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

Cutting Garden Tips

One of the best flowers for cutting: zinnias

Until recently, my ideal cutting garden had always been a place where someone else (preferably your grandmother, spouse, partner, or if you were really lucky, your gardener) went to plant and gather flowers, bring them back to your house, arrange, maintain, and remove them when spent. Not only did the prospect of doing all that labor myself seem out of the question, but I must also admit to having been more than a little daunted by all those fussy flower arrangers you see on TV. It all seemed just too, too much – at least when a good florist was readily at hand. Then three random events conspired to demonstrate the feasibility of having my own cutting garden. The first was a thorough review of my household budget with the view of cutting unnecessary expenses, which lead to the shocking revelation that I was spending a fortune on fresh flowers – more so than on almost any other garden item. That certainly had to stop. The second was my introduction to several top floral designers during my TV years, who showed me in a entertaining, laid-back fashion that arranging flowers was no more daunting than any other form of self-expression – just get in there, experiment, and have fun. The third, and most important event was my discovery of some simple design precepts that revealed how you could make a cutting garden practical, cost effective, and enjoyable – exactly what I am going to share with you today.

Before we begin, a bit of background. At its simplest, a cutting garden is just that – a garden used primarily for cutting flowers. Why, you may ask, is such a thing even necessary – wouldn’t your existing ornamental beds serve perfectly well for cutting flowers? The answer is generally no, at least if you have done a proper job in laying out your flower borders. Correctly designed, an ornamental border should be an intricate weaving of an integrated whole, where each plant depends on its neighbor, both in flower and foliage, to reinforce and enhance the overall effect. Regularly remove part of the picture for cutting, and the whole canvas is destroyed. In short, if you want to cut a fresh bouquet for the house on the order of every few days, you’ll need a separate space from which to take your flowers.

The first secret to having cutting garden that readily and easily yields loads of flowers lies in the garden’s design and layout. Like its close cousin the vegetable garden the cutting garden should be a utilitarian space, designed for usefulness, and secondarily for beauty. (Cutting gardens can be quite beautiful, but that’s not the goal.) This is an important point, and probably the most common reason why many people decide that cutting gardens are just too much work – they mistakenly think that a cutting garden must be both ornamental border and flower larder. In reality, the demands of keeping a cutting garden looking perfect and producing flowers throughout the season are too much for all but the most experienced gardener (or those with gardening staff) and shouldn’t even be attempted by beginners. The division of these two goals –ornamentation and flower production – is in fact why you have separate gardens in the first place.

Locate your cutting garden in some sunny out-of-the-way spot where you won’t be tempted to try maintain complete and constant bloom like an ornamental bed. Because these gardens are meant for the harvesting of flowers as a crop, they should be laid out with easily workable beds not more than four feet or so across, and with access from both sides to facilitate cutting. I have found that a strict geometric arrangement, similar to that used in many vegetable gardens, functions best for me, though that’s not a hard and fast rule. (In fact, proximity to and/or inclusion in the vegetable garden generally works quite well.) Again, since the true cutting garden, unlike the border, is all about the floral harvest, don’t worry about artistic plant combinations. Plants should be placed where they grow best and are easiest to cut: there will be plenty of time to worry about aesthetic considerations when the flowers arrive in the vase.

The second secret to achieving a good cutting garden is not really a secret at all, in that it is one of the basic tenets of good gardening everywhere – gardens for cutting, like all others, need the best possible soil you can manage. This is especially true for cutting gardens, however, as the production of thousands of flowers in a very short time severely drains and depletes the soil. Choose a site in full sun, and work as much compost and/or rotted manure into the soil as you can. Then apply both a quick release and a slow release fertilizer to insure constant feeding throughout the season. (Quick and slow release fertilizers are available in many forms, both organic and inorganic, and are found in most every nursery or garden center. If you are confused about which is which, be sure to ask, as the jump start from quick release and the continued feeding from slow release are crucial for continuity of bloom.) Needless to say, proper maintenance is also a must: your cutting garden will require at least an inch of water of week in the absence of rain, and heavy coating of mulch is required if you don’t wish to pay for every blossom you cut with rivers of sweat produced by endless weeding. Also, don’t forget that cutting gardens, once established, must be used. Many varieties will cease flowering if allowed to go to seed.

