Book Review: Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed by James Hitchmough


by Eric Hsu

Together with his colleague Nigel Dunnett whose work at the Barbican Center in London is his most visible work, James Hitchmough have put Sheffield University on the map for their pioneering work in plant communities and their horticultural application in public spaces. While Henk Gerristen, Piet Oudolf, and their peers have respectively publicized the ecological-based tenets of planting for aesthetic effect and lower input than traditional plantings, James Hitchmough, despite being a well-respected researcher and a valued consultant to garden designers like Tom Stuart Smith, has largely been under the radar. Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed (Timber Press 2017) may finally shift the spotlight onto his work. The book is a distillation of more than 30 years of research at Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture. In his introduction, Hitchmough makes it clear that the book is “about utilizing an understanding of how naturally occurring plant communities function ecologically, and then transferring this understanding to help design, establish, and manage visually dramatic herbaceous vegetation in gardens, urban parks, and other urban greenspaces that is long persistent.” In no way are the vegetation he envisages for these plantings are always exact facsimiles of the wild ones, as sometimes he liberally borrows taxa from congruent habitats because seasonal interest must be sustained longer than natural plant communities permit.

Hitchmough is aware of the native plant debate, recognizing that the inclusion of exotic taxa in his planting may be an affront to those who see the disparity between his lament of the biologically diminished landscape and his appreciation of wild landscapes overseas. For a country whose flora was left less diverse after the Ice Age, United Kingdom would be poorer without its garden flora, much of it introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. Where would Cornish gardens be without their tree ferns, rhododendrons, and camellias, and how would the herbaceous borders on those palatial estates look with only native plants? Imagine Capability ‘Lancelot’ Brown creating landscape parks without the range of trees. Hitchmough points out that large countries like United States or China benefit from having a large native flora, yet the definition of ‘native’ becomes ambiguous if someone would use species with disparate distributions (East versus West Coast). There is a gulf between the political and ecological definition of what is native, and environmental stressors in urban landscapes may be unsuitable for native species where exotic species may be more resilient. Pollinators do not discriminate between native and exotic taxa as long as nectar and food sources are satisfied. Any concern about invasive species is negligible because these uncooperative species are incompatible with the complex vegetation Hitchmough seeks to create. Conscientious of his work within the political and social-cultural context, he will adapt if native species reflect more accurately of the site than simply having exotics. Whereas Hitchmough’s contemporaries depend heavily on plugs and containerized plants for their work, sowing seeds of the desired species is the crux of Hitchmough’s plantings. The immediate benefit is economical scale-wise since large meadows would have required generous financial expenditure. And there is a magic of seeing the ground once bare become awash with vegetation.

“Looking to Nature for Inspiration and Design Wisdom” addresses the ecological parameters one must consider for successful plant communities in gardens. These parameters include climate, soil types, degree of competition with other plants, and herbivore pressures. Any experienced gardener knows too well the heartbreaking travails of failing to grow plants that fit the climate. While it seems prescriptive to match climatic conditions to the plants that are engineered to thrive, it does save one from meaningless struggles, curtailing any unrealistic expectations. Operating on a sliding scale that can accommodate plants with different levels of climatic fitness may be a preferable approach than the dogmatic of sticking merely to ‘extremely fit’ plants. Unsurprisingly less productive soils generally produce species-rich meadows while rich fertile soils permit rapidly growing species to dominate at the expense of diversity. The morphological architecture of plants can indicate the type of environments they can withstand – large leaves can signal high moisture needs and shade. Hitchmough points out that plant communities possess canopy layering, and one can intuit the general appearance and character from each layer.


Traditional horticulture perspectives doled out in general gardening books can unfairly alter our understanding of garden plants – for instance, well-drained soil, moderate temperatures, and sun are cultivation perquisites for Kniphofia, but when evaluated ecologically, a gradient of different conditions emerges for the various species. The horticultural advice overlooks the possibility of Kniphofia being in drainage swales because it assumes that the plants will be used in planting strictly for visual impact, not ecological sympatry. Hitchmough stresses this distinction because ecological, not necessarily aesthetic, traits of plants are the main priority.

Hitchmough’s valid points come from serious studies during his visits to various plant communities in Eurasia, Western North America, Asia, and South Africa. These communities are described and analyzed for their relevancy to his designs. A major challenge from incorporating some of the plants is slugs, which flourish in the maritime mild climate of United Kingdom. There is an inverse relationship between slugs and altitude – the higher the altitude, the less the slug population. High altitude species are sometimes difficult to incorporate because of the slug pressure. Nonetheless Hitchmough does draw up examples of species with high design potential from the plant communities. Gardeners may already grow some of them; for example, Achillea filipendulina, Alcea rugosa (hollyhock), and Eremurus species are suggested species found on productive soils of the Eurasian steppe. How does one take inspiration by studying plant communities worldwide and translate it for designed versions?

