Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #7: Using Water Successfully

The seventh in a continuing series of design articles…

waterWalk into any box store or garden center these days, and you’ll find an entire section devoted to water gardening. Tubs, pumps, basins galore; fish, tubing, filters and more — water gardening is now a multi-billion dollar industry. And with good reason: there is nothing more delightful than the sound and play of water in the landscape. But for all the money spent, the results are often quite dismal, and the average gardener can find their work and effort quickly disappear down the drain.

Ba boom! (I couldn’t resist)

But seriously, it’s true. If you look at most homeowner installations (and, sadly, many designed by “professionals”) what you see are rather odd-looking constructs that attempt to mimic nature: a little “spring” bubbling up near the driveway and spilling down past the grill to end at a rock-lined basin next to the deck. It’s highly contrived, and it looks it.

But there’s a better way, and the key to success is to keep in mind two important concepts. The first is to resolve not to try to out nature Mother nature. Water features look best when they relate to the architectural style of the house and garden, and embrace the artificiality of the construct. Translated from design-speak, that means that unless you live in the High Sierras, trying to mimic a free-flowing brook is probably not the best idea. What makes the wonderful reflecting basin in the picture above so successful is that it’s directly linked through materials and design to the columned loggia at the far end. You sense immediately and innately that water, sky, and garden have come together in a harmonious whole. Below, a Victorian fountain serves as the centerpiece of a formal landscape. It’s a very different feel, but again it works as the rigid geometry of the basin and vertical thrust of the fountain reflect the strict lines of the towering topiaried yews. (I’ll add as an aside that now you can see why most yew varieties aren’t proper plants for the foundation: this is the size they really want to be!)water3

water2Keep in mind too that these features don’t have to be grand to be successful. Here’s another example of a charming little wall fountain at the base of the stair, just 3′ across. Now granted, the stone is marvelously detailed, but what makes this work isn’t so much the materials, but the way the half-shell back echoes the round basin: convex, concave and back again. The water feature also perfectly corresponds to the feel of the wall and terrace, and in fact, that of the entire garden it’s located in. And that’s the second point: the style of the water feature must match that of the landscape. If you have a formal, geometrically styled garden, then the water feature should have a formal, geometric feel. Conversely, if you have a relaxed country garden, or whimsical town garden, the style of the water feature should mimic that. The possibilities for water are almost endless: from a simple wall fountain, to well-head and stream; to a rustic trough, or a grand rill and reflecting pond. Just remember these two rules for using water in the landscape, and you’ll be on your way to creating a wonderful new feature for your landscape.

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #6: Go Big, or Go Home

The sixth in a continuing series of design articles…
Outdoors, it’s all about scale. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of the vignette in small gardens. In large gardens, on the other hand, small features have a tendency to disappear, and what’s required are big splashes painted boldly across the garden canvas. Take a look at the vegetable garden above (yes, vegetable garden!). The main axis pathway is lined with nepeta, one of my favorite plants for long-season color. Not only are the lines of purple/blue breath-taking, but the specific variety of nepeta has been carefully selected to rise precisely to the height of a low shrub, effectively hiding the not so attractive utilitarian aspects of a production garden.

The nepeta (catmint) family, by the way, is an often overlooked clan of tremendously varied members, who differ considerably in height, flower color, and length of bloom. (For an in-depth look and cross comparison, including a rating of varieties, click HERE). The great thing about nepeta is that the flowering time is extensive and reliable in American gardens, in a way that lavender, another English favorite, is most certainly not. And I suppose that’s another entire lesson in itself: while good design principles remain the same across the globe, the specific application of these principles have to be carefully adapted to your local climate and conditions. Slavishly attempting exact duplication of features from one garden to another generally results in great expense — and mediocre results.

