Martha Keen is currently a 1st year student in Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program; one of her program’s requirements to design and plant a plot adjacent to their student housing. In the following, she shares her philosophy about her garden, which has a spectral, if not ethereal feel in its muted hues (namely blues, grays, and washed out mauve).
Confines free up creativity, I’ve learned. My classmates and I were each assigned a piece of earth, 15 feet across and 50 feet long, in the middle of a field. I pondered how to make a space from such a narrow slice, absent any backdrop or existing groundwork, devoid of even anything to erase. The single marked character of the site was its slight slope, and the more I tread my plot the more I seemed to notice it.
From this slope I carved three scalloped terraces, each to hold its own group of plantings selected to evoke, but not replicate a short grass prairie on the top tier, a dune in the center, and tall meadow at the lowest end. The hoop path and margins were mulched with blonde pea gravel, and the plants were sited in wide bands to echo the elliptical center bed. I mulched with salt hay, whose soft color and texture left no dark voids among plants.
As a gardener, but as a living creature, I would never begrudge a flower. But this a garden was a study in textures and repetition first. Among the color palette, I deferred to glaucous and muted foliage wherever possible; among the flowers, few occur that are not dusty too: cream and mauve, a smattering of burgundy. Looking up towards my garden this fall, from the southern side facing north, I could finally see what I wondered about all summer long: a series of steps from Panicum, to Leymus, to cardoon, to Schizachyrium, an a series of undulations filling the spaces between the plantings but hidden from view unless one is inside.
A garden is alchemy, something where once nothing was; a garden is willful too, requiring tremendous effort and input that we would flatter ourselves to call creation. Rather, this one revealed itself to a fortunate accident. I selected plants, and many of them expressed themselves so jubilantly in their places that to greet them everyday made this gardener feel a bit more steadfastly herself as well.
Through the gardening network, Austin and I were introduced online where we bonded over plants and garden design. When he visited the Delaware Valley region for gardens and nurseries, we had a fun time evaluating plantings at Chanticleer, and comparing notes over plants at the North Creek Nurseries trial beds. Austin is now pursuing his degree iin landscape architecture at University of Greenwich in London, United Kingdom, and the program should round out his strong experiences here in North America and overseas.
Please introduce yourself.
I’m Austin Eischeid, a garden designer currently based in London to learn, get inspiration and meet professionals with the same passion for plants.
The arts or horticulture?
I don’t think one could exist without the other.
It seems that your interest in gardening developed early as you seem advanced on the basis of your knowledge and experiences. What is your professional and educational background?
I was first brought into this fascinating world of horticulture when my parents let my sister and I experiment with a vegetable garden at the age of 4. It was so fascinating to see these flowers develop into the vegetables we eat everyday. My mother has a lot to do with my passion of plants. She’s the one who taught me confidence, not being afraid to fail and that the sky is the limit.
After vegetables I turned to roses and perennials. I started a rose garden then found out how high maintenance they can be, then converted it over to a sedum garden, talk about a transition. After this I started in my early teens adding different perennials such as: daisies, blood grass, cat mint and tickseed coreopsis to the mix. It progressively grew every year after that. There isn’t a better education on plants then growing them yourself and seeing their life cycle, habit, and seasonal beauty.
I knew from freshman year in high school that I wanted to get my BS at Iowa State University in Horticulture. I graduated in 2011 from ISU in Horticulture with an emphasis in Landscape Design, Installation and Management. I started my professional experience in residential perennial garden maintenance.
Lately I’ve been traveling Europe for inspiration and educating myself on the perennial movement. My first year (12’) I bought a one way ticket to London and traveled from nursery to garden center to botanical garden, looking for direction. Which let me to these past three years I’ve had three month internships at: Pomosus Landscaping in Dresden, Germany, Hermannshof in Weinheim, Germany and Orchard Dene in Henley-on-Thames, England.
At what point did you decide that garden design was your future direction after being a floral designer and horticulturist?
I’ve known since early high school that I wanted to be a garden designer. My hometown in Iowa of 10,000 and surrounding area are lacking curb appeal. I wanted to bring horticulture into our culture and show people they can have a space to relax, reflect and enjoy at their own home. I feel people have been misguided/ disappointed after trying the thug perennials offered at big box stores and feel they are the ones doing something wrong. People need access and education on hardy/strong perennials that are for their specific region, water, light, and soil requirements.
Russell Page once wrote: “in the town as in the country, a wise garden designer will study his site in silence and consider carefully his clients, their taste, their wishes, their way of life, their likes and dislikes, and absorb all of these factors at least as important as the ground that lies in front of him.” Garden design is similar to psychology where you discern your client’s personal taste and align it with your vision. How do you navigate that tightrope between compromise and confidence in your style?
I embrace my client’s differences and try to make their design special to them. If they have an issue with, say the color purple, which is very important in my design. It’s a matter of educating your client why you use it and how it will affect the design. Sometimes you have to remind your client why they hired you, a professional to do their design.
Sometimes designed gardens can be strangely impersonal especially if the owners are more interested in them as displays of wealth and status. Imagine if a Russian oligarch commissioned you to design his country estate outside of London but is more of an absentee owner who visits the garden twice a year, would you consider the job for financial gain and be willing to accept last minute changes?
