Category Archives: Reviews

Garden Hits and Misses

September 30th, 2018 | 13 Comments »

At home after three marvellous weeks visiting gardens (and  friends) in England, I find much to criticize in my garden. After many years of travelling, I’ve come to expect this — and to accept that a garden in Quebec’s harsh weather conditions will never resemble an English garden, with its lush foliage and flowers, topiary and ancient walls.

I’ve also come to expect that gardens other than my own will disappoint me.

On every tour I’ve hosted, there has always been one garden I particularly looked forward to seeing. On this trip, that garden was Boughton House, in Northumberlandshire. It wasn’t the flowers or the historically significant 18th landscape that was the big draw, it was Orpheus, a contemporary work of art by the English landscape architect Kim Wilkie.

I’ve seen Wilkie’s landforms at Great Fosters, near London, and at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. At both I admired the clarity of form, the precision of line, and the effectiveness of the work in its setting. This admiration made me eager to see Wilkie’s work at Boughton, where a pyramid, inverted to descend underground, mirrors the shape and proportions of an 18th century mound nearby.

The 18th century garden is superb and the restoration of the fountain and the Grand Etang fittingly grand for a house built along the lines of Versailles.

 

The fountain rises 70 feet into the air. On a sunny day it is beautiful to see. It works via a remote control!
The fountain that works via remote control rises 70 feet into the air. On a sunny day it is beautiful to see.

 

Orpheus, however, left much to be desired.

The original gardens date from 1684, when John, the first Duke of Montagu, laid out a design based on the golden ratio, the golden spiral and golden sections. (There are many explanations of this idea on-line.) Wilkie used the same principle for Orpheus, and conceptually the project is brilliant in the way it relates the new, both to the old and to the surrounding landscape.

 

Orpheus descends underground in front of The Mount that dates from the 18th century.
Orpheus, only partly visible, echoes the shape of The Mount behind it.

 

By naming the earth work Orpheus, after the mythological Greek musician who rescued his wife Eurydice from the underworld through the beauty of his music, Wilkie connected the contemporary work to the Enlightenment ideas that formed the basis of the garden’s original design. Using the proportions of the adjacent Mount, he created a massive 160 square foot inverted grass pyramid with a sunken pool at the bottom. At ground level he added a stone rill and a series of grass sections that follow a golden spiral. Finishing the project he placed the outline of a cube, creating negative space above as he had created negative space below.

So why was Orpheus a disappointment?

First, I couldn’t really see it. To appreciate the design, I needed to see it from above. From ground level, the idea is clear but the impact is absent. Could I have climbed the Mount? Possibly, but whether through on-site restrictions or lack of time, that didn’t happen.

 

Boughton House (5 of 10)
I liked the colour contrast, white against green.

 

Second, too many technical aspects fell short. The lines of the grass banks, so important to the design, were clean and sharp but bare patches of ground were distracting. So was the algae marring what should have been clear, reflective water.

 

Bare dirt spoils the clean lines of the earth form.
At the bottom left of the photo is another distraction — a metal man-hole cover. It may be necessary but its presence spoils what should be a pristine form.

 

This summer in England was particularly dry, and a lack of rain could explain why the grass has not grown well. But it does not explain the condition of the stone rill, besmirched by bird droppings.

Most troubling was the absence of moving water in the rill itself. According to our guide, the water is rarely turned on for fear that the sunken pool will overflow and create additional problems for one side of the pyramid where an underground spring has already caused the bank to slip several times.

 

Boughton House (4 of 10)
Standing water beneath the cube suggests that the surface is not perfectly level.

 

I wanted to fall in love with Orpheus. The photographs I had seen of it told me I would. But I didn’t.

Nor did I react positively to Life Force by Angela Connor.

 

Boughton House (1 of 10)
The brownish red cord which is meant to suggest a vein surfaces several times along the top of an old stew pond. I wish all of it had remained hidden underground.

 

As for the flowery bits in the garden, the less said, the better.

 

The up-turned stumps that appeared in several places felt arbitrary and out of place in the Walled Garden.
The up-turned stumps that appeared in several places felt arbitrary and out of place in the Walled Garden.

 

The visit was far from a disaster, though, as other parts of Boughton’s landscape delighted me. I liked the serenity of the canal that stretched alongside an avenue of ancient trees.

 

The canal
The 18th century canal was re-lined not long ago as part of a restoration project that began in 1975.

 

A new grove of trees, where youngsters stood in orderly rows alongside grandparent trees, filled me with admiration. Will the grandparents be replaced by another generation as they themselves begin to fail?

 

The levels of light and shade changed constantly on the day we visited Boughton, creating different atmospheres and attitudes.
The levels of light and shade changed constantly on the day we visited Boughton, creating atmospheres that were alternately lively and serene.

 

The tree-lined view that stretched out to tomorrow was beautiful in its simplicity. This aspect of the garden underlined the long-term commitment made by the 9th and 10th Dukes of Buccleuch to rejuvenate this ancestral landscape.

 

You can't see the public road that crosses the open space but cars and trucks were occasionally visible.
These trees are part of the two miles of lime trees that have been replanted since 1975.

 

I admire enormously the restoration work going on at Boughton House. The scope of the work is daunting: formal areas cover 100 acres and there are an additional 450 acres within the original 15th century deer park. I admire equally the intention behind Wilkie’s Orpheus and the desire on the part of the current Duke of Buccleuch and his wife to add a contemporary edge to this magnificent setting. I only wish the reality of Orpheus matched its intent.

 


Over the next few weeks I’ll review other gardens I visited on this tour. There will definitely be some hits — and at least one more miss.

What about you? Have you visited a great garden recently? If you visited one that let you down, have you written about it? Evaluating a garden rather than simply describing it takes time and thoughtful consideration. It means looking at the designer’s intentions and deciding how successfully they were executed. Sharing critical views means putting yourself on the line and taking gardens seriously. I think that is something worth doing.

 

 

Garden Centres and Garden Reviews

September 24th, 2018 | 10 Comments »
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Gardening in Canada can be frustrating. The range of plants available through nurseries or garden centres is minuscule compared with the number available in England. And seeing so many wonderful cultivars that won't survive in my Quebec garden makes me envious of England's more temperate climate. Still, for anyone who loves plants, a visit to a garden centre is always a treat. The group I was hosting on my final garden tour spent a few happy hours wandering around the Burford Garden Company, an Oxfordshire-based enterprise. At this time of year

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Oudolf at Pensthorpe

September 16th, 2018 | 10 Comments »
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Over the last half dozen years or so,  I've visited several gardens in England designed by the Dutch plantsman, Piet Oudolf. These include Bury Court in Hampshire, Scampston Hall's Walled Garden in Yorkshire and Hauser & Wirth in Somerset. Because I've seen and enjoyed these gardens, I was eager to see Oudolf's Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Natural Park in Norfolk. (A review of Scampston Hall's Walled Garden is here.) Pensthorpe was Oudolf's first commission in the U.K. Planted in 2000 and up-dated in 2008, the Millennium Garden is part of a larger natural reserve.

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Petworth: a Landscape by Capability Brown

September 9th, 2018 | 18 Comments »
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On a sunny day, what could be more agreeable than strolling through a landscape designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown? Earlier this week, two friends and I took advantage of the fine weather to do just this when we visited Petworth House in Sussex. The landscape there is one of the finest surviving examples of Brown's work. Walking through the 700-acre park, the surroundings appear to be totally natural, but in reality Brown shaped each part of the land with his customary flair.   [caption id="attachment_6709" align="aligncenter" width="4272"] This view from the

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A Victorian Garden

June 17th, 2018 | 15 Comments »
Baptisia is growing in my garden. Seeing this combo makes me want to add some orange poppies.
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.   [caption id="attachment_6429" align="aligncenter" width="5184"] The house, its gardens and adjacent stable and carriage house, tell the story of the Colby family, a prominent local family of American origin. The family donated the house and its contents to the Stanstead Historical Society in 1992. Exhibitions provide insight into the social and cultural history of the county which borders Vermont.[/caption]   The current

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Malverleys: A Garden of Contrasts

November 27th, 2017 | 17 Comments »
Vivid colours appear in the hot border. Contrasts are more subtle in the cool-toned border but are still  dynamic and inventive.
Winter is almost here in Quebec, which means that not much is going on in the garden at Glen Villa. So instead of moaning about that, I'm remembering one of the gardens I visited in England last May. Malverleys is a large private estate, rarely open to the public, so the small group of gardeners who were on the tour I was hosting was fortunate to be able to visit. We were doubly fortunate to tour the garden in the company of Mat Reese, the head gardener. Anyone who subscribes to Gardens Illustrated, or

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Michiko’s Garden

September 10th, 2017 | 4 Comments »
Striations in the rock suggest ripples in a stream.
Last week I visited a very special garden, where rock outcroppings enhanced with shade-loving plants create an atmosphere of deep serenity.   [caption id="attachment_5589" align="aligncenter" width="1425"] Polystichum, or Christmas fern, is found in shady woodlands throughout Quebec. Note the small patch of tiarella cordifolia, another indigenous plant, at the top of the photo.[/caption]   Developed over the last fifteen years by designer Michiko Gagnon, the garden is at the end of a cul-de-sac in Quebec's Eastern Townships, not far from the U.S. border. It's an idyllic setting, with an old farmhouse that she and

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Metis International Garden Festival

August 22nd, 2017 | 6 Comments »
The optical illusion never fails to delight.
  Recently I visited the International Garden Festival at Metis, Quebec. I've attended the Festival many times since it first opened in 2000, but in previous years I've gone with adults. This year was special -- I went with two teenage granddaughters.   [caption id="attachment_5512" align="aligncenter" width="1425"] The festival gardens are adjacent to the St. Lawrence River in a part of Quebec that offers much to explore.[/caption]   Playsages, the theme for this year's Festival, was a good fit for the three of us. The word is a mash-up of languages, blending

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An Exchange of Views

June 23rd, 2017 | 9 Comments »
Topiary at Allt-y-bela was stunning.
What happens when two opinionated garden makers visit the garden of a Chelsea award-winning garden designer? Last month, Anne Wareham, Charles Hawes and I visited Allt-y-bela, the home of Arne Maynard, an author and prominent UK garden designer.  We spent several hours wandering around the impressive garden, located in Monmouthshire, Wales; Anne and I spent even more time several weeks later exchanging ideas and responses to what we had seen. Along with running her own garden, Veddw,  (in case you missed my review of Veddw, you can read it here), Anne edits the internationally

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Gardeners (and Gardens) to Remember

June 7th, 2017 | 14 Comments »
This garden by James Alexander Sinclair showed the relationship between sound and motion. Water gurgled and spouted in response to sound waves. Very ingenious.
I'm home again at Glen Villa, my garden in Quebec, after touring gardens in England. In ten days, the small group I was hosting visited 17 gardens, each special in its own way. Add in the Chelsea Flower Show and pre-tour visits to three other gardens and you can imagine the result: more photos and memories than a dozen blog posts can handle. Let me mention a few highlights. (More blog posts will come once I catch my breath and begin to assimilate all I saw.) The Chelsea Flower Show

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