In 1958 as her job as an editor at The New Yorker was coming to close, Katharine S. White penned a gardening column entitled “Onward and Upward in Garden,” the first in a series of fourteen pieces that would run in the magazine over a twelve year period. Compiled and published with an introduction by her husband E.B. White two years after her death in 1977, Onward and Upward in the Garden was reissued as a New York Review Books Classic in 2015, the second garden book to be so honored.
I have returned to Onward and Upward in the Garden frequently and it is a book that I recommend for any season, particularly the dog days of August. There’s not a picture within its pages and each piece can be read and savored on its own merit. As White notes in its concluding essay, there are few American books that deal with horticulture and plants as a true branch of literature. Her pieces for The New Yorker achieved both, providing pleasure to not only gardeners but any other reader.
A traditionalist, White’s tastes were, like her writing style, simple and direct. She grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and gardened in Maine. With a sensibility shaped by her New England heritage, White preferred the “plain to the fancy, the relaxed to the formal, the single to the double, the medium sized to the giant.”
The book’s title, Onward and Upward in the Garden, is borrowed from a Unitarian phrase and underscores the pragmatic approach White favored in her exploration of the gardening world. Nothing fancy or unnecessary, please. Included within are chapters devoted to the history and literature of gardens, the arranging of flowers, herbalists, seed catalogues, and garden trends and developments.
For White the garden was a world where the practical intersected with the intellect and the catalogues of seedsmen and nurserymen (described as her favorite reading matter) were as worthy of consideration as those of historians and botanists. She wrote extensively about current publications including a piece from 1962 in which she reviews the book, Her Garden Was Her Delight, breaking new ground and based upon the promising idea that “little-known women gardeners, botanists, botanical artists, plant collectors and garden writers have played a part in the horticultural history of our country.” How far we have come.
White is described in the book’s introduction as owning no gardening clothes and more likely to visit her garden in a pair of Ferragamo shoes than work boots. Once a year, in a ceremonious manner, she donned a shabby Brooks Brother raincoat and on a fall day oversaw, with military precision, the laying out of the spring bulb garden described as “a crucial operation, carefully charted and full of witchcraft.”
Witchcraft or not, in the introduction E.B. White notes that his beloved Katharine aspired to author a garden book but wished to write one more piece – a reminiscence of the gardens of her childhood. While this final piece, unachievable due to ill health was never realized, Onward and Upward in the Garden serves as her legacy to the canon of American garden literature.
Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katharine S. White.
Edited with an introduction by E.B. White.
New York Review Books Classics: 2015.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, August, 2016
It’s not often that I visit private gardens and even less often that I visit those best known for their topiary (despite the fact that I wrote about the Ladew Topiary Gardens in my last post).
However, when I discovered that Tower Hill Botanic Garden was offering a tour of the Hunnewell Estate in Wellesley I decided to attend, having admired its picturesque front lawn and entry drive on my visits to Elm Bank, home of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society which is just across the road.
The estate is a rare, surviving example of its type; a comprehensive ensemble created and owned by the same family for more than one hundred and fifty years. Once regaled as a fine example of a model country place in the style of A.J. Downing, it has retained its design integrity and remarkable collection of trees. Visiting was a special treat.
Described in a New England Historical Society article as a “railroad baron and garden nut,” Horatio Hollis Hunnewell was born in 1810 and began work on his estate in Wellesley in the 1840s. Enamored of rural life, Hunnewell spent decades planning, planting, expanding and improving the property.
In 1854, three years after the house, designed in the renaissance revival style by architect Arthur Gilman was built, Hunnewell began work on the Italian garden. Containing a series of seven terraces on a seventy-five foot bluff overlooking Lake Waban, it was inspired by the gardens at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire, England.
Since the time of Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) topiary, the art of shaping trees and shrubs, has been practiced in various forms. Hunnewell’s use of topiary in his Italian garden is credited with being the earliest in the United States and the geometric shapes he favored were executed with species of trees cross-bred to thrive in New England’s harsh climate.