It would depend on if the client and I had good chemistry. I like my clients to have curiosity and willingness to learn about their garden. If your client doesn’t care then the garden will never evolve. I wouldn’t do it for financial gain, but if I knew the space would be properly maintained and would benefit from my design style, why not.
During your initial site visit, what do you evaluate first? Soil? Hydrology? Or light?
All three are essential, but I would say soil is most important. If you don’t evaluate the soil you’re working with then your doomed from the beginning. Sometimes we forget that half of the plant is growing underground.
Designing a garden is one endeavor but to find someone or team competent enough to maintain the garden over time is another one. What kind of involvement do you anticipate after the design has been fulfilled and at what point will the garden evolve without your input?
I’m very much apart of my clients garden’s long term. I educate my clients and set them up with all the necessary tools they need to keep the gardens integrity. But I know you can’t throw all this information to them and expect them to take care of the garden from the moment you leave. Since I’m not around to check on or personally maintain the designs I’ve done I send my clients emails periodically. Sending emails during important times in the garden season, like when to do the Spring cleaning chop or a friendly reminder to weed until the plants have filled in.
Chelsea Flower Show has been criticized for its heavy reliance on show gardens and overlooking the Floral Marquee where the real stars are the plants. How do you feel about the gulf between the plants people and the designers? The expectations foisted on plants people to produce unseasonal plants in peak form for the show gardens can be stressful, yet the media attention is focused on the challenges garden designers face in realizing their plans to fruition before judging.
The media makes the show gardens the top priority, but when you’re in the hustle and bustle that is Chelsea I think everyone shines at their particular sector of the industry. There’s no doubt how special and unique the show is and how much it influences/inspires the industry worldwide.
I actually heard a lot of talk about using seasonal plants this year, but mostly pertaining to the repetition of similar plant material in all gardens. I don’t know how much of the plant material is forced too much out of season, because I heard a lot of talk about what it would be like to have Chelsea perhaps in the Fall or late Summer? It seems as though many gardens plant choices over lap and so you tend to see some trends repeated year after year. This years popular grasses were Luzula nivea, Melica altissima ‘alba’, Deschampsia cespitosa, and Briza media. These grasses are used because their early bloomers, but what if they could use all the great Miscanthus, Panicum, and Pennisetum?
Landscape architecture is often depicted as a profession where the plants are secondary to hardscaping. One well-known horticulturist was dismissive of landscape architects, saying that drawing bubbles and circles in place of plants was not real gardening and did not respect the plants’ specific requirements. You are about to enroll in the landscape architecture masters program at Greenwich, and the tangible connection to plants may be lost. What mindset will you adopt during the program?
I am at University of Greenwich to enrich my technical background (AutoCAD and 3-D modeling), drafting and to learn how to use space. Studying in London I’m going to be surrounded with undeniably some of the best parks, landscape, and gardening culture. My passion for plants will be enhanced from my curiosity and living in such a green community.
The Marchants’ wholesale nursery Orchard Dene, where you spent last spring (2015) working, is the chief supplier for garden designers seeking grasses and herbaceous perennials that govern the current look. How has your time there influenced and broadened your planting perspective?
Spending time at Orchard Dene Nursery this spring was a great experience, as I wanted to see first hand the plant process it takes from seed to job site. While at Orchard Dene I was doing a lot of propagation (pricking out, cuttings and divisions) and potting. Having worked at an impeccable nursery growing quality plant material in peat-free compost, it was an excellent place to see how a nursery should be ran. I was lucky to be immersed in a nursery with such an array of hardy long-lived perennials to choose.
Orchard Dene primarily sells to designers such as: Dan Pearson, Tom Stuart Smith, Marcus Barnett and Cleve West. It was exciting to go through their pulled plant orders to get a glimpse of some of the combinations they were putting together in their designs. Working intimately with plants whether it is in your own garden or working with them in a nursery helps you understand better their characteristics and environmental needs.
You are a veteran of European gardens after visiting them in Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, and England. What differences have you perceived among the gardens in those countries? There will be obvious overlaps in plants and styles, but each culture views their gardens differently.
In the Netherlands I found that the Dutch are very possessive of their land. They put hedges around their property border to show that it’s theirs and they love clean lines, very linear. England has a very high maintenance regime and spends more time in the garden than sitting to enjoy it. For example: rose training/trimming, intense vegetable gardens, and espalier. Germans have a very practical /scientific approach to gardening. They do their research and make sure their plantings are well thought out.
For a garden that derives its conception from scientific discipline (the study of plant communities and ecological concepts), but presents a beautiful, humanizing portrayal of ‘re-interpreted’ wild gardens, Hermmanshof can be a trans formative experience for anyone used to municipal-style parks or public gardens. What did you take away from your time working there?
Not coming from such a scientific approach as Hermannshof, I found it interesting to see the deep understanding of the plants seasonality, maintenance, and vigor. Hermannshof gave me a better understanding of combinations, a new plant palette, and maintenance techniques. Working with the skilled gardeners was essential, as I was able to ask questions to grasp the New German gardening system.
