Blissing Out at Dumbarton Oaks

I know, I know. That was a very bad pun. However, I was deliriously happy to be at Dumbarton Oaks, the former home of Georgetown DC doyenne Mildred Bliss, and especially to be in the spectacular gardens designed by Beatrix Farrand (1872-1959). But I was also almost delirious with the intense heat and humidity on a Saturday afternoon in mid-June so, having arrived a few minutes before the official garden opening time at 2 pm,  I was delighted to sit for a moment on the cool stone steps leading into the house’s museum, and contemplate this delicious southern magnolia (M. grandiflora) blossom.  Bliss, yes, bliss.

Magnolia grandiflora-Southern magnolia-Dumbarton Oaks

Finally, it was time to head into the R Street entrance to the grounds. In 1702, the land here was granted by Britain’s Queen Anne to a Scottish colonist named Colonel Ninian Beall, part of a 789-acre concession which he called the Rock of Dumbarton after a beloved place in Scotland. In 1801, an early version of the house was built by William Hammond Dorsey.  In 1810, the Orangery was built by another resident in the Palladian style; in the 1860s, another resident attached it to the house.  Six decades later, when diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife (and step-sister), heiress Mildred Barnes Bliss purchased the property, this part of Georgetown was mostly farmland, but the house itself was there, albeit smaller. They renovated the Orangery, added to the house and began working with Beatrix Farrand on the gardens. In 1940, Mildred Bliss donated the house and estate to Harvard University, while continuing to live there. In time it became a research centre. And yes, though they do not form an oak woodland as they did when the property was named, there is still a beautiful oak on Dumbarton Oaks’s southern lawn.

Dumbarton Oaks-House and Quercus

When Beatrix Farrand wrote about the south facade in her plant book for Dumbarton Oaks, she was authoritative in assessing the relationship of the house and its foundation plantings: “The planting on the south side of the house has been chosen from material with foliage of small scale in order to give apparent size and importance to the building. Large as the building is, a study of its scale will show the detail itself is small. As a general principle, approximately one-third of the spring line of the building should be unplanted, as the effect is unfortunate where a building seems to be totally submerged beneath line of plants that muffle the architectural lines and make the building appear to rise from a mass of shrubs rather than from the ground.”

House-South Facade-Dumbarton-Oaks

You can explore Dumbarton Oaks’ gardens online, based on the garden plan below, or you can just take a fast, chatty stroll through its 16 acres in my little blog here.

Garden Map-Dumbarton Oaks

Let’s start adjacent to the house in the 1810 Orangery, which is lovely and cool……

Orangery interior-Dumbarton Oaks

….. with mossy walls striated with shadows from the supports of the glass roof. That creeping fig vine (Ficus pumila) festooned over the walls and arched windows is more than 150 years old, its  exuberance reined in by Beatrix Farrand. In winter, the Orangery is used to store tender plants such as oleander, gardenia and citrus.

Orangery wall-Ficus pumila-Creeping fig-Dumbarton Oaks

By the way, I’ve visited Dumbarton Oaks twice in early April, several years ago, and this is the large magnolia that blooms outside the Orangery. I included this photo (a scanned slide from 2003) because of Beatrix Farrand’s reference to it in her plant book for the gardens. “Immediately south of the orangery, a magnificent old tree of Magnolia conspicua denudata has been christened “The Bride” as when it is in full bloom in early April its loveliness is an enchantment. The tree should be preserved as long as it can be made to thrive and bloom well, and when its days are over it should be replaced by another as nearly like it as possible, as the sight of the white tree from the R Street gateway and looked down upon from the orangery is one of the real horticultural events of the Dumbarton season.”

Dumbarton Oaks-Magnolia denudata-Orangery

Now it’s time to head out into the early summer heat and begin our own tour in the Green Garden, the highest point on the site (and once the site of the barn, which the Blisses removed).  I stop in front of a stone plaque to Beatrix Farrand’s memory.

Dumbarton Oaks-Elegy to Beatrix Farrand-Green Terrace

Its inscription….May they see their dreams springing to life under the spreading boughs/May lucky stars bring them every continuous good

The plaque celebrates the friendship between Mildred Bliss, below left, and her ‘landscape gardener’, Beatrix Jones Farrand, right, whom she hired to design the gardens in 1920 and who stayed involved with the estate until retiring in 1940.

Mildred Bliss-Beatrix Farrand-Dumbarton Oaks

Born in 1872 to wealthy New Yorkers who summered at their estate, Reef Point at Bar Harbor in Mount Desert, Maine, Beatrix Jones began her training in landscape gardening at the age of 20 under Charles Sprague Sargent at Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. At 23, she launched her design practice in her mother’s New York brownstone; at 26, she was the only woman among the 11 founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). While working on Yale University’s landscape, she met historian Max Farrand, who was chair of the university’s history department; they married in 1913 and she became Beatrix Jones Farrand. (In my last blog on the trees and gardens of Princeton University, I wrote about her beautiful landscape (1914-15) for the Princeton University Graduate College.)  She was also a friend of novelist Henry James, whose pet name for her was “Trix”. As for the Blisses, there was also a family connection: while serving as secretary of the United States Embassy in Paris during the beginning of WWI, Robert Bliss and his wife Mildred socialized with Beatrix’s aunt, the novelist Edith Jones Wharton.