Hunnewell’s Italian garden included a pavilion and a series of steps, ornamented with statuary and urns with a lakeside promenade. In 1865 Hunnewell built a boathouse to house an Italian gondola.
As far as topiary is concerned (and here I add that an expert I am not) Hunnewell favored geometrical shapes and forms including cones, spheres and pyramids rather than representations of birds and animals.
The image below, taken from a stereoscope by J.F. Jarvis is titled “The artist’s dream: Hunnewell’s grounds, Wellesley, MA., USA. It’s all rather pointy and looks rather like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Seuss.
Maintaining topiary is a labor intensive task and at one time five men spent two months each year on ladders, held by hand to trim the trees in the Italian garden. Today this job is undertaken by the current garden staff with the assistance of family members.
Committed to the advancement of horticulture, Hunnewell had one of the largest and diverse collections of conifers in the United States. He was nationally recognized for his experiments with trees and woody plants including the now ubiquitous rhododendron, which he introduced to New England and sponsored an exhibition of on the Boston Common in 1873.
Befitting an operation of its scale, the Hunnewell estate included other gardens and features including a formal french style garden adjacent to the house (now removed). We had an opportunity to visit the conservatory where trained nasturtium vines encircle the doorway.
One cannot help but to be deeply impressed by the vision and dedication that Hunnewell brought to his horticultural pursuits. A lifelong supporter of both the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and the Arnold Arboretum, Hunnewell was a passionate advocate for both institutions. His strong sense of stewardship for the landscape and collections of his estate has been carried on by subsequent generations and today the property is protected with a conservation restriction by the Trustees of Reservations.
One last note on the name. The property was originally named Wellesley, in honor of Hunnewell’s wife’s family. When both the neighboring Wellesley College and the town, of which Hunnewell was a generous benefactor, adopted the name there was a bit too much “Wellesley” and it is now referred to as the Hunnewell Place/Estate/Property.
Please note that the Hunnewell Estate garden will be open to the public through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days program on Saturday, August 13, 2016 from 10-2 pm.
Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
If in this year of presidential politics you yearn for a different perspective on life in the White House, All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by landscape historian Marta McDowell provides the perfect antidote.
Revealing the story of how the Presidents and their families have shaped the eighteen-acre landscape which comprises the White House grounds, the book provides both a refreshing and revealing account of what is the nation’s “first garden” and begs the question, depending on who is elected in November, what’s next?
McDowell, a consummate storyteller, is without political bias relying instead on the politics of plants to provide “common ground” and serve as the focus of the book’s narrative. A backdrop for the nation’s history since 1800, the White House grounds are both a public space for pageantry and protest and a private space for refuge and reflection. Each presidential family has left its imprint and each has a story to tell.
Beginning with the founding of the capital by the somewhat “plant-crazy” George Washington, who sited the executive mansion on a rise for a good view, McDowell traces the history of the White House grounds within the context of the American horticultural movement. Its first plant list, an order for specimen trees including species native to America to line a formal entrance approach to the executive mansion, was placed by James Madison in 1809.
The cultivation and ceremonial use of trees plays a central role throughout, including the history of Washington, DC’s iconic cherry trees. While John Quincy Adams answered “the great ends of his existence” by growing chestnuts and elms and establishing the nation’s first forestry project, Eliza Scidmore, described as an “unpaid but determined garden lobbyist,” vigorously pursued her vision for the planting of cherry trees along the tidal basin.
And speaking of trees, in the chapter “All the Presidents’ Plants”, McDowell includes a list of trees, shrubs and vines grown on the White House grounds based upon inventories conducted in 1809, 1900 and 2008. The plant list includes the botanical name, cultivar, whether the plant is native to the lower 48 states and information about the time frame in which the plant grew.