One forte of English gardens is their layering of woody plants with bulbs and herbaceous perennials. For instance, Beth Chatto’s woodland garden is an outstanding example of a celebrated virtuoso orchestrating understory shrubs, bulbs, and shade perennials. Shrubs are not always regulated to hedges or topiary, but become key features in mixed borders. You had mentioned that your knowledge of shrubs is still in its infancy, but expect it to change. Are you of the Dutch and Belgian mentality of having woody plants sheared into tight frameworks or you prefer the natural forms, like the apple orchard with its meadow?
I don’t use a lot of shrubs in my current foundation residential design work, but would like to on larger scale projects. I think hedged and natural shrub forms are both useful in design. Since my style is very naturalistic and free flowing, using a sheared hedge behind a naturalistic planting just makes things feel harmonious. I also would use shrubs for their natural form when I place them within a design, just depends on the specific feeling of the space.
What influential people or individuals have you been inspired by?
I was first inspired to using hardy, long-lived perennials when I saw Roy Diblik speak in 2008 at Iowa State University’s Shade Tree Short Coarse my freshman year. His discussion about The “Know” Maintenance Garden changed my whole outlook on gardening. He became one of my mentors alongside Piet Oudolf, Cassian Schmidt and Adam Woodruff. You cannot underestimate the power of a good mentor, people in the horticulture industry are so willing to share the knowledge they’ve collected over the years. You just have to ask!
Piet Oudolf obviously has become an invaluable mentor and friend as you had the fortunate privilege and opportunity to work alongside him on private commissions in North America. Any tips or techniques you wish to divulge from watching one of the eminent maestros of free-form perennial planting design?
One technique I learned from Piet was his skillful plant layout format. Taking it one layer at a time is essential to create masterpieces like his work. Depending on the scheme/design, first start by laying out the scatter/individual plants that are woven among the block planting. Whether it be the sweeping artfully picked grasses or perennials, fill in the rest of the block areas with the appropriate scheme. When working on such a large scale, paying attention to the small details is as critical as keeping track of the overall picture. When laying out the plants, step back once and awhile and keep an eye on the surroundings to keep the fluidity of the design.
Name and describe some of your favorite plants.
Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta
This plant is a great buffer/groundcover plant that can intermingle with almost any plant. Its petite foliage are a glossy bright green, which comes up as almost a ball form. But when it starts to bloom it has a more open habit. It has thousands of these miniature soft blue, but white to the eye bell shaped flowers that seem to hold on forever. Calamintha blooms from mid summer till frost, then leaves turn a deep purple in autumn.
Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ – I can’t seem to take my eye off this grass. It gets hundreds of magical one-inch caterpillar-like seed heads that dangle horizontally, in which seems like midair. This drought tolerant grass gets 3’x2’ and keeps its structure through the winter.
Allium ‘Summer Beauty’- This well-rounded perennial can grow in full sun to part shade. Not only is this plant drought tolerant but, almost loves complete neglect. I can’t help but love this plant in every season. Its vivacious, shiny green seaweed-like foliage all summer long and it’s over 150 golf ball sized lavender blooms dangling above the foliage. This plant holds up to it’s name ‘Summer Beauty.’ Not to mention a bee and butterflies best friend. Plant turns a liquid gold color in the autumn with the spent blooms looking perky all winter long.
Your desert island plant?
Monarda bradburiana– This plant just has it all. Its mildew-free foliage in spring starts out a luscious burgundy, then has a gorgeous soft pink flower with fuchsia dots on each petal, pink bracts and a sweet smell. Its pinhead cushion seed heads might even top the flower by turning rosy pink after blooming. In autumn the foliage turns back to a rich burgundy-red. If that isn’t enough you can also make tea out of the foliage.
Germinating the seed of interest in plants for young kids who are increasingly immersed in a virtual world isn’t easy – you obviously had some young visitors to your Iowan garden. How did their reactions differ from adults who are already avid gardeners?
With my interest in gardening starting as a child, I want to share with the younger generations the beauty and enjoyment that you can get from nature. If you don’t get to the youth before they become connected to the digital world, the natural work becomes more difficult to integrate into their realm. With no preconceived concept of gardening, kids in general are more open to experimenting, without feeling they are going to make a mistake.
What advice do you wish to give to those keen on a profession as a garden designer?
You’re lucky to have found a career where you can make people happy by giving them an oasis and surround yourself by passionate people who love what they do. Get to know your plants, the best way is through growing them yourself; don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Take advantage of networking with as many professionals in the industry as possible, because the great thing about horticulturist is most people are willing to share their knowledge to better the profession. Get a good mentor you look up to that will set you in the right path.
What do you look forward to?
I’m looking forward to exploring more natural plant habitats around the world and seeing how plants are growing in their natural homes.
Although the winters can be long and snowy, the cooler summers (warm days and cool nights) are perfect for herbaceous perennials and woody plants hardy enough to withstand the climate (Zone 5B to Zone 6A) at Stone Arches. Epimediums, ferns, astilbes, and woodland perennials seem healthier and larger than the equivalents in warmer climates. At the same time warm season, full sun perennials and grasses can be accommodated as well. Stone Arches is deer central, but Mark installed a high deer fence around the perimeter of the property.
