Archive for February 2010

A Winter Road Trip, Part 3 – Filoli Center

February 27, 2010

First, a confession: formal gardens aren’t really my personal favorites.  I enjoy including tightly clipped evergreens  in a mixed border, to provide contrast to plants with looser habits, but it’s rare that I design gardens ruled by axial symmetry and carefully shaped trees and shrubs.

Having said that, I must admit I enjoyed visiting Filoli Center on my third “winter road trip” in February. I was in the area for a visit with my son and had spent some time at a small but lovely community garden in Palo Alto, the Elizabeth Gamble Garden, when I decided to head for Filoli the next day.

Filoli, which is in the care of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was created as a grand country house and garden for the Bourn family in Woodside, CA beginning in 1915. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Roth family, which gave it to the Trust in 1975.

After paying my entry fee, I didn’t even bother to visit the grand house (cretin that I am) but headed straight for the gardens, which range from natural-looking meadow areas to yew allees and trees that have been pruned into formal shapes like nothing I have ever seen.

The biggest splashes of color in the garden, in mid-February, came from hundreds of pots of forced bulbs, primarily daffodils, scattered through almost every area of the garden.

Filoli center

A cherub surrounded by Narcissus greets visitors near the entrance at Filoli Center.

Narcissus 'Erlicheer', Filoli Center

A fragrant white ‘poeticus’ daffodil was only one of many kinds on display in containers at Filoli.

Within the Walled Garden, I saw volunteers working in an area called the Chartres Garden, where low-growing annuals in yellow and blue hues surrounded hybrid tea roses that had been pruned back, awaiting spring. In the background, geometric yew cones and cylinders and meticulously pruned hedges provided an eye-catching contrast to the rounded boxwoods in the rose beds.

Filoli Center gardens

In the Chartres Garden, a wheelbarrow and tools testify to the year-round efforts of the garden’s workers and gardeners.

Camellias in bloom provided the other primary source of color in the early spring of northern California at Filoli.

Filoli Center garden

Red camellias and an elaborate iron gate draw visitors into the Walled Garden

Camellia C.M. Wilson, Filoli Center

Camellia japonica ‘C.M. Wilson’ in bloom at Filoli

Behind the pool area in the Sunken Garden, an enormous Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) dominated a large seating area, surrounded by pots of daffodils. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from its sweeping, arching branches, many of which were covered in moss. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be during the growing season.

Ulmus glabra Camperdownii, Filoli Center

Moss-covered branches of the gorgeous Camperdown elm at Filoli

Ulmus glabra Camperdownii, Filoli Center

The Camperdown elm dominates the view near the Pavilion at Filoli

The Sunken Garden area itself is dominated by a large cylindrically-pruned silver-barked tree unfamiliar to my East Coast eyes, possibly an olive tree pruned “in a formal goblet style” (see Filoli’s website for an extensive and detailed discussion of the garden’s design and influences). Setting it off is a grouping of enormous upright yews.

Filoli Center, Pool Garden

The Sunken  Garden area at Filoli, with the Garden Room in the background.

Adjacent to the sunken area, moving toward the house, again you see pots of daffodils everywhere, marking the transition to a terraced area from which there are vistas down into wilder, meadow-like areas.

Filoli Center

Daffodils and terra cotta pots soften yew hedges leading to a terraced area at Filoli

Filoli Center garden

Saucer magnolias in bloom on the terrace at Filoli.

Filoli Center garden

A view from the terrace at Filoli to a meadow area beyond.

According to information on Filoli’s website, as the planning for the gardens and house began, a wheeled tower was constructed to identify the best vantage points for the garden for capturing views of the surrounding mountains and lake. What a great idea! As I’ve noted before, views are critical in designing a garden. The Bourns understood this, even without the help of any formally-trained landscape designers or architects to help them.

And the name “Filoli” – where did it come from? From the first two letters of  “FIght – LIve – LOve.”  “To fight for a just cause; to love your fellow man; to live a good life” was a credo that Bourn believed in. Not bad for a life, or to inspire the birth of a remarkable garden.

Filoli Center is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays from February to the end of October. For more information on its history, admission, and special programs, visit its website.

