Yesterday I spoke at the Colby-Curtis Museum in Stanstead, Quebec, home to the Stanstead Historical Society. The museum is a local treasure, housed in a classical revival-style villa built in 1859 called Carrollcroft.
The current exhibition, Abundant in Bloom, is well worth visiting. It looks at the gardens created by the women of the Colby family through artifacts, old photographs and contemporary paintings by Cynthia Hammond, a Montreal artist and Associate Professor of Art History at Concordia University. Based on her research in the museum’s archives, Hammond’s paintings offer fascinating insights into Victorian gardens and the way they were used by the Colby family.
After my talk, I spent a few minutes exploring the museum’s garden as it is today. Appropriately, it too was abundant in bloom.
The garden isn’t a reproduction of a Victorian garden but it does use aspects of one. It is divided into two sections, each with its own distinctive colour palette. Black urns planted with annuals mark the entrance to the first section, a circular design ringed with peonies and roses.
The second section of the garden plays off the Victorian love for strongly contrasting colours.
Orange poppies and purple iris were combined with baptisia and a pale lavender thalictrum, or meadow rue, in an explosion of colour.
Orange is one of those colours that goes in and out of fashion. In the 1970s through to the turn of the century, pastel flowers were the rage. To include a bright orange plant in your garden was to mark yourself as being, in Nancy Mitford’s terms, non-U — the “u” was her shorthand for upper class. Today orange is back in fashion, thanks to who knows what. And in my eyes, for drama and impact, the museum’s orange poppies beat the pastel peonies, hands down.
The two-part design, dating from 1900 or earlier, may be original, but the garden itself has changed over the years. A wooden pergola smothered with bittersweet once sheltered the area from the road; dangerously rotten, it was taken down some years ago and wasn’t replaced. An arbour separating the two sections of the garden was replaced with a new structure, designed to copy the original as closely as possible.
The garden was resuscitated about 20 years ago and now has colour throughout the summer season. Certainly when I saw it yesterday, it sparkled.
To those who look after it, staff and volunteers alike, I say Bravo! You’ve created a garden that enhances the house museum and brings the current exhibition abundantly to life.
In just over a year, the Crabapple Allée, aka the Avenue, has gone from dream to dirt, to bloom and gone.
We started with this, a dull bare field.
Four months later, The Avenue was beginning to take shape.
By mid-November, the site was a mess of wet earth and newly planted trees.
While the trees rested, I kept my fingers crossed. How would they survive the freeze and thaw of a difficult winter?
By early May, we were beginning to find out. Some trees were leafing out, obviously fine. Others were looking doubtful. Possibly they were slower growing, possibly they were dead or dying.
Two weeks later, the excitement was building. Some trees were in bloom, others were about to start.
Warm weather began to open more blossoms but the full impact was not yet there.
On May 26, only two days after I took the photo above, the trees were in full bloom. The sky was grey, though, so I decided to wait until the following day to photograph the trees at their best.
That night it rained. Hard. The next morning, all the blossoms were gone.
I’m disappointed not to have a photo of the trees fully in bloom, but the image is there in my mind. Considering that this was their first year, the trees bloomed magnificently. Next year they will be better. And the year after, better still.
The best news is that every tree made it through the winter. Hooray!
I saw this wildflower in the woods last week and was surprised to learn its botanical name, Cardamine diphylla.
I was surprised because only a week or so ago, I looked up the name of another plant, now growing in damp areas in the garden and in the fields at Glen Villa. Its botanical name is Cardamine pratensis.
What is the relationship between the two Cardamines? Are they first cousins or distant relatives? Or, as Shakespeare would have us ask, do their names make them enemies?
Cardamine diphylla is a spring woodland plant found in moist woodlands in most of eastern North America. In Quebec it blooms in mid to late May, and into June in cooler years. The word diphylla means the plant has two leaves or leaflets.