Set in strong drifts, the hillside planting behind the glasshouse is reminiscent of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates’ signature style and Piet Oudolf’s earlier work, but differentiates itself in its addition of trees. Mark carefully chose trees with multi-seasonal interest that complements the herbaceous layer – Stewartia pseudocamellia and Acer griseum (paperbark maple). With their moderate growth, these trees do not increase rapidly enough to shade out the perennials that prefer more light. Seen somewhat in the background, the prayer flags at Dan Hinkley’s Windcliff garden near Seattle, Washington State, inspired Mark to do the same.
In grand planting schemes, some plants need monitoring because their declining health or dieback can lead to noticeable visual gaps. Notoriously short-lived, achilleas are tricky. However the site’s light sandy soil should suit these achilleas, although those gardening on clay may struggle to overwinter them. Their corymbs echo the sedums in the lower right corner, and contrast well with Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’, Helenium ‘Dancing Flames’ and Liatris spicata. Schizachyrium scoparium [Blue Heaven] = “MinnblueA” is beginning to send out its inflorescences.
A good garden should have a few workhouse plants that look good regardless of the growing season, one or two rarities that need a bit of cosseting or sheltered protection, and a smattering of annuals, tender perennials, and bulbs. Pam and Sibylle, the former head gardeners of Sissinghurst Castle Garden, always said that for every three plants, one plant will do well while the other two will be mediocre or do poorly. Where space is limited, one becomes more selective and discriminating on plant selection. As I move into my new house and have one’s garden to call my own finally, I am forced to be catholic about what plants to grow. Visiting nurseries and gardens enable me to see how the plants look at maturity, whether the colors are appropriate for my designs, and what new plants have been introduced. The following herbaceous perennials and grasses, which tend to peak in summer, have caught my eye during my forays.
Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’
Autumn may seem ablaze with incidienary hues, yet a cooling refuge can be found among the dark blue-violets of aconitums. Being poisonous, aconitums do not fall prey to herbivorous critters. Their common name monkshood do resemble the ecclesiastical vestments of the religious higher clergy. The best of the lot is Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’, a worthy tribute to Georg Arends who gave the horticultural world several outstanding perennials. Offset by glossy dark-green leaves on strong stems (5′ to 6′ tall), its glowing rich blue-violet flowers arrive in early to mid October just as the first of autumnal tints appear on trees. Do not plant ‘Arendsii’ in dry soil, which causes the lower stems to defoliate – rich, moist soil will produce the most floriferous plants.
Aruncus ‘Horatio’ first came to my attention at the High Line where Piet Oudolf planted it with carices and Heuchera villosa ‘Brownies’. Its flowers had long finished, yet they did not detract from the plant in any way, providing a textural, if not tonal, contrast with its companions.
Curiously difficult to acquire in the nursery trade, Aruncus ‘Horatio’ was one of the four seedlings (other three being ‘Johannifest’, ‘Woldemar Meier’, ‘Sommeranfang’) raised, evaluated, and named from the German nurseryman Ernest Pagels’ deliberate cross between A. dioicus and A. aesthusifolius. ‘Horatio’ is said to be more drought tolerant and robust than either species, and has this added advantage over Aruncus, despite being white-flowered only. It inherited from Aruncus aesthifolius a finer and more delicate form, and the flowers do not turn brown simultaneously as they do in either parents. Instead, a two bicolor effect develops as the newer flowers open cream and older flowers gradually turn brown. In autumn the foliage can develop autumnal tints.
Hakonechloa macra is a rare example where its variegated versions ‘Aureola ‘ and ‘Albo-Striata’ are more readily available than the straightforward species. It is a telling fact when Internet searches turn up ‘Aureola’ more than the species itself. As long as adequate moisture is provided, the green-leafed version is more tolerant of light than ‘Aureola’, which look unattractively bleached under full sunlight. Tom Stuart Smith, the British garden designer, favors Hakonechloa macra in his commissioned work especially as a ground cover against rigid shapes (in a London courtyard, H. macra swirls around clipped boxwood balls and Dicksonia antarctica (Tasmanian tree fern).
Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’
Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty’ has been the benchmark by which subsequent heleniums have been judged. It does not seem prone to pests and diseases that beget the newer cultivars, and will flower for a long period as long as the flowers are regularly deadheaded. However, Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ has risen to be a equal contender – its clumps multiply within a short time, yielding more divisions to share or spread in the garden, and its cut flowers have remarkable longevity, holding up well and always inviting praise. The flowers of ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ appear more brilliantly saturated with reds, oranges, and yellows than ‘Moerheim Beauty’, and tend to hum with pollinators. In a large garden, I would plant aconitums, asters, dahlias, and grasses with Helenium ‘Sahin’s Early Flowerer’ for that grand autumn spectacle.
Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’
Except for a few species like Kniphofia caulescens and K. northiae, kniphofias will rarely win the foliage sweepstakes for their unkempt leaves. Even the flowers can brown in an unappetizing way. Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ is a tidy plant – the grass-like leaves do not kink in a disheveled pile, and the narrow spikes of coral-red flowers are profuse, attracting hummingbirds. It is reliably hardy, a virtue infrequently seen in showier kniphofias. I can imagine clumps of Kniphofia ‘Nancy’s Red’ with the steel blue Ergynium planum, serpent-like coils of blue-green Euphorbia myrsinites, and rosettes of orange-flowered Glaucium flavum var. aurantiacum.
