Category Archives: other people’s gardens

Blue poppies and tiny coffins

botanic gardenThis morning we looked out the window at blue skies and decided to go to the Royal Botanic Garden while the weather held.  We walked over to the North Bridge and picked up the bus, with a bit of help from the kilt-clad man at the door of the Balmoral Hotel.  When the ticket taker told us the blue poppies were in bloom, that was all I needed to hear. They have a reputation for being extremely difficult to grow, and because they come from Nepal or China or somewhere I did not expect ever to see them.  They were amazing, so blue and so many of them. blue poppiesThey were even more enchanting close poppies 2

I’m not actually sure that I like that shade of blue, but no matter- we saw them in abundance and that was enough.  (Note that I have since seen them at Kildrummy Gardens among others, so they must not be so rare on this side of the Atlantic.)

As usual, I was struck by the perfect edging and the low-cut grass with tiny daisies, quintessentially British to my American eye.  In addition, we saw the glass houses with lots of begonias and orchids. I could become a begonia collector without too much difficulty… begoniabegonia2begonia3A few more images that took my fancy:

These beautiful water lilieswater lilies

A monkey puzzle tree, just like in books!monkey puzzle

And a Seussian primula.  I wish I could grow these, but they prefer more water than Virginia usually provides.primula

Had a sandwich lunch outside at the cafe with three of my favorite things,  lunch

and walked to the bus stop.  A very nice young woman with her young daughter helped us to find the right stop to get off at the National Museum of Scotland.  

Here, fading just a bit, we wanted to see the early people (Neolithics), the Lewis chessmen, and the strange coffins of dolls found on Arthur’s seat in the nineteenth century and never fully explained.  We saw them all.  The Neolithic stuff was organized by topic so was a bit hard to follow, but we looked for items found on Orkney and found quite a bit.  Here, for example, is a comb from the Brough of Birsay, combthough the majority of items were made of stone.  Those who are interested can find more images of objects here by searching for Orkney.  The Lewis chessmen were as charming as ever, and the strange little coffins  were just as mysterious as ever (though you can find details on what we do know in this article).  coffins A quick tea and cake in the cafe and back home again.  Dinner was next door at Badger, named in honor of the Wind in the WIllows because Kenneth Grahame was born next door at our B&B  and they are both capitalizing on this fact.  It was nice to come downstairs and just have dinner next door – game pie for me (watch out for pieces of shot!) and cheese plate for dessert – while surrounded by charming badger memorabilia.  badgerThen home to pack in prep for leaving tomorrow.

Bloom Day

So, it’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, but all we have here is a blanket of snow. 20160215_090932

Instead, here is an orchid I saw two days ago at the Lankester Botanical Garden in Costa Rica.Stafford Piecemakers show 014

Words of Wisdom from Margaret Roach

A Way To GardenFor the last few years (really), a little slip of paper has been floating around in the piles on the kitchen counter.  I had planned to see Margaret Roach’s garden in Copake, New York, at her Open Garden Day as part of a trip to visit Uncle Buzz in Salisbury.  Sadly, her garden was devastated by hail, so instead of a tour she offered an illustrated talk.  I was disappointed not to see her garden, which I’ve been following virtually here for years, but felt worse for her to have so much work turned into shredded leaves in just a few moments.  The good news is that her lecture was fascinating, as I can remember from my notes, scribbled on a piece of hotel stationery and saved since, I kid you not, June of 2013.

“The garden is a 365-day-a-year thing.  The garden never closes.”

Non-gardeners and sometimes even gardeners can get trapped into thinking the garden is all about smashing moments, nothing more, but there is always something there.  Even on the most dreary day of winter, you’ll find something to look at, to take note of, to think about.  It’s not all roses, people.

“When people say some colors don’t go together, think of the colors of the sunset.  It is YOUR garden.”

So if you want to have orange marigolds next to pink lilies, be her guest.  Mom always said, somewhat ominously, that you could tell a lot about a person by her garden.  So, embrace it!

“Design your garden from viewing spots in the house.”

This is just common sense, but how often do we really do it?  The oak tree garden is a focal point from the dining room and even from the front door, and it’s my most successful garden, so that’s good.  The kitchen window overlooks the rhododendrons and the akebia on the trellis, not terribly exciting but okay.  The living room windows overlook the maple tree, so not too bad, and the back door offers a good view of the terrace.  Pretty good on the whole, but not on purpose.

My final notes are about a few plants she suggested.

  • For big leaves, go for Rodgersia (I think it’s too dry here) and Astilboides (maybe ditto).
  • Leave rhubarbs to flower, they are gorgeous.
  • Cissus discolor, the rex begonia vine, is a tropical she has written about here.  Gorgeous leaves!

It was a wonderful morning, and I intend to go back…one day.  Maybe this June or August?



