeoning gardener twenty years ago.

Darmera is a great bog plant that offers a good contrasting shape to reeds, irises, cattails and other linear marsh dwellers.  It is very easy to grow and although it relishes mud (even if it won’t survive with its rhizomes submerged in water), it will grow happily in ordinary garden soil. It will grow in full sun if the soil is damp, but prefers shade during the hottest part of the day. Although the plant is amenable to drier conditions, the foliage can start to look tired early on and flowering is diminished considerably. Darmera is normally grown as a foliage plant and advertised as such, but under auspicious conditions flowering is abundant and a beautiful sight.

Darmera peltata close up HQEarly in spring, its large pink umbels emerge from the mud on tall crimson stalks.  It is a welcome burst of life at a time of year when little else is out in the bog garden. I have been hopeful to find a white form somewhere but thus far none has materialized.  Perhaps if one went scourging its natural habitat on the West Coast of America in April, one might get lucky.  I haven’t come across a variegated sport either. The only variation I am aware is of a dainty dwarf form aptly called ‘Nana’.  I cannot establish how it originated but it has been around for a long time in the United Kingdom.  Despite its long period of cultivation, ‘Nana’ remains a rarity as it is a very slow growing plant.  Unlike the species, it needs a rich humid spot to do well and does not take kindly to dry conditions. Yet ‘Nana’ is a darling plant that fills a niche since most wetland plants are too aggressive and/or invasive for small ponds.  Its foliage also takes on colourful shades in the autumn more readily than the species and it is often ablaze with golden yellow and red in October here.

Darmera peltata 'Nana'

Darmera peltata ‘Nana’

Both the species and its dwarf form will take a few years to reach their full potential.  One can expect the foliage to be much shorter and smaller the first year and sometimes even the second year after planting. Darmera is not a plant that needs dividing often, mine has been in the same place for nearly 20 years and retains all its vigor.  Some books say that it gets thin in the center after a while, but that’s not my experience or what I have observed from other gardens. New rhizomes seem to fill gaps made by old ones that die out and the clumps remain dense for very many years.

Darmera peltata is one of the rare herbaceous perennials whose foliage will turn beautifully coppery red in autumn.

Darmera peltata is one of the rare herbaceous perennials whose foliage will turn beautifully coppery red in autumn.

As I looked at the Darmera removal operation in Salzburg, a second thought came to my mind.  These gardeners were going to need a lot of will power to dig this network of rhizomes after they finish cutting back the foliage.  They did not seem very enthusiastic, let’s hope there was machinery available nearby.

~ Philippe Lévesque

Hellebores at the Northwest Garden Nursery, Oregon

DSC_0487Were hellebores to flower at the peak of the spring entourage rather than late winter to early spring, they would not be as popular as they are with the horticultural cognoscenti. These herbaceous perennials, European and east Asian in distribution, have universal appeal that spans temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Going from John Massey’s poly houses of hellebores during February in England to Barb Jennings’s flowering plants during June in Tasmania, Australia, is a momentous lesson of popular garden plants. Part of their popularity owes to their remarkable promiscuity that a complex heritage has produced Helleborus x hybridus, and few interspecific crosses once thought untenable have been achieved through biotechnology ingenuity. Marketed along with cyclamen and primroses, these interspecific hybrids now appear in the potted plant section of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. However, Helleborus hybridus (once classified under Helleborus orientalis, a true species itself and uncommon in cultivation) has received the most scrutiny from plant breeders. The British and Germans have been breeding hellebores seriously for decades; Eric Smith whose breeding work with hostas yielded ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Moon’, hybridized and grew hundreds of seedlings in the 1960s, as did Helen Ballard who acquired species from the Balkans to enhance her genetic material. Adding to the British hellebore breeding circles was Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery who did much to popularize these plants, as well as Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery who was among the first to introduce a double-flowered seed strain Party Dress. Ashwood Nurseries, under Kevin Belcher and John Massey’s direction, developed their famed selections on these earlier breeders’ work. The German plantswoman Gisela Schmiemann who published a photographic tribute to Helen Ballard refined her seed strain sold under the Lady Series. Today the bloodlines of British and German hellebores are perpetuated within Winter Jewels™ series, the magnum opus of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne’s two-decade painstaking work.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom'

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Cherry Blossom’

The O’Byrnes did not develop an interest in hellebores until they saw beautiful examples depicted in Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman’s The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, a book that was the source of Americans’ covetous envy at what the British grew. These hellebores were leagues away from the muddy colors and poor forms that plagued strains sold in United States.