Hitchmough lays out two approaches in ‘Designing Naturalistic Herbaceous Plant Communities’: the biogeographic method and the non-biogeographic, pick and mix route. The former results in a some facsimile of the wild community where the sense of identity is emphasized and the planting more likely sustainable long-term. In contrast, the latter exercises more creative freedom due to the lack of biogeographic constraints. It does require more complex understanding of the plants and their interspecific interactions. Hitchmough even proffers the species level rather than the community approach, although the conditions at the proposed planting site must be approximated first. The well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto has taken this species level methodology in which species sharing similar cultural requirements are grown together. Regardless of which approach one applies to their design, macroclimatic and microclimatic factors must be weighed. Latitude, altitude, and continentality define macroclimatic ones while degree of shade, aspect, soil moisture stress, and soil productivity and pH characterize microclimatic ones. Hitchmough has helpfully organized the environmental and management limitations for various natural meadow-like plant communities and species in a table.

Flowering is categorized interestingly in three ways, dramatic, intermediate and low key, driven by the ratio of foliage to flowers at peak bloom, the size of each flower, and the impact of flower color. Asclepias tuberosa would be dramatic because it elicits the ‘wow’ reaction from people otherwise indifferent to plants. Sanguisorba is considered low-key for its flowers are small and not vividly colorful. It may be easy to be dismissive of these systematic categorization, but a wide gulf exists between the public perception and the trained eye. If designed plant communities need to have the impact in public spaces, sometimes our aesthetic values need realistic reassessment for a dispassionate perspective. It is a telling reminder before design objectives can be formulated.

“Seed Mix Design, Implementation, and Initial Establishment” looks at the intricacies of seed mixes. For those outside the profession, using seed mixes seems a failproof technique of achieving the colorful beautiful displays. However, these mixes are usually made of annual species whose high germination rates and little or no seed dormancy enhances successful results. In contrast, mixes of perennial species are sometimes unreliable because lower germination rates and consequent lower density of seedlings are inherent. Seed quality and storage is the main culprit when one selects species for seed mixes – obscure or rare species tend to have the lowest germinability, leading to intermittent demand and longer storage time. Because assessing seed quality takes considerable expenditure, one must brace for paying higher costs upfront. However, the tradeoff is better viability and less variability, which is less costly than having to repeat orders and contend with erratic germination.

Hitchmough cautions readers not to confuse percentage germination with percentage field emergence. High germination can be offset by mortality in field emergence, the survival rate of seedlings visible to naked eye. What can break or make is soil moisture – seedlings, irrespective from dry or moist habitats, benefit with no or minimal moisture stress. All these factors must be weighed before numbers are made for the seed mixes. The mathematician in the horticulturist may delight at the opportunity to calculate the weight of seed for species for a 288 M2 plot. Hitchmough has provided helpful formulas for breaking down the results. Sometimes to bypass the unpredictable facet of direct seed sowing, one can grow plugs or semi-finished plants. Then the question jumps to the available planting spaces per square metre, but actually ends up the same as sowing. What follows is too unchanged. Site preparation, soil cultivation, and sowing mulches will influence the crucial period of seedling survival and establishment. Even the timing of the sowing has an effect as Hitchmough weighs in species with seasonal preferences. Primroses are best sown spring, but Aconitum prefer early and mid autumn to break deep dormancy. The chapter is rounded by an invaluable compendium of emergence data for different taxa.

The first season of sowing still needs diligent husbandry before anything tangible can be witnessed. “Establishment and Management” advises on this first season and subsequent years. Weeding is paramount to any meadow-like gardens since weeds are energetic opportunists. Hitchmough is adamant about weed control, having once hand-weeded an 800-m2 sowing of the prairie garden at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens in its first season. He discourages fertilizing, a self-defeating tactic unless soil compaction and nutrient deficiency necessitates a nitrogen-only fertilizer. Editing becomes a priority once the plants mature and spread. It is a challenge that involves reviewing and conceptualizing the changes because a certain threshold for density of plants is visually acceptable. This threshold comes down to the specific nature of each herbaceous plant community because climate exerts an inexorable effect on window of growth. Hitchmough lays out the community type (i.e. forb dominated and grass dominated for temperate, forb dominated and geophyte dominated for Mediterranean) because the system is no longer a garden where all species from different communities are simultaneously accommodated.

The last chapter contains several case studies in United Kingdom (one exception being in China). Each project is prefaced by a summary of the plant communities, seed source, client and conditions, project area, and timescale. Hitchmough’s scientific methodology is conveyed in the project descriptions where chronological photographs illustrated his points. It is enlightening to read about the successes and failures of each project because most garden designers do not convey the arduous process, focusing instead on the ‘glamorous’ or ‘soft-sell’ results. Having trained and skilled staff to oversee and maintain these complex plantings is another factor Hitchmough brings up – such plantings are not the simple ‘mow and sow’ variety. However, with the slow erosion of skilled horticulturists, the resiliency of meadow-like plantings may be more advantageous than the traditional schemes, like annual bedding. Hitchmough concedes that no amount of empirical data can accurately predict how successful each plant plays in their ‘designed’ communities as plants being living organisms are forever shifting in their longevity and reproductivity. Instead, what the data can achieve is to minimize the losses and increase the rate of establishment.

