Archive for February 2010

Brook Cottage

February 13, 2010

In the summer of 2002, I took a memorable trip to visit some of England’s great gardens. My tour group visited such iconic destinations as Sissinghurst and Hidcote, Great Dixter, Kiftsgate and Wisley. As breathtaking as those gardens were, however, equally memorable and special were the private gardens we visited. Most – listed in the famed “Yellow Book” – were open through the National Gardens Scheme, from which our own Garden Conservancy organization draws its inspiration. Here is one of my favorites.

Brook Cottage garden

The courtyard at Brook Cottage

Alkerton, near Banbury (Oxfordshire, U.K.)

Brook Cottage is a testament to the hard work and vision of a gifted plantswoman, Katherine Hodges, and her late husband (an architect) over a period of more than 35 years. Located on a hillside in the west-facing slope of a valley in Oxfordshire, the site originally consisted of rough pasture divided by old hedges. The Hodges originally purchased the site’s 17th century house as a weekend cottage in 1964 and eventually retired there.

Near the house, the landscape has been designed to link level areas of lawn and terrace with the natural slopes and to create enclosures with a series of yew and copper beech hedges.

Brook Cottage

Hostas and nasturtiums at Brook Cottage near the house.

Mature trees and shrubs have grown to connect the garden with the surrounding countryside. There are herbaceous borders, a bog garden, more than fifty varieties of clematis and an extensively planted ‘hanging garden’ of roses, including species, old cultivars, and modern varieties.

Brook Cottage, bog garden

The bog garden at Brook Cottage, with Ligularia 'The Rocket' in the background and Acorus 'Bowles' Golden' in the foreground.

Brook Cottage’s garden is open to the public, through Britain’s National Gardens Scheme, most weekdays from Easter to the end of October. At the time of our visit, Mrs. Hodges tended the plantings herself, with the help of one full-time assistant; I saw her trundling a wheelbarrow near one of the herbaceous borders, deadheading blooms, as we visitors wandered around, mouths open. This is a remarkable, memorable garden, not to be missed. Do visit it if you can.

Deck the Walls (and Hedges)

February 10, 2010
hedge pruning

An American holly (?) hedge clipped into swags and star shapes. (Canon G11)

In late  January, as our local Garden Conservancy Open Days committee was finalizing its selections for the 2010 Open Days tours in the DC area, we found ourselves walking down a street in the District with an amazing hedge. Two of the designers among us (pas moi, I can’t tell an American holly from anything but a Foster) thought it was a hedge of American holly. It was beautifully maintained and its crisp, deep green color was a welcome addition to the winter landscape.

What really impressed us, however, was the fact that some talented gardener had carefully pruned it to include a repeating pattern of swags and circles along its upper regions – punctuated with stars every so often. The photo doesn’t do it justice. Slanting afternoon light, peeping in and out of the clouds, raked across the tops of the swags, making them stand out when the light was best.

Seeing this work of art – for that’s what it was – made me think of other walls I’ve seen adorned with living art. Most of them are expanses of brick or stone, either house walls or retaining walls, that have been softened with flowering shrubs or (less often) trees.

Sculpting shapes out of climbing plants can be relatively easy (see the inverted ivy “V” shapes below) or more challenging (think thorny pyracantha, sorry, no photo available). Definitely less appealing than the stars and swags hedge above, but much better than the unadorned brick retaining walls would be without the ivy.

At the Australian Ambassador's residence in Washington DC, inverted "V" shapes of ivy break up a large expanse of brick retaining walls (Canon G11).

Much more appealing is this espaliered climbing rose on the walls of the garden at the British Embassy, which was open to the public for a day several years ago.

British Embassy garden, climbing rose

A climbing rose adorns the wall of the British Ambassador's residence in Washington DC. (Nikon D200)

In England on a tour of public and private gardens in 2002, I saw how even a lowly barn wall can be transformed by climbing roses and evergreen plants.

Eastleach Manor

Climbing yellow roses and an unidentified evergreen climber beautify a barn at Eastleach House in the Cotswolds. (Nikon N80)

Trees are harder to use as wall sculpture. In addition to fruiting trees, Magnolias are favorites of garden designers for this purpose.

Mt. Cuba Center, Magnolia grandiflora, espalier

A Magnolia grandiflora espaliered against a wall at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware. (Nikon D100)

I’ll close with my favorite living wall adornment. At Swarthmore College, the entire campus is a renowned arboretum. It was here I first encountered a cousin of the climbing hydrangea, Schizophragma hydrangeoides, or Japanese hydrangea vine. I love this plant because it will flower in shade and grows relatively quickly; a few years ago I planted it on my north-facing front wall. Here it is in flower at Swarthmore. Thank goodness I had my camera.