A Winter Road Trip, Part 2 (California Dreamin’ at the Gamble Garden)

February 25, 2010

Several weeks after my Winter Road Trip Part 1, I headed west – far west – to visit my younger son who is in college in northern California. Before leaving I decided that I would spend some of his class time visiting some gardens within easy driving distance. First stop, the day I arrived: the Elizabeth Gamble Community Garden in Palo Alto.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

A topiary bunny near the garden shed

The Gamble Garden is a non-profit community horticultural foundation, with two and a half acres of gardens for strolling and enjoyment. It’s tucked away in a residential neighbhorhood – not surprising, since it was once the private residence of Miss Elizabeth Gamble. Elizabeth, whose father was a co-founder of Procter & Gamble Co., spent one year at Stanford before transferring to Wellesley for the rest of college. Having no doubt realized the error of her ways in terms of climate (!), she returned to Palo Alto after college and spent the rest of her life in the Gamble house. Her gardens became well-known and she enjoyed sharing them.

Any photographer loves to find a public garden that is open as early as you can get there, because of better light in the early morning and late afternoon hours. The Gamble Garden is one of those, and admission is free, with access for disabled persons. In short, a wonderful gem to find. There are demonstration gardens, a gazebo, and even the occasional wedding on site!

Here’s what caught my eye the day I visited with my trusty point-and-shoot.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

Red-hot pokers, or Kniphofia uvaria, provide stunning color in February in the Gamble Garden

Camellias were in bloom throughout the garden. Here is one of my favorites.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

Camellia japonica 'Chie Tarumoto'

Island beds were green and surprisingly full, even in February.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

Mixed herbs and perennials in a rectangular bed.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

Chartreuse euphorbia blooms brighten up a sea of green shades in the garden.

Finally, there were the succulents. Agaves and sempervivums made me wish to be a California gardener – if only temporarily.

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

A hanging basket of mixed succulents, offset by Acanthus foliage below, on the workshed wall

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

An agave with glowing silver leaves in the Gamble Garden

Elizabeth Gamble Garden, Palo Alto gardens

A volunteer tends to part of the succulents collection, including an "apple" cactus in the background, at the Gamble Garden

So if you ever find yourself in Palo Alto, take a detour to this garden. Waverly Street, where it’s located, is full of beautiful gardens as well. I’m looking foward to visiting in another season. If winter is like this, the rest of the gardening year must be stunning indeed.

The Garden is Open

February 21, 2010




Garden Conservancy

A private garden in Potomac, MD welcomes visitors on a 2009 Open Days tour (Nikon D300).

“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.”
— Hal Borland

As I write this, I am trying to block out the fact that about 50 linear feet of copper gutters recently ripped off the back of my house, a lingering present from Snowmaggedon 2. So I decided to listen to Mr. Borland and think about spring and the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days tours.

I can’t remember when I first learned about the Open Days program, but it was when I was still shooting film, some time after I returned from my trip to England. The Open Days program  is modeled on England’s National Gardens Scheme, through which owners of specially selected private gardens open them to the public on designated days during the year. Admissions proceeds are donated to various charities. Brook Cottage, about which I wrote earlier, is among those gardens that participate in this program. (For a wonderful description of how the Brits’ program works, visit The Autumn Cottage Diarist’s blog.)

My first visit to a local garden open through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program was in Arlington VA, to a garden designed by Tom Mannion, APLD. It seemed pure magic to me. And the owners were on hand to talk about the garden and how it was created.


Garden Conservancy

The back yard of an Arlington VA garden as it appeared on tour during the Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program in 2004 (Nikon N80).

The patio area between two studios (Nikon N80).

I was hooked. Then, for a couple of years, there were no gardens open through the Open Days program in our area. So, en route to my Hudson River Valley trip in 2004, I decided on the spur of the moment to stop in Nutley, NJ on a hot August day where I had learned there would be a fabulous garden open. When I arrived at the location, I discovered not one, but two amazing Garden Conservancy gardens right across the street from each other. Both were designed by Richard Hartlage, a well-known landscape designer, author and photographer.

The smaller of the two gardens, belonging to Graeme Hardie, was a masterpiece of getting the most out of a relatively small space,  with numerous level changes. It was absolutely full of color, beautifully planted containers, and colorful walls, creating a tropical feel.

Graham Hardie garden

Sculpture greets visitors as they enter the Hardie garden (Nikon D100).

The multi-level design makes the garden seem larger than it is (Nikon D100).

Across the street, Silas Mountsier’s one-acre garden was almost overwhelming. Large sculptures are dotted throughout the garden.  Hartlage, who is based in Tacoma, Washington,  was actually on site for the day, talking to visitors about both gardens and his plans to expand Mountsier’s even further (which I understand has occurred since my visit).

Silas Mountsier, Garden Conservancy

The front yard of the Mountsier Garden is boldly accented with tropicals and annuals (Nikon D100).

Abstract sculptures in the small patio at the Mountsier garden, with Datura in the background (Nikon D100).

Mountsier garden

A large cow sculpture with a Cornus controversa 'Variegata' brought by Hartlage as a five-gallon specimen when the garden was first planted (Nikon D100).

Wherever you live, there’s a good chance that there will be one or more Open Days in your area this year – the Conservancy’s program is expanding and new areas are added all the time. Consider joining the Conservancy; you’ll receive a free copy of their 2010 Open Days directory (I’ve met gardeners who plan their vacations by it!). Or sign up for information by e-mail about GC events. The GC has many stunning large-scale projects they’ve helped to fund, including the restoration of the gardens at Alcatraz.

Check out their schedule to see what’s available – and stay tuned here, as I write more in the coming months about what’s in store for gardeners in the DC area this year under the Open Days program.

Photos from the DC area’s Open Days 2010 program are featured in my book, The Garden Is Open. For a preview of the book or to purchase it, visit the “My Books” page.

A Winter Road Trip, Part 1

February 17, 2010
Heuchera, greenhouse

A sea of heucheras in one of the greenhouses.

Today’s post is a simple travelogue for those of us weary of the endless snow blanketing our landscapes these days.

I’m about to head to northern California for a few days to visit my son. (That will be Part 2 of the Winter Road Trip series, hopefully). But in early February – before Snowmaggedon Parts 1 & 2 – two colleagues and I trekked up to central Pennsylvania to visit a new (to us) wholesale supplier. The company we visited has been around for 20 years growing wholesale bedding plants and perennials. They work primarily with independent retail nurseries (as opposed to the “big box” guys) to provide plants that are a little more unique, to help their customers set themselves apart.

Our landscape design firm is moderate in size, and we specialize in residential landscape design, installation and maintenance. As one of the in-house designers I’m always interested in seeing what might be coming up on the event horizon, and the photographer in me decided to take along the trusty Canon G11 just in case. On both counts, I was glad we made the trip.

Most of our tour time was spent in some of the many, MANY greenhouses at this particular site, one of several owned by the company.

We began by visiting three or four unheated hoop houses filled with different varieties of hellebores, one of my favorite plants. Luckily for us, there were any number of them in bloom, and out came my camera. Since their blooms droop down, I had to look hard (and get into some contorted positions) to be able to capture the blooms, but it was worth it.

Helleborus orientalis, Quality Greenhouses & Perennial FarmThis was probably my favorite shot, because the shape of the petals looked so unusual. Our tour guide said it was a “straight species hellebore” rather than a particular cultivar. In recent years various plant breeders have undertaken to develop special strains of hellebores, bred to produce particular colors of flowers, or double blossoms, but this little beauty just shines on her own.

These pink ones were also favorites.

Helleborus orientalis

Pale pink hellebores can brighten up a winter day.

My friends finally dragged me away from the hellebores and we went on to see what else was being sheltered in the greenhouses. Turns out the company is also experimenting with some one-gallon “woodies” (woody plants, trees and shrubs) to see how they will do. The other designer who had come along and I were taken with an upright version of Russian arborvitae (Microbiota decussata ‘Jacobsen’), which we immediately envisioned as a great potential addition for container plantings in shady spots.

A new upright version of Russian arborvitae being grown in one-gallon pots in a greenhouse

This shrub has ferny-looking coniferous foliage that turns bronzy in winter. (In the landscape, the species is great as a groundcover, especially in deer-infested areas in zones 3-7 as it isn’t very tasty to our four-legged friends.)

Elsewhere, we saw Acorus ‘Ogon’ with a cool-looking moss (Selaginella, I think);

Acorus 'Ogon'

and what seemed like acres of tagged four-inch pots of varieties of spreading groundcovers, tolerant of modest foot traffic, that were being grown on.

The 'Jeepers Creepers' line of plants being grown in four-inch pots, seemingly to infinity.

Amidst that sea of green and white, I came across one of the ‘Jeepers Creepers” pots with a bloom rising above the tag. Voila – ‘Pink Pussy Toes’! A tiny but oh so welcome bloom in the wintry landscape, reminding me that – eventually – spring will come.

Jeepers Creepers 'Pink Pussy Toes'

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