Maybe it was the recent passing of Arbor day, or Eric’s response to the question,”What plant would you choose to be come back as..”, to which he chose the olive tree, or maybe it from being asked about my favorite photo; I am not sure exactly but it brought trees to the forefront of my mind. There is one quote about trees that is a favorite of mine, a Chinese Proverb that reads, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” It often makes me think about the admiration and respect we have for trees and wonder where does our love of trees come from, what is our fascination with them? Some answers are plain to see with the obvious factors of why we love them is that they are good for the earth and environment, the air, they provide wood which we have used to build our homes and shelters and most of our furnishings too, they provide the pencil we write with to the paper we write on, among many other rational reasons. There is no doubt that we are thankful for these things that trees provide, but there is something deeper, more emotional that they stir up in us. Trees evoke so many deep memories that probably started at a young age, maybe being pushed on a tire swing hanging from a strong limb or running in the woods with friends as children? Apple picking with the family in the autumn, when some leaves mesmerize us while turning their bright, brilliant magical colors?
One of my earliest memories regarding a tree was during my kindergarten graduation. All the students, with help from our parents, collected money to purchase a flowering dogwood (I remember the attached white tag clearly) and gave this tree as a gift to our kindergarten teacher, as it was her last year of teaching. It was all kept a secret until the end of the ceremony, when it was pulled along in a red flyer wagon, by myself and a fellow student, up to our unsuspecting teacher. As we pulled this beautiful little tree, with its peachy-pink blooms and root ball wrapped in burlap, we were met with gasps and smiles from those seated in the auditorium. The whole situation was fascinating and confusing to me – why were we giving her a tree, why a tree? What did it mean? Where would she plant it? We all lived in the Bronx! Would she think of us every time she looked at in in flower or in leaf? What if she didn’t like trees? And where was she going?! There were so many unanswered questions about this ceremonial act that were clouding my young mind.
Growing up in the Bronx, meant spending the weekends upstate at my grandparents house, about a 2 hour drive north to Red Hook in the Hudson Valley. My siblings and I would climb the huge trees next to the house, which were situated just outside the kitchen window, always trying to see who could climb the highest. Pines, I remember them with very large trunks and limbs. When we would be called in for lunches of baloney sandwiches and fresh cucumbers, we carefully descended branch by branch, jumping onto the soft pine needle covered ground when we were within safe proximity. Once inside, we always needed to spend some minutes scrubbing the sticky pine sap off our tiny hands before we were allowed to eat our lunch. I am sure if I saw these trees now, they would not seem as large as they do in my memories of those times. Could these early games have sparked my fascination with trees?
Texture and foliage keep a garden interesting through the season. Flowers are just moments of gratification. – Kevin Doyle
The sight of a single or grove of deciduous trees can invoke both pleasant and melancholy thoughts. The silhouettes of solitary trees in winter are their fingerprints on the horizon, stamping themselves against a bare sky. You might easily recognize what tree it is from a distance, whether in daytime or on a bright moonlit night. In a Pennsylvanian winter, I always imagined the large Platanus trees in the forest were the ‘Kings of the Winter Wood’ with the seasonal light picking up the silvery glints of their beautiful bark. Even in a mixed wood they easily stand out, it is the season for them to shine, glowing among a surrounding dreary sea of muted trunks of gray and brown, a king among men.
Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong. – Churchill
The sense of coolness we feel in the warm summer months, as we sit beneath the shade of a single specimen or enter a dark grove, tingles the skin and puts the mind at ease, giving us a break from the heat of the blazing sun. A nap can easily be brought on by listening to the lullaby of the branches swaying slightly in a breeze, leaves rustling to and fro, causing our minds to wander into a sleepy landscape, protected underneath a large and looming canopy.
The plethora of trees in the countryside is always pleasurable due to their sheer amount surrounding us, so it might be possible to take single trees for granted there, but not the case for a city dweller. They might not know what the tree is, where it came from, or its significance to the world, but that single green tree in a sea of concrete puts a smile on the face of many neighborhood folk rushing about their daily activities. Is it the the short-lived colorful blooms they love, the soothing green color of a fully leafed out tree, or is it the thickness of the eye level trunk which quietly proclaims its sense of history in such a rapid paced environment? Perhaps it is why when we see one go down in city streets, we feel a tinge of panic, a moment of sadness, a shortness of breath because someone we saw each day is now gone, another piece of the present is now forgotten history. Some blossoming trees are sometimes further enhanced by surrounding garish city colors, letting the tree be an individual among other city folk, standing its own quirky ground just as it own citizens strive for individuality.
Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. – Confucius
If there was only one tree I could plant, I would most definitely choose something from the genus Malus because of its continual hard work most of them provide through the seasons. Spring brings the beauty of delicate blossoms that attract and feed insects, lush foliage with developing fruits while providing good shade in summer, gorgeous and colorful delicious apples dangling from each branch in autumn and some with fall color, and finally the wonderfully twisted silhouettes to look at during the winter, especially pleasing in an orchard.
The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration. – Claude Monet
There is no denying that trees are the elephants of our plant kingdom; they are larger than us, old, gentle, wise, experienced, and have stories to tell. They are the plants we know have seen a lot, probably more in life than you and I have, and probably ever will. In keeping with the favored Chinese Proverb, remember to plant those trees for future generations, not just for the pleasure of ours today. – James
As I sit at my desk and write this to you, the Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ that I have planted on my terrace are now fiercely glowing silhouettes, brightly backlit by the sun that is also shining warmly on my face. The smiling sun is a nice change from the cooler temperatures and gray days and from this late winter flu I have been entertaining these days. Spring is almost here, I can almost smell it hence this cold, but the last day of winter is officially March 19th, so we are just about out of the woods. From the windows, I can see the leaf buds of Platanus x hispanica swelling up and pulling away from the branches, just about ready to open.
I haven’t been outside much the past few days but besides getting enough rest and drinking plenty of teas I have surrounded myself with multiple vases of these little striking yellow blooms to make myself feel better, a little extra sunshine inside. Who wouldn’t smile because of that?! Most everybody loves the Narcissus, for their own reasons, but for many it heralds the triumphant return of spring and an end to the long, cold months of winter. But why else do we love it and what is it about them? Is it the piercing yellow color that demands the attention of our eyes in an otherwise still drab landscape? The color alone, reminiscent of the sun, invokes an uplifting feeling of happiness and cheerfulness. Is it maybe because the rest of bloom parade is not far behind in the marching procession of blossoms known as spring? So while admiring them from my reclined position, the stories and symbolism of Narcissus started playing out in my medicated head….
The Narcissus has been a subject for writers and artists for more than 20 centuries, often-symbolizing rebirth, new beginnings and representing luck and prosperity. Could that be the reference in the cultivar Narcissus ‘Fortune’ as seen above? Giving daffodils as a bouquet is said to ensure happiness to the receiver but remember to always present them in a bunch because though the cheerful flower is associated with good fortune it might forebode misfortune if given as a single boom. Could this be why they are sold in florist shops in bunches rather than single blooms as other flowers?
There is one story about Narcissus and Echo that I love. I owe my introduction and love for Greek Mythology to Edith Hamilton, when I purchased her book, Mythology, while doing research for a school report as a young kid. I still have that same book packed away in New York, and escaped through all of the images those stories painted in my mind. But, yes, the story back to the story….
Narcissus was a young man of immense beauty who broke the hearts of many lovers along the way, lastly in his mortal life was the wood nymph Echo. Narcissus not paying attention to anyone else and constantly looking at his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with himself, thinking of no one else. This is how he spends his time, leaning continuously over the pool and gazing, until he discovered he could not embrace his reflection and soon enough he fell into the water and drowned, with the gods immortalizing him as the narcissus. The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, is a sad one where the flower symbolizes self-esteem and vanity.
There is a wonderful poem to read of this story, written by the American poet Fred Chappell
Narcissus and Echo, a poem
by Fred Chappell
Shall the water not remember Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above of
its mirror my half-imaginary airy
portrait? My only belonging longing;
is my beauty, which I take ache
away and then return, as love of
teasing playfully the one being unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure Is your
moves me. I live apart heart
from myself, yet cannot not
live apart. In the water’s tone, stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower Hour,
whispers my name with such slight light:
moment, it seems filament of air, fare
the world becomes cloudswell. well.
The meaning and symbolism behind this flower has inspired many writers to artists and will continue to do so for a long time to come. In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers – it is listed twice, once by the common name daffodil where it means regard and in its latin form Narcissus we see it listed as egotism. You choose. Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse, and Poussin, among countless others have been inspired when putting brush to canvas, using the the subject and the stories behind it as their muse.
The blooms are out in full force here in Madrid, and hope they are not too far behind for you in Pennsylvania, spring will be banging on your front door soon enough. By the way, did you know that ‘tete-a-tete’ means a face-to-face meeting, or a private conversation between two people? It’s been nice chatting with you and I hope these images and stories find you well and smiling…… -James
Trivial details glossed over by some can be the plague of others; a friend once told me this is the disease of an aesthete. Sometimes though, the best lessons we learn are often stumbled into by making a mistake, or in better cases, a happy accident.