The book that launched the O'Byrnes' lifelong passion for hellebores.

The book that launched the O’Byrnes’ lifelong passion for hellebores.

Motivated by the book’s pictures, the O’Byrnes first obtained seed from the hellebore specialists Will McLewin and Gisela Schmiemann. It took a seminal visit with friends to Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, England to convert them into full-time hellebore breeders. At least several dozen Ashwood hellebores, augmented by those from Blackthorn and the Dutch nursery De Hessenhof, were successfully imported to Eugene, Oregon where the O’Byrnes reside and garden.

Double-flowered selections are one of O'Byrnes' cornerstones in their breeding work.

Double-flowered selections are one of O’Byrnes’ cornerstones in their breeding work.

Eugene, 2 1/2 hours south of Portland, Oregon, has an ideal climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 70s and 40s F, despite being 100 miles inland and less within the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Because hellebores still continue to grow throughout the year, the mild climate encourages earlier maturity and consequently earlier flowering than elsewhere in United States. Ernie said that growing essentially ceases when temperatures fall below 35 degrees F, therefore seedlings in the Northeast US may take two to four years to flower. This climatic advantage allows the O’Byrnes to evaluate and cull failures in their breeding program.

Helleborus x hybridus 'Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush' shows the excellent traits of O'Bryne's focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion - any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Helleborus x hybridus ‘Winter Jewels™ Apricot Blush’ shows the excellent traits of O’Byrne’s focused breeding: clear and clean color, slightly upward facing orientation, and prolific vigor. Disease resistance is another criterion – any plants showing any symptoms are promptly rejected.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

Hellebores in the breeding house await evaluation and culling.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house - 'Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond' can be seen in the foreground.

More hellebores in the breeding poly house – ‘Winter Jewels™ Black Diamond’ can be seen in the foreground.

Breeding usually starts in mid-January when the stock plants in the nursery’s three poly houses flower. The O’Byrnes’ tools of the trade include No. 6 watercolor brushes, tags, alcohol, and fabric bags. Like a roving bumblebee, Marietta transports pollen from one plant to another. She and Ernie then place fabric bags over the flowers during early April to secure the ripening seed lest any fall to the ground and make their careful record keeping negligible. Seed is usually harvested and cleaned in May, and then sowed (some seed are reserved for sale to overseas customers only; the O’Byrnes do not sell domestically to safeguard their work from being propagated illegally).

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Hellebore seedlings await pricking out later into individual plugs.

Although wholesale nurseries are the primary beneficiaries of the hellebores, the O’Byrnes open their premises twice – one in mid to late February, and another in early March (the last two years had them sold out earlier on the first weekend, causing cancellation of the March open house) – for hellebore enthusiasts to purchase flowering plants. People often queue hours early prior to the 10 am opening for the first dibs on particular colors or shapes, and a mad frenzy of flailing arms and elbows and crouched knees explode in the sales area. It is impressive to see the nearly emptied poly houses in photographs posted on Facebook. “The first year we introduced payment by credit card,” Ernie said, “all our sales went up the roof because people were buying more plants.” Our visit did not coincide with the open days, but we did see the preparations in progress – plants were organized by color and priced accordingly by size; a part time employee was re-potting some overgrown seedlings.

The O'Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this 'Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine'.

The O’Byrnes are interested in developing richer jewel-like colors, like this ‘Winter Jewels™ Ruby Wine’.

What does the future hold? “We want to concentrate on rich colors,” Ernie emphatically said, “we’re moving away from lighter colors like white and pink. And there is always room for better doubles.”  Such strive for excellence certainly puts the O’Byrnes at the pinnacle of their hellebore breeding game, and we can only wait with abated breath for exciting strains in the future. ~Eric

For more info, visit the Northwest Garden Nursery.

Lumina

Dear Jimmy,

Your post on the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla had me contemplating about light. We should practice ‘luminism’ more in gardening. Light is perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly considered element in gardens. Only are the plants’ cultural requirements weighed does it become significant. While we may appreciate its effect in interior design and architecture, for some reason we fail to apply the same priority in gardens, concentrating instead on hardscaping and plants. Focusing on hardscaping and plants is like deciding what furniture and decor will be without thought to the wall color and floors. Yet it is light that noticeably alters the mood and atmosphere of the garden – the silhouettes of trees and shrubs, the long shadows cast onto the walls, and the reflections in water features. Sylvia Crowe once wrote: “There is always a delight in looking out on to the sunlight from within a dark wood, or from between the columns of an arcade, whether they be the pillars of an Italian pergola or the trunks of a lime walk, and there is the unfailing effect of light falling on some special spot from surrounding shade.”

As dark as the yews may be, they compel us to seek the light towards the end of the pathway (Yew Walk, Tregrehan, Cornwall, UK).

As dark as the yews may be, they compel us to seek the light towards the end of the pathway (Yew Walk, Tregrehan, Cornwall, UK).

Studying the various nuances of light has revised my approach towards combining plants. Just as theatrical lighting affects our attention on the stage performers, the right light can accentuate plants. Simply it seems sensible to design a planting through light. I recall Nori and Sandra Pope explain how they observed where the light fell at various times against the curvilinear kitchen garden wall at Hadspen, letting it dictate what colors decreed the garden. Their tonal plantings modulated from light to dark, proving again that light underpins color. The same principle pertained to Great Dixter, renowned for its virtuoso color combinations that either soothe or excite depending on the time of day. In the High Garden there, the intense colors of tender perennials and annuals were heightened in the evening light than they were in the morning.

Salvia confertiflora pulses brilliantly in the low evening light at Great Dixter.

Salvia confertiflora pulses brilliantly in the low evening light at Great Dixter.

To bring light into the garden is to embrace the luminous quality of grasses. What makes the gardens of contemporary garden designers like Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart Smith, or Wolfgang Oehme, appealing is the interplay of light between grasses and herbaceous perennials – the buoyancy of the former enliven the perennial flowers, propping up their decaying seedheads later. A friend cleverly interplanted Sanguisorba officinalis (burnet) among Stipa gigantea where the first rays of sunlight hit the garden. The grass has the kinetic and translucent magnetism, a perfect foil for the opaque dark Sanguisorba in summer and autumn. It is a magnetism seen hundredfold in a field of Miscanthus sinensis  I once waded through at Yangmingshan National Park, Taiwan. High above the urban smog of Taipei, the clear skies highlighted a shimmery silver sea of plumes, a memorable sight that linked landscapes to my light fixation in gardens.

The garnet orbs of Sanguisorba officinalis spangle the metallic oat-like flowers of Stipa gigantea (private garden, Australia).

The garnet orbs of Sanguisorba officinalis spangle the metallic oat-like flowers of Stipa gigantea (private garden, Australia).

Being serious about photography taught me about light as well. Garden and landscape photographers often register the light carefully for the best pictures. Doing so slows you down as you walk around and observe the garden from different angles, and then the garden’s personality becomes more apparent. It always dismayed me to visit a garden at midday for the resultant photographs were washed out. Soon I reluctantly started to wake up before dawn and venture out when people were still asleep. That reluctance disappeared into contentedness – the still mornings, unsullied by nothing but birdsong, promised moments of beautiful repose. Those moments induce a dream-like state, suspended between surrealism and reality, fertile for creativity.

The light breaks through the mist behind the black walnut tree at Chanticleer.

The light breaks through the mist behind the black walnut tree at Chanticleer.

My appreciation for gardens and landscapes went deeper beyond color and form. I paid heed to Crowe’s finer points of light in the garden – the long shadows cast by trees across the lawn, the shafts of light splintering the morning mist, the backlit beauty of a solitary flower heavy with dew. It is an experience immensely private and not immediately apparent during the process of gardening – sometimes we are deeply engrossed in the mundane tasks on hand, forgetting to look up.

Birches cast long shadows across the lawn studded with daffodils.

Birches cast long shadows across the lawn studded with daffodils.

When I was in Australia, I was startled by the country’s hard light – the textures and colors, the leaves of eucalyptus or the rocky formations, were clear-cut and reflective. The clarity of the Down Under light forced me to rethink my perceptions previously informed by the Northern Hemisphere. Landscapes became more sculptural, abstract, and wilder. Genteel places created by homesick Europeans paled in comparison with their surroundings – the demarcations between the domesticated and untamed were more sharply drawn than those blurred in Europe and parts of North America. The stronger light only compounded that difference.

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

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

Every detail seemingly asserts itself graphically in the Australian light – the orange lichen encrusted rocks, pockmarking the east coast of Tasmania and Victoria, are fully saturated, nowhere muted as they would be in the Northern Hemisphere. Clouds seem more alive – their fluffy contours indelibly etched against the antipodean skies.  Using Northern Hemisphere plants in these areas would feel too contrived and futile – they would appear discordant in the grand landscapes. More than anything, light sets the style of the garden.

Binalong Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Binalong Bay, Tasmania, Australia

Only in the higher elevations did the light wane, receding with more luxuriant plant-life and cooler temperatures. The mists chilled us as they would have elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, the Yorkshire Moors, or the Californian redwood forests. Here greens, grays, and muddy browns dominated, taking over the whites, oranges, and burnt sienna of the coastal areas.

Only minutes was the garden in full sunlight before the fog crept through the trees (private garden, Tasmania, Australia).

Only minutes was the garden in full sunlight before the fog crept through the trees (private garden, Tasmania, Australia).

Such ruminations on light can be turned on without going overseas. As I drive to and from work home, I watch how the light shifts into dawn and evening. The low-angled light in autumn is a profound difference from the high summer light, a more golden luminosity not seen in spring, and it is one advantage of residing in the Northeast U.S. In more northern latitudes, the light seems weaker, diminished by the geographical proximity to the Arctic Circle. You become habituated to the subtle changes in the same way plants begin to respond to longer day lengths.

Clouds_TAS

Deciphering light in gardens is our capacity to envince the atmosphere of a natural place. We have the benefit that Sorolla and other Impressionist painters never had – we never need to reproduce the light. Sometimes the methodical aspects of gardening can leave us incapable of creating the feeling, the emotional limitations and longings that precisely characterize the beauty of creating a garden.  ~ Eric

Breakfast by the morning light in Corfu, Greece

Breakfast by the morning light in Corfu, Greece

To Be Stumped

Madrone and Douglas fir stumps, rescued from Vashon Island construction sites, are carefully placed to allow paths meander and plants, especially ferns flourish in the cool micro-climate.

Madrone and Douglas fir stumps, rescued from Vashon Island construction sites, are carefully placed to allow paths meander and plants, especially ferns, flourish in the cool micro-climate.

Given how ferns are an quintessential part of the Pacific Northwest landscapes, it seems a surprise that no one in the Pacific Northwest region had conceived a stumpery garden. Sourcing stumps should be a cinch in a region still dependent on the logging industry, and the mild moist climate encourages not only ferns, but also mosses and shade perennials for that verdant look. The concept of a stumpery is hardly novel for the Victorians popularized them after the first one was created at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, UK, in 1856.

Only six years old, Pat and Walt Riehl’s Stumpery in Vashon Island, Washington State is a youngster if compared with Biddulph Grange. Nonetheless it has filled out impressively, a testament of the region’s ideal climate for ferns and shade perennials.  The Riehls were inspired to create a stumpery on their property bought in 2006 after the British fern expert Martin Rickard led their European trip to view ferneries and stumperies. They had already cleared the nettles and other invasive weeds from the woodlands, and saw an opportunity to create a stumpery. In turn, the Riehls hired Rickard to design and plant one. Nearly 50 madrone and Douglas fir stumps were brought in from Vashon Island construction sites and carefully positioned to form the layout of the stumpery.  On the sunny periphery facing the house, Pat Riehl added Japanese maples, hardy scheffleras, and rhododendrons that partially screen the stumpery from immediate viewing. They transition well with the large Tasmanian tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), hydrangeas, and broad-leafed evergreens across the path dividing the sunny and shady sections.

Tree ferns, hydrangeas, and broad-leafed evergreens hint slightly at the Stumpery ahead of us. The Riehls protect the tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) during winter by slipping laminated paper cases over them. And the effect is well worth it.

Tree ferns, hydrangeas, and broad-leafed evergreens hint slightly at the Stumpery ahead of us. The Riehls protect the tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica) during winter by slipping laminated paper cases over them. And the effect is well worth it.

Unusual ferns can be found in the shady embankment, prompting us to take photographs and notes.

Osmunda regalis 'Cristata', an interesting variant with crested tips

Osmunda regalis ‘Cristata’, an interesting variant with crested tips

Before descending the steps to the Stumpery, we paused to study the rock garden where Pat has tucked in choicer ferns requiring sharp drainage or otherwise lost among the larger plants in the stumpery. Pat admits being unhappy about the rock garden, “I need to redo this bit and take out the plants that don’t belong.” She points out a floppy purple-flowering Caleceloria that will be taken out – “it self-seeds and doesn’t justify the space it takes”.

Dry and sunny, the rock garden allows the Riehls to cultivate ferns requiring sharp drainage, specific pH, and more light.

Dry and sunny, the rock garden allows the Riehls to cultivate ferns requiring sharp drainage, specific pH, and more light.

To view the stumpery, one has to go through the tunnel constructed of tree trunks. Dwarfed by the stumps and luxuriant greenery, we immediately felt Lilliputian.

The candle holders are cleverly shaped like ferns against the gate to the Stumpery.

The candle holders are cleverly shaped like ferns against the gate to the Stumpery.

Nearly invisible, a metal framework built by Walt supports the stumps stacked over the gate. We traced our steps cautiously through the tunnel, exiting to discover a labyrinth of pathways threaded through more stumps. More ferns and woodland perennials fill the available nooks and crannies in the stumps.

Podophyllum 'Spotty Dotty' heightens the luxuriant Hobbitsque effect of the Stumpery.

Podophyllum ‘Spotty Dotty’ heightens the luxuriant Hobbitsque effect of the Stumpery.

Over time, moss has begun to colonize the stumps, softening the hard-edged, splintering edges.

The stumps themselves are sculptural, possessing an animalistic individuality. Gnarled and bleached, they contort without intervention, oblivious to the ferns or eventual decay.

Ferns either have been planted or self-spored in the stump crevices.

Ferns either have been planted or self-spored in the stump crevices.

Always enjoying a chance to stump visiting fern fans and pteridologists, Pat includes fern-like plants, such as Pteridophyllum racemosum (a poppy relative) or the largely Asian genus Coptis. “I tricked two fern experts on this plant,” Pat said with a laugh, pointing out Pteridophyllum racemosum, “they thought that it was a Blechnum!”

Coptis omeiensis, imported from Crug Farm Plants in Wales, is a perfect fern doppelgänger if not for its dried seedheads.

Coptis omeiensis, imported from Crug Farm Plants in Wales, is a perfect fern doppelgänger if not for its dried seedheads.

If the stumps aren’t adequate receptacles for ferns, containers or rustic furniture are appropriated for adding more.

A metal table becomes a raised tableau of ferns, hostas, and mosses.

A metal table becomes a raised tableau of ferns, hostas, and mosses.

The Riehls are modern equivalents of Victorian pteridomaniacs, and in their beautiful home, ceramics and various objets d’art are decorated with fern motifs. In the Stumpery, we relaxed on a replica of a Coalbrookdale ‘Fern and Blackberry’ bench, taking in the greenery and the cool Pacific Northwest air.

A replica of the Coalbrookdale 'Fern and Blackberry' bench graces the Stumpery, taking pteridomania to another level.

A replica of the Coalbrookdale ‘Fern and Blackberry’ bench graces the Stumpery, taking pteridomania to another level.

~Eric

Northwest Perennial Alliance’s Perennial Border at Bellevue Botanical Garden

View from the Top of the Second Terrace

View from the Top of the Second Terrace; note the cages protecting the tree trunks from rabbit damage

As any seasoned gardener will tell you, revamping or renovating an established garden isn’t an easy feat completed within a day’s work. Perennial weeds take hold, weaker plants fade away, and woody plants grow out of scale. Such challenges faced Charles Price and Glenn Withey when the Northwest Perennial Alliance (NPA), modelled after England’s Hardy Plant Society, asked them to redesign its Perennial Border at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Washington State, seven years later after they resigned from overseeing its maintenance.  Price and Withey, two of the original designers, are well known in the Pacific Northwest for their colorful artistry with plants, uncommon and common. They are too seasoned gardeners who gardened ‘feverishly’ for 7 years in the 1980s and currently oversee the Dunn Gardens (the Curator’s Garden is a must-see for this pair’s consummate talents). First conceived in 1992, the Northwest Perennial Alliance Perennial Border was meant to inspire and educate the horticultural community in the Puget Sound region.  Its fame later spread throughout the North American gardening circles, and demonstrated that the Europeans did not necessarily had the hegemony on mixed or herbaceous borders. Certainly the region’s mild climate with warm days and cool nights, well suited for herbaceous perennials, didn’t hurt either.