Finally, give some thought to broadening your plant selection beyond common annuals. Most people seem to think that a cutting garden is primarily an annual one, and while it’s true that many favorite flowers for cutting like zinnias and cosmos are indeed annuals, many perennials work just as well or better, providing flowers year after year, without the need for constant replanting. (see below) Also, be sure to include members of each of three general flower types when you choose your plants: tall, spiky blooms, such as liatris and iris; round headed blooms like peonies and roses, as well as small, lacy, filler-flowers (and foliage) like bridal wreath. Each type is required to make successfully balanced arrangements. One last tip: don’t neglect the bulb family when thinking about potential cutting garden plants. Most bulbs make excellent cut flowers, providing weeks of bloom in early spring when very little else is flowering in your garden.

My Top Five Perennials for the Cutting Garden

• Sedum Somewhat surprisingly, sedums such as ‘Autumn Joy’ (sedum spectabile) make excellent cut flowers that last for weeks in a vase, and are good for drying as well. Sedum also has the benefit of being a dual use plant: you can cut the blossoms while they are still greenish, or wait and allow the pinkish/rust tones to emerge.

• Rudebekia The perennial forms of the rudebeckias,  (aka Black-Eyed Susan’s) like the variety ‘Goldsturm’ make an excellent cut flowers, especially when mixed with sunflowers.  The lesser known annual varieties are also worth trying. Two of my personal favorites: ‘Indian Summer’ with chartreuse centers, and ‘Cherokee Sunset’ which produces flowers in a rich shade of brown

• Peonies Who can have too many peonies, especially indoors? Peonies also look well when dried, and the foliage can be treated with glycerin to produce rich green leaves for winter arrangements.

• Grasses Ornamental grasses are generally neglected in the cutting garden, but their variegated leaves offset many flower colors nicely, while their stiff spiky shape adds a bit of drama any almost any vase. Many varieties also produce interesting seed tassels, which look great in fall arrangements.

• Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro) The dramatic blossoms and spiky leaves of the globe thistle make excellent cut flowers, and have the added advantage of adding a touch of soothing blue to brightly colored arrangements .

Dethroning the Heirloom Tomato

headerI was putting together my seed order this morning after suffering another disastrous year with late blight in which the majority of my tomatoes, mostly heirlooms, were dead by early August along with most of the harvest, and I came across this interesting article on the Johnny’s Select Seeds site entitled 10 Tips for Growing Heirloom Tomatoes. The tips, are, in order: Learn How to Graft; Protect and Support; Prune Correctly; Space Generously; Grow on Mulch; Lay Drip Lines; Prevent Disease; Choose with Care; Water Judiciously; and finally Review Best Practices.


Now granted, these guidelines are for the professional grower, but really… Even a very brief perusal of these tips reveals that growing heirloom tomatoes is no longer a simple matter (as it once was) of getting a few plants in the ground and sitting back with salad fork in hand. There was a reason that many of these tomato varieties were retired in the first place: they failed easily and spectacularly. And now, in a round of sentimental wishful-thinking that I must admit to have promoted in the past, we’ve popularized these varieties once again — lionized might be the better word — and along with this new-found ubiquity have come many diseases that were formerly, if not entirely banished, certainly minimized. When the box stores starts selling heirloom tomatoes,  you know you’re in trouble.

Where then does all this leave the heirloom tomato grower besieged by late blight as we have been for the last three years? In the proverbial manure pile, I’m afraid. Now granted, while none of the techniques outlined in the article above are particularly difficult, they are particularly costly. By the time you add up all that mulch and drip line and horticultural miscellany, the proverbial 64-dollar tomato is not far off. Tomatoes are by far my favorite product of the vegetable garden, but this is getting just too crazy, even for me. Add to this that none of these tips guarantee you a harvest. Do them all, and you may still fail. Last year I watched 5′ tall, bushy plants loaded with fruit collapse into a rotting pile of mush just a few weeks short of harvest — despite spraying. Of the little I was able to salvage, almost all came from a few of the more disease resistance modern cultivars. “Brandywine’, ‘Rose’, ‘Abraham Lincoln’ — heirlooms all, withered away before my very eyes.

Just to be clear: as a garden historian and lover of all things old, I adore heirlooms plants, and I certainly understand full well the need to protect our horticultural heritage.

But, and this is a big but, in certain cases we’ve got to dismiss romance and face up to reality.

And growing tomatoes in the home garden, at least here in New England, is one of those cases. At least since late blight arrived a few years back and seems set to stay with a vengeance.