The Helen Dillon Garden

DSC06081I must have been searching for Irish gardening books when I came across Helen Dillon, whom I’d never heard of but who is clearly a garden writer of note.  I wrote about her one of her books  here and hoped to visit her garden on our trip.  Although Alison is not a gardener, she is game.   We made our way to the garden on the public bus (see below), and it was spectacular. So much to say that I have divided this account into multiple categories.

Some plants I have and how Helen Dillon uses them

I plant woodland aster under the maple tree in front because they can take the dry shade that is a constant challenge in this garden.  Helen, on the other hand, pairs them with white Japanese anemones.  Now, I have tried anemones three times and they never come back, but maybe this time will be the charm.  DSC06023Her asters are a bit more floriferous than mine, but then I guess I could actually water them occasionally and see if that makes a difference.  This is in the front garden, which she has made into a birch grove and a very quiet, serene place. Here it is from the street.


I have a love/hate relationship with my helianthus, which I sometimes call helenium (see, there are several issues).  The first year, it blew over in a storm and crushed the plants beneath.  Then it spread vigorously, so that I have had to root it out.  Plus, it is so tall that I now give it the Chelsea chop in early summer so that it doesn’t get too big and then fall like a giant redwood.

But here it is in Helen Dillon’s garden, appearing to behave itself and consorting with the verbena in a lovely way.DSC06026

Water elements

Oh, how I long for a water element and how I just can’t make it happen.  Well, Helen just tore everything out one day and installed this elegantly simple pond in her back garden.DSC06039Here’s a bigger view.DSC06025

Another water element, so simple and lovely.  I imagine the birds love it, and it’s more to my scale.DSC06051


Foliage becomes more important the longer you live with a garden.  Flowers will come and go, but the leaves may linger through three seasons.  Here are some of the most wonderful foliage plants that caught my eye.DSC06070

DSC06041 DSC06027 DSC06030 DSC06031Not sure what these are – the last filled in under a small tree.

Use of color

Apparently she started out with carefully “curated” borders of one color each, but finally just said the hell with it and went to town.  See?DSC06042This is the border along one side of the pool.  She is also famous for gardening in pots.  She no longer plants everything in the ground, just pots it up and hauls it out when it’s looking good and hauls it back when it fades.  Of course, this implies lots of space and a strong back, but it’s an interesting concept.  She doesn’t even use remarkable pots, just plain black ones that fade into the background.  Or even garbage cans, as in these ferns that were tucked under the deck but clearly still on display.DSC06063

Here are some red things.  I know the dark leaf is a canna, but I’m not sure about the pinky red flowers in the pot.DSC06035

Miscellaneous darling things

Beautiful dahlias – I must try them YET AGAIN.DSC06055 DSC06036

Elegant Japanese anemones, dittoDSC06043Box bushes shaped to echo a nearby potDSC06049Delicate maidenhair fern in a concrete troughDSC06057

Meeting the Dillons and visiting the bathroom

So you are really just coming to their house when you visit.  You ring the doorbell, and Val Dillon lets you in, takes your 5 pounds, and shows you in to the drawing room that overlooks the garden.DSC06024This first view is stunning, but if you can tear yourself away you will also see a table with her signed books for sale.  I picked up Helen Dillon On Gardening The room is filled with beautiful paintings, furniture and doodads, evidence of their earlier careers as antique dealers.

When we came back through the house to leave, Val invited us to use the bathroom if we wished.  He said it was unusual and that we might enjoy it.  In fact, he said, on day an elderly friend came to visit and when he checked on her all he could see were her feet sticking out the door.  Had she passed out or died?  No, she was just trying to get the whole bathroom in her camera lens.   I understand.  Here are my attempts.DSC06075 DSC06074I didn’t quite lie down on the floor, but you can see why she did.  Asked how long it took to make, Val said drily, “About 30 seconds to write the check.”

The bus ride

The website assures you that the #11 bus stops right at the Dillon Garden.  Of course,  it’s not quite that simple.  We got directions from the TIC near Trinity and walked down the street until we finally got to the bus stop.  Once on the bus, there was no way to know when we had arrived.  The brusque driver did finally point out our stop just when we had given up hope.  We wandered down the street, heartened by a sign for the Dillon garden, and finally figured out that we should just walk through a small opening to the road where the house was.  Not that hard after all, but confusing.  Luckily it all worked easily on the way back.

