Thursday, August 26, 2010

Great Gardens

Sissinghurst Castle
One of my very favorite gardens has to be the great Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. It was once the private home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s and has been in the care of the National Trust since 1967. Sissinghurst found it's name with a first mention in 1180 as the home of Stephen de Saxingherste. It had a long storied history until Sackville-West and Nicolson found it in 1930 in a state of ruin. Over the years they transformed it into one of the foremost gardens in England. I was first privileged to visit it in 2001. I was staying in London and to get there I had to take first the subway, then a train, then a bus and finally had to walk the final mile to the castle. I met a woman on the bus who showed me a short cut through some hop fields to avoid the roads. Unfortunately that year was one of the wettest in England's history (and THAT'S saying something) and to get through the hop fields we had to wade through ankle deep mud at thick that I'm convinced if we hesitated at any point we would have never been able to extricate ourselves from the ooze. Just when I was wondering if this was all worth it, we came out to the entrance of Sissinghurst and saw the looming and famous tower in the distance.

The Tower was the domain of Vita Sackville-West, a renown author and poet of her day,  she immortalized her tower in a sonnet, Absence, written in 1931:
"No lights are burning in the ivory tower
Like a tall lily in the moonlight risen"

The entrance arch to the courtyard is covered with red roses (Allen Chandler) and pink roses (Gloire de Dijon)

No matter where you go in the gardens, the tower is always a looming presence.

To get a feel for the length and breath of the gardens at Sissinghurst, you must climb the tower and see them from above...well worth the climb because the views are breathtaking. To the right you can see the White Garden, this was taken in June, before the canopy of Rosa mulliganii had come into bloom.

This gives you just a glimmer of the lushness of the White Garden...and I loved having this older British lady in the picture, she just fits.

Looking to the south is the view of the Rondel circle, designed and named to reflect the traditional name and shape of Kentish oasthouse floors, where hops would lie in mounds.

The view of the Orchard from the Tower. In spring the Orchard is filled with daffodils, that must be some sight.

Seen here is the Rose Garden. From the beginning the Nicolson's insisted Sissinghurst to be filled with roses. The curved wall to the right is called Powys Wall after it's designer A.R. Powys.

As important as the selection of the roses in the garden are the companion plants, chosen both to complement the roses and to extend the season of the display.

From the Rose Garden you can see the South Cottage.

The South Cottage is picturesque and tiny, and was considered the Nicolsons' private sitting-room. It was at the South Cottage that the gardening day for Vita and Harold, began and ended. The chair Harold Nicolson used to sit in, still remains where it was in his day. 

Outside the South Cottage was a cottage garden, small and intimate and filled with all the plants you'd expect in an English cottage garden.

The Lime Walk: the lime trees were originally planted in 1932 but were replaced in 1974 when the original common limes became too troublesome to maintain. Tilia x euchlora was chosen as a suitable alternative to the common lime because of it's lack of suckers, glossy leaves and a more moderate growth pattern.

Of all the beautiful gardens present at Sissinghurst, this little spot, tucked into a corner of the Cottage Garden is my favorite. This particular area is damp and shady and has been much patched and roughly mortared over the years. The lead tank with it's pattern of Tudor roses, is filled with Fuschsia tryphylla.

Sadly Sissinghurst Castle's success has also been to it's detriment. When I first visited in 2001 there were a moderate amount of people and no congestion whatsoever. On my last visit in 2003 the difference was overwhelming...very congested, lots of people milling about and certainly not as enjoyable because of the crowds. I have heard since that visiting days have now been limited because the crowds have led to damage and the villagers have complained because of all the traffic. I am just thankful that I was able to visit before it became TOO popular.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Theme Garden

The White Garden
Among theme gardens the white garden is the most popular. White gardens were made popular by the work of famous garden designers such as Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West. The white garden at Sissinghurst Castle in England, home of Sackville-West is long considered THE white garden. At night a white garden becomes a moon garden because the white will light up the dark. When white flowers are combined with silver or blue toned foliage the overall effect can be quite magical. Originally the Sissinghurst garden was planted as a rose garden in 1931, it was converted to a white garden in 1950. The centerpiece of the white garden at Sissinghurst is the rose covered canopy, covered with a profusion of Rose Mulliganii flowers in early July. I've never been lucky enough to see the canopy in bloom since my first visit to Sissinghurst was in March of 2001 and the last time was in June of 2003. The garden is a maze of low cut yew and boxwood hedges with various white flowers in the middle, all enclosed within a walled garden.

The White Garden at Sissinghurst is highly designed and both formal and casual and has set the standard for white gardens.

There are many elements that make a white garden successful. Enclosure: enclose your white garden with a picket fence, hedge or wall, or place it in a corner and the sense of enclosure will heighten the quality of the garden. Dark background: a dark background will make any white blossoms stand out even more, especially in a moon garden. Formal or Informal: the use of clipped hedges filled with white blooms such as at Sissinghurst is very formal and very effective. The blossoms simply pop out against the dark green frame of the hedges. However you can mix white flowers together in one bed and the use of blue, silver or variegated foliage can be quite effective.

Annuals suitable for a white garden are nicotiana, impatiens, cosmos, sweet alyssum, petunia and cleome among others.

Perennials for the white garden are many and can include peonies, candytuft,
dianthus, iris, Shasta daisies, foxglove, phlox, lupine, hydrangea
and of course, roses.

 No need to limit yourself to flowers in your white garden, there are many variegated shrubs and trees such as this Cornus Controversa Variegata that look stunning in a white garden.

 This is a very unusual formal white garden at Penhurst Place in England.

This wasn't part of a white garden but calla lilies could be
a beautiful addition to one.

 My own white garden is evolving, and is at the entrance to my backyard, in a dark corner and is filled with white astilbe, hydrangea, variegated hostas and white impatiens.

When researching plants for a white garden, the word "alba" within the botanical name is an indicator of a white plant or flower. There are many white plants to choose from, and don't forget bulbs, tubers and rhizomes. For a moon garden, try using fragrant plants such as jasmine since most fragrant plants are at their most scented at night. Many white gardens also use cream and pale yellow, it's all up to you as to what you want.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gardening against the odds: Part Two - Critters

Critters, love 'em or hate 'em and
sometimes both.

 I consider myself fortunate, I only have to deal with deer, chipmunks, squirrels (who raid my bird feeders), snails and various garden bugs, snakes (that pick off my frogs in the pond)...oh and two border collies running ruts into the lawn, rolling in fertilizer and peeing on my perennials. BUT it could be worse...thankfully I don't have rabbits, which I rate a bigger pest than deer, groundhogs, vols, woodchucks and assorted other critters that ravage the garden, tunnel everywhere and basically are total nuisances.
With any critter, you can plan for certain situations but then some things just take you completely by surprise...for instance, I spray for deer and if I'm diligent I don't have a problem but this year I was caught off guard. I have never sprayed my vegetables nor my dahlias and they have never been affected before. Imagine one evening picking some lettuce and everything was lovely and the next day the horror to find everything gone...I did put temporary netting over the bed to prevent further damage until I could do something more permanent, since the only thing affected was all the lettuce and one cabbage plant, so it could have been worse. Obviously I didn't close the netting properly and in the course of the night, it came undone because the next morning the deer had  paid another visit and finished off everything that they had missed the previous day...all cabbage and now dahlias...gone, BUT they were kind enough to leave the celery with only a few nibbles marks. I have since put proper netting around the bed and have learned my lesson...if deer are hungry enough they will eat anything, and never assume.

The difference between this before and after picture was ONE day.

I have a ton of chipmunks on my property and I must admit, I adore them and love to watch their antics...however this year they crossed the line. During the winter they tunneled into my greenhouse and ate 20 of my 25 dahlias which were stored there and then to my surprise one day I walked into the greenhouse only to have the pathway imploded under my feet.
The rocks that have been used to fill the foundation were nearly two feet deep and each rock is probably the size of a chipmunk but that hadn't stopped them. The second picture is the pathway in the process of being ripped apart to be rebuilt...the tunnels extend where ever I have lifted the pavers, probably a bit further.

This Alberta Spruce went from beautiful to horrid in the course of a few days...I suspect it wasn't the lack of water but a case of mites that have eaten the plant from the inside out. This plant will be replaced in the spring because I doubt it will's pretty far gone and our lack of rain, isn't helping. Usually Alberta Spruce are pretty bullet-proof...I have another one that is 15 years old and not affected at all.

Snails are a universal problem of most gardeners...they love Hostas among many other plants, nearly as much as deer do...the tried and true method for preventing snails is beer...placed in shallow trays. They are attracted to the smell, and will fall in and drown. However for a spell I was going through a six-pack of beer a week and not getting any enjoyment from I stopped. There are products on the market that you can sprinkle around a plant that will kill the snails when they ingest it, but the most effective method, is also the least enjoyable and that is going out late at night with a bucket of soapy water and hand picking the culprits off your plants.

Our feathered friends are fun to look at, we even put out birdhouses and feeders to attract them, but sometimes they would prefer to make their own accommodations and look for food elsewhere, such as the sides of our homes. These holes, in addition to many others around my house, are courtesy of my local woodpeckers, most likely looking for bugs in the cedar siding, and in the process making my house look like Swiss cheese. And after they are through, other species of birds move INTO the holes and set up housekeeping. Meanwhile I have very expensive birdhouses throughout the property that are left unoccupied...the little ingrates.

I must admit I would rather have a flock of deer, wild locust and practically any other plague upon my property than Wild Grape vines...they are a serious problem for me...they can grow miles in the course of a season, strangling and suffocating any tree or shrub that comes within their path. Usually in the spring before the trees have filled out, I go throughout my property, cutting the vines, sometimes an inch or more in diameter and pulling what I can from the affected plants and trees. Than I paint a product call Vine-X on the stump which absorbs it and kills it at the root. This is an ongoing battle and if I miss one year, such as I did this year, I soon regret it. Early this spring on one side of my property I hacked away an eight foot deep tangle of wild grape and wild rose. In the course of two months the wild grape has come roaring back covering lilacs, a butterfly bush and even ornamental 20 foot or more length vines. What makes it so horrible is it grows around and throughout a plant, making it very difficult to remove and it can shimmy up a 40 foot tree in no time. Even cutting the vines you have to be careful..I place them in bundles in an open place and making sure they die before I toss them into a pile for fear they will reroot and live to suffocate again.

Gardeners are soldiers, always fighting some battle, be it too much rain, too little rain, too hot, too cold, a variety of bugs, wild critters and even pets. I also believe gardeners are among the most optimistic people around since despite what happens in one season, we are ready to put it behind us and think about the next and how we can learn from our mistakes and change things. It takes a lot of heart and perseverance to fight the good fight each year. But oh what a reward when it works.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Gardening against the odds: Part One...Mother Nature

A gardener's dilemma, the constant battle with critters and Mother Nature...a lesson in patience and perseverance.
The road to a beautiful garden, isn't easy, even for the most experienced gardener. If it's not torrential rain such as the northeast had in 2009 or the constant and never-ending heat of this year, coupled with no rain, then it's deer, rabbits, ground hogs, chipmunks, squirrels, snails and a dozen other critters that may see your garden as the buffet du jour.
This year the heat and drought we've been having in the northeast has been a challenge...for me, the additional challenge is I can't be constantly watering because I have a well and I have to dole out the water so I don't run my well dry. I have two 50 gallon rain barrels to help but even those aren't doing the job this's severe and devastating....plants are crispy, trees and shrubs are stressing. I have even lugged water from my dehumidifier and bath water to water that's a gardener's devotion. My usual beautiful garden has taken the hit and I will definitely lose plants this year but hopefully some of the most affected may actually live to bloom another day and year.
Personally I have a pecking order in a drought and heat situation...the first to get water are container plants, roses and astilbe, next the plants that are drooping, obviously in need of water and finally the woody plants and trees since they seem to weather the situations in the long run because of their size and root systems. My lawn doesn't even get a's all a matter of time before I replace it with new garden beds anyway. Usually I don't see large shrubs and trees showing much sign of being affected...this year is different.

This Rhododendron is shriveling up and no matter how much I water, it isn't having any affect on it, I just hope because of it's size and established root system, that it will survive and flourish again next year.

Astilbe are water and shade lovers so they are always a problem in a drought and heat situation but from my past experience even in this pathetic state, this once lush Astilbe will be back next year, unaffected by this years circumstances.

Unfortunately this Euphorbia will not be as lucky as the is doubtful it will survive. It went from beautiful to dead in the course of a couple days.

Some plants can bounce right back with a little water, such as this Abutilon...once it's watered it will just come back, and the difference can be dramatic...this plant has actually tripled it's size since spring, even while battling the lack of water and the heat.

Another plant that will dramatically bounce back with a little water is the Hydrangea though a few blooms may be lost, the plant will be back the next year as if nothing had happened.

This Spirea will be back but it will take some pruning and TLC to bring it back to health, I have no doubt it will survive, but it's size will be affected because a lot of dead wood will have to be pruned away.

Container plants are always a challenge in heat and a drought, they really need to be watered daily to not be affected and missing one day can result in the above...but since these are annuals, they have a limited shelf life anyway and for now, some water will bring them back to life, until the frost finally kills them.

Mother Nature is more than heat and drought situations...last year we had so much rain, my roses rotted before they could bloom. Earlier this spring, during some hurricane force winds, my wooden arbor was thrashed to such a degree, it broken in two and had to be replaced.  I've had trees fall on a garden squashing everything in sight. Gardening brings challenges and no one is immune. Please come back for the next installment on critters, cute and beautiful and fun to watch, but watch out...they can decimate a garden.