Sowing Beauty is Hitchmough’s visceral reaction to the environmental degradation of the mining town he grew up in northern UK. It is possible that the extremes we are frequently experiencing from climate change may mean the gradual decline of conventional gardening ideals. In no way should we wait for an ecological catastrophe larger than Chernobyl nuclear disaster or Exxon Valdez oil spill for our mindsets to change. One may discount the meadow-inspired plantings overwrought imitations of the Real McCoy, but for people whose natural connections are becoming fractured in an urbanized world, they represent a vital connection to nature. Thoreau once said: “We need the tonic of wildness”, and Hitchmough’s work brings not only that ‘tonic of wildness’, but an empathic respect for our planet.

Curators in Gardens

by Eric Hsu

The Botanical Garden by Raoul Dufy

What does a curator do in a garden? It is a common question visitors ask during meet and greet sessions.

In an art museum, a curator organizes exhibitions, writes educational materials, and oversees restoration. He or she becomes the spokesperson for the museum’s work as much as the director or CEO does. However, overseeing the management and direction of an art collection is not different from that of a plant collection. Depending on the institution’s mission, a curator may be focused on the aesthetics of plants, i.e. designed for color or texture, – after all it is the beauty after edible use that are the plants’ draw cards.

It may be implausible to point out the similarities because whereas art or artifacts are inanimate objects, plants are ever dynamic living organisms whose success or demise cannot be predicted. As custodians of plant collections, curators must call upon themselves and the talents of horticulturists to secure the survival and conservation of plants. They may lead plant hunting expeditions to expand the extant germplasm or uncover exciting ornamental plants. Their drive for conservation and acquisition is the same in art museums where collections simply cannot be ossified for preservation, but must be open or exchanged for interpretation. Plants, like artwork, are a reminder of our cultural heritage – when Ben Stormes, the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s Curator of the North American Collections heads into the Cascade Mountains, he is returning with new ideas to express the importance of  the forest ecosystems to the public. Or when Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley, sets out to educate the public about alternatives to boxwood, which is badly decimated from box caterpillar or box blight. Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder, is building up Longwood Gardens’ boxwood germplasm as insurance. As the Head of Plant Collections, Matt Lobdell has access to different scientific and public education initiatives at the Morton Arboretum, Illinois.

Sunday Clippings


The mornings have started to become more crisp, the foliage is beginning to change and we are enjoying the beauty that autumn has to offer.  It is a chance to slow down, pull out your favorite sweaters and catch up on some favorite reading.  We reach far and deep with this weeks edition of Sunday Clippings, sharing some really interesting stories this week from around the globe.  Click on the links below to enjoy. Have a wonderful Sunday..- James

5-10-5: Quill Teal-Sullivan, Garden Manager at Meadowburn Farm

Quill is now the Director of Historic Preservation at Dunn Gardens, Seattle, Washington State.

Like her classmate Wonsoon Park, Quill Teal-Sullivan was a Longwood Graduate Program student whom I became acquainted at various public garden events in the Philadelphia region. Her graduate studies led to her current position as the garden manager of Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the New York State border. A West Coast transplant from Seattle, Washington State, Quill comes from a very creative family – her mother is a garden designer and horticulturist, her father a potter and architect, and her sister an artist and designer!  Her boundless energy and enthusiasm comes across in her work and her personality! I was very fortunate to have her company during my too brief idyllic stay at the garden.


Can you introduce yourself?
Hello, my name is Quill. I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. I currently direct the preservation efforts of the 130-year-old gardens at Meadowburn Farm, which were designed and built by Helena Rutherfurd Ely.


Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden's character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden's pastoral settling and its age.
Left unshorn for a long time, the boxwood have acquired oddly rotund shapes that only enhances the garden’s character; the Virginia creeper is already showing its beautiful scarlet autumn foliage among the trees. The entire scene conveys the garden’s pastoral settling and its age.

The arts or the garden?
Gardens as art!


What is your first gardening experience?
I have been gardening alongside my mother for as long as I can remember. When I was around 5 years old she gave my sister and I our own little garden beds where we could plant anything we wanted. I planted sky blue delphiniums that grew so big!


Baking and gardening are analogous - both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.
Baking and gardening are analogous – both are gradual processes that can produce beautiful results.

You worked in Seattle bakeries prior to your full dive into horticulture. Baking and gardening are nearly analogous – both, being an art and science, require patience, nurturing, and senses. As far fetched as it seems, how has baking help you become a better gardener?

It is so very true that gardening and baking have much in common, and it seems that people who enjoy gardening often enjoy baking. Although, in the early mornings when the sun rises and the birds awake, the bakers day is ending while the gardeners day is just beginning. This fact makes a world of difference. I would say that, more than anything else, my experience as a professional baker gave me great practice in putting my work out for the public to see, experience, and critique. This took me a long time to be comfortable with – to be accepting of potential failure for all to taste and see. I feel the same way about gardening sometimes. Especially as there is point in both gardening and baking when you have to relinquish some degree of control over your product: when the cake goes into the oven or the bulb is planted in the ground – you have to let go and hope for the best.