During the two years I studied at Longwood Gardens, each student was required to keep a garden; an area designed and created of our own ideas. It was an exciting time, a blank canvas of a 15’x50’ garden plot to call my own but suddenly there were too many directions and ideas to choose from. The design process seemed overwhelming and my mind felt like a glass of water, but without the structure of the glass to hold it all together, ideas spilling in every direction and with no shape or structure. Given instructions by our teachers that in order to keep the design process cheap, since we would only have our gardens for two years, they told us to ‘beg, borrow, and steal’ to get the materials needed for our plots. We were granted access to an area of free but limited hardscape materials that were left behind by the preceding graduating class, which myself and the other students ravaged and put to good use.
After nabbing some large bluestone pavers, but not enough, I had trouble deciding what to use to complete the rest of my paths. Trying to keep free of spending money on materials that would just need to come out in two years, I was forced to get creative and resourceful. The best ideas sometimes emerge from the smallest of budgets, or lack thereof and this lack of budget taught me a valuable lesson, resulting in employing other senses in ways I had not anticipated in the garden.
Remembering a grove of Pinus sylvestris not far from my plot, I collected and spread the fallen needles throughout my garden paths as mulch between the bluestone pavers. Pleasing to the eye in color and texture, and free, it was different from what I expected and as time wore on, I enjoyed the calm feelings I got while walking through my garden.
I learned from my choice of material that what is under foot can have an effect on how it shapes our garden experience. The feeling of calm as I walked over the pine needles on my paths, as if walking through a quiet pine wood, connected me in a more intimate way to my garden, more so than if I had chosen stone or even left the paths as bare earth. This detail helped me approach future designs and layout of gardens in a new way.
I took for granted that the senses we use in the garden are related to sight, scent and sound but what we cannot touch with our hands, we can still feel beneath the soles of our feet. Flowers are a sight to behold, and texture and form for that matter, but are these the only reliable tricks we can employ on the visitors experience? Plant based gardens are nice but seem one-dimensional and need to be more complex to stimulate me; I love plants, but not obsessed with them as the only ingredient in the garden recipe. Experiencing gardens has always had an emotional impact on me. I don’t always want to think when I am in a garden but I want to feel , and what lies underneath my feet helps me do just that. A wise teacher once told me, ‘when visiting a garden, don’t just think about what is that you like about it, but think about what you would do better.’
Budgets aside, one of the dominating factors in choosing path materials is largely based on the visual pleasure it provides but chosen materials do have the right places in which to use them, task accordingly and site appropriate of course. Treat the garden in layers and these small details in garden design can help hijack our senses and lead us to have a different garden experience, not always obvious and often subtle. Not everyone understands gardening to a degree as much as we would like, and some say its the slowest form of theater, but it’s up to us to set the stage and make it a more cerebral experience, attacking the senses on the sly and leaving the emotions tantalized by the interactions people can have in the garden.
This lesson I realized is not just in relation to paths but I have since applied to all areas of design, as someone obsessed with aesthetics, the details we employ in our gardens and spaces can’t just be visually attractive but must serve a dual purpose if possible, digging deeper to find it. I find pleasure in thinking of gardens and spaces in this way; the layout of a place, the arrangement of the space within it; it is always an exercise for the mind. Thinking I was crazy to obsess about such things, I found solace, after Longwood, in a recommended book written by Sylvia Crowe, she wrote the book on garden design, still standing the test of time. Once realizing other people knew this language too I was thankful that such valuable lesson crossed my path early, due to my student garden, a lack of budget, and some pine needles. See, the beauty is in the details, there are never problems, only solutions and always a silver lining if you know how to read it. -James
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Tom Coward and I’m the head gardener at Gravetye Manor
The Arts or Horticulture, which do you feel most associated with?
I have worked as a gardener since I was 15 in various situations. My last job was assistant head gardener at Great Dixter before moving to Gravetye Manor nearly four years ago.
Can you recall your first gardening memory?
One of my first gardening jobs was for a rather rough but charming old man called Cornel Yule. He used to sit on a deck chair and bark commands as I worked, occasionally lashing out with his stick if I missed some weeds. At first he was a bit intimidating but he mellowed over time and I enjoyed it. He was a fascinating man.
Do you remember the first time you were captivated by a color?
I can’t say I do. The colors that really inspire me are in the landscape that’s always around me.