Cardamine pratensis is an alien, native throughout most of Europe and Western Asia. The word pratensis, Latin for meadow, identifies its preferred location. It blooms when cuckoos arrive in the U.K., which explains one of its common names, cuckoo flower. Other common names are lady’s smock, milkmaids and mayflower.
C. pratensis is a food plant for the orange tip butterfly, and its botanical name (Anthocharis cardamines) marks that connection. (Since humans once used it as a substitute for watercress, I suppose it might have been called Anthocharis hominis.)
In folklore the flower was said to be sacred to fairies; because of that, it was unlucky to bring it indoors and the flowers were never used in May garlands.
The native plant, Cardamine diphylla, goes by the name crinkle root, or pepper root, or (less colourfully) broadleaf toothwort. Like lungwort or butterwort, the ‘wort’ in its name suggests it was once used as food or medicine — ‘wort’ comes from an old German word related to ‘root.’
Broadleaf toothwort or (my favourite) crinkle root, was used by many indigenous people in North Ameria. The Abenaki who lived in my part of Quebec used it as a condiment. The Algonquin used it to treat fevers and heart disease. The Iroquois chewed the raw root as a remedy for stomach gas and drank a cold infusion of the roots for “when love is too strong.”
What unites these plants, apart from their ‘surname’? Both have small white flowers with four petals, and are members of the mustard family, which includes all plants with four-petaled flowers. But the mustard family is large, and the genus Cardamine grows worldwide in diverse habitats. In northeastern America, there are 15 species with that name. Looking at photos, it is easy to see family resemblances between some, but as with families in general, other members look quite different.
Less scientifically, both of the Cardamines growing at Glen Villa are edible, either by insects and humans. I’m not planning to serve either at dinner, though — the native plant’s most frequently used name is bittercress.
One of the first projects I undertook at Glen Villa was the China Terrace, a contemporary folly that honours an old resort hotel that once stood on the property.
I first wrote about it as a conceptual garden. Following that, I wrote about it sporadically, focusing on the changes I made — the bed that shook off its annuals in favour of a moss quilt,
and the staircase leading to the imaginary second and third story that changed, from this …
to this …
to this …
… and, finally, to this.
These tweaks were necessary but relatively minor, and didn’t get at the main problem — the plants. There were two areas that bothered me, one on the bank (shown behind the staircase in the photo above) and the other beside the entry. I identified the problem at the end of 2013.
“This area and the entry bed it is part of simply don’t work as they should, which is to announce the presence of a ghostly recreation of a Victorian era hotel. Plus the deer like too many of the plants …. Plus [I need] more terracing and a re-shaping of the edges. “
Over the last five years I’ve tried to correct the problems in various ways. I thought about fencing the whole terrace but discarded the idea — to do it the way I wanted to would have cost a fortune. So I took smaller steps. I enriched the soil, added rocks to stabilize the bank and planted shrubs that were said to be deer proof. (Why do the deer never read the labels?) But nothing I did truly satisfied me.
So a few weeks ago, we attacked the problem head on. We dug up the plants and heeled them in. We removed the rocks that were spotted on the hillside and we began to terrace the slope.
The rocks we added several years ago had been large enough to stabilize the bank but I wanted real terraces with clearly defined edges that would suggest the three floors of the old resort hotel. I wanted flat planting beds, so that the plants wouldn’t look like they were sliding down the bank.
Making those changes seemed straightforward. It meant using bigger rocks than we’d used before, and those rocks would be too heavy to be placed by hand. To complete the project, we’d have to rent heavy equipment, but only for a few days.
Funny how things take longer than you think they will… Finding and hauling the rocks, building the terraces and getting the beds ready to plant took ten days of steady work.
But the result is all I could hope for: three terraces, each three feet higher than the one below and each slightly shorter and each about six feet wide.