So here’s what I am planning to do, and I urge you to do the same if you’ve encountered major disease problems in the last few years: First of all, I am going to ditch the worst performing heirlooms. These include most of the large potato-leaved varieties like my beloved ‘Brandywine’ that seem to summon late blight from the skies. I know, I know, the flavor is not going to be the same, but better a decent good-tasting crop than no great-tasting crop at all. I plan to select varieties with the best disease resistance I can find. This is particularly important if you garden near others, say in a community plot. Late blight is spread by the wind and can travel many miles in a day, so if your neighbor is growing susceptible varieties, you’re pretty much cooked.  Secondly, I’m going to adopt plastic mulch and soaker hoses in a much less amply planted  tomato garden, following the article’s advice. Most people have a number of soakers hanging about the shed doing nothing except tripping the unwary. Now’s the time to put them to good use. Thirdly, I’m going to try, if I have time, this grafting business, and report back on my success. (Though it sounds scarily complicated, grafting is actually quite easy if you pay close attention to details. The Johnny’s article links to a very good piece from the University of North Carolina, which takes you step by step through the process.)

And finally, I am going to send up a fervent prayer to the tomato gods…

You think I’m kidding about this last one, don’t you?

I’m not.

Garden Travels – Lessons from Three American Gardens

It’s a well known fact that artists draw inspiration from travel; new scenery, new people, new cultures all heavily influence artistic impression. So it stands to reason that we gardeners – who are, after all, at our most basic “plant artists” – would benefit from changing vistas as well. And it’s true. Over years of exploration, first as private citizen  then as PBS host, and now guest lecturer for the Harvard Alumni Association Travel Program, I’ve had marvelous opportunities to visit gardens all over the globe, and many have heavily influenced not only my own landscape, but also how I design gardens for my clients. Transoceanic flights, however, are not necessarily required. Here are three of my favorite gardens in the US with some very important lessons to teach.

Indoors as Out: The Getty Villa in Malibu, California.
To my mind, one of the most remarkable landscapes in the United States, perhaps the most remarkable, surrounds the Getty Villa in Malibu. For those of you unfamiliar with the place, the Villa, constructed by oil magnate J. Paul Getty in the 70s, is an exact replica of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79. (The original villa, which still remains largely entombed in hardened volcanic rock, was excavated and mapped by tunneling during the 19th and 20th centuries.) The Getty structure, which steps down its sloping seaside site, is probably humanity’s best guess at what Roman gardens looked like. In neat, box-lined beds, ancient herbs and flower bloom, surrounding bronze sculptures and punctuated by flowing fountains. Along the colonnaded walls, frescos of country scenes and imaginary landscapes blur the distinction between architecture, garden, and the hilltops beyond. While the scale of the garden is immense and outside the range of anyone except multi-millionaires, the take-away lesson here is simple and applicable to almost any garden: link indoors and out. What strikes the visitor immediately is how gracefully the Getty gardens flow in, out, and around the structure, and how the house returns the gesture, embracing the gardens within its walls. Now granted, not all of us are blessed with a Mediterranean climate like that found in Malibu, but many are, and even in these places, modern construction is rarely successful in uniting house and garden the way the Getty Villa does. Each time I visit the Getty, I return to my own New England garden, and work on ways to improve how I see the garden from within, and how the garden sees the house from without.  (The Getty is now split into two separate sites. The old villa in Malibu, which houses its extensive classical collections, and the new museum, strikingly situated on a hill overlooking all of LA and surrounded by modern gardens of great beauty. Both are well worth the trip. More information on visiting the at http://www.getty.edu/visit)


Order and Unity: The Gardens of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The product of another oil magnate, this time John D. Rockefeller Jr., the gardens that surround the restored homes and shops of Colonial Williamsburg provide an entirely different type of lesson for the garden traveler. In many ways, these small, enclosed gardens are far more accessible to modern visitor than the grand scale of the Getty. In fact, they aren’t too terribly dissimilar from the ¼ acre lots that surround homes all over the nation. What sets them apart from their modern brethren, however, is their sense of order and unity. Tour the various gardens of Williamsburg (and there are dozens) and in each you’ll be struck by how harmonious the relationship is between the various architectural features, the plantings, and the homes themselves. Fences, whose design derives from some element of the house architecture, move out in orderly lines from the house, and then conclude in logical ending points, so unlike many of today’s ill-conceived fence lines. Hardscape elements – walkways, arbors, trellis – share common materials and colors. And the plantings, so different from the messy masses that surround today’s homes, are in scale with the structures, and related to them by axial lines. In short, these gardens are comfortable – not to mention comforting – to spend time in, and my visits to Williamsburg have taught me always to be aware that when laying out a garden, the house needs to be the starting point for any garden design. So many landscapes today are conceived as if the house didn’t really matter, when in fact, it’s the style of the house, the color of the house, the situation of the house, the access to the house that must dictate the elements of the design. Think about it: without a house, you’re landscaping a field. It’s the house that drives the garden, not vice-versa, and that’s a lesson easily appreciated in Colonial Williamsburg. (More information at http://www.history.org)