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #5: Hardscape

God is in the details they say, and I can assure you that the garden deity dwells most happily where the creator has paid attention to the quality of the hardscape. Let’s face it. Perennials come and go, trees rise and fall, seasons pass in a quick succession of constant flux — nothing is more ephemeral than a garden. But even the landscape has some limited element of resiliency, and that resiliency resides almost entirely in its bones, the hardscape.

Today let’s talk about flat surfaces — walls and paving — because they are often the most neglected elements in American gardens. Below is a wonderful set of English garden steps. The detailing and craftsmanship are immediately evident. Not only are the stairs masterfully designed in terms of tread width and riser height, but the use of the flat clay tiles to create the risers is a stroke of genius, animating what would normally be a dull expanse of stone or standard brick. (This is also a cost saving feature, as the rough tiles form the riser radius far less expensively than cut stone.) Note too, at head of the steps, the same bricks are used narrow-end up to form the paving.

stone 3Here similar example from a different garden, this time using thin pieces of local stone set narrow-side- up to form a medallion. Something like this doesn’t take a huge amount of cost or effort, just creativity. Once completed however, it gives pleasure in all seasons of the year.

stone1Here’s another example, this time using Roman bricks in a vertical wall surface. The surface becomes rhythmic, almost like a set of notes down a line of music.


Here’s one last, this time not from England, but from Cambridge, MA, a small driveway I stumbled upon one day on a walk:

drivewayHow much more pleasing than the standard asphalt tongue jutting out from the garage!

So how do you translate this kind of effect to your own garden? It all begins with an idea, and a plan. A very, very, detailed plan that’s gone through ample vetting to insure that what’s set in stone is worthy of being there. Here for instance is the construction plan for a bluestone courtyard I recently designed for a house in Cambridge, and installed by S&H. (Click on the image below to enlarge.) Their masons took the drawings I sent over and then meticulously plotted out how the final surface would look, complete with the measurements and color indicators of every piece to be used. That way, they could play around with sizes and colors of the bluestone on paper to create the most pleasing design, before it was made permanent. (The little green pieces of tape, by the way, indicate pieces already set.)

hardscape planPlanning like this is time consuming and exacting work, but it is ESSENTIAL to creating the quality you see evident in many English gardens. So too often today I see American masons and contractors creating work on the fly, and while that may produce fair results, it rarely produces divine ones, and that’s where you’ll find God in the garden if you seek him.



Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #4: Fabulous Foliage

Number four in a continuing series.

Flower, flowers, flowers. “Does it flower?” I am always asked. And while flowers most certainly are important (though for me, they must have fragrance, but that’s a column for another day) what generally gives you much more long-lasting bang for your buck is foliage.

foliageLook at the picture above. It’s a tiny part of the magnificent cathedral garden at Wells (a must see, by the way.) Sure, there are a few flowers visible, but what’s most striking is the gorgeous blue of the large-leaf hosta (‘Blue Hawaii’, I believe) combined with the thick green waxy leaves of the bergenia. Almost out of sight, to the left, is the green and yellow variegation of acuba japonica. The combination of these leaf colors entirely steals the show, drawing the eye to delightful rest in this cool corner of the garden.

hostaHosta, of course, are one of the all-around best plants for foliage, and they come in a strikingly large range of colors, sizes, shapes and textures. (The crinkling pattern certain cultivars exhibit is called ‘crenelation’ for those who like to pay attention to such things.) Interestingly, I was talking to the owner of the exhibit (left) at London’s Chelsea Flower Show, and he was telling me that selling hostas is an uphill battle in England. “Why?” I asked. “Slugs!” he answered, “They love our hosta as much as our wet English weather.” “Oh that’s simply resolved,” I replied. “Get a few ducks! I let mine wander around the yard and they eat every bug, slug, worm or caterpillar they can find.” I think he thought I was crazy, but it’s true. Since I have allowed the ducks free reign, there has hardly been a crawling bug in sight. Nor do they do the damage the chickens do, scratching up the beds. For those of you with no ducks, slug pellets do the trick, as does a simple can of beer, opened and buried in the ground with the top open to the sky, and three-quarters of the content poured out. Slugs love beer, and quickly come to a very liquid end. (I probably should have told him that too, but the Brits already know so much more about gardening than we do I wasn’t of a mind to surrender any more of our limited competitive advantage.)

