Friday, September 26, 2014

The winning shade garden and a ghost?

It turns out that on my walks through the streets of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, New York, I was not able to capture large scenes.  This was due to the fact that wrought iron fences - many of them quite old and stunning - kept me from getting an entire view.

I had a fairly decent photograph of this winning shade garden (I was rating all the gardens I saw, and this one was the best one for shade), which had interesting plants and was well-kept, but the fence (thick, black wrought iron with a fleur-de-lis pattern) showed up clear, and the background was fuzzy.  So, we're going to have to depend on our ability to picture what this front yard looked like, using only my description.

What you can't see here is this: a large area between the fence and this hosta grouping at the base of a cherry tree was covered in the mat-like, yellow creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea').  There wasn't a flower in sight (only two lily stalks, long bloomed out), but there were many textures and colors of green and chartreuse that made the garden look sort of like a tapestry.

On the left in the foreground are the leaves of hellebores.  On the right is a light green acorus.  I don't know the name of the main hosta here - seems like there are several that have these particular markings and coloration.  I'm pretty sure, though, that growing just to the back of it is Hosta 'Sagae'.  There was a camellia in the background, and you can see that there were also ferns - several, in fact.

Flanking the steps to the brownstone were two large, spreading Hydrangea macrophylla, but no flowers.  Near the fence was a heuchera with bluish foliage.  Next to it, as far as I could tell from my photograph, was a miniature rhododendron.  I can't be sure about that - it seemed too compact - but it was a good, heavy textured leaf next to the more delicate ones of the heuchera.

What I can't figure out is the "ghost" in the background between the hosta leaf and the fern.  I took several pictures of this exact scene, and in only this one is a smoky-looking mist that looks as if something were wrong with my camera lens.  That could have been the case, although nothing shows up anywhere else.  I choose to believe that it was the spirit of a 19th-century woman, fresh off the boat from Norway, who lived in this house and tended its front garden, which I'm sure looked very different back then.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The prettiest coleus in Brooklyn

While I was in Brooklyn, New York, with my new granddaughter, I read several baby books, including Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, about how French women deal with their newborns and toddlers.  The author is American, but has raised her children in Paris.  In one section, she talked about the contrast with some modern American parents.  She cited Park Slope, an upscale area in Brooklyn, as Ground Zero for helicopter types who hover over every word and action of their children.

Her description of these new-fangled American rituals (I took this as likely peculiar to New York City and environs, but then I don't really know) was funny.  Apparently, it's in vogue to tell your child exactly what she or he is doing at every moment.  On a visit to New York, the author had been at a play area in a New York park (Prospect Park or Central Park - I can't remember) and watched as an intense sort of father served as commentator for his child, announcing the toddler's every move on the slide and other play areas.  "You are now coming down the slide."  "You're climbing up the ladder" and so on.

I thought she was exaggerating until I stood taking this photograph in front of a brownstone on Clinton Street, between Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill.

"This is a coleus," a woman's voice behind me said.  I didn't look around at first to see whom she was addressing.  "It's a summer annual, and it is grown for its brightly-colored leaves."  I turned my head and almost gasped.  She was talking to a boy who looked to be barely three.  He had a tiny scooter with two wheels on the front and a pint-sized helmet.

"It's planted around a boxwood," she continued.  By her diction and lecture stance, she could have been leading a novice class of horticulturists.

"What colors do you see?"  At least this sounded more reasonable.  The little boy was silent.  "Tell me what the color is in the middle."

"Red," the little boy said in a guessing-like tone.  "Almost," she answered.  "We call that color deep cerise.  What do you think that other color is?"

I waited for a terrible moment, feeling sorry for the little boy.  He said "green," in a shy, questioning tone, but very sweetly, she said, "Close enough.  It's chartreuse.  It's a cross between yellow and green. See?"

I have to pause here to say that when my older daughter was only two,  I drilled her on which flower was a zinnia and which was a cosmos.  When she had mastered the concept, I thought she was brilliant.  I was probably no different in my quest to educate my daughter so she'd be sure to get into a good college.

At any rate, I guess I wouldn't have paid much attention to the exchange if I hadn't just read that book.  The woman asked if the little boy thought it was pretty, and to my amazement, he said, "It's the prettiest one I've ever seen," and then they were off, as the light on the cross street lit up that it was okay to walk.

