In a twist of fate, I had not realized that the Kate who had waited on our table during my February trip in Portland was a talented artist herself! Only a month later did I happened on her floral prints in her Instagram account. Her webpage is as colorful and cheerful as her personality, and Kate recently launched her online shop selling a few prints (I particularly like the Euphorbia print).
I was walking in Salzburg University’ s small but quaint botanical garden a while ago when I stumbled upon two young gardeners (students?) cutting back a big patch of Darmera peltata. My initial thought was why destroy such a beautifully established plantation, but as kept walking along the waterway that separates the garden in two, I realized that it had maybe taken over too much ground and needed to give space over to others. Darmera is not an invasive plant but it certainly knows how to fight its ground. It is very competitive and precious little can dislodge it once established. I left a clump unattended for more than 10 years in a field and when I went back, nothing had succeeded in growing through it, not even tree saplings.
This giant saxifrage used to be known under the descriptive name of Peltiphyllum (from the Greek peltos, shield, and phyllos, leaf) for its beautiful round plate-size leaves (glossy and slightly concave, unlike the similar but matte and convex Astilboides). It had just changed name when I encountered it for the first time as a burgeoning gardener twenty years ago.
Darmera is a great bog plant that offers a good contrasting shape to reeds, irises, cattails and other linear marsh dwellers. It is very easy to grow and although it relishes mud (even if it won’t survive with its rhizomes submerged in water), it will grow happily in ordinary garden soil. It will grow in full sun if the soil is damp, but prefers shade during the hottest part of the day. Although the plant is amenable to drier conditions, the foliage can start to look tired early on and flowering is diminished considerably. Darmera is normally grown as a foliage plant and advertised as such, but under auspicious conditions flowering is abundant and a beautiful sight.
Early in spring, its large pink umbels emerge from the mud on tall crimson stalks. It is a welcome burst of life at a time of year when little else is out in the bog garden. I have been hopeful to find a white form somewhere but thus far none has materialized. Perhaps if one went scourging its natural habitat on the West Coast of America in April, one might get lucky. I haven’t come across a variegated sport either. The only variation I am aware is of a dainty dwarf form aptly called ‘Nana’. I cannot establish how it originated but it has been around for a long time in the United Kingdom. Despite its long period of cultivation, ‘Nana’ remains a rarity as it is a very slow growing plant. Unlike the species, it needs a rich humid spot to do well and does not take kindly to dry conditions. Yet ‘Nana’ is a darling plant that fills a niche since most wetland plants are too aggressive and/or invasive for small ponds. Its foliage also takes on colourful shades in the autumn more readily than the species and it is often ablaze with golden yellow and red in October here.
Both the species and its dwarf form will take a few years to reach their full potential. One can expect the foliage to be much shorter and smaller the first year and sometimes even the second year after planting. Darmera is not a plant that needs dividing often, mine has been in the same place for nearly 20 years and retains all its vigor. Some books say that it gets thin in the center after a while, but that’s not my experience or what I have observed from other gardens. New rhizomes seem to fill gaps made by old ones that die out and the clumps remain dense for very many years.
As I looked at the Darmera removal operation in Salzburg, a second thought came to my mind. These gardeners were going to need a lot of will power to dig this network of rhizomes after they finish cutting back the foliage. They did not seem very enthusiastic, let’s hope there was machinery available nearby.
~ Philippe Lévesque
Were hellebores to flower at the peak of the spring entourage rather than late winter to early spring, they would not be as popular as they are with the horticultural cognoscenti. These herbaceous perennials, European and east Asian in distribution, have universal appeal that spans temperate regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Going from John Massey’s poly houses of hellebores during February in England to Barb Jennings’s flowering plants during June in Tasmania, Australia, is a momentous lesson of popular garden plants. Part of their popularity owes to their remarkable promiscuity that a complex heritage has produced Helleborus x hybridus, and few interspecific crosses once thought untenable have been achieved through biotechnology ingenuity. Marketed along with cyclamen and primroses, these interspecific hybrids now appear in the potted plant section of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. However, Helleborus x hybridus (once classified under Helleborus orientalis, a true species itself and uncommon in cultivation) has received the most scrutiny from plant breeders. The British and Germans have been breeding hellebores seriously for decades; Eric Smith whose breeding work with hostas yielded ‘Halcyon’ and ‘Blue Moon’, hybridized and grew hundreds of seedlings in the 1960s, as did Helen Ballard who acquired species from the Balkans to enhance her genetic material. Adding to the British hellebore breeding circles was Elizabeth Strangman of Washfield Nursery who did much to popularize these plants, as well as Robin White of Blackthorn Nursery who was among the first to introduce a double-flowered seed strain Party Dress. Ashwood Nurseries, under Kevin Belcher and John Massey’s direction, developed their famed selections on these earlier breeders’ work. The German plantswoman Gisela Schmiemann who published a photographic tribute to Helen Ballard refined her seed strain sold under the Lady Series. Today the bloodlines of British and German hellebores are perpetuated within Winter Jewels™ series, the magnum opus of Ernie and Marietta O’Byrne’s two-decade painstaking work.
The O’Byrnes did not develop an interest in hellebores until they saw beautiful examples depicted in Graham Rice and Elizabeth Strangman’s The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hellebores, a book that was the source of Americans’ covetous envy at what the British grew. These hellebores were leagues away from the muddy colors and poor forms that plagued strains sold in United States.
Motivated by the book’s pictures, the O’Byrnes first obtained seed from the hellebore specialists Will McLewin and Gisela Schmiemann. It took a seminal visit with friends to Ashwood Nurseries in the Midlands, England to convert them into full-time hellebore breeders. At least several dozen Ashwood hellebores, augmented by those from Blackthorn and the Dutch nursery De Hessenhof, were successfully imported to Eugene, Oregon where the O’Byrnes reside and garden.
Eugene, 2 1/2 hours south of Portland, Oregon, has an ideal climate with average summer and winter temperatures of 70s and 40s F, despite being 100 miles inland and less within the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean. Because hellebores still continue to grow throughout the year, the mild climate encourages earlier maturity and consequently earlier flowering than elsewhere in United States. Ernie said that growing essentially ceases when temperatures fall below 35 degrees F, therefore seedlings in the Northeast US may take two to four years to flower. This climatic advantage allows the O’Byrnes to evaluate and cull failures in their breeding program.
Breeding usually starts in mid-January when the stock plants in the nursery’s three poly houses flower. The O’Byrnes’ tools of the trade include No. 6 watercolor brushes, tags, alcohol, and fabric bags. Like a roving bumblebee, Marietta transports pollen from one plant to another. She and Ernie then place fabric bags over the flowers during early April to secure the ripening seed lest any fall to the ground and make their careful record keeping negligible. Seed is usually harvested and cleaned in May, and then sowed (some seed are reserved for sale to overseas customers only; the O’Byrnes do not sell domestically to safeguard their work from being propagated illegally).
Although wholesale nurseries are the primary beneficiaries of the hellebores, the O’Byrnes open their premises twice – one in mid to late February, and another in early March (the last two years had them sold out earlier on the first weekend, causing cancellation of the March open house) – for hellebore enthusiasts to purchase flowering plants. People often queue hours early prior to the 10 am opening for the first dibs on particular colors or shapes, and a mad frenzy of flailing arms and elbows and crouched knees explode in the sales area. It is impressive to see the nearly emptied poly houses in photographs posted on Facebook. “The first year we introduced payment by credit card,” Ernie said, “all our sales went up the roof because people were buying more plants.” Our visit did not coincide with the open days, but we did see the preparations in progress – plants were organized by color and priced accordingly by size; a part time employee was re-potting some overgrown seedlings.
What does the future hold? “We want to concentrate on rich colors,” Ernie emphatically said, “we’re moving away from lighter colors like white and pink. And there is always room for better doubles.” Such strive for excellence certainly puts the O’Byrnes at the pinnacle of their hellebore breeding game, and we can only wait with abated breath for exciting strains in the future. ~Eric
For more info, visit the Northwest Garden Nursery.
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. S 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, 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
Given how ferns are an quintessential part of the Pacific Northwest landscapes, it seems a surprise that no one in the Pacific Northwest region had conceived a stumpery garden. Sourcing stumps should be a cinch in a region still dependent on the logging industry, and the mild moist climate encourages not only ferns, but also mosses and shade perennials for that verdant look. The concept of a stumpery is hardly novel for the Victorians popularized them after the first one was created at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, UK, in 1856.
Only six years old, Pat and Walt Riehl’s Stumpery in Vashon Island, Washington State is a youngster if compared with Biddulph Grange. Nonetheless it has filled out impressively, a testament of the region’s ideal climate for ferns and shade perennials. The Riehls were inspired to create a stumpery on their property bought in 2006 after the British fern expert Martin Rickard led their European trip to view ferneries and stumperies. They had already cleared the nettles and other invasive weeds from the woodlands, and saw an opportunity to create a stumpery. In turn, the Riehls hired Rickard to design and plant one. Nearly 50 madrone and Douglas fir stumps were brought in from Vashon Island construction sites and carefully positioned to form the layout of the stumpery. On the sunny periphery facing the house, Pat Riehl added Japanese maples, hardy scheffleras, and rhododendrons that partially screen the stumpery from immediate viewing. They transition well with the large Tasmanian tree ferns (Dicksonia antarctica), hydrangeas, and broad-leafed evergreens across the path dividing the sunny and shady sections.
Unusual ferns can be found in the shady embankment, prompting us to take photographs and notes.
Before descending the steps to the Stumpery, we paused to study the rock garden where Pat has tucked in choicer ferns requiring sharp drainage or otherwise lost among the larger plants in the stumpery. Pat admits being unhappy about the rock garden, “I need to redo this bit and take out the plants that don’t belong.” She points out a floppy purple-flowering Caleceloria that will be taken out – “it self-seeds and doesn’t justify the space it takes”.
To view the stumpery, one has to go through the tunnel constructed of tree trunks. Dwarfed by the stumps and luxuriant greenery, we immediately felt Lilliputian.
Nearly invisible, a metal framework built by Walt supports the stumps stacked over the gate. We traced our steps cautiously through the tunnel, exiting to discover a labyrinth of pathways threaded through more stumps. More ferns and woodland perennials fill the available nooks and crannies in the stumps.
Over time, moss has begun to colonize the stumps, softening the hard-edged, splintering edges.
The stumps themselves are sculptural, possessing an animalistic individuality. Gnarled and bleached, they contort without intervention, oblivious to the ferns or eventual decay.
Always enjoying a chance to stump visiting fern fans and pteridologists, Pat includes fern-like plants, such as Pteridophyllum racemosum (a poppy relative) or the largely Asian genus Coptis. “I tricked two fern experts on this plant,” Pat said with a laugh, pointing out Pteridophyllum racemosum, “they thought that it was a Blechnum!”
If the stumps aren’t adequate receptacles for ferns, containers or rustic furniture are appropriated for adding more.
The Riehls are modern equivalents of Victorian pteridomaniacs, and in their beautiful home, ceramics and various objets d’art are decorated with fern motifs. In the Stumpery, we relaxed on a replica of a Coalbrookdale ‘Fern and Blackberry’ bench, taking in the greenery and the cool Pacific Northwest air.
As any seasoned gardener will tell you, revamping or renovating an established garden isn’t an easy feat completed within a day’s work. Perennial weeds take hold, weaker plants fade away, and woody plants grow out of scale. Such challenges faced Charles Price and Glenn Withey when the Northwest Perennial Alliance (NPA), modelled after England’s Hardy Plant Society, asked them to redesign its Perennial Border at Bellevue Botanical Garden, Washington State, seven years later after they resigned from overseeing its maintenance. Price and Withey, two of the original designers, are well known in the Pacific Northwest for their colorful artistry with plants, uncommon and common. They are too seasoned gardeners who gardened ‘feverishly’ for 7 years in the 1980s and currently oversee the Dunn Gardens (the Curator’s Garden is a must-see for this pair’s consummate talents). First conceived in 1992, the Northwest Perennial Alliance Perennial Border was meant to inspire and educate the horticultural community in the Puget Sound region. Its fame later spread throughout the North American gardening circles, and demonstrated that the Europeans did not necessarily had the hegemony on mixed or herbaceous borders. Certainly the region’s mild climate with warm days and cool nights, well suited for herbaceous perennials, didn’t hurt either.
When I visited the border in 2005, it had none of the brilliance acclaimed and photographed in books and magazines. Instead what greeted me was a weedy overgrown tangle of perennials and grasses, and any remnants of its former glory failed to redeemed the glaring fallacies, and I left disappointed wondering if the Northwest Perennial Alliance had lost interest in maintaining it. In the interim, tensions had run high between the Border Committee and the NPA Board, which wanted a renovation fiercely opposed by the former. After the Border Committee dissolved, the NPA brought in Longwood Professional Gardeners’ graduate George Lasch to supervise the transformation. Lasch was realistic about the reasons behind the Border’s undoing, saying: “Great gardeners are not always necessarily great designers. It became a classic gardening-by-committee problem, and the editing choices made a decade ago led to problems that we need to address today” (CityArts). Changes afoot included reduced maintenance regimes, better visitor accessibility, and a connection to the rest of Bellevue Botanical Garden. First a bulldozer was brought out to wipe out the area after the desirable plants were saved. Gone were the golden carpets of creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), purple barberry, Siberian irises, and geraniums. “Now the garden has been given a second chance. I will be the first to admit that the renovation has been controversial, as some people believe nothing should change. Life however is full of changes and surprises, and no matter how hard we try and hold on, things cannot and will not ever remain the same.”
Curious about the border’s second transformation, I returned again this year, relieved to discover how beautiful the plantings had matured. The cages for protecting the trees against rabbits were still in place, but they were sculptural, blending with the plants. Instead of the Rothkosque blocks of bright colors in the original design, the plantings have become drift-like and painterly as if Price and Withey subconsciously instilled a looser, relaxed look. Such drifts enable the plantings to be presentable and interesting from each vantage point afforded by the border’s sloping terrain split by two pathways. As part of the shift towards less maintenance, Price and Withey avoided aggressive self-seeding plants (Astrantia was a major problem in the previous border) or woody plants requiring coppicing (pollarded Catalpa grew out of scale when pruning was neglected for some time). Roses hardly make their presence as the Border used to have roses trained over hoops. Nevertheless, these sacrifices did not diminish the Border’s beauty.
The Perennial Border is not monochromatic and a fail-safe approach towards color is not the chief aspiration of Price and Withey especially when the clear summer skies of the Pacific Northwest call for chromatic intensity of equal measure. Soft or cool colors are unexpectedly sharpened with brighter ones (burgundy with red orange; blue with bright orange and burgundy, pink with yellow). Had the Border been graduated in color, the instinct of the viewer would be to walk quickly past the plantings rather than a slow pacing to appreciate an unorthodox combination here and there. While perennials are the principal focus, trees and shrubs are not underrepresented. They may be seem absent in these photographs, but they require more time to fulfill their mature sizes and the unusual ones used are not always readily available in large sizes without being prohibitively expensive. Grasses, especially Panicum and Miscanthus temporarily step into the role of the woody plants.
The renovation still creates mixed feelings within the horticultural community – one employee at Molbak’s confided that she liked the original reincarnation better as it was more lush and fuller. As controversial as the project was for the horticultural community, it is a recurring reminder that no garden exists in inertia and a zealous attitude towards preservation can be detrimental rather than helpful. The ‘missing’ lushness will arrive as the garden moves from its adolescent stage towards maturity, and under the capable eye of George Lasch, the creative input of Price and Withey, and the NPA’s volunteer crew. ~Eric