churchmouseThe little green charmer in the center of the display, and highlighted at right here, is a new variety I had not seen before, ‘Churchmouse,’ which had the mostly interesting, almost succulent green leaves. The picture doesn’t it do it justice: I watched as person after person couldn’t help but reach out and stoke the leaves. I intend to track down ‘Churchmouse’ for my own garden this year.

So what’s the quick take-away from all this? There’s more to color than flowers, and you should always be thinking of ways to maximize the textural, sculptural and color advantages foliage has to offer.

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #3: The Power of the Vignette

The third article in a continuing series…

Little is big.

That’s it. That’s the lesson. You can stop reading now.

But seriously: that is essentially the lesson. As gardeners we tend to think in broad strokes, and that’s fine, generally. But often what’s more important, especially in smaller properties, is to think small, and concentrate on details. Take for example the picture below:vignette

Totally charming, isn’t it? But what is this scene really, other than some ferns, a hellebore or two, a boxwood in a pot, and a table? Separately, not much, but together it’s an ensemble, and that word is apt, because just as a fashion designer pieces together disparate items into a cohesive outfit, the gardener designer needs to assemble various bits of plant and hardscape to create small, attractive scenes within the larger picture. To carry the clothing metaphor a bit further, just as shoe is mated to sock which is mated to pants which is mated to shirt and jacket and tie; here, the attractive pot is mated to the topiaried box which together are mated to the ferns which are mated to the underplantings and so on and so on. You get the general idea. The take-away here is simply this: all you need is a neglected corner and some inspiration to create an attractive vignette like the one above, and if you put together enough of these — and keep them related thematically — suddenly you have a pleasing and attractive landscape.

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #2: 3-D Gardening

The second in a continuing series

It’s very easy when gardening to get stuck in two dimensions. After all, most garden plans are in two dimensions; as humans we tend to think in two dimensions; pictures, television screens and computer monitors are all two dimensional; despite giving the impression of 3-D. But gardens are VERY much three dimension creations, and verticality is the direction we most often overlook.

Take this wonderfully sculptural grouping of purple echeveria set in front of this stone summer house, below. On a plan this would merely be a 2×2 square, but instead, this is Rodin come to life. Think how different — and dull — this space would have been planted with some massing on the flat, like daisies or geraniums.   Many plants are grown specifically for their structural nature — Henry Lauder’s Walking Stick Comes immediately to mind — and we need to pay attention to this important sub-genre of plants when we think about garden design.

Below’s another great example: clematis happily climbing a pillar. Clematis have recently become my new best friends. Many years ago on the Victory Garden I did a feature at a small specialty mail order nursery that grew only clematis. On a lark, I went back there last summer and was fascinated with the incredible beauty and variety of these easy-to-grow plants. I purchased way more than I should have, and set about tucking them hither and yon in the garden. For some, I built simple rustic supports made out of branches trimmed on the property (which become sculptures in themselves). Others I merely tucked about to clamber up lilacs, fences, roses, wherever they wished, taking advantage of the natural support their neighbors offered them. And what a result: beautiful form and flowers in what before had been empty air.vertical 2Fences and walls are particularly valuable for this. Why not take advantage of the surfaces they offer to fill your garden in fragrance and flower, like the stone wall covered with self-seeding wallflowers below?

vertical 4When I was a kid, the late Jack Horkheimer was the director of the Miami Planetarium. He had a weekly  2-minute spot on Sunday night PBS, telling viewers what planets or space phenomena to look for that week. He was quite the showman, always ending his broadcast with swelling music and the heartfelt admonition: “Keep Looking Up!

I’d offer that we gardeners would benefit from the same!

Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #1: Beautiful Lawns

Last year I was lucky enough to spend over a month touring the gardens of England and Scotland. Looking over the pictures the other day, I realized there were many wonderful, easy, lessons to be learned from some of the gardens we visited, so I thought I would introduce you to a few of these while we patiently (or impatiently) await the start of spring.

lawnsToday’s tip is about why English lawns always seem so much more beautiful than American lawns. Of course there is the issue of climate: grass does far better in cool and damp than hot and dry. But it’s more than that: it’s the care that’s taken in their construction that sets British lawns apart. Take a look at the picture above. It’s the garden of a wonderful inn in Shaftsbury where we stopped to have lunch. In particular though, notice how the grass plat seems to float above the ground like some magic carpet. The fact is that the lawn area has been very carefully graded, pitched and edged so that that it sheds excess water — very important in a wet climate. Grass doesn’t like wet feet; if water accumulates, especially over the winter, it’s over and out. So, if you are installing or renovating a lawn this season, be sure to prepare the base very carefully with at least 8 inches of thick, rich soil, which is then carefully graded and pitched to shed water, and, like the example above, is sufficiently raised at the edges to allow for the inevitable rise in the level of the planting beds from mulch and compost. Oh, and get a water filled roller, and roll the new seed bed (or sod) while planting. This assures a firm, even bed later.

Tips for Designing and Building Decks

I suppose I should begin by admitting that I’m generally not a big fan of decks in the landscape. In fact, the only kind of decks I’m really fond of are the ones attached to large, luxurious ocean liners. It’s not that decks are intrinsically bad in the garden, It’s just that most of the huge, overblown structures you often see today can only be described as downright ugly. Curiously, decks didn’t start our this way: when they first appeared in the 1960s, decks were fairly modest, unobtrusive affairs – built low to the ground, and hugging the house, they were really just simplified versions of the wonderful Victorian porches that had preceded them

One almost wonders if this monstrosity could come alive! This is a perfect example of a huge waste of timber that provides little usable space

Then suddenly, during the 1980s, decks started to appear hanging off the sides of homes five, ten, fifteen feet above the level of the land below, like some giant stilt-legged spider trying to envelop the back of the house. A drive through any modern subdivision will show you example after example of these pressure-treated monstrosities. Not only are these structures aesthetically impoverished, they are impossible to integrate successfully into the overall landscape. To begin with, the dry, shaded, barren earth below them is absolutely useless, except for unsightly storage. What’s more, usage of the structure itself is compromised – with the deck hanging off the back of your house at fifteen feet or more above the ground, you are subject to every burning ray of sun, cold gust of wind, and prying stare from your neighbors that may come your way. Decks like these don’t function as either part of the garden, or part of the house, and should be avoided at all costs (which conversely should save you a lot of money, because they are also extremely expensive!).

Although beautifully constructed, given the short distance from the floor to the ground, this site would have been bettered served with a terrace that would have united house and garden.

So what’s today’s homeowner to do? Well if you have one of these spider-like things already, you are stuck until time and circumstances allow its removal.  In new construction, or where the opportunity for remodeling exits, keeping in mind some simple rules will help create an outdoor living area that is an asset to your garden, rather than a liability.  The first step is to consider whether you really need a deck at all, or whether some sort of terrace would be a better option. Terraces have a number of benefits over decks: they generally don’t require licensed plans and  building permits like decks do; plus, they are often easier to design and generally yield a more aesthetically pleasing result, especially if you take some care to match the surfacing material to those already used in the house and around the yard. Terraces also allow better flow of traffic between the indoors and out, as there are generally more means of entering and exiting an open terrace than there would be from a railed deck. This ease of movement is an important consideration, because a terrace can provide a space with a much more expansive feel than a the enclosed, constrictive sensation that any railed, raised structure could afford. Finally, given the rising price of lumber these days, terraces are often less expensive (and more environmentally friendly) to construct than decks, especially where rare and expensive woods such as the endangered redwood or teak are used.

Now here’s an example of an appropriate designed deck that matches the style of the home and allows the user easy access into the landscape

There are however some situations where decks are appropriate: for instance, when a deck is actually the best stylistic match to go with the existing architecture of a home and landscape. Next to a modernistic, wooden house, for example, or a rustic chalet-style home, a nicely detailed deck might be the best option for an outdoor living area. Decks are also a good choice when the topography of the yard is such that a level surface is not easily achievable by other means, such as on top of  a rocky outcrop. A third reason to use decks in the landscape is when a transition from one level to another is required that would be impossible with a terrace or patio. But keep in mind that even in these circumstances, decks should be kept as low to the ground as possible – the final level should be no more than a foot or two above the existing grade. Don’t try to use decks as a means to make a transition of a story or more from the back of the house to the yard level—it just won’t work, as you saw in the top illustration above.  In new houses, design the floor plan so that you have direct access from the kitchen or back levels more or less at ground level. In existing homes, where the layout may be impossible to alter, you may simply have to call a spade a spade and construct a well-built porch or balcony instead that is consistent with the architecture of the house.

If you decide that a deck is right for you, your next task, after finding a good contractor, (building a deck is not a project for the uninitiated and in fact many states require a licensed builder) will be to choose the decking material. Your contractor should be able to offer you a wide variety of options, each with its pluses and minuses. The most commonly used material for deck construction is pressure-treated wood, which is generally made from chemically treated pine. While extremely versatile and easy to use, some pressure-treated wood can’t be painted or stained for months after installation, and can often splinter, which is an important consideration if babies or small children are to be crawling around the surface. (Look for paintable, high-quality boards.) There is also the often overlooked issue of disposal when using pressure-treated wood: the left over bits and pieces can’t be burned (the smoke is toxic), and many landfills and transfer stations are now refusing to accept it as environmentally hazardous. If you do choose pressure-treated wood, make sure the contractor settles the disposal issues beforehand, and that he or she use the highest grade of pressuretreated wood. – guaranteed against ground contact rot for at least 30 years.

Cedar is also a possibility, as it is naturally resistant to rot, but it is a rather soft wood and not ideal for decking. Fir is another option; harder and less prone to splintering, it also develops a lovely sheen with age, The downside with fir is that it must be rigorously maintained with preservatives every year or so. Redwood and teak are the most expensive choices. Both are extremely durable woods which are naturally resistant to rot. Personally though, I cannot bring myself to use either: the slow growing redwood seems to be far too majestic to be chopped into decking planks, and the environmental damage caused from ripping teak trees from tropical rain forests is almost mind-boggling, even from supposedly conservation minded “plantations.”  Instead of cutting down the rain forests, why not consider a  much more environmentally sensible option — plastic lumber. Now available from a number of retail stores and Internet vendors and sold under the brand names such as Trex®, this recent introduction, made partly from recycled plastic, is completely impervious to rot and comes in a variety of colors, included realistic faux grained wood tones. I’ve used this material in several of my designs, and the clients and I have both been quite impressed: it looks quite  presentable; it’s not wood, obviously, but it’s more durable than wood, won’t crack, splinter or chip and is easily worked with standard tools. While the initial cost is more expensive than real wood, plastic lumber lasts forever, and never needs to be maintained: a considerable savings in the long run. Certainly something to think about.

Finally, when designing your deck, make sure that the style and detailing of the deck match that of the house. Building a deck is a remarkably expensive enterprise and there can sometimes be a tendency to cut corners and skimp on what may seem at first glance to be non-essentials. This is a big mistake, as it’s the finish details that often determine how successful a structure is. I’ve known people to spend ten thousand dollars constructing a huge, elaborate deck, and then decide to forgo spending the five hundred extra dollars required to install well-crafted spindles, railings, built-in planters, and other elements that make the structure actually look like something and unite it to the house and landscape. Like everything else in the garden, if money is an issue, wait until you are comfortable with the expenditure and build what you really want; don’t compromise on something less. You’ll never be satisfied with the trade-off, and it will only wind up costing more in the end. Remember, a deck is really part of your home — an extension of architecture into the garden. Built correctly, it will be a addition to both: but poorly designed, or poorly constructed, all you’ll wind up with is an expensive eyesore.




Trees for Small Gardens

Whenever I am called upon to design a small garden, my first concern, after having determined the overall style and feel of the space I’m contemplating, is how to make the garden appear as large as possible. A good designer has a number of visual tricks at his or her disposal to distort the viewer’s impression of distance and make the garden seem more spacious than it really is. One of the most common of these is to run a distinct visual line such as a path or hedge across the longest available axis and place a prominent focal point at its end – the effect being to draw the eye down along the full length of the landscape and concentrate it at a single, distant point, thereby making the garden appear larger than it really is. Many different types of objects can serve as focal points: you commonly see pieces of sculpture, architectural remnants, birdbaths, even outdoor furniture such as benches positioned in this way. But probably my favorite choice for a dramatic focal point in a small garden is a specially chosen dwarf tree. Not only do small trees combine the decorative aspects of both art and architecture, they also have one advantage no inanimate object can ever posses: an ever-changing beauty throughout the four seasons.

Choosing the correct tree for this purpose however can be a bit tricky. The primary consideration of course, is size – if the tree outgrows its space, it can quickly convert itself from art form to artless mess. Secondarily, you want to be sure to select trees that have interest in more than just a single season, preferably something that includes both good summer bloom and exceptional winter form for example, or interesting spring and summer foliage with excellent fall color and fruiting. Finally, you need to take careful stock of your growing conditions: is the space you have in mind baked in sun most of the day, or plunged into shade? Will there be ample root space, or is the available earth area cramped and heavily trafficked. Once again, since the tree will serve both as an important horticultural and structural landscape element, you’ll need to select a specimen that will thrive where you place it. Here are some excellent small trees I’ve had good experience with:

Acer griseum
If I had to limit myself to one tree for small gardens, this may be it. Native to central China, the cinnamon bark maple grows very slowly to just under twenty feet. Its most remarkable characteristic is its exfoliating, cinnamon-colored bark, which peels off in brown wavy strips reminiscent of clouds seen in some ancient Chinese print. Often found as a multi-stemmed clump, the cinnamon bark maple has small, somewhat inconspicuous yellow flowers in the spring, followed by typical wing-shaped maple seeds later in the season. The real show however begins in the fall, when the olive green summer foliage turns a striking crimson– only to set the stage for the exceptional winter silhouette soon to come. A narrow upright tree that prefers full sun, hardy to Zone 5a.

Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’
I must admit a general dislike of weeping trees in small landscapes; they often seem artificial and out of place, compared to say, the flowing natural grace of a full-sized weeping cherry lazily dangling its branches in a stream. This pear relative though, is the exception. Native to Asia Minor and growing (very slowly) to a height of about twenty feet, the cascading gray-green foliage of Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’ is reminiscent of the willow, and makes an outstanding counterpoint to other green foliaged plants in the garden. Although the plant does bear 2 inch fruits, they are largely inedible. The only caveat here is that ‘Pendula’ is very susceptible to fire blight, which can be a major problem outside the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise the plant is relatively trouble free. Hardy to Zone 4a and prefers full sun for best foliage color.

Betula nigra ‘Fox Valley’
For those of you who have longed for the columnar beauty of birch in your yard, but were defeated by fears of the fatal birch borer, or by general lack of space, this may be your chance. ‘Fox Valley’ is a dwarf cultivar of the brown barked River Birch, which grows to about 12 feet high and seems more or less immune to the dreaded birch borer – a pest that can kill a clump of the more susceptible white-barked birch in just a few seasons. Like it’s more famous light-skinned cousins, the bark of ‘Fox Valley’ peels off in gray-brown strips to reveal a lighter, almost pinkish brown under-bark. Individual specimens can very tremendously in this effect though, so it’s best to hand pick candidates at the nursery based on good bark color and trunk form. Like other birches, ‘Fox Valley’ prefers moist sites, though it will tolerate normal garden soil as long as it is not exposed to drought. Summer leaves are medium to dark green, and fall color is a pleasing soft yellow. Hardy to Zone 4/3b, ‘Fox Valley’ will tolerate light shade.

Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’
At first glance, this choice seems to contradict my dictum to select small garden trees based on ever-changing seasonal beauty, for the blue-gray evergreen foliage of the Skyrocket juniper remains stubbornly the same throughout the year. The value of this plant, however, is its strikingly narrow, pointed silhouette, and how significant this horticultural version of the exclamation point can be in the landscape. Used alone, or in a group of three, the abrupt verticality of Skyrocket junipers literally call out to you from across the garden, demanding attention. As its name implies, this juniper will grow rapidly to a final height of 15 feet, but even when mature will only be a few feet wide. Full sun, Zone 3a.

So this fall, if your garden seems to be lacking just the right focal point, perhaps it’s time to think about adding a small tree to the landscape. Autumn, with its soft rains and cool temperatures, is the perfect time for planting, and next season, as your tree settles into its new role, you’ll be glad you decided to include such a charming arboreal companion to your garden.

A Tall, Dark Stranger

I have a romantic story to tell you, of a tall dark stranger that first appeared in European gardens almost a millennia ago – althea rosea, the hollyhock. But not just any hollyhock, the dusky mysterious one the Spanish called, El Sereno, the Night-Watchman.

The history of this magnificent specimen is as cloudy as the flowers are dark. Reportedly originating in the Far East, the plant was first documented in the Middle Ages, appearing in European gardens about the time of the Crusades. In fact, Alice Coats, in her seminal Flowers and Their Histories, theorizes that the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hoc,” meaning mallow, and “holly“, holy, a reference to the flower’s ubiquitous presence in Palestine. Immediately prized for its colorful blossoms – and for host of rather dubious medicinal uses – the hollyhock quickly spread throughout Europe, first mentioned by name in John Gardiner’s Feate of Gardening (1440). Thriving in dry climates, it became a particular favorite of the Spanish, who introduced it to Central & South America; the English later latter followed suit in the Colonies, and ‘Black Watchman’, or a variety close to it, was grown by Thomas Jefferson. Somewhere along the way, it was discovered that the plant made a particularly fine dye, comparable to indigo, and dark varieties, like the ‘Black Watchman’ (a.k.a ‘El Sereno’, ‘Night-Watchman’, etc.)  were developed with that use in mind. Unfortunately the hollyhock’s commercial reign was short-lived – its great bane, hollyhock rust,  first mentioned about 1873, put a quick end to any ideas of large-scale production.

Still, that shouldn’t dissuade you from growing this handsome plant, because few other flowers have anywhere near the effect in the garden, especially when placed in front of lighter pinks and yellows. Viewed close up, the flowers are dark, dark purple, but from a distance appear almost black, hovering in the back of the border like slim exclamation points bracketing other of your less dramatic horticultural triumphs. As for the rust, if you live in a dry climate, it’s less of a worry; where humid, a spurt of any common fungicide once or twice a season, organic or not, will generally handle the problem nicely.

Technically a biennial, hollyhock will often reseed itself, creating successive seasons of bloom. However, I find that mine peter out, so every few years I buy some new seed to reinforce my supply, starting them in pots about now for next year’s flower.

After all, who can object to a tall dark stranger now and then?

‘Black Watchman’ is available from Renee’s and other specialty retailers