Additional sections provide background information about the White House gardeners (The Men Who Planted for Presidents), recommended reading, sources and citations. Historic documents, maps and photographs generously illustrate the text, which deftly balances its breadth of scholarship with the freshness of McDowell’s style and depth of enthusiasm for the subject at hand.
In its final chapter, “Is Green the New Red, White and Blue?,” All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Gardens Have Grown with America comes full circle as Michelle Obama breaks ground on the Kitchen Garden. Planted with more than 50 varieties of vegetables (including some grown from seeds from Monticello), berries and herbs, the garden brings local food, in the tradition of past administrations, back into the White House kitchen.
Irvin Williams, head gardener from 1962 – 2008, is quoted as saying, “What’s great about the job is that our trees, our plants, our shrubs, know nothing about politics.” A felicitous thought indeed.
The White House grounds are open to the public twice a year. Information can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov in the statements and releases section.
All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown with America by Marta McDowell Timber Press: Portland, Oregon, 2015.
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, June, 2016
“Never be under the weather, there are so many other places to go.”
Thus was the philosophy of Harvey Smith Ladew (1887-1976) creator of the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, considered by the Garden Club of America as “the most outstanding topiary gardens in America.”
A lifelong bachelor and renaissance man Ladew was, among other pursuits, an American horticulturist, golfer, painter, socialite, decorator, collector, writer and avid fox hunter. Born into a wealthy New York City manufacturing family his youth was one of privilege, enriched by international travel and artistic pursuits. As an adult Ladew merged his interests in the design of his home and gardens.
Drawn to the Maryland countryside for its equestrian culture, Ladew single-handedly transformed a rather unremarkable farmhouse into a 22-acre garden that is both a whimsical homage to famous gardens of the world and a serious horticultural endeavor. He was a master of detail and a collector of ornament integrated by a sophisticated design sensibility.
Ladew purchased Pleasant Valley Farm in 1929 and for 47 years worked on both the house and gardens, creating a backdrop for a life devoted to pleasure. An adventurer who socialized with a sophisticated crowd, including Lawrence of Arabia, decorator Billy Baldwin, and the Prince of Wales, Ladew brought the same sensibility of discovery, albeit on a more intimate scale, to his country estate.
His oval library, seen below, was described as one of the most beautiful rooms in America and contains more than 3,000 volumes of modern first editions including biographies, art and gardening books, French literature and travel guides.
While Ladew’s motto was “play now, work later” he clearly worked passionately to design and maintain his gardens, thoughtfully assuring their continuation after his death. Drawing inspiration from gardens throughout the world, each and every one of the garden “rooms” he designed bear his imprint. Gardening was for Ladew a highly personal endeavor.
Ladew’s garden “master plan” began with the creation of the “great bowl,” a sweeping expanse of lawn north of the house embellished with an oval swimming pool. Enclosed by high hedges of hemlock and yew and accented with twelve topiary swans, today the great bowl serves as a venue for garden concerts.
Familiar with famous gardens throughout England and Italy, Ladew drew inspiration from their designs, combining formal and informal elements that are both intimate and public. Two cross axis allow for uninterrupted vistas while a series of 15 garden rooms, each devoted to a single color, theme or plant are sited off the main axis.
Ladew reportedly visited and was influenced by Hidcote and is credited with being one of the first Americans to develop gardens designed in this manner within the United States.
In 1971 he was awarded the Garden Club of America Distinguished Service Medal for developing and maintaining the most outstanding Topiary Garden in America without professional help.
I visited at the end of April when the dogwoods, azaleas and spring bulbs were in full bloom. As is often the case with gardens, I walked through once and then proceeded to do so again backwards, seeing completely different things. The more I looked the more impressed I was both with Ladew’s sense of design and his horticultural sensibilities.
The plan below is from the guidebook, The House and Gardens of Harvey S. Ladew written and designed by Dee Hardy.
A Quick Garden Tour: It’s here that I use my editorial judgement to share my favorite garden rooms and details, a challenging process as there are many. To see them all visit the Ladew Gardens webpage where you will also find a listing of events.