Working With Nature: Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC

Just a few hours away from Williamsburg, and a just a few miles from the Capital, sits one of the most magnificent gardens on the eastern seaboard: Dumbarton Oaks. Designed by the renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand for owners Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in the 20s as their country home, the property now belongs to Harvard University and the Federal Government, who work jointly to preserve the 20 odd acres of gardens. Of course, when visiting a garden created by a true genius like Farrand, it would be easy to take away any number of well-taught lessons, and Dumbarton Oaks doesn’t disappoint. Clever aerial hedges surround grassy walks, custom designed furniture nestles among native plantings, terraced gardens lead down from the lovely Georgian home. But what strikes me as a professional designer is not so much what was accomplished – the Blisses after all were millionaires who could have instructed Farrand to create whatever style of garden they wished – but rather what wasn’t. The house is located on difficult, hilly terrain that borders Rock Creek (emphasis on rock), and instead of leveling vast stretches and clearing immense vistas to create a classical layout, Farrand worked within the constraints of nature, nestling garden rooms into the hillsides and connecting them with forested walks. That’s not to say the undertaking still wasn’t immense, but the garden plan works with nature in a way that few modern landscapes do. (One other success that immediately comes to mind is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin.) The take-away concept here is that whatever your site or climate, gardens succeed best when they co-exist with their surroundings, rather than attempting to dominate or control them. Dumbarton Oaks reminds us to embrace whatever conditions we’ve inherited – sun, shade, bog, desert – and make the most of them. (More information at http://www.doaks.org/gardens/virtual_tour)

So this summer, wherever your travels take you, do yourself a favor: bring along a camera, a small notebook, and spend some time visiting gardens. You, and your backyard, will be glad you did.


Garden Renovation Primer: Building a Sunken Garden

Under the old mantra that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, we are about to break a few dozen in starting our new sunken garden.

Why, you may ask, build a sunken garden in the first place? Good question, to which the short answer is: drama. In the same way that architects use changes in level to define space indoors, we use the same theories outdoors, for the same reasons. Raising, or lowering a section of the landscape defines a space in a way that no other method, such as a fence or hedge could, allowing a clear delineation of purpose without blocking an area from view. Changes of level also provide for a much more fluid and dynamic experience as the user moves through the garden. Yes, I know, that sounds like a lot of architect-speak, and it is. In plain English, sunken gardens are visually effective and fun to be in. Here in our project, the main reason for sinking a section of the garden is to separate the small games lawn from the rest of a flower-filled, romantic landscape.

Unfortunately, for something so simple in principle, a sunken garden turns out to be a very complicated creature. Not only does it have to retain a vast amount of weight (the whole yard, in fact) but improperly constructed, it can quickly turn into an underwater garden with the first heavy downpour. (This was particularly true at this site, as the entire yard sits on a glacial clay deposit, with next to no natural drainage.)

The style of the wall construction is also extremely important. Retaining walls can be made from all sorts of materials: wood, cut stone, natural stone, even concrete. Which you choose will make a very large difference to the final aesthetic. For the Cambridge project, we’ve chosen thermaled (half-smoothed) granite. Essentially granite “tiles” twelve inches wide, 2″ thick, and of random lengths up to 4′, these pieces of stone were designed to mimic the antique granite blocks that form the foundation of our home. Historically, a garden wall like this might have been made out of solid stone blocks, but these days we rarely do that for cost reasons. The under-layment of our wall is double row of concrete block, set on a concrete footing, to which granite facia pieces and capping stones will be applied. It sounds a bit complicated, but it really isn’t, as you will see. (Think how kitchen or bathroom tiles are mounted, and you begin to get the general picture.)

What is true is that it’s a big mess to construct.