What garden public or private inspires you?
If left alone on an island and you could choose one plant and one piece of art, what would be your pick?
Can I take the Brighton Pavilion as my piece of art please? Is that too greedy? And I would fill the grounds with asparagus or fruit trees.
What would your dream project be?
The work I have been doing at Gravetye is a dream project come true. It is a charming, magical, historic old garden that had suffered a lot of decay. To have the opportunity to try to pull such a special place together again has been so exciting and rewarding.
What specific sources of creative outlets do you often turn to?
Other Gardeners and gardens.
Any last words of wisdom that you care to share with others?
I think the most important thing is to never forget the reason why we love working with plants so much and the pleasure that can be shared through growing them.
When the opportunity comes up to work in a garden of historic importance, you take it, and you experience lessons that are tied in to the spirit of the place that can’t be learned elsewhere. I had been down this road before with other gardens I had the opportunity to work at and was excited for Gravetye to tell me its story. Having read the writings of William Robinson and seeing pictures of Gravetye Manor had only fed my fascination for the place even more for what seemed like a wild and mysterious paradise. For you see, it is not just a house, nor a garden, but together a piece of history that changed the way many garden, both then and now. So when the chance came up to work in this garden so rich in history, I took it because you learn things that only that place can teach, where you get to immerse yourself in history and live inside of its story.
Starting at the end of the autumn season, in September 2012, seemed like the right time to begin though I was barely able to get to see the garden before it plunged itself into a deep winter slumber. Able to catch a short glimpse of the gardens before dormancy, I realized it was just a slight teaser of what was to come during my time there. A year before us seems a long time to have, but looking back we realize how fast time escapes us, flying past at a dizzying rate.
The winter was long, very long, but this is the best time to get to know the bones of a garden, the structure that holds it all together, before it dresses itself in the its gaudy garb that spring can sometimes provide.Winter seemed to last longer than ever before and just when it seemed too much to bear, the sun came and brought the garden slowly back to life.
Cracking the earth open, the bulbs came springing forth out of the meadow, supplying the colors our eyes were so desperate and hungry for. It seemed like a dream, imagining William Robinson and his then team of 30 gardeners plunging tools into the ground, placing each bulb one by one during its early stages.
The rest of the garden followed suit, and with the long cool spring that was provided these symphonies
spilled into each other, creating beautiful melodies that in other years only seem to pass too quickly..
William Robinson was a man of genius, going against the grain of Victorian gardening trends everywhere during his time and pioneering the more natural and relaxed way of planting areas at Gravetye known as the wild garden. We need teachers like this or we don’t evolve, things become too stagnant, and he is responsible for pushing ahead a new way of thinking about plants that continues to evolve today.
Sometimes looking up from a garden bed, it was easy to imagine William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, who were close friends for over 50 years, discussing which plants were worth putting in the border. They often helped each other with garden designs and shared their favorite plants between them.
To live in a garden is to know it intimately, understanding when to catch plants in their best light.
We realize the first act is finished with more to follow, and a whole new cast of characters are about to appear on stage.
Didn’t someone once say that gardening is the slowest form of theater? That couldn’t be more true.
There are many plants that I learned about during my time here, and there are many lessons but one thing that William Robinson taught me is that it’s ok to color outside the lines. He taught me to think outside the perimeter of a flower bed, to not be afraid to try new combinations in these areas and he taught me how to soften the landscape with plants. It is easy to color in the lines, but Robinson has pushed my boundaries, and so has Tom, who continues to see things in new poetic combinations that work so well with Robinson’s gardening theory.
Time continued to tick by and each moment was spent relishing my surroundings, like watching the Long Border, that was only planted in spring, fuse together to create such a tightly woven tapestry. The act of seeing plants fill a border out in such a rapid pace is astonishing, proving once again the importance of good soil.
Summer soon gave way to mornings of dahlias shrouded in fog, with colors that remind you that autumn was right around the corner.
Does time go so fast, because we gardeners notice all the details happening around us in the garden, causing the season to blur together? Is it because we love what we do so much, that we don’t notice the hands of time spinning in circles so rapidly? But with each circle you come to that point you once started at, knowing that time is about to overlap.
And I soon realized I was seeing moments that I had witnessed a year earlier, my eyes were no longer seeing things that were new to me, but familiar…
And my year at Gravetye had come to an end, and in that time span I encountered so many lessons, large and fragile, and I take all of that forward with me.
Thank you William Robinson for letting me experience your creation, and Tom and team, for educating me in a whole new way of gardening… James