The Woodland Garden serves as a transition between the visitor center and house. The garden’s curved pathway provides an informal entrance to the rooms beyond and really is quite modest given the extent of the garden. A centrally placed dovecote is but one of many ornamental features, emblematic of Ladew’s attention to detail, sited throughout the garden
While the Berry Garden was designed by Ladew as a fall and winter attraction for birds, its sense of enclosure, views to and from the house and larger landscape and simple, formal design serve (from my perspective) as the formal forecourt to the gardens beyond.
The photo below is of the Pink Garden a transitional space between the Croquet Court and Rose Garden. It is planted with crab-apples, birch, dogwood, smoke bushes, Fairy and Carefree roses, astilbe, weigela, rhododendron, zinnias, snapdragons and bleeding hearts.
To enter the Garden of Eden one passes through an arch and over steps engraved with the Chinese proverb, If you would be happy for a week, take a wife, If you would be happy for a month kill a pig, But if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.
I was fortunate to visit when the azaleas, which Ladew carefully selected, were in bloom. Appropriately the garden contains a statue of Adam and Eve nestled in the shrubbery (with Adam hiding an apple behind his back).
The Keyhole Garden is a curious space, bringing to mind images of Alice in Wonderland. Containing chess pieces, it is planted in shades of red.
Described as cool and serene, the Water Lily Garden serves as a central forecourt, connecting to the Topiary Sculptures and a series of other smaller, more intimate spaces within the gardens.
The 250-foot long Yellow Garden was inspired by Gertrude Jekyll and features tall chartreuse chamaecyparis and golden privet framing a stream flanked by yellow tulips.
Accessed from a terrace contiguous to the “great bowl,” the Iris garden includes a topiary Chinese junk floating in a pool. The garden features 65 varieties of iris. A Chinese gateway leads to a lawn providing access to the main house and the 1.5 mile nature walk, opened in 1999.
The gardens contain various and assorted structures, each uniquely and exquisitely crafted to complement the landscape setting.
The Temple of Venus (above) terminates the garden’s long vista while the Tivoli Tea House was created from the former façade of the Tivoli Theatre ticket booth in London. During my visit the interior of the tea house was being restored. Within is a framed window labeled “Ever Changing Landscape” that pays homage to Ladew’s vision.
Open seasonally the Ladew gardens offer a comprehensive educational program. On my visit, which was during the week, there were school groups and families exploring the garden and nature trail. I’d like to think that Ladew would take great pleasure in this fact, knowing that through his careful planning and creative genius his gardens have endured and are enjoyed today.
There is a studio (where Ladew painted) and a barn gallery which is used for special exhibits. His stables have been converted into a cafe.
The Gardens, Manor House and Nature Walk are open daily from April 1 through October 31 from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
The Gardens, Manor House and Nature Walk are open Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day – same hours as above.
Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved
2016, the tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth, has been declared the year of the English Garden. A nationwide festival, celebrating Brown’s legacy, is underway with lectures, walking, cycling and garden tours, exhibitions and conferences offered throughout the year.
Described as the ‘Shakespeare of gardening,’ Brown is credited with transforming England’s aristocratic gardens from the formality of the Baroque period into the picturesque landscapes identified with England today; a combination of sweeping lawns, naturalistic plantings and endless views reflected in serpentine rivers and flowing lakes.
Brown worked on an immense scale designing gardens, parklands woodlands and carriage drives. Of the more than 250 landscapes attributed to Brown 150 retain their integrity today, including 42 within Greater London. Within Brown’s portfolio of projects are Richmond Gardens/Kew, Blenheim Palace, Highclere Castle (the setting of Downton Abbey) Longleat, Stowe and Hampton Court Palace where Brown was named the King’s Master Gardener in 1764.
Having declared 2016 the Year of the Royal Garden, Hampton Court Palace will, until September 4th, display a rare and never before seen collection of watercolor paintings and drawings once owned by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia detailing views of the palace, park and gardens during Brown’s tenure. June 6th through 8th Hampton Court Palace will host the garden history and heritage conference, Capability Brown Royal Gardener – the man and his business: Past, Present and Future.