Phlomis russeliana is not an ‘instant gratification’ candidate for it needs at least three to four years to fulfill its full potential. For the first two years, it may throw a sporadic flower spike, instead focusing on root development (the North American prairie herbaceous perennials, Baptisia and Silphium, behave similarly). The whorled yellow flowers are arranged tier-like on the thick stems. Even if Phlomis russeliana failed to flower, its felted heart-shaped leaves are handsome, offering a solid foliar bulwark against finer textured plants. The most effective combination I have seen was in a trifecta with Stipa gigantea and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at Cambridge Botanic Garden, Cambridge, UK. The durable seedheads are worth keeping for winter interest. Phlomis russeliana has been crossed with Phlomis fructiosa to produce ‘Edward Bowles’.
Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum can be unforgivingly floppy if not staked whereas Thalictrum rochebrunianum rockets upward without additional support. Coen Jansen, the Dutch nurseryman whose unerring eye for selecting good garden plants has rewarded us gardeners, combined the best attributes of these two meadow rues through ‘Elin’. From Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum comes moody blue-green foliage suffused with purple and T. rochebrunianum the self-supporting habit. ‘Elin’ can tower to 6′ in ideal conditions – in areas with hot summers, the foliage may become tatty and late summer dormancy can be expected. Because ‘Elin’ is a sterile hybrid, division is the best means of propagation (commercial nurseries depend on tissue culture).
In addition, I have shortlisted the following plants with promising potential and deserving wider evaluation.
Agapanthus ‘Timaru’ – London’s The Financial Times garden columnist Robin Lane Fox singles out ‘Timaru’ and ‘Jack’s Black’ among the best free-flowering New Zealand agapanthus hybrids that are hardy in United Kingdom and other places with moderate winters. He writes: “Two to look for are Jack’s Blue and the vivid Timaru. They send up flowers into early October and are extremely free-flowering at rather different heights. Jack’s Blue is tall, with stems up to four feet, but the flowers appear in quantity in a good shade of rich purple-blue. Marginally, I prefer Timaru, which is about two feet high and extraordinarily generous with a long succession of strong blue flowers on many separate stems.” While agapanthus are not reliably hardy in the Mid-Atlantic region, I’m always on the outlook for good container subjects. Because their foliage is rather boring, agapanthus must be distinct and flower profusely enough to be worth the trouble.
Perovskia atriplicifolia Lacey Blue ‘Lisslitt’ – Perovskia or Russian sage is one of the quintessential summer perennials, yet sometimes I find its color a bit lackluster in our heat and the stems susceptible to flopping (save for lean soils). Lacey Blue is reputedly shorter and more floriferious, a better choice for smaller gardens. If the under 18″ height of Lacey Blue proves true, then I am keen to pair it with Agastache rupestris.
Stipa lessingiana – Nassella tenuissima has become a garden designer’s cliche for introducing a naturalistic, cloud-like effect, and one can hardly deny its versatility. Stipa lessingiana, a steppe grass from Caucasus and Siberia is said to be hardier and taller than Nassella tenuissima.
Your post on the Spanish artist Joaquín Sorolla had me contemplating about light. We should practice ‘luminism’ more in gardening. Light is perhaps the most misunderstood and poorly considered element in gardens. Only are the plants’ cultural requirements weighed does it become significant. While we may appreciate its effect in interior design and architecture, for some reason we fail to apply the same priority in gardens, concentrating instead on hardscaping and plants. Focusing on hardscaping and plants is like deciding what furniture and decor will be without thought to the wall color and floors. Yet it is light that noticeably alters the mood and atmosphere of the garden – the silhouettes of trees and shrubs, the long shadows cast onto the walls, and the reflections in water features. Sylvia Crowe once wrote: “There is always a delight in looking out on to the sunlight from within a dark wood, or from between the columns of an arcade, whether they be the pillars of an Italian pergola or the trunks of a lime walk, and there is the unfailing effect of light falling on some special spot from surrounding shade.”
Studying the various nuances of light has revised my approach towards combining plants. Just as theatrical lighting affects our attention on the stage performers, the right light can accentuate plants. Simply it seems sensible to design a planting through light. I recall Nori and Sandra Pope explain how they observed where the light fell at various times against the curvilinear kitchen garden wall at Hadspen, letting it dictate what colors decreed the garden. Their tonal plantings modulated from light to dark, proving again that light underpins color. The same principle pertained to Great Dixter, renowned for its virtuoso color combinations that either soothe or excite depending on the time of day. In the High Garden there, the intense colors of tender perennials and annuals were heightened in the evening light than they were in the morning.
To bring light into the garden is to embrace the luminous quality of grasses. What makes the gardens of contemporary garden designers like Piet Oudolf, Tom Stuart Smith, or Wolfgang Oehme, appealing is the interplay of light between grasses and herbaceous perennials – the buoyancy of the former enliven the perennial flowers, propping up their decaying seedheads later. A friend cleverly interplanted Sanguisorba officinalis (burnet) among Stipa gigantea where the first rays of sunlight hit the garden. The grass has the kinetic and translucent magnetism, a perfect foil for the opaque dark Sanguisorba in summer and autumn. It is a magnetism seen hundredfold in a field of Miscanthus sinensis I once waded through at Yangmingshan National Park, Taiwan. High above the urban smog of Taipei, the clear skies highlighted a shimmery silver sea of plumes, a memorable sight that linked landscapes to my light fixation in gardens.
