12 May 2014

On the Case: Garden Detective

As a gardener, there are times when I visit a garden and my hand automatically reaches for my hip and the secateurs that should be there, the itch to restore order to an unruly border a constant garden visiting companion. As a garden historian there are times I step through a garden gate and find myself thrown back in time, too easily seeing the ghosts of gardeners past. It's when these two sensations collide that I know I've found some place special.

I discovered just such a place last week when my friend Dan Maffei, a landscape designer, asked me to take a look at a property he's working on. What was once a farm on the Philadelphia Main Line is now under corporate ownership but the 1930's mansion perched atop a hillside over a once formal garden complete with grotto and reflecting pool, all screaming 'American Country Place Era', are what stopped me in my tracks and made my mouth form a soundless, "Oh."

View of the garden at the rear of the house, complete with grotto.

Overgrown yew hedges and junipers left to smother their neighbors do their best to obscure the garden features but we garden detectives are trained to read beneath the overgrowth (Dan laughed at me as I declared, "I'm going in!" and dove headlong into the thicket). Massive boulders forming a terrace of 'natural' paths with scraggly azaleas struggling to bloom in the shade, the boulders themselves in danger of being consumed by tree roots, and the outlines of a fountain basin still imprinted on the ground tell me this was once a grand garden indeed. Strong axial alignments and a plant palette popular in the 20's and 30's all give tantalizing hints but the identity of the original designer remains a mystery. For now.

This conifer's roots have been growing over the rocks for some time.

The pool terrace

Ever since my tutor used the term I've preferred 'garden detective' to 'garden historian'. It really is surprisingly accurate, after all. In seeking to discover who designed this garden I've got to follow seemingly random leads and apparently minor associations, looking for clues wherever I can. It's a fascinating process, and I was only too thrilled to take the case. I shall be, to the best of my ability, the horticultural Sherlock to my friend's Watson, for while I endeavor to solve the garden mystery it will be Dan who saves it's life.

The goal isn't necessarily a wholesale restoration of the garden, though that depends on what is revealed about its creators and the ultimate desire of the present owner. I think there's more to this garden, though, and while I find myself wishing fervently for a TARDIS (yes, fandoms colliding, I can't help it) I know with a little digging the garden's ghosts will reveal themselves to me in time.

04 May 2014

Happy Star Wars Day!


03 May 2014

Put Your Plants On

Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be any more spring time revelry, I'm here to tell you about World Naked Gardening Day.

Yup, you read that right.

Internationally celebrated on the first Saturday in May, gardeners around the world are encouraged to tend their plots au naturel. I suppose a sun hat would be acceptable, though I think not having a holster on my hip to hold my pruners would be an inconvenience.

Founded in 2005 as a way to interest people in getting back to nature there's a nod, of course, to the First Gardeners - Adam and Eve - who tended their Eden with nothing on, resorting only to fig leaves after they'd eaten of the forbidden fruit.

"Are you sure that's not poison ivy? Oh, look! Shiny!"
Adam and Eve, c. 1701-1704
Antonio Molinari  (1655-1704)

This year a group of professional gardeners in England have taken WNGD a step further by baring all to raise money for Perennial Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, a UK charity supporting people in horticulture. Taking their cue from the Calendar Girls, the Twitter formed group called Grubby Gardeners launched a social media campaign by posing in naught but their Wellies in order to reach their goal of raising £20K for Perennial in 2014.

The Grubby Gardeners pose for charity at the Kensington Rooftop Gardens in London
(photo: Jason Window via
Now, I enjoy walking bare foot on the lawn as much as the next gardener but deer ticks and poison ivy are enough to convince me that full coverage is required while I work, so I can't imagine what kind of gardening the proponents of WNGD are thinking of. I do, however, think the Grubby Gardeners' fund raiser is one brave way to get into the spirit of the day and help a worthy cause. So how about it - are you audacious enough to garden in the altogether? Public nudity laws vary, so check the local ordinance before you march out the door in your birthday suit. And don't forget your pruners.

If you're on Twitter, follow the #GrubbyGardeners fundraising efforts @PerennialGRBS.

01 May 2014

May Day

Can you believe it's already the first of May?  May Day! Or International Workers' Day, if you're a laborer. Particularly, for some reason, if you were a chimney sweep or milkmaid in centuries past.

Thomas Sevestre: 'Jack in the Green, May Day Celebrations
of the Chimney Sweeps of London', 1850
In many cultures around the world it's a big day for celebrating. If you're leaning toward Celtic ritual, it's the Feast of Beltane, so be wary if you happen to be near any stone circles with a cleft stone*. For you Germanic types, it's Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night (which is actually the night of April 30 but we won't quibble).

They're all very pagan, these festivals, but while I was in England I witnessed the Jack in the Green festival in Hastings and what a riot it was! You really can't go wrong with feasting, dancing, music, bonfires, and really big people wandering about!

Jack in the Green floats and revelers lined up for the parade

Why, hello there.

I do miss the English traditions and celebrations but have the feeling I would be hastened to an asylum were I to walk outside dressed like this:

But when it's for a parade and everyone's invited - nay, expected - to participate, then one must get into the spirit of things. Even Flora made an appearance, with her own crew, yet.

Flora, goddess of flowers and the season of spring

Spring is definitely a festive season, when the earth comes alive with flowers and the promise of bounteous harvests, and when we can shed our thick winter coats and dance around in robes of flowers. So grab your May Pole and some Morris Dancers and have fun this weekend! (Just try not to get arrested.)

*A reference to the historical fiction series Outlander. If you're a fan, you'll understand.