Looking over the stone wall beside the plaque, we can see the lovely Swimming Pool and Loggia below.  This area was a horse stable yard and manure pit when the Blisses bought Dumbarton Oaks.  Architect Frederick Brooke, who had done renovations on the house, transformed them into a swimming pool and bath house,. But in 1923 Mildred Bliss fired Brooke and hired the New York firm McKim Mead & White to rework his interiors and redesign the bathhouse, loggia and arcade.

Dumbarton Oaks-Swimming Pool-Arcade

Here’s the pool in April, with weeping Japanese cherries. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Dumbarton Oaks-Swimming Pool-Japanese Cherry Trees

Let’s head down to the Beech Terrace, which features an American beech (Fagus grandifolia) that was the 1948 replacement for the mature European beech (F. sylvatica) that formed the centrepiece in Beatrix Farrand’s design.

Beech Terrace-Dumbarton Oaks

We can look out on the Pebble Garden, originally constructed as a high-walled tennis court, but was modified by Beatrix Farrand, who lowered the walls and draped them with wisteria.  Not much tennis was played over the decades, so it was redesigned as an Italianate Pebble Garden in 1959-61 by landscape architect Ruth Havey, who had begun her career in Farrand’s practice in 1928 and had assisted her boss on early designs for the gardens.

Dumbarton Oaks-Pebble Garden-Ruth Havey

Here is the Pebble Garden at cherry blossom time in early April. That’s a big magnolia, and the beginning of Cherry Hill outside its walls.

Dumbarton Oaks-Pebble Garden-Springtime

There is a deep pool with three fountain statues at the far end of the Pebble Garden, gifts to Mildred Bliss in 1959 from Gertrude Chanler of Meridian House.

Dumbarton Oaks-Pebble Garden-Fountain

This is what they sound like on a June afternoon.

When you move about on the great Georgetown hillside where Beatrix Farrand worked her magic, you’re treading on the patterned brick paths and stairs she designed, often flanked by boxwood hedges that, in the heat of an early summer day, have a fragrance best known to those who’ve owned cats….

Boxwood hedges-Dumbarton Oaks

Let’s move on to the Urn Terrace, where the mood is serene and green.

Urn Terrace-Dumbarton Oaks

Not far away is a lovely little piece of landscape art by Hugh Livingston: the Garden Quartet.

Garden Quartet-Hugh Livingston-Dumbarton Oaks

The interpretive sign in the Garden Quartet reads: “Garden designer Beatrix Farrand wrote that with the sound of falling water and the wood thrush, peace comes ‘dropping slow’ at Dumbarton Oaks. She was referencing the Lake Isle of Innisfree, in which William Butler Yates writes, ‘And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.’ …. While the energy of the composition changes from moment to moment, much of the composition references the sound of the wood thrush, the feeling of peace descending on the garden…..”   Here’s my video illustrating a little of that energy (and, yes, my walking shoes and khaki pants).

Moving on, the Rose Garden is formal and filled with bloom in June (though I always think it would be more effective to have an underplanting of perennial geraniums or dianthus or lavender for those gawky canes.)


I did find one of the pruning staff hard at work here. (Soundtrack by Lynn Anderson)

There is a beautiful stone bench in the Rose Garden with the engraved inscription Quod Severis Metes –   “as you sow so shall you reap”.

Stone Bench-Rose Garden-Quod Severis Metes-Dumbarton Oaks

I find that if I stand on its seat and look over the amazing stone finial, I can peek down into the Fountain Terrace with its twin limestone pools and tropical plant borders – but there’s no time to visit that garden today.

Fountain Terrace-Dumbarton Oaks

Onward we go, heading east parallel to the R Street wall in the direction of the Lover’s Lane Pool – a route that drops 55 feet in elevation from the Orangery to the pool. On the way, we approach a stone column under an ivied arch, all in the embrace of a weeping willow. This is the Terrior Column.

Terrior- Column-Dumbarton-Weeping Willow

The common tawny daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) look as elegant as I’ve ever seen them.  Here’s a closer look at the Terrior Column.

Terrior Column-Dumbarton Oaks

Nearby, in a bamboo-framed clearing, this little Asian-inspired seat with the leaf roof  was designed in 1935 by Beatrix Farrand, who wrote: “This is intended to be a shady place in which garden visitors may rest or read, separated from the flowers but yet near them.” The side panels, not clearly visible, represent the Aesop’s fable “The Fox, the Crow and the Cheese”.