A four day Tercentenary Conference sponsored by the Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust and The Gardens Trust will be held at Robinson College, Cambridge from August 5th through the 7th while the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Cultural Landscapes, Garden History Society and National Trust will host the international conference, Capability Brown: Perception and Response in a Global Context at the University of Bath from September 9th through the 11th.
As part of the National Garden Scheme, which since its inception has donated more than £45 million to its beneficiary charities, 3,800 gardens throughout the country will be open to paying visitors until late October. The National Garden Scheme has partnered with the Capability Brown Festival to offer access to Brown landscapes, including some that are otherwise inaccessible.
Other events promoting the English garden include London Parks and Gardens Trust Open Squares Garden Weekend on the 18th and 19th of June. 200 private gardens across 27 London boroughs will be open to the public including community gardens and private squares.
If you go be sure to visit the following websites where you can track interactive maps of parks and gardens and the dates when they are open to the public.
Capability Brown Festival: www.capabiltybrown.org
National Garden Scheme: http://www.ngs.org.uk
London Parks and Garden’s Trust: http://www.londongardenstrust.org
While staying in London last June I took the train to Oxford to visit the Botanic Garden. It had been nearly thirty years since I was last there and I had fond memories (and somewhat fading slides) of the garden, the Broad Walk and Christ Church Meadow, a riverine environment that for me at the time embodied all that is special about the English landscape.
The Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, is the oldest in Britain and easily found. Not so the myriad assortment of gardens and landscapes hidden behind the perimeter walls of the 38 self-governing, financially independent colleges which comprise the University.
In Oxford College Gardens landscape historian Tim Richardson shares the secrets of what lies behind those storied walls. It is here that the physical fabric of the University, informed by the synergy of its of landscape and architecture, has been shaped by time and the imprint of those who have lived and worked in each college.
While every college is distinct, informed by its own history and character, at the heart of each is the landscape; lawns, private ‘fellows’ gardens, groves, walks, meadows, lakes and deer parks. These are shared with the reader through Richardson’s lively text and brought to life by Andrew Lawson’s full-color photographs. Maps, historical images and contemporary plans of each college are also provided.
The breadth of garden styles portrayed within Oxford College Gardens is sweeping, ranging from the conventional quadrangles of University, Merton and Balliol Colleges to the modernist landscape of Saint Catherine’s College, designed by Danish architect Arne Jacobsen as a “landscape with buildings set within.” Eschewing judgement as to their design or landscape history, Richardson presents colleges alphabetically, beginning with the aptly named All Souls and concluding with Worcester College.
Special attention is paid to the gardeners who over time have both designed and lovingly tended individual college landscapes including Balliol head gardener Christopher Munday who in 2013 propagated a vivid magenta dahlia specimen to celebrate the college’s 750th anniversary which can be seen today in the college’s front quad herbaceous border.
George Harris, head gardener of Saint Hugh’s, is quoted upon his retirement in 1972 after 45 years of service as responding to the sentiment that the garden would never be the same without him, “You can’t expect it to be.” An appendix provides a list of head gardeners as of 2014.
At more than 300 pages in length Oxford College Gardens is a large book, just over 5 pounds in weight. Would that it were smaller and could serve as a guide to carry when visiting the spaces it depicts with such grace and erudition.
That said, there are many who will enjoy this compendium of all things Oxford, a place where “windows open onto other worlds” including its gardens.
Oxford College Gardens by Tim Richardson with Photographs by Andrew LawsonFrances Lincoln Limited, London: 2015
This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, April, 2016.
Oxford, where windows open into other worlds……..“
It’s quite possibly a very good thing that I had not read the book I am currently reviewing, Oxford College Gardens, before my visit to the University’s Botanic Garden last June. Written by garden historian Tim Richardson the more than three hundred page volume exhaustively documents thirty-four individual garden landscapes that, in the words of the author, “help shape the identity” of the place.
