Lessons from English Gardens for Americans #8: The Collector’s Garden

Last summer on our way to Scotland we stopped in the ancient market town of Ely to see the cathedral. Ely’s was one of the first of the Gothic cathedrals, and a trip from Cambridge through Ely, Lincoln and then finally to York allows you to witnesses the full architectural maturation of the English Gothic style. But as fate was have it, the cathedral was closed: Netflix had decided that Ely would be a great stand in for Westminster in its new series Monarchy, and place was totally roped off for filming. Luckily however, as a totally unexpected consolation prize, I stumbled across this magnificent little garden in the shadow of the cathedral close.


This tiny space — and tiny it was, I doubt it measured much more 10 x 30′ — was literally packed with plants. Most were in pots, and almost all were either in flower, about to flower, or had some other striking characteristic such a boldly variegated foliage. I show you these pictures because this is the one type of garden, the collector’s garden, that can and does break all the standard rules of landscape design: there’s no real focus, there’s no axis, the space is cramped and over-utilized, the design totally lacks a color scheme and a half a dozen more. It is a collection, not a landscape. But it works thanks to the quirky passion of its owner, in the same way some over-the-top avant-garde artist will comfortably wear an outfit to a party that you and I would hesitate even to try on in the privacy of our own homes.

So today’s lesson is that “if you’ve got, flaunt it.”

And if you don’t, best to abide by the rules like the rest of us.

ely garden2

Frost Against the Panes

One of the most beautiful greenhouses in the United States, at Tower Hill Botanical Garden outside of Boston, which was built as a classical winter conservatory. Another of my hibernal favorites is Logee‘s in Danielson CT, where you can not only enjoy the oldest commercial greenhouses in the US, but also indulge your buying fancy.

It is in the dead of winter that the greenhouse is at its best, for then is the contrast of life and death the greatest. Just beyond the living tender leaf — separated only by the slender film of the pane — is the whiteness and silence of midwinter. You stand under the arching roof and look away into the bare depths where only the stars hang their cold faint lights. The bald outlines of an overhanging tree are projected against the sky with the sharpness of the figures of cut glass. Branches creak and snap as they move stiffly in the wind. White snow drifts show against the panes. Icicles glisten from the gutters. Bits of ice are hurled from trees and cornice, and they crinkle and tinkle over the frozen snow. In the short sharp days the fences protrude from a waste of drift and riffle, and the dead fretwork of weed-stems suggests a long-lost summer. There, a finger’s breadth away, the temperature is far below zero; here, is the warmth and snugness of a nook in tropic summer.

This is the transcendent merit of the greenhouse — the sense of mastery over forces of nature. It is an oasis in one’s life as well as in the winter. One has dominion.

But this dominion does not stop with the mere satisfaction of a consciousness of power. These tender things, with all their living processes in root and stem and leaf, are dependent wholly on you for their very existence. One minute of carelessness or neglect and all their loveliness collapses in the blackness of death. How often have we seen the farmer pay a visit to the stable at bedtime to see that the animals are snug and warm for the night, stroking each confiding face as it rises at his approach! And how often have we seen the same affectionate care of the gardener who stroked his plants and tenderly turned and shifted the pots, when the night wind hurled the frost against the panes! It is worth the while to have a place for the affection of things that are not human.

From The Garden Lover
Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1928

Care About the Environment? Get a Few Chickens.


The girls on the prowl in the orchard. Woe to any bug they find!

I’ve had chickens on and off now for over twenty years (the off periods were the one or two times the fox got into the hen house) and I’m here to say that if you care about any of the following —  green living, minimizing your waste stream, sourcing food locally, organic produce, composting, organic pest control — then you need to get yourselves some feathered ladies to help you with your quests. Chickens are, to put in mildly, the best friend a gardener ever had, and here’s why.

• Chickens eat almost everything, and when I say everything, I mean it. Left-over pasta, garden weeds, vegetable refuse, spoiled food of any kind, dried out yogurt, bug infested grains — anything in fact that you might eat, and much you wouldn’t, say, like a turkey or chicken carcass left over from making soup. Yep, that’s right. Chickens don’t shy away from eating their cooked fellows. They love it in fact, and eat all of it, even the bones. Oh, and they eat egg shells too: gives them calcium to produce new eggs. In short, if you keep a small flock of chickens, your household food waste stream is eliminated, and converted into fresh eggs for your table.

My eggs

My eggs

• And let’s talk about those eggs:  bright orange yolks (not yellow) and whites that will almost whip themselves. If you haven’t eaten really fresh eggs, then you haven’t eaten eggs. In fact, this is perhaps the only downside to keeping your own hens: you’ll never eat those pale, pathetic store-bought eggs again — which by the way have been sitting around on average for over a month before you get them, plus whatever time they spend in your refrigerator. They don’t go bad, per se, as the egg is designed to hold itself vital for weeks, as the chicken only lays one egg every other day or so, and waits for a clutch of 8 or nine before deciding to sit. The problem is taste. After a while both flavor and color become seriously degraded.

• Chickens are the most avid bug eaters you’ll ever find, so if you have a problem with ticks, slugs, grubs or other crawling pests in your yard, simply let your flock out for an afternoon and the girls will take care of the problem for you. Caveat: if you have cultivated grounds, you won’t want to let them free-range unsupervised, as they will scratch up mulched beds and unearth new seedlings. My chickens live in a fenced enclosure 40′ x 60′. In the center stands a cedar chicken coop with a door that automatically opens and closes at sunrise and sunset. My 30-odd girls (and two roosters, one named Big Red, seen in the center of the top picture while still a pullet) roam about this enclosure freely during the day, and once or twice a week I let them out to roam in the orchard, where they eat bugs and any fallen fruit. If they are not disturbed in the coop or frightened by predators, they return to the roost every night by themselves.

• Chickens are remarkably easy to care for, and suffer few health problems if given plenty of water and good food. On average, my chickens live for three or four years, and each produces and egg every day or two for most of their lives. Eventually, they go barren, and if I were a commercial producer, the non-layers would be culled, but I figure what the hay. They’ve given me food and pleasure, and deserve to live out their lives in peace. Eventually they just konk out, and they wind up fertilizing a tree or shrub in the garden. Occasionally a predator arrives, too, which is sad, but part of the natural order of things (and many dangers lurk if you are a chicken, from hawks, to minks, to foxes, to coyotes, to raccoons, even untrained dogs) Small losses I suffer in sadness, but if the toll begins to mount, I step in and remove the predator. Chickens generally take care of themselves, and my main duties are providing supplemental grain to the feeder once a week or so, making sure the auto-watering device is on, and collecting the eggs (which I sell by the way, for $5/dozen) The only major task is the quarterly clean out of the coop, which becomes tricky mid-winter if there is a lot of snow. But I don’t mind this job, as chicken manure is some of the most nutrient rich around, and makes a wonderful “hot” additive to speed organic breakdown in the compost pile. (Don’t apply it directly to crops, however, as it is so nitrogen rich it can burn plants.)

• You don’t need a grand set up to start. Mine has gotten rather grandiose, thanks to time spent on the “Victory Garden” and years of improvements, but all you really need is a shelter, and an enclosed run. There are a million sites on the internet these days to help. Here’s ONE. You do however need to check your local zoning laws; most places allow hens, but some restrict roosters. A quick call  to your town hall will give you the answer.

Well, the fire is cracking in the kitchen fireplace, and I’m off to make a lovely little omelet for lunch with my own fresh eggs and produce. A terrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I know, but then again, you could easily share this fate with me, and I heartily suggest you do!



gordon front1

Gardeners carefully setting out tender annuals at Gordon Castle, Scotland, about 1900

Since June the tropical plants that winter in the greenhouse have been enjoying the summer weather outdoors. They are quite spread out — some in the orchard, others on the back terrace, the pool terrace, the parterre garden. Today however, on this lovely soft September day, I begin the task of returning them under glass. (Well, to be totally honest, under laminate, as the roof of the greenhouse is made of lexan, but no matter.)  It’s the 23rd time I will have done this here — somewhat incredibly — and deo volente I will be around for more seasons to come. But it did start me thinking about all the changes that have occurred in my garden, how in those 23 years so much has come and gone, grown up or disappeared, thrived or failed. The space I inherited from my predecessors in no way resembles the garden I will leave to my successors in this house, and sometimes I nervously wonder what, when in the due course of time I hand over the keys to this place, will become of all my efforts. Then I catch myself, and wistful resignation returns. The reality is that all my work will pass away, some elements swiftly, others more slowly, but pass they will, for gardening is the most ephemeral of all pursuits. In fact, ‘gardening’ almost defines the word ‘ephemerality.’ Just look at the pictures above and below. In the upper photo, two gardeners are planting out the large urns early in the season at Gordon Castle, Scotland. The one beneath is rear view of the same, sometime in the 1930s, with visitors walking the extensive grounds:castle gordonNow look again. This is Gorden Castle in 1952 from the exact same spot — just 25 years later. (The pictures, by the way, come from Ian Gow’s wonderful book: Scotland’s Lost Houses.)gordon afterWhat happened? Quite simply, the world changed. The huge 1700’s castle you see in the first picture was deemed too large and decrepit to maintain in the servant-less days after the Second World War. No one in the family wanted to live there, and certainly no one wanted the expense of keeping up the grounds, so the castle was simply torn down with only two of the minor wings remaining as separate houses, and the ancient medieval keep, which successive Dukes had preserved inside their ever-expanding house iterations, revealed once more.  The carefully manicured grounds, so primped and prized in the top photo, were plowed under for farmland. Finis.

And so it shall be here. In the due course of things, the next owners will surely make major changes, or, the world may change around them as it did for the Dukes of Gordon Castle, and who knows, the forest may advance over this land once more. Or meadow, or waste, or sea. But whatever happens, the one certainty is that nothing will stay the same. That’s the lot of a gardener, and over the years I have grown accustomed to that. My solace comes from remembering that we gardeners are merely the stewards of our land, and that our pleasures must come not from any mistaken expectation of permanence, but from the process of each successive day, and too, that our most enduring reward will be the simple knowledge that we tried to manage our personal corner of the planet as best we could — even if only for a day.



Cleaning Organically Grown Apples

If you grow organic or low-spray apples, especially heirlooms, and especially anywhere east of the Rockies, chances are you are going to experience two diseases, sooty blotch and fly speck, which can make your apples pretty unsightly. Here’s a really nice sized fruit of  ‘Winter Banana’ I  picked just today.

apple1 copyNow, no matter how much I tell you that this was once one of the most popular gift apples as it had something of the smell and flavor of bananas at a time when tropical winter produce wasn’t available, you’re going to look at this apple and say “Who cares? I’m not eating that” Sooty blotch, the culprit here, is a harmless fungus that lives in the wax of the apples’ skin. It in no way affects the flavor or discolors the flesh. It’s simply ugly.

So what to do? Well I searched over the internet, and strangely there seemed very few practical solutions, other than spraying fungicides, pruning the tree to open the branching structure, and some proverbial praying for dry weather to dampen the spread of the fungus, none of which help you once the fruit is discolored. Then I came across an obscure industry paper that recommended using household bleach in large commercial orchard applications, and sure enough. I took a bushel of sooty apples, filled my outdoor potting sink to capacity (about 10 gallons), and dumped the apples in with a cup full of regular bleach. Twenty minutes later: voila!:

apple2 copyMy intention was to scrub the apples, but I was called away to the phone, and when a half hour later I returned, to my surprise all the surfaces under the water were perfectly clean; just the floating upsides were still sooty. That answer to that was simple: either manually rotate the apples, or use a large flat board the size of the sink basin to press the apples entirely into the water. After another twenty minutes with bottom sides up, I transferred the apples to the twin basin filled with fresh water, and let the apples bob around to rinse thoroughly. (You can use a green pot scrubber to speed up the process if you so wish, but given time, the bleach does in fact do all the work for you. And yes the apples come out smelling like apples, not bleach, as the apples’ natural waxy coating prevents any absorption.) The result is an almost miraculous transformation, which, given a large enough sink, can be effected by the bushelful. I should add by the way, that this rather thorough cleaning will also remove any remaining pesticide residue if you do do some limited spraying, and has the added advantage of slightly extending apple life by removing harmful bacteria from the apple skin.

Problem solved!

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.