We started planting last week. We are re-using the shrubs that were there before: Weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ on the lowest terrace, a few Aralia ‘Sun King’ on the second, and Persicaria polymorpha, or giant foamflower, on the third. At the very top where it is almost full shade, we planted ferns dug from the woods and spotted some indigenous thalictrum around the rocks. Finally we rescued some rooted bits of Stephanandra from the Lower Garden and planted them along the side slopes where they should tumble nicely.
So far I haven’t bought any new plants but since the area is larger than before, I will have to. New plants will include some low growing ground covers under the Weigela, one of which should spill over the rocks in front. I may spot some perennials here and there — epimediums are growing well in one section so I’ll probably add more. I want to keep the plantings simple, though, so I don’t intend to use too many different types of plants.
The question that remains is what to plant on the second, or middle, terrace. I could plant more Aralia but that seems boring, as does spirea. The wispy plumes of Filipendula would be nice but the deer like them, and choosing a shrub that is deer-resistent is a must. I want the shrub to have light-coloured leaves so that the dark-leafed weigela stands out against it. The plant needs to be tall — around 5-7 feet would be fine. Ideally it would be a ‘country’ shrub that people used in the 1900s, but this is less important than finding one that will grow well in an area with soil that tends to be dry and that gets just under six hours of sunlight.
In 2016, in order to discourage Canada geese from ‘littering’ the lawn, we began to transform it into a meadow. We didn’t follow the advice given by experts on how to create a meadow — their process involved too much work and too much expense. Instead we simply stopped cutting the grass. We let it grow throughout the season and cut it only once in the fall, to mulch the leaves and to cut down any trees that were taking root.
Now, entering the third year of this experiment, it is fascinating to see what is appearing. From a distance, the open area looks like an ordinary lawn spotted with large patches of blue and white. Most noticeable are the patches of blue, thanks to the wild violets that are growing everywhere.
The white patches are wild strawberries, and I’m hoping their fruit will be edible, even if small and rather seedy.
Other white patches are thanks to the plant (Cardamine pratensis) shown below. It goes by various common names — lady’s smock and milkmaids are two, and presumably refer to the colour of the flower. It is also called mayflower because that’s when it blooms.
There are dots of yellow in the meadow and spots of green brighter than the lawn, coming from ‘weeds’ like dandelions and creeping Charlie. These would make pristine lawn lovers throw their hands up in horror but I rather like them both.
Patches of russet brown come from the maple seedlings that have appeared in great numbers.
Up close, it is easy to see the russet coloration of the new leaves.
Rising above the grass are the leaves of lupins. We will let them go to seed, and if they like the area, they will spread happily in years to come.
But of all the colours, blue predominates. The biggest patch of blue is under the linden tree.
We’ve been planting muscari, or grape hyacinth bulbs, for the last few years and finally they are having the impact I wanted.
Week by week and month by month, the meadow will change. The muscari and the spring wildflowers will fade; the various grasses that made up the lawn will grow taller. There will be surprises — or so I hope.
And with luck, the Canada geese will leave us alone.
One of the decisions I have to make when groups visit Glen Villa is which way to go. Shall I to lead the group around the garden this way or that?
In some gardens the choice is made for you. There is a set route that the garden maker or garden owner wants you to take. Or that the government authority in charge has dictated.
This is the case at Villa Lante, the Renaissance garden built for Cardinal Gamberaia and now owned by the government of Italy. The Cardinal’s garden used water to show how nature, untamed and chaotic, is ‘civilized’ by art and the power of man. To follow the story, visitors entered the garden at the top of a hill, where water poured out over rough tufa walls.
As they moved down the hill, they witnessed a gradual transformation, with art increasingly dominating nature.
The transformation reached its climax at the lowest level, where water rested, calmly contained within a large square basin surrounded by a formal broderie design.
Today the direction is reversed. Visitors enter at the bottom of the garden, distorting the Cardinal’s metaphor by presenting it backwards.