Oxford is indeed busy, ever the more so since serving as a setting for the Harry Potter movies. The frenetic nature of its public spaces is offset by the worlds within worlds existing within individual colleges and their gardens secreted behind the walls which famously enclose them. It’s not that you can’t find them, it’s just that, like for Alice, they may reveal themselves in a somewhat curious fashion.
The images above and below are from Balliol College. To take a virtual tour visit: https://www.balliol.ox.ac.uk/about-balliol/virtual-tour
Richardson asserts, that a landscape or a garden can affect the mind and its layout will help shape its identity. The layout of Oxford has been shaped over time through both its physical and imaginary qualities. The map below is from the book Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman. It depicts the bench within the Oxford Botanic Garden which plays an important role in His Dark Materials Trilogy as the site where Will and Lyra meet each year at noon on Midsummer’s day to feel each other’s presence between their spirit worlds.
The Oxford Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, was the first of its kind in Britain; a physic garden where botany, medicine and practical gardening were linked in a systematic manner.
Founded as a “nursery of simples” the original garden was sited on five acres of meadowland outside the city walls leased, by Sir Henry Danvers 1st Earl of Danby, from Magdalen College.
Sir Henry’s 5,000 pound gift built the walls and archway but were not sufficient to employ anyone to cultivate the garden requiring that the first Superintendent Jacob Bobart work both as gardener and innkeeper to support his employment.
An eccentric character who according to garden historian Mavis Batey was often accompanied by a goat, Bobart was deemed an “excellent Gardener and Botanist.” During his tenure the first catalogue of plants, containing 1,600 different species, was published. Upon his death in 1679 he was succeeded by his son, also named Jacob, who started an annual botanic garden seed exchange through which gardens continue to acquire seeds they wish to grow.
By 1734 an endowment left to the University provided support for the teaching of botany and plant science and a Keeper of the Garden, assuring its legacy as a research institution.
Today the Garden includes three sections illustrated on the map below.
Within the walled garden plants are classified thematically, including by country of origin, botanic family or use. These are arranged in family borders originally based upon the Linnean System of classification and modified through the years to reflect changing attitudes towards evolutionary relationships between groups of plants. Included are the Plant Heritage National Collection of Euphorbias and a medicinal plant collection.
Between the walled garden and Cherwell River is the lower garden. While this area has accommodated various uses, it’s current design reflects a 2009 plan by Kim Wilkie Associates to more formally integrate the area with the Walled Garden and illustrate the role of the Botanic Garden in the 21st century.
The lower garden includes a fruit, vegetable and herb collection which connects the garden to its historical uses as well as the English Herbaceous and Merton Borders.
The English Herbaceous Border, planted in 2007, is designed to look best in the summer months.
The Merton Borders, the garden’s most recent addition, are also one of its largest cultivated areas. Planted for year round interest, these include grasses, bulbs and annuals, biennials and perennials bordered by fruit trees. The borders are dynamic and change each year. Cut back in the spring they provide visual interest throughout the winter months.
Originally constructed in 1926, The Rock Garden is divided between plants that are both European and reflective of the rest of the world.
For more than 300 years there has been a glasshouse associated with the garden, a prominent feature sited along the River Cherwell’s banks. Within are lily, arid, palm and alpine, fernery and insectivorous houses.
A walkway along the river provides access to Merton Field, The Broad Walk and Christ Church Meadow, popular walking and picnicking spots.
In keeping with its original mission “to promote the furtherance of learning and to glorify nature,” the garden continues to support the study of plant biology and conservation while providing educational programs for people of all ages.
As a botanic garden it is committed to the successful implementation of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation which works to ensure that the world’s biological diversity is preserved.
The Oxford Botanic Garden is open throughout the year with varied hours of entry depending upon the season. A modest fee is charged.
Copyright © 2016 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved