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 quiet delight

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Winter has a charm all its own – some of us love it, some of us loathe it. Being in the former group, I wait patiently for winter to appear here in Madrid, and I forget that this is it, this what I get now,  a mild season with  January as its coldest month dropping to its lowest at  5.5°C (41.9°F). With some leaves still clinging to the trees and only wearing a light winter jacket, I have to say I miss the extreme cold of winter, the snow, the quiet and the beauty that it bears.

One favorite winter activity is going for long walks alone out in a garden or surrounding landscape to escape from being indoors.  As a student at Longwood Gardens I often ventured outside where I used to visit Winterthur Gardens once a month to take some solitary time away from school, work and life in general, as a garden has always been an escape for my mind. I remember once driving to Winterthur a day after a storm, eager to see this beautiful landscape garden cloaked in snow, praying it would not be closed. It was open, and as I walked around crunching through the snow, I relished seeing the gardens empty, imagining them as my own private garden.  All the paths were empty except for the telltale signs of beast and bird darting from one shrubbery to the next, through furry glimpses or imprints left in snow.

With snow crunching underfoot, I made my way to the Pinetum and walked excitedly underneath its dark canopy of snow laden branches. Seeing the dark undersides of the branches in contrast with the white surroundings was stunning, as if all of life was muffled, suspended, quiet with only the sharp cold piercing the silence. I continued all the way into the middle, leaned against the trunk of a pine and slid down to the ground. I sat alone in a foot of snow for what seemed like hours, absorbing the crystalline surroundings, staring into and through the dark wood, and having great admiration for the tree silhouettes in their true naked selves. There was that heavy silence in the forest from all of the surrounding snow until a hawk started screeching as it circled above, unknowingly making the experience more cathartic. Circling, calling, and diving, the hawk continued its flight over and over, closely with wings fully extended and wide eyes scanning. I stayed until the snow started to go gray from the dissipating evening light. Content and at ease, I made my way back, feeling as if I had taken the longest and most regenerating nap I’d ever known.  – James

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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.

Winter Flowers: Mahonias

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December can be a bleak month for flowers unless you count the odd, brave snowdrop  or a precocious witch hazel. The last of autumn leaves have fallen, and the late-flowering asters have gone to seed. While it is true that the bright red hollies can wake up our gray senses, they lack the sensual power of flowers, a strong reason for the magic of gardening. Only do the days become perceptibly longer in late January can we anticipate winter flowers even if they lack the spring pyrotechnics. Often the wait is rewarding for winter flowers can be intensely scented.
Why do these plants expend energy flowering when odds are stacked against them? Winter flowers do not have to vie for pollinators as they would have if spring and summer were their seasons. They’re savvy to recognize that those warm winter spells will revive any hibernating insects needing sustenance for the next cold spell. I am always taken surprise at seeing bees and various members of Hymenoptera (bees) and Diptera (flies) at what seem paltry options in winter. Somehow the plants do succeed when mature, ripe fruit take the flowers’ place later.
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Before Christmas, I can always count mahonias to commence the winter flowering season. Their sprays of yellow flowers glow bright and incandescent in the weak winter light, luring us as much as those hapless pollinators. Sweet and heavy like honey, the mahonia’s perfume can cut through the chill like a scythe in a wheat field. It is faintly suggestive of lily of the valley, but more potent in its intensity. The best mahonia for fragrance remains Mahonia japonica, a species curiously not found in the wild.
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Lax and wide spreading in habit (6 ft tall by 5-7 ft wide), Mahonia japonica can be hard to accommodate in small gardens. And despite being highly scented, the flowers of M. japonica may lack the showiness factor people seek in winter flowering shrubs. Those willing to accept less fragrant, but showier flowers can look towards Mahonia x media.
A hybrid of M. oiwakensis subsp. lomariifolia (syn. M. lomariifolia) and M. japonica, Mahonia x media originated in the batch of open-pollinated seedlings in northern Ireland. One seedling was grown at Savill Gardens, England, where it was named ‘Charity’ (its siblings were respectively named ‘Hope’ and ‘Faith’). Breeders expanded the selections, which vary in flowering times and mature sizes. Generally Mahonia x media tend to form taller, if not tighter, statuesque shrubs than M. japonica. They are surprisingly architectural as their leaves have this precise zig-zag pattern somewhat tiered on the stems.
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Some people are highly dismissive of mahonias’ ranginess over time. Pruning the stems hard to 1′ to 2′ will encourage new shoots to develop – it is advisable to cut in spring for the plant to heal and regenerate rather than autumn or winter. Others might view the leggy stems as an opportunity to underplant with interesting shrubs or perennials to conceal them.
Mahonias do best in mild winter regions. They require protection from winter winds, which can scorch and tatter their beautiful foliage. Although the damage appears cosmetic, the effect is rather distracting for the evergreen leaves can be long-lived. In fact, open and sunny exposed locations are not ideal for mahonias, which tend to be understory shrubs in the wild. I often see robust plants in northern exposures, and in dry shade where other plants would fail. It is a common sight in London to see mahonias somehow flourishing in those dark corners, lurking furtively until their flowers appear, awakening the bleary landscape.