Being serious about photography taught me about light as well. Garden and landscape photographers often register the light carefully for the best pictures. Doing so slows you down as you walk around and observe the garden from different angles, and then the garden’s personality becomes more apparent. It always dismayed me to visit a garden at midday for the resultant photographs were washed out. Soon I reluctantly started to wake up before dawn and venture out when people were still asleep. That reluctance disappeared into contentedness – the still mornings, unsullied by nothing but birdsong, promised moments of beautiful repose. Those moments induce a dream-like state, suspended between surrealism and reality, fertile for creativity.
My appreciation for gardens and landscapes went deeper beyond color and form. I paid heed to Crowe’s finer points of light in the garden – the long shadows cast by trees across the lawn, the shafts of light splintering the morning mist, the backlit beauty of a solitary flower heavy with dew. It is an experience immensely private and not immediately apparent during the process of gardening – sometimes we are deeply engrossed in the mundane tasks on hand, forgetting to look up.
When I was in Australia, I was startled by the country’s hard light – the textures and colors, the leaves of eucalyptus or the rocky formations, were clear-cut and reflective. The clarity of the Down Under light forced me to rethink my perceptions previously informed by the Northern Hemisphere. Landscapes became more sculptural, abstract, and wilder. Genteel places created by homesick Europeans paled in comparison with their surroundings – the demarcations between the domesticated and untamed were more sharply drawn than those blurred in Europe and parts of North America. The stronger light only compounded that difference.
Every detail seemingly asserts itself graphically in the Australian light – the orange lichen encrusted rocks, pockmarking the east coast of Tasmania and Victoria, are fully saturated, nowhere muted as they would be in the Northern Hemisphere. Clouds seem more alive – their fluffy contours indelibly etched against the antipodean skies. Using Northern Hemisphere plants in these areas would feel too contrived and futile – they would appear discordant in the grand landscapes. More than anything, light sets the style of the garden.
Only in the higher elevations did the light wane, receding with more luxuriant plant-life and cooler temperatures. The mists chilled us as they would have elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, the Yorkshire Moors, or the Californian redwood forests. Here greens, grays, and muddy browns dominated, taking over the whites, oranges, and burnt sienna of the coastal areas.
Such ruminations on light can be turned on without going overseas. As I drive to and from work home, I watch how the light shifts into dawn and evening. The low-angled light in autumn is a profound difference from the high summer light, a more golden luminosity not seen in spring, and it is one advantage of residing in the Northeast U.S. In more northern latitudes, the light seems weaker, diminished by the geographical proximity to the Arctic Circle. You become habituated to the subtle changes in the same way plants begin to respond to longer day lengths.
Deciphering light in gardens is our capacity to envince the atmosphere of a natural place. We have the benefit that Sorolla and other Impressionist painters never had – we never need to reproduce the light. Sometimes the methodical aspects of gardening can leave us incapable of creating the feeling, the emotional limitations and longings that precisely characterize the beauty of creating a garden. ~ Eric
It is rare to find a garden that is a product of two designers – especially one runs the risk of creating a bipolar identity. Bury Court represents the fulcrum of two designers whose styles seem superficially similar, but upon closer inspection are different.
It is considered the first British commission that the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf designed in 1997 after John Coke, the owner of Bury Court, sought someone to collaborate on the courtyard garden. With Marina Christopher, John Coke operated the now-closed specialist nursery Green Farm Plants, one of the first nurseries to sell herbaceous perennials and grasses popular in today’s contemporary gardens. Coke found a kindred soul in Oudolf who combined plantsmanship and design (it didn’t hurt that Oudolf and his wife Anja ran a successful nursery selling similar plants as Green Farm).
Oudolf countered the asymmetrical shape of the exposed courtyard with curving beds book-ended with mounds and swirls of topiary. He filled the beds with his typical controlled compositions of perennials and grasses that are the defining norm for this style. The low to medium heights of Molinia caerulea and Deschampsia caespitosa are exploited for stylized meadows mixed with Dianthus carthusianorum and Allium sphaerocephalon and Digitalis ferruginea. Copied much elsewhere, these meadows have been reinvented in Oudolf’s subsequent gardens. Only the gravel garden and the formal pool feels slightly awkward, but exist as vestiges of the site’s former nursery. If the garden seems humbling in the light of his later work, it is due to its domestic scale limiting the drifting style Oudolf normally applies to expansive spaces.