As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.
As important as the garden is, the bucolic setting is a crucial part of preservation efforts. The farm gained entry to Sussex County farmland preservation program in 2009, securing its future against future development. Unfortunately funding for this country farmland preservation program has dwindled, and subsequent open space and farmlands are likely shut off.

Deb Wiles, who has long been an advocate of garden history and design, lamented the fact that garden history is not offered as a separate discipline, like art history. Programs exist in UK, but not in US, yet you were able to tailor your dissertation at Longwood Graduate Program towards garden history and preservation. How did your topic come about and how were you able to convince your academic advisors/mentors about the topic’s merit?

One of the great things about the Longwood Graduate Program (LGP) is that students tailor their thesis and coursework according to their individual interest and career goals within public horticulture. I applied for LGP wanting to focus in garden history having been inspired by my time working in historic gardens. I liked the idea of focusing my research on one landscape – it was an opportunity to become intimate with a specific site. I asked Bill Noble, formerly of the Garden Conservancy, if he had any recommendations, and he connected me with the owners of Meadowburn Farm. It caught my interest, especially since the garden was designed by a woman. So, out I went to visit Meadowburn and fell head over heels with the garden. My excitement about it was enough to convince Dr. Lyons, my advisor, that this was the topic for me. The trickier part was convincing two very kind professionals to join my thesis committee and commit to reading and editing 300 pages of research.

The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was depicted in old photographs.
The Pool Garden remains remarkably the same as it was seen in old photographs.

Gardens seem to still take the back seat behind art and architecture in our culture. I would have loved the opportunity to take more focused garden history courses in school. In LGP, I complimented the more traditional coursework with general architectural preservation courses, and used individual assignments to apply the lessons to gardens and landscapes. In a sense, this likely helped me be more rounded in my knowledge than I would have been in a strictly garden history course. But, it does not provide the stimulation of working with a professor and classmates in the same discipline. Attending historic landscape symposia was another way I could learn more about the field. I also reached out to several landscape architecture historians at universities throughout the country, all of whom were very supportive and gave of their time and thoughts generously – almost like private tutorials.


Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts is not reliable for re-imagining the garden in its former self. Quill's meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.
The Formal Garden at Meadowburn depicted in A Woman’s Hardy Garden; Historical photographs are priceless for seeing the original designs and the changes afterwards. Had Mrs. Ely not published her books, re-imagining the garden in its former self would have been difficult from sole dependency on secondhand personal accounts. Quill’s meticulous research has unearthed exciting documentation.

In our digital era, the notion of talking to people first-hand and leafing through dusty volumes for research seems archaic. But researching a history of a garden is a fun mystery! What aspects of the research did you enjoy the most? And what fascinating information did you discover about Helena Rutherford Ely during your research?

Such a fun mystery! Researching the history of Ely and Meadowburn was the most exciting and rewarding part of my thesis project. In the beginning I was told there was very little information out there about Ely and Meadowburn. There are no ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ papers in a library anywhere. The Garden Club of America created an archive on Meadowburn at the Smithsonian in 1999, which compiled the limited information that was known to exist. In it was a reference to Ely’s grandson who I was able to find. He and his wife were very generous with sharing the information they had on Ely – including a guest book from Meadowburn dating from 1899 to 1917!! A treasure! This [lead] opened a Pandora’s box of new things to look into. That was a very exciting discovery.

I often followed strange leads – like researching people that she mentions in her books, or the publishers she worked with, or the seed companies she ordered from. This meant there were very frequently days spent in libraries that turned up no information at all. But, oh! the joy when I found something! One time I came across a box of original photographs of the garden in an archive with not a single mention of Meadowburn or Ely – just sheer luck. I started shaking from excitement and overwhelm – I had to put the pictures down because I thought my shaking hands would shred them.

Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.
Digitalis (foxgloves) fill the cold frames as seen from the inside of the greenhouse now emptied of its seedlings.


Now and then - This image from Ely's A Woman's Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.
Now and then – This image from Ely’s A Woman’s Hardy Garden shows Digitalis seedlings grown on in a seed bed before being transplanted to their final positions. It is an overlooked technique nowadays, although Great Dixter still raise plants this way and then bed them out in the borders.


Dahlia 'Helena Rutherford Ely' is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6', but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.
Dahlia ‘Helena Rutherfurd Ely’ is one of the Meadowburn dahlias named after its creator. The plants easily top 6′, but its decorative flowers are a butterscotch apricot color.

Historic cultivars, such as the Meadowburn dahlias, are always prone to falling out of favor and lost to cultivation. How do you plan on safeguarding the historic cultivars at Meadowburn?