The same bottom to top problem exists at Villa d’Este in Tivoli. In the 1500s, visitors entering at the bottom of the garden spied the palace high above them. The sight was meant to overwhelm, and it did.
Today’s visitors enter at the top, looking down from the seat of power instead of up to it.
Few gardens today are designed to convey messages through topography. (I can’t think of any. Can you?) But the way visitors move through a garden still matters, because the route we take affects how we experience the space.
A few years ago I visited the Morikami Japanese Garden in southern Florida. My companion had been to the garden once before and, because she hadn’t found the experience particularly meaningful, wasn’t eager to return. The second visit changed her mind — and all because we went round the garden the ‘right’ way.
A pond lies at the centre of the garden, and visitors are meant to walk around it counterclockwise. This is also the case at Stourhead, an18th century English landscape garden in Wiltshire. Circling the lake the ‘right’ way presents views to their best advantage, the way the garden’s creator, Henry Hoare, intended.
Views aren’t the only reason why a visitor may be encouraged, or forced, to take one path rather than another. Consider Mt. Cuba, a garden located near Wilmington, Delaware, where native plants are the raison d’être. Showing wildflowers to their best advantage does not depend on the path you follow. But because Mt Cuba is open to the public, visitors’ steps are directed along clearly defined routes.
The lushly romantic garden of Ninfa was designed for wandering, and it’s easy to imagine the original owners lingering here or there to smell a rose or listen to a murmuring stream. The experience is different for visitors today. Groups are frogmarched through the garden on a predetermined route and at a predetermined pace that dampens even a whisper of romance.
The experience at Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman’s garden on the shingle beach in Kent, is different again. A private garden, it nonetheless feels public — it fronts onto a public road and no fences separate the garden from its surroundings. Visitors can wander as the please, circling the house one way or the other, exploring each vignette and finding whatever meaning they choose.
Where you enter the garden can make a difference to the experience. In the Walled Garden at Scampston Hall, visitors are encouraged to walk around three sides of the garden before entering the first of nine garden rooms, the Piet Oudolf designed Drifts of Grass.
Natural features in the landscape or elements deliberately placed can shape a garden journey. Water rills, hedges, walls and gates: all can dictate the way a visitor must go. Simple flower beds can do the same. In a private garden in New York state, a winding path edged by plants gently directs visitors towards an open area.
People can move through the garden at Glen Villa in any number of ways. They can walk south towards the Lower Garden …
… or north, towards the Aqueduct.
If they enter by the pond they see one view.
If they enter through the fields they see another.
I like having a choice, in my own garden and in someone else’s. But having a choice can be confusing. I know my way around Glen Villa. I know I will see everything I want to see, with or without directions, or a map, or arrows pointing this way or that. But for others, a map or arrows may be essential.
What about you? Do you like to be directed around a garden or do you prefer to wander?
A few weeks ago I posted the photo below on Facebook and asked for ideas about what to do with the trunk of an enormous pine tree that had pined away.
Many people responded: make it into a table, or benches, a totem, planters, bird houses or toothpicks (hard to imagine how many of those there would be!), an art display: Twenty Ways to Commemorate a Fallen Pine. (Thanks, Janet. I loved that idea.)
But that’s not what has happened.
Once we removed the branches we could see the shape of the tree trunk. My son-in-law was the first to spot it. Walking along the top of the trunk with his son, he said it looked like a crocodile or a lizard. He pointed to the knotholes. See the eyes?
He said it would make a great play structure and immediately I could imagine grandchildren climbing all over it and using it for games only they could imagine.
The problem was how to move one very big tree trunk from the farmhouse, which we rent out, to our house about a kilometre away. The trunk was long. And heavy. Yes, we could cut it into pieces but much of the attraction came from the sheer size of the thing. Could we possibly move it in one piece?
As it turns out, yes, we could. And yes, we did.
First, though, a certain amount of head scratching was required.
Luckily, living in the country, equipment that can lift heavy loads isn’t hard to find.