Like Oudolf, Christopher Bradley Hole favors the large-scale use of grasses and herbaceous perennials. In an interview with garden writer and designer Mary Keen, Bradley Hole admits a particular fondness for plants ‘invaluable in their ability to reproduce, in an abstract way, the unique forms and seasonal changes within a garden setting.’ It is where this similarity with Oudolf begins and ends. Whereas Oudolf strives for a rather effortless, but romantic feeling reminiscent of natural landscapes, Bradley Hole aims for a minimalist and abstract interpretation. His herbaceous plantings often are squared off by paths, paved or grassed, and blocks of boxwood, yew, and field maple reinforces their geometric patterns. He unabashedly mixes different grasses together than adhere to the conventional practice of block planting – Miscanthus, Molina, Hakonechloa, and Stipa gigantea. His love of grasses does not diminish his soft spot for British native trees, especially Acer campestre (field maple) for its flexibility as a specimen tree or hedge. The results come together in his signature look – a grid-like labyrinth of twenty beds flowing with herbacous perennials and grasses and cordoned off by hedges seen here at the Bury Court garden created in 2003. In its hearth lies a tall oak pavilion adjoining a black pool, and north of the garden is a weathered oak garage building anchored by a grand sweep of Calamagrotis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.
Intimate and abstract are not symbiotic, but they curiously come together here. As you enter the pathways, you disappear from sight as the grasses and tall perennials engulf you, creating that experience of being in a meadow or forest. One can imagine how transcendent it can be when the grasses become a shimmering sea of silvery plumes in autumn. It is the same effect seen at another superb garden Le Jardin Plume, France.
Of the two gardens, the Oudolf garden, once novel and innovative, looks funnily dated (I remember being asked by a friend which of the two I liked better) as its look has become much emulated elsewhere in the UK and continental Europe. The diversity of herbaceous perennials and grasses has given it a semblance of the traditional herbaceous border. Oudolf’s current style has since evolved from that of Bury Court – the topiary here that too defined Hummelo no longer plays a seminal role as it did in his early work (the wing-like yew hedges emblematic of Hummelo no longer exists). Blocky plantings have become looser or to borrow the oft used planting vocabulary ‘intermingling’. Innovative or not, there is no denying the significance of Oudolf’s Bury Court garden as a pivotal example of his early work. On the other hand, the Bradley Hole garden feels more fresh, helped by its simplicity in the linear dimensions and more restricted plant spectrum. It is an outstanding example of how the ‘naturalistic’ look can be tailored to a modernist garden without compromising its ethos.
Perhaps one of the youngest, if not the most well-traveled nurserymen in North America, French-Canadian Philippe Lévesque operates a small-scale specialist nursery, Balmoral Gardens, northeast of Montreal, Quebec. Philippe carefully built up his nursery stock by importing and propagating plants from his North American and European forays. The stock includes herbaceous perennial and ornamental grass cultivars not yet widely distributed and uncommon in U.S., as well as untested for their full ornamental worthiness in warmer regions. Although the growing season is unmercifully short, herbaceous perennials perform beautifully in the warm days and cool nights, and combinations not achievable in warmer, milder climates can be created. In addition to his nursery, Philippe maintains a photographic library, Macrophylla Photography and his photographs are featured here.
Hello and can you introduce yourself?
Philippe Lévesque, Canadian gardener and owner of Balmoral Gardens, in New Brunswick, Canada
The arts or horticulture?
Aren’t the two intertwined? If I must choose, horticulture because I don’t have a very artistic hand and I could live without man-made things but not nature.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background…
I grew up here in Northern New Brunswick in a very ordinary place, went to Guelph University to study botany, which I hated. So I went to garden in England for two years, came back, set up my nursery which was called Macrophylla, closed it down 5 years later to go back to England, lived there for another 6 years, then moved to Australia for a year before coming back here. I have a certificate in horticulture from the RHS, but got that only recently. I am mainly self-taught in gardening as it’s a great passion that has always animated me.
Do you remember your first gardening memory?
Father rototilling the veg garden in May and then us planting peas and beans when I was 6.
What does a typical day consist of?
A day at the nursery (when I am not at clients’ homes landscaping) is spent differently every single day, depending on the season etc. but it always starts off with a walk around the gardens to see how the plants are doing and to see what’s come up in bloom, often with my camera in hand (if the light is kind enough). I usually weed as I go along too, so that can easily take an hour. Then I usually have something to plant in the ground or in pots, or plants needing dividing. I seem to spend an awful lot of time wheelbarrowing manure! Mulching and watering is mostly mum (my business partner)’s job. If it’s a hot day, we work at the potting shed in the shade pricking out seedlings or potting plants. A typical day is not without many hot drinks, chocolate and cake!
You have gardened in England and Australia (Queensland). How have your overseas experience altered your perspectives on gardening?
Different climates bring different challenges to the gardener, and it made me realize that no matter where one is, it’s not acquired without lots of work. Gardening in the tropics did make me appreciate the intensity of the temperate seasons and gardening in Britain made me appreciate the advantage of a deep blanket of snow. I don’t see the climate as much a limitation anymore (although I wouldn’t mind living in a place where I could grow quince trees!).
Your plants look incredibly healthy! What is your secret behind propagating and producing healthy beautiful plants for your clients?
We grow our plants in the ground and only pot them up as needed. It’s much easier to grow a vigorous plant in the garden than in the artifical medium of a plastic pot. Our soil here is varied and we try to put the right plant in the right soil. No point planting primulas in our sandy hilltop garden, when they relish the riverside beds and vice versa, Perovskia (Russian sage) doesn’t like our cool summer combined with cold winters, and we can only grow them well in our rocky sunny border. Basic recipe in all cases is lots of horse manure before planting and lots of water immediately afterwards. Otherwise a seaweed and woodchip mulch, nothing else. We water only when the plants are beginning to show signs of stress, but then we drench them.
