Five minutes with RHS Chelsea designers: Visit Massachusetts Garden

May23

Hollyhock corner in Catherine MacDonald - Susannah Hunter garden at RHS Chelsea 2013

Thanks to the Visit Massachusetts team for introducing me to the designers at its RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013 garden, which won a Silver Gilt. Below is taken from my exclusive chat with artist Susannah Hunter and garden designer Catherine MacDonald.

Who are the design team?
Susannah Hunter (shown below) and Catherine MacDonald, applique leather artist and landscape designer respectively. I hadn’t realised Susannah is from Arbroath, well north of me in Scotland. Catherine is with Landform Consultants, and Amanda Miller assisted Catherine with the graft of planting on site.
Susannah Hunter's leather stream with water lillies on the garden planted by Catherine MacDonald at RHS Chelsea Flower Show2013

What is the Visit Massachusetts Garden?
A small garden in the “Fresh” category at RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2013. Panels of Susannah’s botanically correct leather murals line the walls of this intimate space, softly planted by Catherine. A channel of blue leather and waterlillies crosses the plot, covered with perspex (I would have loved to see running water here). I loved this garden – and it photographed so well, with foreground “real plants” like foxgloves against a backdrop of the same flower in leather.

Where did Catherine and Susanna get their inspiration?
Susannah wanted to pin the garden to some kind of Massachusetts narrative, and a visit to Amherst and the Emily Dickinson museum helped her understand more about the reclusive poet: Dickinson was a keen gardener and flowers feature heavily in her writing. The Houghton Library and Glass Flower Collection at Harvard University were great resources for Susannah, and Dickinson’s own herbarium (a book of labelled, pressed flowers) gave Catherine a plant list to work from. (Catherine r. and Amanda l. are shown together below).
Catherine MacDonald and Amanda Miller from Landform Consultants

When is the garden set – historic or modern?
“It’s a modern take on the English cottage garden,” Catherine told me, and I could see that: sleekly shaped chair, trendy deschampsia cespitosa, and did I mention the leather? Actually the deschampsia felt retro, recalling long roadside grasses during my childhood near Boston. Undeniably the garden feels historic, with the dainty tea cup, old books and old-fashioned hollyhocks tilting lazily across Susannah’s panels. Key plants are aquilegias (aka columbines) Black Barlow, Ruby Port and Vulgaris Alba; cornus kousa Chinensis (sadly the genuine New England flowering dogwood, cornus florida, isn’t easily available in the UK), Iris sibirica Tropic Night, Matteuccia struthiopteris, Papaver Patty’s Plum.

Why leather in the garden? Isn’t that crazy and perishable?
Susannah’s left some of her applique panels in her own garden as an experiment and they’ve weathered well, but she most definitely hasn’t designed her work to be for outdoors. “It’s about bringing the garden into the house,” Susannah says. “I have clients I’ve done commissions for – for example one client whose yellow irises only flower for a few weeks of the year – and I’ve done a headboard for her, to see the iris all year round.” Susannah hasn’t designed any pieces meant for the outside, although she says she’s thinking about doing so.

How does the artist work?
Susannah sketches flowers from life – her wisteria panel began as a drawing of a friend’s abundant wisteria one May – and also works from photographs, building up an image bank to draw upon for commissions. Plant geeks will love the accurate detail and growing habit of her work: climbing roses reach horizontally across panels, wisteria spills down the wall, tall hollyhocks lean just a bit to one side.

You can see Susannah’s work here, contact Catherine via Landform Consultants and go visit Massachusetts for goodness sake: there are now garden tours to the region. If you enjoyed this, you can click below to share on Facebook or Twitter.

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Girls’ Week goes to the spring gardens of New York

May11

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I have a patient family. My sister and mother have agreed to devote our annual Girls’ Week holiday to visiting the gardens (and a few wineries) of the New York area – Stonecrop, Innisfree, The Mount and a few others. In practice this means they walk about with me a little bit, photographing a few tulips or touring the gardens’ adjacent historic properties, then they sit in the car reading and knitting and letting me ogle plants. I’ve promised we can do Munich next year, which may bring the alcohol-horticulture ratio into a fairer balance.

It is spring in New York, which is weeks ahead of where I live in Scotland. The cherry blossom and dogwoods are over-the-top beautiful, great clouds of perfume are rising off the lilacs and the hostas are well-unfurled. Wisteria – which grows as wild and indifferently as buddleia – has draped its grape-bunch flowers at roadsides and over derelict buildings and along the front porches of houses whose owners don’t really care about gardening.

Herb Gardens at Boscobel
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In a country of 300 million, it isn’t easy to find people who really care
about gardening. A neighbour looking at another’s property is more likely to admire the giant gas barbecue or the new Prius in the driveway, or perhaps the most prized plant in American gardens, the well-watered lawn. But there is a passionate minority who care very much: like the 3,000 NGS-style gardens that open annually, or like the Philipstown Garden Club, who tend Boscobel House’s historic herb garden with only heritage varieties of fruit, herbs and flowers. The large but light-touch blossom of the Boscobel quinces has made me realise how much I need one in my garden near Edinburgh. You can see more Boscobel garden pictures here.

With so many municipally planted cherries and cornus and red-pink cercis, there is a magnificent show even without fanatical gardeners on every street. The flat-faced cups of the white dogwoods are my favourite, but I love the way all the cornus rise up towards the light in what is a heavily wooded landscape here: houses are all detached, unlike in Scotland, and trees crowd in everywhere, between houses and behind grassy back yards that trail off into the ever-present woods.

Herb Gardens at Boscobel
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I grew up near Boston, and these wild, uncultivated woods are what strike me most when I come back. In Scotland, every scrap of roadside land looks to me to be farmed or inhabited. It’s a great contrast to the acres of idle scrubland along New England roadsides: thousands of trees grow upright or lean against each other from storms, or stand dead and bleached in the ponds that appear here and there. The wildlife must love this, I keep thinking: so much water, so much cover and wild food. Bill Bryson, another American who like me has an unusual perspective on the US as a long-term ex-pat, has noted this, too: there is a impressive amount of wild nothingness here in the New England woods.

Woodland wonders and the Hudson River Valley at Stonecrop

In such a landscape, hand-crafted spaces like Stonecrop Gardens have an altogether different feel: this isn’t the crowded UK, where hiving off a bit of land for ornamental gardens can seem almost indulgent. Stonecrop, which is the former home of Garden Conservancy founder Frank Cabot, is marked by a simple sign along the endless treescape of the main road through upstate New York. It feels like the woods have been forcibly pushed back to allow this stunning space to breathe in the landscape. The views over the Hudson River Valley are memorable, and frankly compete with the expert planting, which I think I photographed from every angle. I loved how emerging herbaceous plants were blended with generous swathes of tulips, and a great lawn dedicated in part to ferns and lily-of-the-valley help the garden blend well into the woods beyond. More Stonecrop Gardens pictures are here.

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A separate woodland garden at one side of Stonecrop is the best I’ve ever seen. So many plants I didn’t know – caulophyllum thalictroides, mertensia virginica, glaucidim palmatum, plus simple, dark-stemmed adiantum ferns I fell in love with – in well-planned beds (I remember seeing one labelled “Woodland Bed 10”) that have been labelled with up-to-date Garden Tour markers.

I haven’t visited a garden that has such a well-planned Garden Tour – a printed list that’s given to every visitor. One of the head gardeners prepares the list by walking the garden every week or so, and figuring out the ideal route to take at the moment, moving numbered labels to mark current star plants. This walk is written up on the tour, with a numbered list of star plants, including the Latin and common names and plant family of each. Phew! “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it,” one of the nice ladies in the potting shed told me. I bet it’s worth it for them, too – they can get on with propagation and planting without identifying the same plant for thousands of visitors.

Open Days with the Garden ConservancyClick for larger image

We left Stonecrop, later to be given tea and biscuits by the wonderful Lisa-Ann and friends at the Garden Conservancy, which is like a cross between the National Trust and the NGS in the UK: the Conservancy both preserves historic gardens and encourages private home owners to open their gardens, a bit like the Yellow Book, but as 100% fundraiser for the Conservancy’s work.

Meeting the Conservancy folk and seeing jewels like Stonecrop convinced me that gardening isn’t a fringe activity here, there really do exist my kind of people, who would drive hours to peer at an interesting planting concept – like this cool idea at Innisfree Gardens below: flat stones interplanted with what I think is hakonechloa macra aureola. But I do get the sense that fanatical gardeners exist, much like that grass, in tiny, fertile pockets of land in an otherwise indifferent environment in America.

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The television last night showed us a parade of intriguing things, including an advert for a steakhouse that promised to drape their bacon burgers with extra bacon nuggets (“At Longhorn Steak House, we don’t just do bacon, we do bacon-on-bacon”), and a food show that tours the greasiest diners in North America, serving dishes like butter-topped burgers and chicken that has been double deep-fried (don’t ask). But more memorable than the cuisine was how gardening is portrayed. Adverts lean heavily toward the chemical, advising which weed killer to pour on your flower beds, and which bedding plants to buy now so your garden will appear instantly full: I think it was an advert for a home store selling flower-towers of impatients and petunias. No waiting, no gardening, just add water – a bit like pot noodle, when all you want is that full feeling, and taste doesn’t matter.

A good way to garden

Today we’ll see something we haven’t experienced yet: two Open Gardens for the Garden Conservancy, both in New York, including the garden of Margaret Roach, who produces the A Way to Garden podcast that made my top 5 a few weeks ago. Margaret writes in her blog about her organic methods and grow-your-own ideas, and she is always careful to say that her methods aren’t the only way, but just “a way” to garden. I guess she’s trying to inspire, rather than dictate. Seeing the environment in which gardens are made here in the US, I think a little inspiration can go a very long way.

What were your impressions of the gardening culture when you’ve visited other countries?

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Moss-covered pot of emerging Tulip Mount Tacoma

January8

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I need late autumn interest in the garden — dahlias need not apply

September14

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Novemberish gales are blowing the September garden sideways and making me think prematurely about mulching, clearing and cozying in. The open wire grille I put down to keep leaves out of the pond has stopped airborne bits of recycling from pummeling the tiny puddle of water and its newts. I’d never managed to cover the pond before this year. Maybe last winter’s swift, shocking start in November is what has me bracing for the end of the gardening year, and a bit too soon. The apples and pears are bearing, most leaves are stuck fast to branches and the late asters haven’t even shown yet.

Do you do dahlias? I’ve never grown one I liked — they are martyrs to earwigs, which means I’m not tempted even by the lighter, arier single types. The more traditional dahlias, great blobs of colour, are repellent to me. The autumn roses I grow are fat and colourful, too, but all are balanced with large areas of their own green foliage. The dahlias are unrestrained, unremitting splotches of red, pink and purple blowing a technicolor raspberry from the border — you can keep them.
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An autumn combination I prefer is growing now in the hall border, which I see foreshortened from my office window, so far-apart plants appear side-by-side. It includes:

  • heuchera palace purple
  • aster frikartii Monch
  • liatris spicata
  • schizostylis coccinea major
  • Lobelia fan blue
  • Rose de Rescht
  • Rose Zephyrine Drouhin
  • Rudbeckia Goldsturm
  • Lonicera (honeysuckle) berries
  • alchemilla conjuncta
  • persicaria

I’ve tried so hard to get autumn colour here, especially late autumn colour, for my daughter’s birthday at the end of October. That means I really need November colour, and that’s hard.
Click for larger imageMaybe this is the real reason I’m looking ahead to November: I’m keen to know if this year’s show will be any better, now that the persicaria and chrysanthemums will add to the later asters (Alma Potschke) and Schizostylis. Claire last year suggested some of the hardy fuchsias as good performers into November, and I’m propagating some from cuttings now.

Sorry if it’s tedious for you, but I keep coming back to this question of November interest (see here and here) because I can’t get it right. My two children are November and February birthdays, and a garden show at those times of year is Advanced Gardening. I have this vision of a blanket of snowdrops beneath black-ball Rudbeckia seed heads from the previous autumn. Do you think this will work? It would be some achievement to have a good autumn-into-winter show that celebrates both kids. But much of the garden gets too little sun for the Rudbeckias, and even those that thrive would need to withstand Scottish wind, snow and thaw.

I’m not sure if this black and white plan will work (I’m trying to propagate the Rudbeckia just in case), or if my kids will even know what I was trying to do for them.

Although plantings that are “for” others aren’t really what we gardeners do, is it? The planting is for us, to echo our feelings or memories of those who mean so much, we need them in the garden with us.

Who have you planted for? What did you plant?

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Ten signs you’re obsessed with the garden

May23

Click for larger imageThis year I’ve put most of my gardening budget into a professional garden design, so I’m in retail shutdown and can’t buy any new plants – at all. But I’ve discovered there are plenty other signs of my garden obsession in my behaviour, even with plant-buying taken out of the equation. Any of this sound familiar?

  1. My beautiful baby (plants): I’ve more photos of my borders than my children. From their earliest seed leaves to when they’re big (they grow so fast), my plants dominate my Flickr albums.
  2. Tick tock, sun by the clock: I know precisely when each area of the garden gets sun, especially in nooks that see just an hour or two of direct light. This makes me very boring, but it also makes it easier to plan where to put seats, especially for winter sun.
  3. In my dreams: Dreams or nightmares about the garden are a regular thing for me. Whether it’s a chat with Alan Titchmarsh or a late frost that killed the hellebores, they’re always unlikely and always feel utterly real.
  4. Count plants, not sheep: If I want to distract myself – at the dentist, when swimming laps, or when trying to drop off to sleep – I recite an A-Z alphabet of plants (*has a realisation about the cause of #3 above*).
  5. Weather geek: I worry about and watch the forecasts for killing frosts, heavy snow and gales in a way I never did before the garden drew me in. I’m constantly amazed at the plants’ drive to grow, flower and set seed, regardless of the weather.
  6. Love the Latin: I now love and want to learn more Latin plant names, a transformation from my first impression of botanical nomenclature as a needlessly pretentious quirk of gardening. The folksy common names are interesting, but you can’t beat the precise, no-room-for-confusion Latin.
  7. Stand and stare: Standing outside – or, more usually, looking out a window – I may stay motionless for many minutes, imagining small or big changes I could make to the space. It looks like an absent seizure, but it’s just the gardening obsession.
  8. Not great company: Because gardening has taken over eleven-tenths of my brain and this is tedious for people around me, I strain to keep gardening out of conversation. But like any hobbyist, my obsession is how I make sense of the world. Or, more precisely, it is my mental release valve: the vocabulary, beauty and order of it are a great comfort to me. I do try to muster some small talk about holiday plans or current events, but really I’m just waiting for someone to talk about tulips.
  9. These are my people: Meeting another garden-obsessive is as good as it gets. The conversation doesn’t just flow, it pours – about everything from holiday plans (for our seedlings) to current events (Chelsea). We need some way to recognise each other faster, like the brooches the masons used to wear.
  10. Forever young: Surprises in the garden give me a regular supply of Christmas-morning wonder. The first snowdrop, germinating seeds, baby newts, self-seeded plants – all these first-time-discovery moments make me feel small, safe and sure that everything in the world is well.

Are you garden-obsessed? How can you tell? I’d like to hear about it.

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