As I said in an earlier post, to make my walks more interesting, I ran a sort of contest, picking out the best garden scenes or window boxes or planters.  I've never thought much about coleus (it can be garishly misused, in my opinion), but my friend Benjie gave me a lovely bi-colored green one that I kept in water over a couple of winters and put in a container again in spring.

I think the little boy was right.  This was the prettiest coleus in Brooklyn, or at least on Clinton Street.  I walked by there several times during my stay, and saw others stop to admire the plants (there was a matching one on the other side of the steps).  There's nothing quite like the combination of chartreuse and deep cerise.  I hope that little boy gets into Harvard, and I hope that if I go back there next year, the owner of these planters will have saved this eye-catching plant.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flowers along the street

Walking around the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill areas in Brooklyn, New York,  I've made up a sort of contest.  Not that people-watching is not enough, but I'm forever interested in which plants are used and how they've been arranged.

Most of the brownstones that make up the bulk of the houses in the area have only stoops and a tiny space in front.  Thus, I have a window box contest, a "best hosta" category, most attractive shade garden - so many of them seem to be in deep shade - and "best containers on steps";  sycamore (or are they London plane?) and ginkgo trees line many of the one-way streets, casting deep shade.  I'm always surprised when I see a bright red geranium growing in what seems at five o'clock in the afternoon a very dark place.

The above is the only candidate in its category, which is "best fence planting in Carroll Gardens."  This area, as I mentioned in a previous post, has large rectangular spaces in front of the tall houses.  The one here had a lawn taking up most of the area, so there was only the part along the fence that had much interest.  Other gardens might have qualified, but the roses or coneflowers or iris were long spent.  They would have looked good at another season.

The glowing hot pink you see here is some sort of aster.  The lamb's ear along the sidewalk adds a touch of blue.   There's a 'Limelight' hydrangea planting among a row of Ilex 'Sky Pencil.'  I thought this was a good use of this latter evergreen, which so often looks lonesome and stark out growing by itself.  You can see that earlier in the summer an Oriental lily bloomed along with some garden phlox.

I still have a few more streets to cover, but in general, the spaces intended for gardens have been a bit disappointing.  I have to think that the people in charge may have once had time or strength to keep a garden up, but not anymore.  And, it's not really fair to judge the gardens in September.  It's obvious that I missed a lot of mophead hydrangeas and many roses and other perennials.  And, I can't count the vegetable garden someone planted.  It's really well-done, with beans still going along the iron fence.  But, it's not photogenic at the moment.  I bet it was back in late July/early August.


Monday, September 15, 2014

Gardens and ironwork go together

I guess it exists mostly in the old cities like Savannah, Charleston and New York, but I'm wishing I could have some of the handsome ironwork I've seen here back home in Atlanta.  Walking in my daughter's neighborhood of Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, one can see examples of exquisite work done long ago.

When my younger daughter lived in Manhattan, she had her tonsils removed.  I remember riding home from the hospital and noticing how many iron fences there were, even in front of decrepit industrial sites along the FDR.  It's pretty amazing that so much of it has survived.

Of course, if you have this surround in place, you have a head start on a lovely garden.  I have to say that many of these rectangular spaces in front of the old brownstones don't live up to their potential, to my mind.  On my daily walk, I do a lot of mental landscaping.  Most of the gardens are well planted, but a few are totally neglected, with weeds and a smattering of dried-up evergreens.   Others are a mish-mash of vernacular tastes.

The block where the above garden is located has a mix of both charming gardens and ones that need work.  Some are still owned by Italians who settled here at the turn of the last century, so you'll see a garden that is nicely arranged, but there will be a shrine in the corner that is a bit startling.  I guess I'm just not used to seeing this sort of thing.  In fact, there's a restaurant on the corner with a canopy of grape vine (with heavy clusters of purple grapes) that looks for all the world like it should be in Provence.  I tried to take a picture, but there's a white shrine to the Virgin Mary that almost glows in the shade of the courtyard.

In this historic district that was founded in the early part of the 19th Century by Irish immigrants and then Norwegians, it was required that the houses along certain streets be set back 33 feet to accommodate front gardens (unlike the fronts of other brownstones in Brooklyn which are much closer to the street).  A lot of the former still retain beautiful iron fences and gates, like the one above.

I can't help but wonder what it would be like to have this defined space.  Would I mess it up by trying to do too much, or would I restrain myself to a few choice plants that would bloom throughout the season?  Whoever did the garden above opted for pretty low maintenance, but managed to include a few striking plants that blend well with the beautiful ironwork.

The flavor of the neighborhood is changing.  Many French people have moved into Carroll Gardens since the 1990's.  I don't know that any of them will ever own these houses, some of which have been passed down through generations (and are obscenely expensive to buy), but it would be interesting to see their take on garden design in such a space, given that so many French gardens have high walls and fences.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

What this rose would have seen on that day

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I had gone to work early, just up the driveway from my house in Atlanta.  We were editing one of our episodes of A Gardener's Diary on HGTV.  My fellow producer and I were there with the editor, immersed in watching what was happening in a garden in the Midwest.

All of a sudden I realized I needed to run over to the shopping center to pick up something from the drugstore.  As I reached the pharmacy counter, several employees were gathered around a radio.  I heard them say that a plane had just crashed into the Pentagon.  I asked what they were talking about.  They told me about New York.  My heart stopped.  As they were describing what had happened, I was seized with fear that the strikes would continue up the island of Manhattan.  My then 23-year-old daughter was there somewhere.

Two weeks before, she had moved out of an apartment in TriBeCa at the corner of Duane and Church, six blocks from the World Trade Center.  If you walked out the door of the building and looked straight down Church Street, you had a great view of the twin towers.  This location turned out to be where most of the major news stations set up in the following days.  It's also where the photograph for the iconic black, shadowy cover of The New Yorker was taken.  On that foldout, you could see the entrance to the apartment.

At that moment, Anne was working in Greenwich Village and staying on the Upper West Side with a friend.  I called and called, but all the circuits were busy.  I drove back home and turned on the television.  Then, I went back up to the cottage, where the editor and my business partner were serenely watching footage of the garden.  They hadn't heard yet.

When I went back home, there was a message from my daughter.  "I'm okay," she said.  Like so many other Manhattanites, she had left work and started walking uptown, all the way to her friend's apartment on 83rd Street next to Central Park.  I kept that message for years, until it was somehow inadvertently erased.

A few days before, on September 6, 2001, I was returning from a trip to France.  As we were landing at Newark, I could see Manhattan off in the distance and the twin towers looming at the end of the island.  I thought of the previous July and the engagement party I'd attended at Windows on the World.  It had been a magical weekend.  My daughters and I stayed at a hotel overlooking the plaza.  We spied the bride-to-be coming out of the Krispy Kreme store on the first floor of one of the towers.  We shopped at the Banana Republic underground, and my younger daughter bought books at Borders.

That night, we took an elevator to the top of the North Tower.  It was twilight when we arrived after the dizzying ascent.  The sun was setting, and a rosy haze hung over the Statue of Liberty.  When dark fell, we looked uptown to a breathtaking view.  The lights of Manhattan were sparkling below us in the night.  It all felt so close, very surreal.

The party was fabulous.   My dearest friend from elementary school, Linda Jackson Carter, and her husband Bill were the hosts.  It was the treat of a lifetime.

Late yesterday afternoon, I walked to the new park at the Brooklyn Bridge.  I passed soccer fields jutting out into the East River.  Young people were playing racquetball or basketball on another wide concrete pier.  There are all sorts of paths and benches to enjoy the vista.  You can see the Statue of Liberty off to the left.  Straight ahead is the tip end of Manhattan, with the Freedom Tower jutting up above the other buildings.  To the right are the majestic stone towers of the Brooklyn Bridge, which has been suspended across the river since 1883.

There weren't a lot of flowers in bloom yesterday, but I spied this rugosa rose along a bike path.  I bent down to catch its delicious fragrance.  I turned my head and realized that if this scrappy bloom had been there on September 11, 2001, what it would have witnessed on that terrible day.

I'm sure you remember where you were when you were stunned by the news.  In our wildest dreams, we could never have imagined this horror in our land.  I remember thinking that the world would never be the same, and of course, it hasn't been, really.  But, as I watched the children running about and couples sitting on a grassy knoll looking out on the river and joggers getting their exercise after work, it heartened me a little, even though I felt the sadness of the loss of all those souls and of our uncertain safety way down deep inside.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not a garden center, but still a nursery

I hope that those expecting a garden scene will forgive me.  My daughter put together this nursery for my new granddaughter, born a week ago.  The reason I'm posting it here is so she can pin it to her Pinterest board.  I apologize to all who were expecting something to do with flowers and gardens and to those who have already seen this on Facebook.  

I'm about to write something about gardens, so thank you for your patience!

Monday, September 8, 2014

What's in bloom on September 8th?

My new computer (this one) is very lightweight and great for traveling.   But, I still haven't mastered it as yet, despite lessons at the Apple store.  One thing they've done, which I miss terribly, is that they've taken away the ability for anyone to scroll through events in IPhoto and see the dates roll by.  For example, on my older computer, if I wanted to go back in time to my Easter 2008 pictures, the months and years would appear over the thumbnail pictures as I scrolled down.  It was a great way to pinpoint a certain time so you could see what was going on in the garden.  I don't know who thought of getting rid of this feature, but I don't believe they realized how useful it was to someone with 31,000+ photos of flowers and landscapes stored in their IPhoto.  I was looking for what was blooming on September 8th in other years, and it took me a while to land on this photograph using this computer.

This is an amarcrinum - a cross between an amaryllis and a crinum.  It's a bulb that blooms in early September (in this case, two years ago today, on September 8, 2012) over a long period of time.  It has strap-like leaves and takes hot sun and humid weather, and very importantly, the deer don't like it.

When my mother got up into her mid-nineties, I took over her flower garden.  This is one of the things I planted, and every year, it has been a delight to see this beautiful lily-like plant with its fragrant pink blooms come into bloom.  Mother's been gone since 2007, and the plant has thrived with absolutely no care whatsoever.

I ordered the bulb from Brent and Becky Heath. On their Web site, they mention the fragrance and how this makes a good cut flower.  That's all you have to say to me.  Mother was like that, too.  She loved to grow flowers she could cut.  She almost always had a bouquet on the kitchen table.

So, I need to put this bulb on my wish list.  I can't remember if it should be planted in the fall or in the spring - probably the latter.  It's not hardy in the north, but can be dug and planted outdoors again in cold climates.

Last winter, the temperature dipped to five degrees F., and where this is planted, it was probably nearer zero.  I noticed last month that the leaves looked good, and the plant was putting on its long buds.   I have this idea in my head to list all the plants that look good at certain dates and come up with a sort of calendar (but not in typical calendar form - my eyes start glazing over if I just see lists on blocks of days).  I think I can do this using my other computer with the easy scroll-down dates.  That way, I could have something in bloom every day of the year.

Now, when am I going to take the time to do this and then plant everything I come up with?  That is the question.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sometimes you need to simplify a design

Sometimes I wish I had formatted this blog to show a "before and after," because the change here is so dramatic.  A friend of mine designed this garden with input from the owner.  Another friend I know takes care of the garden.

When it was originally conceived, the designer had specified boxwood parterres for the upper levels (to the left of this scene).  The owner wanted flowers and vegetables to go in the middle.  The result was charming, but it was high maintenance with the changeout of the seasons, deadheading and a lot of pruning of flowering shrubs, clipped bay tree standards and the replanting of annuals.  It was beautiful, especially in the late summer, with zinnias and showy annual black-eyed susans.

The area you see above was drastically different from its new incarnation.  This is a pool house.  I never realized that fact until the re-do of the entrance.  Part of the reason I wouldn't have guessed the building's purpose is because I was distracted by a waist-high, white picket fence where the brick meets the asphalt.  You had to open a gate to get to the double doors of the pool house.  Inside the fence, where the boxwood parterre and gravel are now, was an herb and vegetable garden.  Flanking the entrance just inside the gate, two large terra cotta pots held boxwood topiaries in the shape of roosting hens.  Against the brick walls, large plantings of sweet basil and a few trailing herbs grew in raised wooden boxes.  At the ends of these matching rectangles within the fence were pots with wire cages intertwined with the sparse foliage of yellow cherry tomatoes.  In front, two rustic baskets hung from the pickets.  It was definitely a country, informal look, and there was a lot going on in a little space.

The other day when I dropped in, I was surprised at the change.  The middle of the big parterres were covered in dark mulch, without a single flower inside the boxwood confines.  In the middle sat a large raised container with a giant agave, a very structural element that lent a gray color to contrast with the green.

I'm not sure what prompted this change.  I'll have to ask the designer.  Vegetables and herbs are now hidden behind hedges along the driveway near where a path leads down to to the goat and chicken yards.

Maybe it's because I long for order in my own life or the fact that I like to look at soothing scenes, but I think this is a great improvement over the rustic look.  As much as I like the idea of "country in the city," this scene matches the rest of the garden as it is now and certainly simplifies entering the pool.  Gravel, clipped boxwoods, vines trained over the doors and new limestone pavers beneath, create an ordered, but handsome scene as you pull your car into the parking area.  I really like it a lot.