Garden seat-Dumbarton Oaks-Beatrix Farrand

Now we come to the southeast corner of the garden leading in to the pool Here we find a grotto with a pipe-playing Pan….

Lover's Lane Pool-Pan Sculpture-Dumbarton Oaks

…..his musical instrument and hooves as shiny as when Beatrix Farrand installed him there around 1930.

Lover's Lane Pool-Pan

Turn the corner and you’re gazing down at the Lover’s Lane Pool. According to the website, Farrand designed the pool and its 50-seat amphitheatre to resemble the theater at the Accademia degli Arcadi Bosco Parrasio in Rome, the literary society of the Arcadians.


She designed the baroque cast stone columns that flank the pool.

Lover's Lane Pool-Pillars & Bench

We head down the slope and arrive at the hidden entrance to the Herbaceous Border. Beyond the orange daylilies is one of the famous Farrand-designed garden benches.

Daylilies-Herbaceous Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

And then we behold this long, lovely double border, our gaze directed to the simple bench at the far end, as she intended.

Herbaceous border-1-Dumbarton Oaks

There are both perennials such as astilbe and annuals like larkspur in the border. In spring, it is full of flowering bulbs.

Herbaceous border-2-Dumbarton Oaks

Included are plants grown for their architectural form, like cardoon (Cynara cardunculus).

Herbaceous border-3-Cardoon-Dumbarton Oaks

And it is abuzz with bees, like this bumble bee foraging on a pink dahlia.

Herbaceous border-4-Bumble bee on Dahlia

Next we walk under the Grape Arbor at the edge of the Kitchen Gardens.

Grape Arbor-Dumbarton Oaks

When Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss planned the kitchen garden in 1922, Farrand located it on the flattest piece of land she could find, an existing hen house and chickenyard at the northeast corner of the estate. She designed it as three separate working areas: vegetables, herbs and an arboretum, which is now the cutting garden. Looking down on the vegetable garden from the herb beds above, you can see the layout relative to the long grape arbor.

Kitchen Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

In June, there are leeks and lettuce…

Dumbarton Oaks-Kitchen Garden-Lettuce-Leeks

…. and kale and edible flowers too.  During the Second World War, after the property was transferred to Harvard University, the vegetable garden was turned into a Victory Garden. Later, it was abandoned and lay fallow, but in 2009 it was restored and now supplies the staff and research fellows with fresh herbs and vegetables for their meals.

Kale & Nasturtiums-Kitchen Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

We climb up to the Herb Garden which has fetching displays of fennel and lavender with a boxwood-edged stone path.

Herb Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

Bumble bees and honey bees are all over the lavender.

Bumble bee-lavender-Dumbarton Oaks

Leaving the herb garden, I stop to admire a dish of succulents on a stone wall.  (Not all is vintage Farrand here.)

Succulents-Kitchen Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

The Cutting Garden is really lovely, full of bright flowers and bees and butterflies.

Cutting Garden-1-Dumbarton Oaks

The little building is a former tool shed.

Cutting Garden-2-Dumbarton Oaks

I loved this old water trough, and the Clematis heracleifolia in front of it.

Trough-Kichen Garden-Dumbarton Oaks

The Prunus Walk lies on the path between the kitchen gardens but of course its double row of Prunus x blireana is only prominent in early spring. Fortunately, I saw it 13 years ago in full bloom.

Dumbarton Oaks-Prunus Walk-Plums-Prunus x blireana

Finally, we reach the Ellipse, This was Mildred Bliss’s vision, a childhood imagining – and in Farrand’s words, “one of the quietest, most peaceful parts of the garden”.  In 1958, her boxwood trees were replaced by a double row of 76 American hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana) which are also aging and will be replaced soon, along with the installation of a new irrigation system.

Ellipse-Dumbarton Oaks

The fountain is Ruth Havey’s triumph, moved from elsewhere on the property. I made a little video of the delightful water music here, with birdsong in the background.

It’s soon time to go, but we haven’t seen all the gardens. I missed seeing the Arbor Terrace on the way up from the Ellipse this time,  but I’ve visited that garden in April, when the aerial hedge of Kieffer pear trees is in bloom outside the iron railing adjacent to the facing teak benches all designed by Beatrix Farrand c.1938.

Dumbarton-Oaks-Aerial hedge-Pear trees-Cherry Hill

And of course I didn’t bother with the Forsythia Dell, because Farrand designed that lovely path for its brief burst of spring glory – which I was fortunate to see long ago.

Dumbarton Oaks-Forsythia Dell-Beataris Farrand

We climb the stairs of the Boxwood Walk, which is on axis with the Ellipse fountain and forms the gently ascending path up the 40-foot rise back to the Urn Terrace.  It is time to say farewell to the enduring triumph of Mildred Barnes Bliss and her dear friend Beatrix Farrand.

Boxwood Walk-Dumbarton Oaks

Toronto’s ‘Through the Garden Gate’ Celebrates 30 Years!