The fist stage of the process is to rough out the excavation and start digging:

Here’s another shot giving you a better idea of the extent of the excavation. You may be wondering what happens to all the soil. Well, had the soil been of a good quality, it might of been reused on site, or even sold. But unfortunately for us, despite it’s deep color, this is mostly clay. In fact, the entire yard sits atop a hill of clay. (In the Colonial era there was a brick kiln just down the street.) So for our purposes, everything that comes out of this hole needs to be hauled away, and that’s a lot of hauling: the walls themselves are two feet deep, and they sit on a concrete foundation that extends down a further several feet…

Below you can clearly see the structure of the walls: the footing has already been poured, on top of which sits a double concrete block wall, filled with aggregate, to which the 2″ thick granite pieces are attached with mortar. The white PVC forms the drainage system, which in our case leads to a large drywell on the far edge of the property. The large gaps in the wall you see are for the solid granite, oval stairs, which haven’t yet arrived from the quarry in Vermont.

Now, as the walls take shape, the men slowly work themselves out of the whole, completing the structure from front (house-side) to back (driveway side).

Ah, a change of plans! You may remember from my earlier articles that I had proposed a water feature for this garden, but that the clients nixed the idea on the initial plans. However, as the garden evolved they had a change of heart, and asked me how they could incorporate some water into the landscape. I had just the idea: we cancelled the far stair leading down into the games lawn, and instead I designed a fountain that would have the same shape as the stairs, but in negative space. I know that’s a little hard to envision, but you’ll see what I mean in a moment. Below, the guys are forming the walls of the oval basin in concrete. (We chose to pour a concrete basin, by the way, rather than using fiberglass or liner, for longevity’s sake – this is not the kind of thing you ever want to have to replace!

I suppose I should also say a word or two about design changes-on-the fly like this one. Unlike building a house, where one small alteration to the plans can send the whole project spiraling into a budget abyss, building a garden allows you a certain level of planning flexibility, if you move agilely enough. I like to work this way, if the clients are amenable: If you are a good designer, you gain a vast sensibility for a project as it progresses, and sometimes that means you (or the client) suddenly realize an element of the design can be improved upon.You have to be flexible however, and allow for the idea of the design maturing as the work progresses. If you’re the type of person who needs to have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed before you start, (or if you are on a very tight budget) then this kind of thing can be very nerve-wracking and isn’t for you. Work methods are important though, and I always discuss this process with my clients beforehand; some like the idea, some don’t, and we can work either way. (I do, however, think a flexible mind-set produces a better end-product.) In our case, altering the stair and inserting the pool was a cost negative proposition, and to my mind, really enhances the pleasure of the final design.

This shot gives you a good idea of how the stairs are constructed. They are quite complicated really, and had to be hand-cut from a template we supplied to the quarry. From top to bottom: a granite partial oval on ground level, then a solid half oval, upon which sits a solid granite full 2 x 4′ oval (you can see one on the left) and then finally, behind that, the solid capping stone with a half 2 x 4′ oval cut out of it. The two guys in the blue to the right are about to strap and secure the solid capping stone piece so the machine can lift the granite into place. Each section weighs well more that a thousand pounds.

Here’s a view of the finished stair, with the footings of the summer pavilion in the ground to the rear. Now you can clearly see the four elements that make up the stairs. You can also see how the 2′ wide granite capping stones give the appearance of a solid stone wall, at a fraction of the cost.

And so, a few days later, with the stonework completed, and after a special sand/compost mix is added to insure good drainage, we have the start of a games lawn! From here, you can get a better idea of how the oval pond mimics the exact shape of the stairs, except in reverse, with a concave rear wall.

A view looking back towards the house. From the first picture to last, five weeks have elapsed.

And finally, another view back towards the fountain, with a trial urn & fountainhead in place to measure scale. Next add the plantings, the classical summer house, and allow a year to go by, and….

This is what you get!

Cambridge garden


The Original Victory Garden

As host of the Victory Garden on PBS from 2002-2007, I started to collect WWII Victory Garden memorabilia — posters, brochures, signs, that sort of thing. Then, a few weeks ago I came across this 1942 film on the FDR Presidential Museum and Library site. It was in pretty bad shape; faded color, bad sound. There were a few other versions out there on Youtube as well, but each of worse quality than the next. So, I decided to restore this little gem, as well as to add a modern commentary, making it both a valuable historical record of past practice, and a useful guide for those interested in growing their own food at home today. It’s hard to believe now, but people like the Holders in this film grew almost half the country’s produce by the end of WII, right in their own backyards. These days, we don’t need to grow vegetables for the war effort, thank god, but you will reap ample rewards by growing at least a few fresh veggies for your own table. Nothing tastes better than produce from your own garden, and now’s the time to start planning.