Schizophragma hydrangeoides, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore Arboretum

Japanese hydrangea vine in flower at Swarthmore Arboretum (Nikon D100).

A Temporary Respite from Snowmaggedon

February 8, 2010

As noted in my post early this morning, there is no power in my house (and hasn’t been since Friday night).  Here in the DC suburbs, we are in the grips of  “Snowmaggedon.”

This morning, after uploading the Plant Combinations post via iPhone from my bed, under four comforters, I forced myself up and wrapped my already fully-clothed self in a shapeless but heavy terrycloth robe. In the kitchen, I could see my breath. Time to leave the house, I decided.

I will not bore you with the details. I am writing this from the comfort of a Hilton GARDEN Inn (I thought the name was appropriate, but more importantly, they had rooms available when I called) a couple of miles from my cold, now deserted house. Before I left I took some photos with my iPhone and Canon G11. Then I walked into downtown Bethesda and took some other photos, some of snow and some just colorful snaps to cheer myself up. Here they are, in no particular order.

I promise to return to garden designer/photographer mode soon, but for now I am just glad to be warm again. They’re predicting another round on Tuesday – spare me!

Plant Combinations, Part 1

February 7, 2010

When I talk to new garden design clients about what they want, nine times out of ten they say, “Color! I want lots of color!” It’s understandable. Who doesn’t like color? But where I live, nonstop color in the garden is hard to achieve unless you have a brightly painted tuteur, sculpture or furniture.

What many people – clients and gardeners alike – don’t realize is that foliage, texture and shape play a more significant part in keeping a garden interesting than colorful flowers, which may last only a week or two (unless you’re talking about annuals, which is an entirely different matter). Looking at a picture like this can help.

Allium caeruleum, Cornus alba Ivory Halo, planting combinations

Foliage texture and shape play important roles in making this planting combination work.


This is the first image I show new design clients as we begin to talk about color Almost every client to whom I’ve ever shown this photo (taken in my garden) loves it, even though there are really no strong colors to be seen.

What are we looking at? From left to right, the major players are a variegated shrubby red twig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’); lady’s mantle with blue ornamental onions coming up through them (Alchemilla mollis with Allium caeruleum, which I discovered on a trip to England); and on the right, a white spiraea coming into bloom (Spiraea japonica var. albiflora).

What’s so appealing? Although the blue notes of the alliums are nice, I think what makes this combination work is the harmony of the green shades coupled with the variety of textures and the variegation of the dogwood’s leaf, and the “pop” of the chartreuse blooms of the lady’s mantle. The spiraea will rebloom later in the summer if it is deadheaded after the first flush of flowers, and the broad leaf of the lady’s mantle will continue to provide a nice contrast with the delicate foliage of the spiraea and variegation of the dogwood.

Here is another example of a good plant combination that also uses the ‘Ivory Halo’ dogwood and another allium. These are ‘Purple Sensation,’ and behind them, around the river birches, you can see Karl Foerster feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis). When the alliums disappear the grasses, which stay tall and erect, are a beautiful wheat color.

Allium Gladiator, Cornus alba Ivory Halo, planting combinations

Another plant combination with alliums and Calamagrostis


OK, I’m a sucker for purple alliums and use them a lot in my planting schemes. They provide a real punch of color in early summer after other bulbs have given up the ghost. In another garden I planted them with Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’ and the effect of the simultaneous bloom times in May is pretty impressive. But even after the flower colors are gone, the texture contrasts between the allium seed heads and the Baptisia’s foliage continues to work.

Allium Purple Sensation', Baptisia 'Purple Smoke'

Allium 'Purple Sensation' and Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' are an eye-catching duo in the spring garden.

Want something where there is stronger color and more long-lasting contrast? Here’s something for those of you who live where you can grow lavender (hard to do in our clay soil here in the mid-Atlantic region where I garden). While the photo isn’t great, the plant combination is, and would be even better if the lavender were planted directly in front of this red Berberis (barberry).

Barbery, lavender, planting combinations

Lavender and Barberry hedge at Kiftsgate Court in England

As a garden photographer, I love photographing these “plant vignettes” because such images convey a feeling or mood of part of the garden. They can supplement photographs of larger views of the garden and provide a more intimate feeling of being in a special part of the garden. When I work on garden books I always try to include a mix of vista shots and plant vignettes, along with capturing ‘garden rooms’ where they exist.

I have many more plant combination ideas to share down the road. In the meantime, let me know if you have favorites I should know about. And remember, color is only part of the equation!

Dear readers – I’m posting this by iPhone today. No power or heat at my house today in the suburbs of Washington DC thanks to our massive snowstorm!

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