What are some of the specific cold-climate challenges you face up north? I remember how devastated you were one year when the majority of your nursery stock died during the lack of snow insulation.
The worst challenge is not growing the plants at all (although that fateful winter of 2004 taught us to protect well the more tender plants like Kniphofia, Persicaria, and Euphorbia without fail with dead leaves and conifer branches, and not hope too much from woody plants as we don’t grow that many at all other than a few rare hardy roses and willows). The problem is from hasty gardeners in spring! Garden centres and people at plant fairs want their plants ready grown by May – our garden is usually under snow until at least April 20th, we can’t even access the plants till then! We only have one greenhouse where we can force only a limited number of plants into growth in the spring, so I guess we sometimes miss sales because of our lateness. Our short summers also means that we have to be very organized when we take cuttings or divide.
Can you name some of your favorite late season perennials and grasses?
Aconitum carmichaellii ‘Spätlese’ because it’s a nice pale colour in contrast to ‘Barker’s Variety’ that has the largest darkest flowers of all. I like them both because they are not so stiff like other A. carmichaelii and have healthy glossy foliage.
Aster ‘Little Carlow’ – the best aster because it is very floriferous, has nice glossy foliage that never gets ill, and is the nicest colour. Aster ‘Coombe Fishacre’ – when it flowers, it’s a lavender-pink mound and not ill either.
Helianthus ‘Dorian Roxburgh’ (hybrid between H. ‘Lemon Queen’ and H. giganteus ‘Sheila’s Sunshine’) – it’s a nice tall and elegant plant in a delicate shade of yellow. Helianthus ‘Orgyalis’ – Tall and strong and full of large flowers on burgundy stems over lovely narrow foliage, what more could I want from a sunflower?!
Kniphofia ‘Mermaiden’ – just the most amazing green colour and size! Kniphofia ‘Percy’s Pride’ – a gift from British plantsman John Grimshaw and it’s a good flowerer, even here where other Kniphofias can be shy Kniphofia ‘Lord Roberts’ – a large variety in a shade that is VERY effective, dark, a strong accent. Kniphofia ‘Rich Echoes’ – wonderful as well and flowers a little earlier.
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Jo and Guido’s Form’ because it’s a delicious shade of pink (although I do find it a bit
weak) Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Taurus’ – the most vibrant red ever and it flowers on and on. Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Orangefield’ because it’s different from the others, and a colour that beckons the eye. Neither pink, nor orange, a special look I find endearing. I guess I should also put ‘Rosea’ even if it’s more common because it is just the best of the lot. Has been in bloom for three months now. Persicaria polystachya – it’s carefree, and just the most generous white flower in autumn. I love the combination of orange bamboo-like stems and pure white lace. Delicate but strong at the same time.
Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Stand Up Comedian’ – it’s the strongest white, never flops like other tall white forms and I like the quirky name, Sanguisorba ‘Blackthorn’ too because it’s strong but also because it has large conspicuous bottlebrushes, more showy than most late Sanguisorbas.
Vernonia gigantea ‘Purple Pillar’, just the biggest show stopper for its size and colour. ‘Mammuth’ is more manageable and just as good actually. Vernonia lettermanii – the foliage, wow!
Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Waldenbuch’ – more elegant and not so stiff as ‘Karl Foerster’ Also a warmer golden yellow.
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Berlin’ – golden flowers that shine, unique Miscanthus sinensis ‘Huron Sunrise’ – the most floriferous Miscanthus sinensis ‘November Sunset’ for the vibrant red/purple foliage
Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’ – the most elegant of tall sorts and ‘Variegata’ – the most beautifully symmetrical plant one could wish for.
Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Fred’s Red’ – a selection made by my friend, does not flop like ‘The Blues’ or the other American selections and is the most striking red colour in the autumn.
Sorghastrum nutans ‘Sioux Blue’ for the blue foliage/golden flower combination. I just love Sorghastrum anyway!
How would you describe the Philippe aesthetic?
Organic! Hewn but, I hope, genuine. Simple, clean lines are good but nothing minimalist (how so dull!). Bold accents, stone, wood, water, bright light, vibrant colours in the right place.
What specific sources of creative inspiration do you often turn to?
Nature is my first inspiration, then British and Japanese gardens, abstract paintings for colour combinations, magazines, the web. I don’t often look for inspiration, it’s always all around me, and in these days of media’s frenzy, it’s easy to be overwhelmed!
What garden, private or public, inspires you?
Just one? Impossible! So many interesting ones! Reford Gardens near here is special, beautiful and a well-kept secret.
What would be your desert island plant and piece of art be?
The plant would have to be amaranth, because it’s beautiful, edible, useful and resilient. A piece of art would be the indigo batik I bought in Indonesia to wear or to shade myself.
And what grain of wisdom can you proffer to readers interested in gardening and the natural world?
What are you looking forward to?
Next spring of course! Being independent from petrol, having my own farm, my next visit to other nurseries, my piano being delivered, and my cake coming out of the oven!