I believe the best way is to propagate and distribute the Meadowburn cultivars to other historic gardens, botanic gardens, and collectors, and encourage others to grow and safeguard them, too. The dahlias are particularly precarious as they are easily wiped out in one season. This is why there are not many dahlia cultivars still in existence that date to the early 1900’s, where as there are many old peonies cultivars from this era that are still widely grown and readily available on the market.

Dahlias in the Picking Garden
Dahlias in the Picking Garden

We are fortunate at Meadowburn to have had three generations of the same gardening family caring for the grounds since 1883. Albert Furman, Sr., the first generation gardener, was especially fond of the dahlias, a sentiment inherited by his son, and then passed to his grandson as more of an obligation to legacy than a fondness. But Walter DeVries, third generation gardener, has continued to take great care of the Meadowburn dahlias because of the tradition. He is now teaching me about Meadowburn dahlia culture, which comes with many funny anecdotes and stories from over the years – this makes the task of hammering large cedar stakes into the ground quite enjoyable.


Gardens on the East Coast tend to be rooted in classical tenets of Europe, whereas those on the West Coast combine different cultures, leading to distinct regionalism. What Pacific Northwest perspective do you hope to bring to Meadowburn?

This is a tricky question. Since Meadowburn is a historic landscape inspired by classical tenets of Europe, it would be hard for me to take too much liberty in introducing a Pacific Northwest perspective. But what I appreciate about West Coast gardening culture is that people seem more willing to take risks and work outside the box than on the East Coast. When I first moved East for LGP, I was shocked by the incredible amount of mowed lawn. Never in my life have I seen so much turf! Perhaps this response is indicative of a free and informal West Coast influence – and I imagine this will manifest subconsciously in my work at Meadowburn. Stay tuned!

Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits:;; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)
Clockwise starting left: Miens Ruy; Beth Chatto; Beatrix Farrand; Marian Coffin (Image Credits:;; College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley; Winterthur)

When we think of eminent women in garden design or landscape architecture, we often think of those overseas, especially Gertrude Jekyll, Beth Chatto, or Mien Ruys. It seems that our rich tradition of American women in garden design and landscape architecture (i.e. Helena Rutherfurd Ely, Rose Standish Nichols, Beatrix Farrand) has not been accorded the same recognition and fame. Why do you suppose that this oversight is such?

Europe had a head start in the field of landscape design and horticulture, and gardening continues to play a much more central role culturally, at least in the U.K, than in U.S. Europe is also more advanced with issues of gender equality than the U.S., which plays a big role in the recognition of women in any professional field.

On another note, prominence in garden history for women might be correlated with the interest of an individual or group who recognizes the significance of her work. Is it my understanding that Gertrude Jekyll’s return to fame was in the second half of the 20th century when her papers, which had been saved by Beatrix Farrand, became accessible. This allowed scholars to research and publish on her work, and thus revive her story. And there is now new light shown on Beatrix Farrand with the work of organizations like the Beatrix Farrand Society. In time she will be increasingly recognized. So perhaps women in garden history need champions to resurrect and tell their stories. I hope to be Ely’s champion.


Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely's time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill have to prune them!
Modern petunia hybrids lack the fragrance of older varieties (the scent inherited from Petunia axillaris) that likely existed in Ely’s time. In the picking garden, the old-fashioned climbing petunias line the gravel pathway. So rambunctious is their growth that Quill has to prune them!

Historic gardens are often criticized for being ‘ossified’ or ‘frozen in the past’. It’s a difficult task for horticulturists to innovate without disrupting the historical precedents, yet had the original owners or gardeners been alive, they would have moved forward, using better plants or even removing overgrown trees. How do you plan on keeping one eye on the garden’s historical legacy and the other on the future?

I hope to balance the preservation of the physical aspects of garden with the preservation of her greater gardening philosophy – one of experimentation, trial and error, change, conservation, practicality (more or less), and nostalgia. Ely was on the cutting edge for her time, and she would certainly be the first to rip everything out and change the garden up, I am sure! Ely had a very strong vision, one that influenced gardens throughout the country at a very formative time in the history of American horticulture. And the historical context in which she built these gardens and wrote about them is an important element in the garden’s significance. But to recreate the gardens as they were in 1903 or 1916 would be impractical. The bones of the garden still exist – hedges, hardscape, fountains, statuary, etc., and restoring these elements is important. But within this structure there is flexibility to creatively interpret her vision and philosophy.

The stump of a deceased beech behind the house - a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.
The stump of a deceased beech behind the house – a young beech tree has been planted to take its place nearby.

Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained - the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.
Historic preservation and public access are never easy bedfellows yet both must coexist if support for our historic heritage needs to be gained – the stone reliefs in the Evergreen Garden are fine for the time being, but increased visitation may cause irreparable damage through unsupervised handling.

Opening or preparing a historic garden for public visitation is not without its challenges. Heavy foot traffic can damage turf, plants once flowing onto the paths become hazards, and wheelchair access is difficult in some parts. How do you aim to preserve the atmosphere of Meadowburn without compromising public access?