The end plus a video

Here are just a few more random wonderful things, plus a video that gives you a glimpse of Helen herself as well as their drawing room.DSC06047The good sport

DSC06076Garden by the driveway on the way outDSC06066snails’ trailsDSC06068Autumn cyclamen growing in pebbles

Short clip of a palm tree swaying in the wind

DSC06059DSC06061sea oats and a glimpse of Helen herself in the garden

The video is here:

A Dublin Garden

down to earthHelen Dillon has gardened in a small Dublin garden for over thirty years.  Short essays paired with photos of her garden detail her likes, her dislikes, even her bold uprooting of garden elements she installed in previous decades.  Many of her plants come with a story about who gave them to her or where she first saw them, and big names like Graham Stuart Thomas pepper the text. She says not a word about native plants, cheerfully installing plants from around the world.  She even includes Americans like tree of heaven that are highly invasive here but apparently behave well in Dublin.

As she discusses her gardens from the 1960s to now, she  compares gardening styles to hair styles.  Both change over time but if we’re not careful, we end up with “a 1960s Cilla Black look – that’s if I don’t get the softly curly Nancy Reagan, or the ubiquitous à la grandmère, with every curl betraying its roller-friendly origins.”

Her garden is open to the public, and I hope to visit this summer.  But I’ll be on my best behavior:  she has some sharp words for garden visitors who try to hide their theft of plants and cuttings in their capacious handbags, or those who loudly criticize the garden and the gardener in her hearing.  Can’t say I blame her.

Although much of what she says is specific to her climate and conditions, I still found much to think about and admire.  (Why again don’t I have a water element in my garden, I ask myself.)  Like the best garden books  (Green Thoughts comes to mind), this is one to keep on the bedside table.  You could pick it up and read randomly from time to time and always learn or re-learn something good.

Hortus Botanicus

DSC04186The botanical garden in Amsterdam is one of the oldest in the world and at three acres also one of the smallest.  It’s tucked into the Plantage district, a green area of central Amsterdam, near a big public park and the zoo.

One of us took this opportunity to sit in the cafe and read, but I did my best to explore the compact, diverse plantings, ranging from water garden to desert, in the hour we had before closing.

The water garden featured these beautiful tropical leavesDSC04187 – shades of the Oxford Botanical Gardens (which I really should report on even if my visit was back in 2009).  The water garden was roughly circular, with these giant water lilies (they start them from seed in May) in the pond, while a huge gunnera plant, which you see everywhere in English gardens, dominated the central point.DSC04210I couldn’t resist closeups of the blooms.DSC04188DSC04211But the garden is really known for its collection of cycads, primitive plants that have been around since before the dinosaurs.  They mostly lived in a glasshouse, but some were growing along the paths.DSC04189This one is so rare that it lives in a cage, apparently.  DSC04190I think it’s the Wollemi pine, known only through fossils until it was collected in Australia in 1994  and distributed to botanical gardens around the world to keep the species alive.

The glasshouses are renowned although I have to confess that I was underwhelmed, perhaps because these plants don’t interest me too much.  In fact, I have no pictures of them so you will have to look at this one from their website, which does display their elegance but gives no sense of scale. palmenkas_foto02Both in the glasshouses and along the paths are plants first collected by the VOC in the East Indies in the 18th century, including coffee plants from seeds brought here in 1706.  They formed the basis of the coffee plantations later established in South America.

On the other hand, the butterfly house was enchanting.  DSC04199How could you not like these butterflies?  Hypolimnas bolina, according to the sign, that live on sweet potato vines and flourish in Madagascar and New Zealand.

In the green houses were tropical and desert gardens, the latter of which I fell in love with for their shapes and patterns.  This one looked like stacked tongues (but in a good way).DSC04202This one is some kind of tradescantia, weirdly:  sillamontana Matuda from northern Mexico.  Softly fuzzy and subtly shaded in purple and green.  I had no idea that spiderwort could be so succulent.DSC04205I loved these flowers as inspiration for applique.DSC04204Finally a small tree that is actually clethra – a bit scary that it could get that big.DSC04208C. arborea Aiton, native to Madeira, so I probably don’t need to worry about my C. alnifolia.

My favorite story from the arboretum is about the famous 19th century director, Hugo de Vries.  He once threatened to leave unless the board installed the glasshouses that allowed him to display palms and cycads.  Another perk was the installation of a private gate on one side of the garden, that opened on the street directly across from his house.  If you like your director, make it easy for him to stay!

Not your average garden book

The-Bad-Tempered-Gardener-by-Anne-WarehamAnn Wareham may be a contrarian, but it’s not just for the sake of it.  She is genuinely puzzled by gardeners who put together a collection of plants rather than design a garden.  Her garden, Veddw, in the Welsh borders, is two acres of carefully designed garden (plus two acres of managed woods) that include some startling juxtapositions of colors and shapes.  She’s a big believer in pattern and repetition – not for her the wispy gardens of mixed perennials that are “pretty.”  Take a look at the glorious pattern of her hedges, echoing the Monmouthshire hills:


Another look at the power of pattern and repetition:veddw_symmetryAnd she’s hardly afraid of color:veddw_house_gardens_originalveddwgardens

She has a melancholy streak, too.

 Gardens confront us with the relentless passage of time, as the flowers come and go in a parade that gains in speed as year passes year.  Gardens are in endless, remorseless change and are always confronting us with our race towards death.  Historic gardens remind us that garden-makers like ourselves made a garden and then had to let go, die, and that the garden continued cheerfully without them.  Is this what is beneath the insistent upbeat jolliness of the garden world?  Is this what we conspire to avoid contemplating?

Refreshing, no?

She lives in the world of English gardeners in a country that may not do it right, according to her lights, but certainly pays a lot of attention to gardeners.  They are all over in newspapers, magazines and television, in ways that US gardeners can only envy.  It’s a small world, and Anne Wareham, with her thinkingardens, has carved out a very particular niche.

Oh, and it must be time to return to Wales and see the marvelous Veddw in person.

Majorelle Gardens


This blog is returning to its roots for just a moment to focus on an actual garden, Majorelle Garden in Marrakech.  Designed by artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, it has been a public garden since 1947. It was purchased and restored by Yves Saint Laurent in 1980, and his ashes were scattered here when he died in 2008.  See more in this post by another visitor.

monument to St. Laurent

One room featured his annual “Love” prints from the sixties up until his death – very much of their time.

St. Laurent's annual LOVE posterThis garden is most famous for the color known as Majorelle Blue.  I decided my only souvenir would be a can of paint, but I didn’t see any in the gift shop, which mainly features designs by Saint-Laurent.  It’s apparently a difficult color to find – the closest approximation is either a cobalt blue or ultramarine.  Here are some examples from the garden, where you can see how perfectly the blue sets off the plants.purple, yellow, blue DSC02361pots in a rowTo my eye, this garden is all about color and form.  Lots of palms and cactus, plus some Mediterranean flowering plants.  Take a look.  Here are a few palms, plus a wild and crazy yucca.DSC02348 palmDSC02367 yucca gone crazy

Next up, a gorgeously perfect succulent (I should know what kind but I don’t.).DSC02363

Then some flowering plants:  clivia, something I can’t identify, kalenchoe, the flowers of a palm tree, bougainvillea.CliviaDSC02349 kalenchoe DSC02366DSC02372

But it’s not just the species, it’s how they are put together, using water, color, form, light.

aqua, yellow, orangeblue pool more colors DSC02342DSC02334DSC02368

Best of all is the Majorelle blue in this iconic image.I want to live here

And I will leave you with these blue shadows.



ChanticleerNot a single discouraging word is heard in this account of Chanticleer’s beauty, but judging by the spectacular photos by Rob Cardillo, the praise is justified.  Though only twenty years old as a garden cultivated for public display, Chanticleer has great bones thanks to a 1930s stone house and mature trees, as well as a stream that runs through the site.  Like me, the gardeners have made a woodland garden under a giant oak tree that used to sit in a sea of grass.    Of course, they also have an Asian woods, an orchard, a pond garden, and so on.  Clearly worth a visit!

Adrian Higgins is one of my favorite garden writers.  He clearly writes about  Chanticleer with great knowledge and experience.  Still, I couldn’t help feeling that this was written to order as a puff piece.  (It’s copyrighted by Chanticleer rather than by Higgins.)  Not quite a criticism, since I devoured every word, just an observation.

Notes to self: find out what is this air spade* they used to remove the existing grass from under the oak tree; consider adding Anemone sylvestris and nemorosa along with the blanda, and Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood’s Purple’ (bought this week at Merrifield).  Shrub rose Lady Elsie May (‘Angelsie’) is semidouble, coral pink, and freely produces blooms all season long (whatever that means, and allowing for the slightly cooler climate there) and might do for the pink garden.  ‘Sea Shell’ peony, another possibility, is “cupped, single pink, robust and fragrant.  It is one of the classic peonies for cutting.”  Look for the Karma series of dahlias “which have been bred for cutting.  They have a long vase life and straight stems.”

*It turns out that an air spade costs almost $2000 and must be used mainly by professional landscapers and builders.  So, never mind.

Cherry Tree Festival in Fredericksburg

The cherry blossoms were late this year, at least, later than the poor organizers of the DC festival predicted.  Here at home, you just walk around and eventually the blossoms pop.  Here’s the Fredericksburg festival, which lasted from  April 8 through the 12th.  It wasn’t helped by the typical April week in the 80s, followed by a strong morning rain.IMG_20130408_082622_929The cherry trees lining Lewis Street, looking back towards Caroline Street.

Next come cherries and weeping cherries in the neighborhood, snapped during an early morning walk.

IMG_20130410_071502_853 IMG_20130410_071529_531 IMG_20130410_071549_594 IMG_20130410_071615_466 Finally, the blossoms on Lewis Street plastered on the windshield during the rain, and the last blossoms stuck to my car that afternoon.