So with Bruce lifting the heavy end with his excavator, and Jacques lifting the lighter end with his tractor, the journey began.
Across the lawn behind the farmhouse …
… and along the rocky road that cuts off a corner …
… then onto the public road that leads to our house.
Jacques and Bruce drove slowly. Even so, the tree trunk swayed precariously as they moved down the hill, along a road with lots of dips and bumps. (The road is scheduled to be remade entirely a few months from now. I’m not looking forward to that.)
Our driveway is at the bottom of the hill. I thought they’d have trouble making the sharp turn, but these men are skillful and know exactly what their equipment can do.
The trunk made its way down the driveway …
… across the lawn (aka The Big Meadow) …
… to its new home on the bank above Lake Massawippi. The whole process took about 60 minutes, not including the head scratching.
Jacques immediately tried it out.
The trunk will ooze sap for some time but it will dry out eventually.
I may cut steps into the right-hand end of the trunk, or shape it like the nose of a crocodile. I may paint the knotholes into eyes or add a snaggletooth to make the croc smile. I may let the sawn circles where branches were removed go grey or I may polish and seal them with shellac.
Or I may just leave well enough alone. But whatever I do (and I welcome ideas, the crazier the better), this creature needs a name.
Today it is grey and rainy but yesterday felt like spring. And how wonderful that was! Despite the soggy ground, covered in many places with deer pellets and dead leaves, I spent an hour or so wandering around the garden, enjoying the sunshine and the new growth that was popping up in every warm corner.
For readers who live in milder climates or in places where spring has truly sprung, the thrill of seeing new growth may have come and gone. But living in a cold climate, where snow is still lurking in the shade, the strength of the thrill is hard to describe.
I actually gasped when I saw this little leaf. How tiny it was, yet how strong it must have been to break through the litter and begin to grow. And isn’t the colour glorious?
Seeing the quilted foliage of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) cradling the morning’s rain drops was like being awarded a medal for courage. Yes, we both survived the winter.
Everywhere, the new growth was pushing up through the chilly soil, reaching for the sun. Peonies shoots were emerging, a gorgeous shade of red.
Water thundering over the dam signalled that snow was melting quickly on higher ground.
Nearby, the daffodils that form the Dragon’s Tail were still only a scribble of green, but soon they will burst into bloom.
Seeing those signs of spring made me happy. But the biggest jolt of happiness came when I saw this little clump of good cheer. I had to crouch down to make sure of what I was seeing — a type of dwarf iris called Iris danfordiae.
In 2005 I planted 100 of these bulbs, anticipating a burst of sunshine that would gladden my soul for years to come. But that’s not what happened. In my plant list the following year, I noted that the bulbs were not doing well. And then they simply disappeared.
Spotting the clump, I rejoiced. Never give up hope, they seemed to say.
Poking around on the internet, I discovered that going for years without blooming is not unusual for Iris danfordiae. I learned that when they are left in the ground, the bulbs break up into bulblets which then need time to grow large enough to bloom. So next year, will I see even more?
Danford irises, first collected in Turkey in 1876, were named after their collector, a Mrs. Danford whose first name I wasn’t able to find. She was one of those intrepid Englishwomen who explored foreign lands in the Victorian era, botanizing and revelling in the freedom that came with exploration.
I leaned in for a closer look at the fine points of the flower…
… only to discover that I wasn’t the only one who found the flower appealing!
Happy spring to one and all!
I’m linking this post to a meme sponsored by Helen, the Patient Gardener, called the End of the Month View. I didn’t know about this meme when I posted earlier today but it seems that I’ve written something close enough to an “end of the month view” to connect it to other garden writers around the world.
Does your garden turn its face to the world or does it veil it off? The difference says a lot, about you and the style of your garden — and about the spirit of the times.
Recently I spoke to several groups about how to get the most out of garden visits. Learning to Look: the Art of Garden Observation considers what it takes to really see a garden. A handout for the talk asks some key questions, starting with the garden’s context. How does it relate to the world around it? Is it open to its surroundings or closed off?
Topography can make an enormous difference. Properties with panoramic views rarely shut them out, particularly when they look out on a rural landscape.
If the view is unattractive, however, the garden owner may want to block it out. Ugly walls, telephone poles, rooftops lined with satellite dishes: all interfere with a world view that excludes these urban elements.
Some gardens deliberately close themselves off from their surroundings, attractive or not, creating a private universe that holds the outside world at bay.
Sometimes views are hidden, by accident or design.
Cutting the view of the surroundings turns the view in on itself. At Great Dixter, one of England’s finest gardens, the view of the surrounding fields is blocked by a line of cars.
The effect of this is to turn the view and the viewer back towards the garden itself.
The garden at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s house in Lennox, Massachusetts, exists in a bubble, disconnected from everything around it.
By hiding the view, the house and the people who live there take centre stage.
Contrast this inward-looking attitude with Sunnylands, the historic California estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg. At Sunnylands, everything is directed outwards, across open lawns towards the towering, snow-capped San Jacinto mountains.
The difference in orientation reflects a difference in the spirit of the place and the spirit of the times. The names of the houses do the same. Following English and Italian models, The Mount stands above, expressing in its architecture Wharton’s ideas about order, scale and harmony. Sitting low to the ground and with glass walls that connect indoor and outdoor spaces, Sunnylands becomes an element of the landscape, one feature among many.
An openness to the surroundings characterizes many American gardens. Neighbourhood streets are lined with houses that may be divided, one from another, by hedges or low flower beds, as are these houses in Hanover, New Hampshire.
A different sense of neighbourliness can be found in British properties. This small town garden lies as close to its neighbour as the American garden does but separating the two English gardens is a tall stone wall.
At Glen Villa, as in many larger properties, the view is open to the world in some spots and closed in others. For privacy, the view of our house from the lake is screened by trees planted many years ago by previous owners.
From inside the house and from most places in the garden, the view is open.
Historically, gardens were closed off from the outside world, for protection from animals or marauders. A change occurred in the 18th century in England, indicating a change in the way people related to their surroundings. Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator in 1712, asked
“Why may not a whole Estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent Plantations, that may turn as much to the Profit, as the Pleasure of the Owner? … If the Natural Embroidery of the Meadows were helpt and improved by some small Additions of Art … a Man might make a pretty Landskip of his own Possessions.”
That’s what I’m aiming to do at Glen Villa, not to turn the landscape to profit but to turn it to art. I’ve written here about The Avenue, the allée of crabapple trees we planted last fall. Public roads on two sides of The Avenue make the “pretty Landskip” visible to anyone passing by.
Last week I made a short video about The Avenue that is now being shown on Garden Design’s Instagram page. As I write, almost 12,000 people have watched the 1 minute video. I hope you’ll join them, and join me as a subscriber to the magazine. It is an ad-free bundle of information, presented along with beautiful photographs.
I hope, too, that you’ll think about how your garden turns, to the world or away from it. Does it send the message you want it to send?
Spring just won’t make up its mind. One day it cracks open the door, the next day, slams it shut.
And I’m fed up! Come on, Spring, get a move on. Some years, snowdrops have finished by now. This year, they have barely started.
In a normal spring, by now water would be splashing gaily over the rocks at The Cascade. Instead it is freezing in mid-air.
I agree, the ice patterns that the water leaves behind are nice. I’d happily praise them if I saw them in March.
But it’s mid April. Often I see my first daffodil on April 15. This year, all I see are tips of green poking their heads out.
So what’s up, Spring? What’s holding you back? If you’re a prodigal child who spent all your good weather elsewhere, come home, we forgive you. If it’s something we said or did, we’re sorry. Really, we are.
Just come. We are here, ready to welcome you in with open arms.