Whatever changes and improvements are made to the landscape must be in keeping with the character of the garden. That is what makes Meadowburn special. As one of the owners says, “We do not want to look like an institution”. This may mean that we will never be 100% accessible. We do not have a complete plan yet for visitor amenities and circulation, but my hope is to have one accessible route through the garden that is interesting throughout the season. We plan to ease into public visitation – starting with limited tours by appointment. This will help inform us of the limitations of the garden, and what further changes should be made. A critical part of our plan, and my job, is to generate revenue from the garden. This means that some areas will need to accommodate events in a way they were not originally designed for. But we are fortunate to have a lot of open space, both in the garden and surrounding the garden, so I do not anticipate it will be difficult to integrate these new uses.

What advice do you offer to those interested in garden history and conservation?
Read a lot. There are so many great books about historic gardens and designers available. Attend lecture series and symposia. Get involved in a historic garden or conservation organizations. Reach out to people in the field and ask for advice. Take your favorite garden historian out for coffee. And most fun of all, visit lots of gardens.


Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill's inspiring natural areas
Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill’s inspiring natural areas

What gardens and places have inspired you?
The redwood forests of Mendocino, California. The wildflower meadows of the Talkeetna Mountain range in Alaska. My mother’s garden in Seattle. Quirky nurseries owned by passionate plant nuts.


Dahlia 'Meadowburn Byba Vincenza' named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.
Dahlia ‘Meadowburn Byba Vincenza’ named after the Italian woman who loved and gardened at Meadowburn.

Ely is a well-seasoned traveler who interpreted what she saw overseas in her garden. What are a few of the gardens overseas you wish to visit and want to take from them?
More than anything I want to visit the gardens abroad that inspired Ely. This will help me better understand her work at Meadowburn. I also want to spend time in Italy researching the current owner’s great Aunt Byba Vincenza Giuliani who owned Meadowburn after the Ely family. She was Italian, and spent the winters at her villa and gardens in Florence. She introduced her own flare to Meadowburn – she planted all of our bearded iris in the 1940’s. I would like to understand her influence and this part of Meadowburn’s history. And then I would like to go to Jeju Island in South Korea to see my friend Wonsoon Park, which he says is the most beautiful place in the world. Then to South Africa to visit my friend Martin Smit at Stellenbosch Botanic Garden, and see him float his baby girl on a water lily pad.

What is your desert island plant?
A giant redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, because I could climb up to a nice branch and make a big nest to sleep in. And the canopy is an ecosystem in itself – berries and rhodies and little trees grow in the nooks and crannies, and little animals to make friends with. Then I would climb to the top and wave to the rescue plane overhead.

The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely's time.
The view towards the gate from the wisteria arbor is the same as it was from Mrs. Ely’s time.

What do you look forward to the most?
I look forward to the day when I have a garden of my own, and the time to make it everything I want it to be. And then, to have people come and visit me in my garden and to serve them lime popsicles. Eventually I look forward to gardening with my children and grandchildren, but that is a long way off.


Thank you Quill!


Sylvia Crowe

 sketch of Paleis Het Loo, the Netherlands, 2009 - J.McGrath


   Of all books written on the subject, Sylvia Crowe’s,  Garden Design, published 1958, remains top of the list, held high and praised by others for a reason.  Dame Sylvia Crowe was an English landscape architect and garden designer who wrote so clearly about how to decipher and understand the design process. Offering insightful information and advice on how to read historic garden styles, she also made it clear how to apply these principles, which still hold up in contemporary garden design today.  Her book stands the test of time since she clearly knew her subject well and  how to translate the ideas in a way for others to easily comprehend and understand. If you’re a gardener, landscape architect, architect, or enjoy design,  Sylvia Crowe should be on your reading list.

‘Man needs nature and if the genuine country is beyond his reach, he must be given a substitute.’ -Sylvia Crowe

5-10-5 Deb Wiles

Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

Hello and can you introduce yourself?

Hi, I’m Deb (in England they call me Debs) and I am the Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum and a garden historian.

The Arts or Horticulture, which do you feel most associated with?

Both. They really go hand in hand, don’t they? Artistic ability runs in my family (the joke is it skips every other generation so my great-grandmother and my mom were/are talented artists. My brother and I decided to buck the trend and grabbed a bit of the talent as it tried to skip over us). I’ve always enjoyed drawing and would love to learn to paint. I’m also addicted to blank notebooks and the promise they hold, whether in pictures or words or both. I came to study horticulture later but as I delved into its history I found that art history and garden history are quite closely linked and give us a greater appreciation for each when you take the time to understand both.

Could you share with us a bit about yourself and your background?

I’m a native of Southern California. I learned to swim in my grandparents’ pool before I could walk. A competitive streak meant I tricked myself into learning to read sooner than teachers thought I could and now I have a book addiction. I also taught myself how to knit and also suffer a yarn addiction. That competitive streak lead me to take up epee fencing after having knee surgery (my doctor laughed at me when I suggested the idea).  I’ve worked as a florist, shop girl, help desk girl, Sign Language interpreter, account manager, corporate training coordinator, and finally a horticulturist and garden historian.