There will be some beautiful gardens for Torontonians to visit when the Toronto Botanical Garden rolls out the welcome mat for its 30th annual Through the Garden Gate garden tour. It’s being held on the weekend of Saturday June 10 and Sunday June 11th in the neighbourhoods of North Rosedale and Moore Park.  In celebration of the 30 years, organizers have selected 30 diverse gardens. Some are lovely formal jewels like this Moore Park garden.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Formal Garden

Some back onto wooded ravines.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Ravine garden

There’s one of the prettiest green roofs I’ve seen – and on a nice angle to allow visitors a good view.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Green Roof

And beautiful ideas for furnishing a leafy city sanctuary, like this….

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017- Furnishings (2)

…. and this.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017- Furnishings(1)

And wonderful plant design, of course, like this exquisite pairing of sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum)….

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Painted fern & Sweet woodruff

…and this. Don’t you love Japanese forest grass? This is Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Hakonechloa macra

If the weather stays cool, there will still be lush June irises and peonies.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Tree peony

There will be water features, of course, including handsome formal pools….

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Raised pool

…tiered fountains…

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Water Fountain

….and tiny, secret oases under lush textural foliage.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Small water feature (2)

You’ll be able to get some creative ideas for accessories….

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Iron Art

…. and art…

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Art

….and arbours and obelisks.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Obelisk & Arch

….and gates and path materials.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-door & path

And there will be loads of pots and planters, including some with herbs….

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Herb planter

…. and others with tropical climbing vines like mandevilla.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Mandevilla vine

You’ll see what clever gardeners have done to turn little sheds into outdoor cocktail bars…

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Garden Shed Bar

…. and see how easy it is to bring home-cooked pizza to your own back garden!

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-Wood oven

This year, the TBG has arranged for Toronto’s Augie’s Ice Pops to have two stands on the route so you can buy their frosty organic treats, in flavours like strawberry-basil, grapefruit-ginger – or whatever is farm-fresh and seasonal on the second weekend in June!

Augies Ice Pops-Toronto-Through the Garden Gate Tour

Through the Garden Gate is your opportunity to support the Toronto Botanical Garden and its work, while enjoying a rare opportunity to explore some of the city’s finest private gardens.

Toronto Botanical Garden-Through the Garden Gate-2017-promo

Tickets may be purchased through the TBG’s website here. Prices are as follows, and note that it will be difficult to see all 30 gardens in one day, so a two-day pass is your best bet – and allows flexibility for weather (since single-day wristbands are expressly for Saturday or Sunday and cannot be interchanged).

One-Day Pass: Public $45 / TBG Members $40
Two-Day Pass: Public $65 / TBG Members $60
Students $25 (With ID, One-Day Pass Only)
Tax included. Tickets are limited, advance purchase recommended.

And if you’re not a member of the TBG already, what are you waiting for? Become a member and get that discount on your ticket price, plus all kinds of lovely extras:  a magazine, lots of courses, lectures, a wonderful library – and inclusion in a jewel of a garden that’s about to expand and become one of the most exciting greenspaces in Toronto. If you haven’t been, be sure to have a look at my own seasonal photo galleries on the TBG’s website.

Beguilingly Brown in the Garden

“Brown in the garden”. Remember my January resolution to blog about every colour for all of 2016? Well, it’s September and I’ve delayed writing about brown as long as I could….

Brown Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

No, “brown in the garden” is not a phrase you often hear, unless it’s wondering what to do with those Japanese maple leaves that are curling up and turning brown in summer (uh-oh).  Or the white pine needles that are turning brown in October (they’re getting ready to fall silly… no evergreen is truly ever-green.)

In the winter, you might notice bronze oak leaves remaining on trees, even through the snowiest and coldest weather.  That is a function of tannins that remain in the leaves once chlorophyll breaks down, protecting and preserving them in the same way an old-fashioned ‘tanner’ would use these substances to turn animal hides into leather.  This tendency to hang onto the twig as a brown leaf after most deciduous trees have lost their leaves is called marcescence.  Beeches, below, also exhibit marcescence, and their winter leaves can be quite fetching in the garden..


I love this winter combination of columnar beeches (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’) and switch grass (Panicum virgatum) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


Many warm-season grasses also retain tannins in the leaf and enough structural integrity to stand upright through winter weather. Shown below in snow is switch grass (Panicum virgatum), but you may note this strong winter presence in maiden grass (Miscanthus), feather reed grass (Calamagrostis), fountain grass (Pennisetum) and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium) as well.


Toronto’s Music Garden relies on ornamental grasses to provide much of its interest for the long winter months.


Brown seedheads also have their own charm, and many look beautiful against snow. This is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum ‘Blue Fortune’) consorting with a grass in winter.


Purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea purpurea) persist very well through winter, and feed hungry birds as well.


Even in the gardening season, flowers that turn brown add a textural note to plantings.  In my own cottage meadows, I love the September shaving-brush seedheads of New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis).


These are the seedheads of Phlomis tuberosa ‘Amazone’, with the fading flowers of echinacea. Not surprisingly, this duo is in the Entry Border of the Toronto Botanical Garden – a border designed by Piet Oudolf, whose philosophy is to create a meadow-like tapestry of plants that lend beauty even when out of bloom.


And look at these giant alliums, also in the entry border at the TBG. Of course they were beautiful when they were rich violet-purple, but I do love them as brown seedheads consorting with the rest of the plants a few weeks later.


Speaking of the Toronto Botanical Garden, I spend so much time there, chronicling the changes in the various gardens, but especially in Piet Oudolf’s Entry Border, that I’ve come to appreciate the plants that persist beyond their starring roles. So I’ve made a video to show the function that “brown” fulfills as a substantive colour in autumn and winter, after the colourful flowers have faded. There are many plants shown in these images, but especially good for persistence of seedheads are Liatris, Echinacea, Achillea, Stachys, Astilbe and, of course, all the ornamental grasses. Have a look……

Piet Oudolf also designed the plantings at the High Line, where brown is a colour, too. Below is a pink astilbe in the process of turning bronze, then buff, making it the perfect colour companion for the blackeyed susans.


Lovely as they are in the winter garden, many grasses also have spectacular brown flowers that create lovely colour combinations in the summer garden, too, like this fluffy brown cloud of (Deschampsia caespitosa) with airy sea lavender (Limonium latifolium), also in the border designed by Piet Oudolf.


And here it is softening purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) at the Royal Botanical Garden in Burlington, Ontario.  Doesn’t that little cloud of brown add a grace note to that scene?


This is feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) with blue Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) – demonstrating that blue and (golden) brown make lovely dance partners.


Speaking of blue and brown, this is a very good combination:  Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ with Heuchera ‘Caramel’.


Heucheras, of course, have been bred over the past few decades to produce a fabulous range of colours, many of which veer towards brown. I love the rich tones of ‘Mahogany’, below.


Even some evergreens can be called brown, like this weird little arborvitae, Thuja occientalis ‘Golden Tuffet’ (which isn’t even dead!)


Many tropical plants seem to exhibit brownish tones. For example, luscious Canna ‘Intrigue’, here with coleus at the Toronto Botanical Garden….


…. and that strange multi-colored tropical shrub copperleaf (Acalypha wilkesiana), with its patchwork peach & brown leaves. Though you sometimes see this as the cultivar ‘Mosaica’, the reddish-olive-brown shows up in varying degrees in a few forms of that species. ‘Haleakala’ has a completely brown leaf.


I love Cordyline ‘Red Star’, which is the centrepiece of this fabulous urn by the Toronto Botanical Garden’s gifted horticulturist Paul Zammit. Though it often looks more burgundy, here it reads as rich brown, especially with the matching heucheras.


Phormiums or New Zealand flax have been a big part of the tropical gardener’s arsenal, and many are bronze- or olive-brown. This is lovely ‘Dusky Chief’.


And where would gardeners be with annual sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)? One of the richest is mocha-coloured ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’, shown below with Pelargonium ‘Indian Dunes’.


There are countless cultivars of the annual foliage plant coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), and a few hit the brown jackpot, like ‘Velvet Mocha’ below.


Pineapple lily (Eucomis comosa) ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ has olive-brown foliage that really adds depth to a garden, like the Ladies’ Bed at the New York Botanical Garden.


Brown-flowered perennial plants are, admittedly, in short supply (many gardeners likely wondering why you’d even want a brown flower) but there are strange and lovely bearded irises that come in copper and cinnamon shades, like ‘Hot Spice’, below.


And we simply cannot leave a discussion of brown in the plant world without talking about the genus Carex.  Whether it’s Carex testacea, like this fun bronze-headed sculpture in Marietta & Ernie O’Byrne’s Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene, Oregon……


….. or Carex buchananii in my very own sundeck pots a few years back.


I loved the way the Toronto Botanical Garden’s Paul Zammit used Carex buchananii in this spectacular run of windowboxes, along with orange calibracoa, the golden grass Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’, golden cypress and kitchen herbs.


And, yes, C. buchananii can be counted on throughout the snows of winter. (Whether it reappears in spring depends on how cold winter got!)


BUT….. gardeners do not live by plants alone. There are furnishings! And they can be brown & beautiful, like these cool, dark-brown metallic planters at Chanticleer Garden, in Wayne PA.  (Check out the carex inside.)


Speaking of Chanticleer, I loved this rugged brown wood-and-COR-TEN steel bench and pergola in their Tennis Garden – and look how lovely brown furnishings are with brilliant chartreuse foliage.


Weathered COR-TEN steel is all the rage these days, being a stable, rusty finish that needs no upkeep. It was used to spectacular effect to make this canoe-like planter at New York’s High Line, holding interesting, moisture-loving plants flanking the garden’s water feature.


Water features are another way to bring a shot of brown into the garden. Have a look at the drilled ceramic urn fountain, below, which I photographed at Seaside Nursery in Carpinteria, California.


Let me finish up with a few sculptural details in shades of brown. Let’s start with whimsy – and a little Pythagorean creation from Suzann Partridge’s annual Artful Garden show.  Isn’t she sweet?


And then let’s move to elegance: a handsome, rusty obelisk perfectly placed within a flowery border at Northwest Garden Nursery in Eugene.


Finally, I’ll sign off with a little farewell to summer: a September bouquet filled with brown prairie seedheads and grasses, from my Lake Muskoka meadow to you. And a reminder to remember that brown is a colour too!



Green as in Irish, Green as in Garden

Unlike most of my Paintbox Garden ruminations on colour, this one has a slightly more whimsical, personal approach. After all, March (my scheduled green month via my New Year’s resolution), contains St. Patrick’s Day — so two birds with one blog. Green Array-Janet Davis Ask anyone in my family what my favourite colour is, and they will all know the answer: green. My bedroom walls are kiwi-green; my kitchen is celery-green; our summer cottage is stained sage-green. Even my car is forest-green. My Green Subaru Outback

My clothes (many of them, anyway) are shades of green, from bright chartreuse to olive, no matter the season. Janet Davis-Green-Summer & Winter

Perhaps my passion for green comes from having family roots on the Emerald Isle. This pile of stone and slate is all that remained of my grandfather’s childhood home and blacksmith stable in what was once Kilkinamurry, near Banbridge, County Down, in Northern Ireland. I took the photo when we visited the ‘old country’ in 2008. But look at those lovely spring-green fields!  Green as in Ireland!

Campbell House & Blacksmith Shop ruins-County Down

The old Campbell house and blacksmith shop on Glen Corner, as we found it in May 2008 on our trip around Northern Ireland.

This (below) is how it looked in 1917. My great-grandmother Ellen Ann, the gardener, and great-grandfather Patrick Campbell are there in the centre, with some of their children and grandchildren around them, the men in their blacksmith aprons.  My grandfather, also named Patrick (Paddy) Campbell and also a blacksmith, had already immigrated to Canada in 1911.

Campbell Family House & Blacksmith Shop- Glen Corner-County Down

From left, daughter Maggie (m. Cooney), granddaughter Minnie McIvor, Ellen Ann, Patrick, son James and grandson Willie (Bill) McIvor.

Yes, Paddy Campbell. Perhaps I’m drawn to green for the love of gardening I inherited from my grandfather, seen here listening to 11-year-old (bossy? eager? young gardener?) me in his vegetable patch in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when we would visit from the west coast for our summer vacations. (That’s my uncle Vic and cousin Debbie in the background).  If gardening is in the genes, I proudly claim a share of his DNA.

Janet & Paddy Campbell-Saskatoon I have green eyes, too, for what it’s worth – and I like to imagine I was born with them so I could ‘see’ the world through nature-tinted irises.  But of course, green eyes are a product of inheritance (both my parents had blue eyes, which makes mine kind of rare) and melanin pigment and light scattering, so I can’t claim any special powers there. No, I’m quite sure that my love of restful, cool green is a direct result of being so energized and happy in the green and growing world.

Green Eyes-Janet Davis But speaking of pigments, let’s talk about chlorophyll, the pigment that makes our world “green“ and enables our survival on earth through the process of photosynthesis, in which life-enabling oxygen is a waste product. Chlorophyll is in every plant, (there are two types, Chlorophyll A and B, depending on the photosystem of the plant). Though we call it the ‘green’ pigment, in fact it is because it reflects back unused green spectral light waves (sunlight provides the energy or photons needed for photosynthesis) that we perceive it as that verdant colour. In the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) below, the leaves are metabolizing chlorophyll even as they unfurl. A few weeks from now, the full complement of chlorophyll will have turned the leaves dark green.

Sugar maple-Acer saccharum-flowers & leaves In the Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) below, photosynthesis occurs from the moment in spring when those first leaves unfurl until the moment they lose their chlorophyll and expose the underlying orange and yellow pigments in autumn, before ultimately separating from the tree as falling leaves (abscission). It happens zillions of times a day in every leaf, as long as sunlight is there to power it.  That is how the tree feeds itself, and by extension us and other animals – through all the vegetable foods and plant-eating animals we eat. Gymnocladus dioicus-Kentucky Coffeetree

Once upon a time, we got along quite well understanding the science behind photosynthesis via a simple equation, like the one I made below.  The tree leaf absorbs 6 molecules of carbon dioxide via the porous stomata in the leaf surface, while drawing up 6 molecules of water from the soil.Mix them up using solar energy in the chlorophyll-rich chloroplasts in the plant tissue cells, and voila! Plant sugars are synthesized and oxygen is released. End result: the tree feeds itself and grows, and we breathe in the released oxygen. Substitute corn or lettuce or any number of edible plants, and you have the planet’s green grocery store. Add in a grass-eating cow or plankton-eating salmon (incidentally, ocean-borne phytoplankton are responsible for 50% of the world’s oxygen) and you have the photosynthesis-enabled meaty side of the diet. Photosynthesis

Perhaps it’s no surprise that photosynthesis is not really as simple as my little bare-bones equation.  If you thought it was, do yourself a favour and take 12 minutes to watch this excellent video. Then watch it again, and again, for this is the single most important process for life on earth.

BACK TO THE GARDEN….. Now that I’ve written a blog-length introduction with a lot of questionable personal asides, what is there to say about green in the garden? First, of course, it’s the quiet framework — often evergreen —  for all the splashes of colour that attract bees and butterflies (like the Painted Lady on the purple coneflower below). From a design point of view, you need that neutral background to make the colours pop, and give the eyes a rest. And from a biological point of view, each plant must photosynthesize in order to flower, fruit and set seed. Painted Lady butterfly on echinacea

Since many of the plants we think of as “foliage” accents are happier in dappled light, we often consider green designs as being a gift of cool shade, like this leafy section of the David Lam Asian Garden at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver. UBC-Botanical Garden-Creek

Or this ferny glade at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden. What a perfect little scene! Ferny Glade-Van Dusen Gardens-Vancouver

And I adore the Takata Japanese Garden at Victoria’s Horticulture Centre of the Pacific. Look at all this green, with just the tiniest burgundy-red contrast. Takata Japanese Garden-Horticulture Centre of the Pacific-Victoria BC

One of my favourite places to visit in May is the shady woodland garden at Toronto’s Casa Loma. It’s full of northeastern wildflowers (trillium, Virginia bluebell, wood poppy, among others), many of them spring ephemerals, but shimmering in a rich tapestry of ostrich ferns. Casa Loma-Wildflower Garden

The Shade Garden at Montreal Botanical Garden is a spectacular part of this world-class garden, and the subject of one of my favourite blogs. I marvel at how they use just the smallest touch of colour to add sparkle to what is an overwhelmingly green eden under mature trees. Shade Garden-Montreal Botanical Garden

Even without dipping into the other colours in the paintbox, you can design some pretty cool combinations using green, as the Toronto Botanical Garden did here using hostas, ornamental grasses and hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Grandiflora’, front, and Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’, rear) Toronto Botanical Garden-green vignette'

Green is good for drawing lines in the garden, whether ornate, as with the parterre here at Chateau Villandry in France’s Loire Valley,  with its symbols of love and music….

Villandry-Second Salon-Ornamental Garden …or more simple, like the little Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden at New York Botanical Garden.  Some years, the green knots are filled with leafy plants like cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), below….

NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden (1) …. and other years, something more colourful, like clary sage (Salvia sclarea), here. NYBG-Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden (2) You can even draw with green and enjoy the painting when the garden is covered in snow, as with the Beryl Ivey Knot Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden, below.

Boxwood Spiral-Beryl Ivey Knot Garden-Toronto Botanical Garden Lawns are green, it’s true, but you can even have fun with a boring green lawn by turning it into a checkerboard path like the one here at Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast in Niagara-on-the-Lake, (I’ve blogged about Lakewinds before – have a look.) Lakewinds Bed & Breakfast-Niagara-on-the-Lake Though they sometimes seem overused in gardens, hostas are valuable for the elegant foliage statement they make. (If only gardeners would stop cutting off those bee-friendly flowers!)  Here are just a few of the thousands of cultivars that boast every possible permutation of ‘green’. Hosta Array

Green furnishings and accessories can be added to the garden with spectacular results. Look at this fabulous scene at Landcraft Environments in Mattituck, on Long Island, New York. The cushion on the chaise lounge is the icing on the foliage-green cake. Patio & Chaise-Landcraft Environments

And this elegant garden room in Toronto – once a utilitarian garage before being opened up on two walls — was paved in limestone and furnished as a cool, chintz-and-wicker outdoor retreat. Former Garage as Garden Room

In her Raleigh, North Carolina garden, garden writer Helen Yoest has this mint-green Luytens bench to sink into when she needs a rest. Isn’t it pretty?

Helen Yoest-Luytens bench Containers can be green-themed, too. I love my little Home Depot ceramic pots, below. Filled with succulents – they head out to the deck table each spring and I ignore them almost all summer. Succulents-Green Pots

Well, there are containers, and then there are containers….. How about these wonderful urns from Landcraft Environments? Gorgeous, right? (By the way, though Landcraft is a wholesale nursery and closed to the public, it does open one day this summer for the Garden Conservancy, on July 9th, 2016. Plan a trip to the Hamptons around it; you won’t be sorry!) Urns-Landcraft Environments

Let’s end this little exploration of green with a few vignettes. The first is from Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA, near Philadelphia, my favourite small public garden in North America. (I’ve blogged about Chanticleer before, Part 1 and Part 2). Yes, it’s a pleasure garden with a talented roster of designers at the top of their game (including Dan Benarcik, the creator of this scene). Yes, there are greenhouses in which to store all the delectable tropical plants used here. And yes, there’s a generous budget and most of us can only afford the inspiration, not necessarily the ingredients. But isn’t it wonderful, this lush, green greeting? Don’t you want to linger before opening the door?

Chanticleer House GardenBut even a small space can feature a tiny, perfect vignette, like this cool green welcome in Portland designer/writer/garden guru Lucy Hardiman’s colourful garden. A Paris bistro chair, an array of green foliage plants, a soft-green wall behind, and a funky ceramic tile in the brick paving, just to keep things interesting. Perfection. Lucy Hardiman-Green Vignette Something to think about, as we contemplate another chlorophyll-rich spring in our own gardens.   Lamprocapnos spectabilis 'Gold Heart' & Polygonatum odoratum 'Variegatum'

A September Visit to The Corning Museum of Glass

A few years ago, on this last, Indian-summerish week of September, I visited one of my very favourite buildings filled with some of my very favourite things, surrounded by some of my very favourite plants: big ornamental grasses, in all their swishing, early autumn glory.

Ornamental Grasses at Corning Museum of Glass

Yes, I was in the Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG) in Corning, upstate New York, halfway between New York City and Niagara Falls.  Pretty cool architectural curves, huh?

Corning Museum of Glass

The grasses are gorgeous, forming a soft, fountain-like counterpoint to the hard edges of the modernist lines of both building and landscape elements, like the black steel fence along the entrance driveway.

Steel fence & grasses

And my very favourite ‘things’ in the building? Well, of course, those would be glass things. Sculptural glass, like this hanging Fern Green Tower (2000) by Dale Chihuly, a gift from the artist and the signature piece in the museum’s glass-walled lobby…

Lobby-Corning Museum of Glass

Here’s a closer look at Fern Green Tower.

Fern Green Tower by Chihuly

Because of my love for all things green, it was natural that I paid special attention to that verdant hue in some of the museum’s collected works.  So, naturally, I was drawn to this emerald-green chandelier crafted by F. & C. Osler of Birmingham, England around 1870.

Chandelier by F. & C. Osler

But also to this simple green bird by Finnish artist Oiva Toikka, and titled Kiikkuri (c 1974).

Kiikkuri by Oiva Toikka

Did you know that glass can come from trees?  As a garden writer, I was fascinated by these waldglas goblets.  In English, the word translates as “forest glass”, and in fact one of the ingredients in this glass recipe used by rural German glassblowers in the Middle Ages was ash from trees and ferns. I like to think the green colour actually arose from green leaves (even though, yes, I do know about chlorophyll), but it came instead from iron impurities in the sand used in the glass. Still, it does remind me of the forest…..

Waldglas - Forest Glass

What about the green in this stunning mosaic bowl?  It comes from the eastern Mediterranean and dates from the Late 2nd – 1st Century BC. According to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, “Multicolored canes of mosaic glass were created, then stretched to shrink the patterns and either cut across into small, circular pieces or lengthwise into strips. These were placed together to form a flat circle, heated until they fused, and the resulting disk was then sagged over or into a mold to give the object its shape.”  Here’s a good blog post on mosaic bowls.

Roman Mosaic Bowl

And there’s an entire gallery at the CMOG devoted to renowned glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany, who certainly loved his greens, including the leaves in the garden scene of this 1905 window for the Gothic Revial mansion Rochroane Castle, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Tiffany window - Corning Nuseum of Glass

The gift shop is filled with thousands of delectable glass items, including bottles, wine glasses, and hanging ornaments and balls like these ones.

Corning Museum of Glass gift items

And my friends know how much I love glass balls, like these witch’s balls hanging in my living room window.  I shot this photo the morning after our historic December 21, 2013 ice storm – that’s my ice-laden Japanese maple outside the window.

My Witch's balls - December 21 ice storm

Apart from the galleries, the CMOG has a demonstration theatre with a furnace where you can learn about all the steps in the ancient art of glassblowing.

Glassblower- Corning Museum

There’s even a studio where you can reserve a spot to blow your own glass ornament.

Glassblowing Studio

That’s me below in the protective goggles getting a lesson.  (Why didn’t I make a green ornament? Ah, I remember. It was a very rare and distinctive rose glass.)

Glassblowing lesson

And of course there are glass walls everywhere at the museum, some looking out onto those grasses….


And others offering stunning views from the cafeteria.

Corning Museum of Glass cafeteria

At this time of year, green is slowly disappearing outdoors.  Here, the green chlorophyll has gone from the locust trees in the museum’s courtyard, lending them their distinctive yellow fall finery.

Courtyard-Corning Museum of Glass

This amazing museum is still expanding with a big new gallery area, thanks to a massive infusion of cash by glassmaker Corning, Inc.   It’s definitely worth a return trip.