Kniphofia 'Little Maid' plays off the colors of the Verbascum, Stipa gigantea, and Lilium 'Concha d'Or'

Kniphofia ‘Little Maid’ plays off the colors of the Verbascum, Stipa gigantea, and Lilium ‘Concha d’Or’

When I visited the border in 2005, it had none of the brilliance acclaimed and photographed in books and magazines.  Instead what greeted me was a weedy overgrown tangle of perennials and grasses, and any remnants of its former glory failed to redeemed the glaring fallacies, and I left disappointed wondering if the Northwest Perennial Alliance had lost interest in maintaining it.  In the interim, tensions had run high between the Border Committee and the NPA Board, which wanted a renovation fiercely opposed by the former. After the Border Committee dissolved, the NPA brought in Longwood Professional Gardeners’ graduate George Lasch to supervise the transformation. Lasch was realistic about the reasons behind the Border’s undoing, saying: “Great gardeners are not always necessarily great designers. It became a classic gardening-by-committee problem, and the editing choices made a decade ago led to problems that we need to address today” (CityArts).  Changes afoot included reduced maintenance regimes, better visitor accessibility, and a connection to the rest of Bellevue Botanical Garden. First a bulldozer was brought out to wipe out the area after the desirable plants were saved. Gone were the golden carpets of creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), purple barberry, Siberian irises, and geraniums.  “Now the garden has been given a second chance.  I will be the first to admit that the renovation has been controversial, as some people believe nothing should change.  Life however is full of changes and surprises, and no matter how hard we try and hold on, things cannot and will not ever remain the same.”

Stacked stone columns add vertical notes, relating to the spires of Verbascum, Lilium 'Sweetheart', and Datsica cannabina (on the right).

Stacked stone columns add vertical notes, relating to the spires of Verbascum, Lilium ‘Sweetheart’, and Datsica cannabina (on the right).

Curious about the border’s second transformation, I returned again this year, relieved to discover how beautiful the plantings had matured. The cages for protecting the trees against rabbits were still in place, but they were sculptural, blending with the plants. Instead of the Rothkosque blocks of bright colors in the original design, the plantings have become drift-like and painterly as if Price and Withey subconsciously instilled a looser, relaxed look.  Such drifts enable the plantings to be presentable and interesting from each vantage point afforded by the border’s sloping terrain split by two pathways. As part of the shift towards less maintenance, Price and Withey avoided aggressive self-seeding plants (Astrantia was a major problem in the previous border) or woody plants requiring coppicing (pollarded Catalpa grew out of scale when pruning was neglected for some time).   Roses hardly make their presence as the Border used to have roses trained over hoops. Nevertheless, these sacrifices did not diminish the Border’s beauty.

The garnet orbs of Allium sphaerocephalon rise above the crimson blanket flowers, while the soft pinks and blues can be seen in the background.

The garnet orbs of Allium sphaerocephalon rise above the crimson blanket flowers, while the soft pinks and blues can be seen in the background.

The Perennial Border is not monochromatic and a fail-safe approach towards color is not the chief aspiration of Price and Withey especially when the clear summer skies of the Pacific Northwest call for chromatic intensity of equal measure. Soft or cool colors are unexpectedly sharpened with brighter ones (burgundy with red orange; blue with bright orange and burgundy, pink with yellow). Had the Border been graduated in color, the instinct of the viewer would be to walk quickly past the plantings rather than a slow pacing to appreciate an unorthodox combination here and there.  While perennials are the principal focus, trees and shrubs are not underrepresented. They may be seem absent in these photographs, but they require more time to fulfill their mature sizes and the unusual ones used are not always readily available in large sizes without being prohibitively expensive. Grasses, especially Panicum and Miscanthus temporarily step into the role of the woody plants.

In the low evening light, the purples glow with surreal intensity, only tempered by the greens from the grasses.

In the low evening light, the purples glow with surreal intensity, only tempered by the greens and yellows from the grasses.

The renovation still creates mixed feelings within the horticultural community – one employee at Molbak’s confided that she liked the original reincarnation better as it was more lush and fuller. As controversial as the project was for the horticultural community, it is a recurring reminder that no garden exists in inertia and a zealous attitude towards preservation can be detrimental rather than helpful. The ‘missing’ lushness will arrive as the garden moves from its adolescent stage towards maturity, and under the capable eye of George Lasch, the creative input of Price and Withey, and the NPA’s volunteer crew.  ~Eric

Cotinus coggyria 'Young Lady', seen behind the tall lilies (possibly Lilium sargentiae or Lilium regale) anchors the mixed plantings of grasses, Kniphofia, lavender, Astilbe, and other perennials.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Young Lady’, seen behind the tall lilies (possibly Lilium sargentiae or Lilium regale) anchors the mixed plantings of grasses, Kniphofia, lavender, Astilbe, and other perennials.