Academically speaking, I have a BA in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Sign Language Interpreting, I studied Landscape Architecture and Horticulture at UCLA, I was a Professional Gardener Student at Longwood Gardens, did a 6-month internship at Great Dixter, and earned my MA Garden History with Distinction at University of Greenwich (London, not Connecticut).

Pasiflora flower

Can you recall your first gardening memory?               I remember sitting on a seat wall in my grandparents’ garden and pinching the Oxalis seed heads. Not knowing they were weeds, I just liked how they exploded when I touched them! In our backyard there was a Pasiflora vine that attracted Western Gulf Fritillaries so there were caterpillars everywhere, then chrysalises, then butterflies. That was the first time I connected an insect to a particular plant but didn’t understand the importance of that connection until much later.

azalea garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum
Azalea Garden at Reeves-Reed Arboretum, D. Wiles

As Director of Horticulture at Reeves-Reed Arboretum what does your role entail?

I’m basically in charge of the 13.5 acres of historic and modern gardens and woodlands that make up Reeves-Reed. I manage one excellent horticulturist and an awesome intern, and there is plenty to keep the three of us busy! Besides working in the garden, I also develop adult education programs, write policies and grants, work closely with all the other directors and managers since the grounds are used for children’s events, weddings, parties, etc., and work with contractors. While managed independently, the Arboretum is owned by the city so I also sit on the city’s Shade Tree Committee and interact with various city administrators on certain issues.

Reeves-Reed Arboretum, naturalized Narcissi

What ideas do you plan on implementing while working at Reeves-Reed Arboretum?

We’re currently in the process of developing a master plan that will help prioritize projects that need doing. The past few years have been defined by storm damage where clean up and triage were the priorities in the gardens. Now (fingers crossed) we can turn attentions back to restoring the historic core which was designed by Calvert Vaux, Ellen Biddle Shipman, and Charles Pilat and improving the modern areas. In doing my research, I discovered that each of those designers was influenced in some way by William Robinson so I’d love to incorporate his philosophy of the ‘wild garden’ into the gardens and kick up the plantsmanship a notch or two. I also want to put to work the valuable lessons I learned at Great Dixter. Some of their methods are a century old but still work beautifully, are sustainable, and are still very applicable to a garden like Reeves-Reed today.

Future plans for Reeves- Reed Arboretum?

All kinds of horticultural mischief! I’m immersing myself in books by William Robinson, David Culp, Keith Wiley, Christopher Lloyd, and the journal I kept while at Dixter to get ideas for plant combinations and new things to try. I want the garden to retain its historic elegance but I also want to have fun and give people something new and unexpected to see.

A personal goal is to secure funding for our internships and establish a year-long apprenticeship. Currently the internships are unpaid which means we aren’t able to attract students from outside our immediate area. Managing a historic garden comes with unique challenges and we need to train up the next generation of gardeners so that they’re able to approach those challenges with confidence and skill and conserve our historic landscapes. You and I know how hard those in our field work and how much they have to learn so I feel it’s only fair that they be compensated, even when they’re still students.

GIbraltar Garden 109
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

How does having an MA in Garden History benefit your role as Director of Horticulture?

My interests and training in garden history totally benefit my role as DoH in that I know how to do the research needed for restoration projects, and I know how to “read” the landscape. Being familiar with the players and styles of the American Country Place Era also helps me make appropriate decisions with regard to plant choices and gardening styles throughout the gardens, whether in the historic core or not, so that the gardens relate to one another. It allows me to look back in order to move the garden forward in a way that honors the historic significance of the place while fulfilling its new role as a public arboretum.


If I was interested in becoming a garden historian, what steps or direction might you give about becoming one?

Step 1: Read, read, read and then read some more! Lots has been written about the subject since it became an academic interest 300-and-some years ago. Like most disciplines, it’s possible to specialize in a particular era and you can find a wealth of information on just about every era of garden design there is.  Garden history encompasses more than the changes in garden design over time, it touches on social, economic, political, military, architecture, science, and art history as well. When I say read, I mean everything you can get your hands on!

 Step 2: Get thee to England. Tragically, there are no university programs focusing on garden history here in the States. While some degree courses in landscape architecture and related fields offer a class in garden history, it’s not offered as a separate discipline like art history. The only programs I was able to find are in England; even so, two of them have disappeared in the last five years.

Step 3: Get thee a passport! Sure, you can look at glossy pictures of gardens in books and read about how, why, and by whom they were created, but gardens are spatial works of art and to be truly understood they need to be experienced in that dimension and with all the senses first hand. I had no idea how big the amphitheater at Claremont was until I went there,  and you can’t be overpowered by the warm scent of jasmine smothering the walls of a courtyard at the Alhambra by looking at a photo, or feel how truly vast a High Baroque avenue is until you stand at one end and fail to see the other.

Step 4: Get Involved and make friends in the field. The Garden History Society is a good place to start, as are the Garden Conservancy, and Library of American Landscape History. There’s also the Archives of American Gardens at the Smithsonian, and the Institute of Historic Research in London offers excellent free lectures on garden history. And all those gardens that you’re visiting – talk to the gardeners and curators! Every one that I’ve met has been incredibly welcoming and keen to share the story of their garden.

Step 5: Don’t leave home without a journal, a pen, and a camera. Ever! And don’t keep the stories to yourself – share them with others. Keep a blog, write for magazines, submit scholarly articles to academic journals – something I’ve yet to do but I keep hearing my tutor’s voice saying: “Just add 50,000 words to your dissertation and turn it into a book!”

Step 6: Constantly cultivate curiosity. Sometimes being a garden historian is more like being a garden history detective. People mistakenly think libraries and archives are boring but that’s when it gets fun! I’ve had several ‘OMG!’ garden history moments in libraries!

Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles
Gibraltar Garden
Gibraltar Garden, D. Wiles

If you had your choice to live in a historically important house and garden of your choice, which would you choose?

I always dream of winning the lottery and restoring the estate at Gibraltar Garden in Wilmington, DE. Another Ellen Biddle Shipman design, the garden is still open to visitors but has suffered benign neglect and the house is in a sorry state. It’s such a beautiful yet heart-breaking place, I can’t help but crave giving it a proper restoration whenever I visit! There was also a 17th century manor house recently for sale in England at a bargain price; if I win the lottery I can have both, right?

What is it about garden history that really grabs you?

I like stories and I like gardens and the fact that all gardens have a story to tell (or several stories), how those stories came to be, and why gardens change the way they do is what interests me. Also the detective work; the gardens I studied for my MA have undergone such drastic changes over the last few centuries and some no longer exist but with a little bit of snooping, you can still find evidence on the ground of past iterations of garden design. And I always get a little of the ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling when I go to the library and hold an ancient manuscript, or visit a historic family castle and hold their ancestor’s 300 year old travel diary in my hands. It’s like time travel, in a way.

Great Dixter, Topiary Garden

Choosing a public or private garden, where inspires you?

Great Dixter is a given; Christopher Lloyd’s and now Fergus’s sense of adventure and experimentation with plant combinations and their respect for and sensitivity to old ways constantly inspire.

great dixter 059

I know how much you loved being at Great Dixter, what is one of your best memories?

Meeting you and Mark and learning about Longwood…attending the symposium 9 years ago and meeting Linda Smith, who would become one of my best friends…Fergus cooking dinner for us on a makeshift bbq in the nursery…the time we went to see native Narcissus pseudonarcissus in the woods with Dan Hinkley…being introduced to Beth Chatto…going to Devon to collect Helenium for a trial and seeing Whistman’s Wood…Thanksgiving with Rachael, James, Yannick and Emma making homemade pizzas…Bertrand and me being the first to stay in the new student rooms down at Dixter Farm and figuring out how to work the oven…Craig teaching me to use a lathe and turning my own mallet…seeing Lewis’s wolf hat (or was it a fox) bobbing over the Solar Garden wall as he walked through the Wall Garden below…pricking out seedlings in the nursery…6am pot display changes…wait, did you mean just one!?

If you were to be left alone on an island and could choose one plant and one piece of art to take, what would you choose?

This will reveal what a geek I am! For a piece of art I would choose a Gallifreyan painting (from Doctor Who; Time Lord art, bigger on the inside! It’s a stasis cube which captures a 3-D image of a moment in time that you can interact with). The image would, of course, be a fantastic garden at its peak that I could roam around in when island life became tedious. With that kind of painting I wouldn’t have to choose just one plant because there would be many in the garden depicted in the artwork! (Is that cheating?)

What would your dream project be?

One of the sources of my MA dissertation was the travel diary of Celia Fiennes, a 17th-18th century noblewoman. She remarkably traveled through every county in England, visiting several great houses and gardens along the way. I would love to retrace her journeys and visit all the sites that she did, studying how the gardens have changed since she saw them. I’m researching her biography and have been to a few of the places she noted, but I would love to spend a year or two just focused on her and her travels!

What  sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?

I knit, I keep a journal, I doodle, I daydream.

Deb Wiles

Words of advice that you care to share?

I guess the cliché is, “Don’t be afraid to follow your dreams” but I think there’s more to it than that. Dreams are powerful things and that power can propel you in directions you may not have imagined and might not be prepared for. They can put you in the company of giants and take you to distant, foreign lands. They upset your life in wonderful ways. So don’t be afraid to follow your dreams, but respect the incredible power they hold, because sometimes you just never know where they’ll take you!


Thanks for the interview and for being an inspiration Deb. –  James          see more @: (gotsoil?)

Sunday Clippings

Autumn in El Retiro

Looks like Horticulture tips the scales in this weeks edition of Sunday Clippings. Hope you are enjoying your weekend and the beautiful Autumn colors wherever you might be. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!