Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Oh, the THINKS you can think!

Gertrud McFuzz from "Yertle the Turtle" by Dr. Seuss.

I've always loved the rounded, droopy figures that fill Dr. Seuss's imaginative world, not to mention the playful and rhythmic verse of the texts. His many books, the first of which were published for more than half of a century ago, have been loved by millions and millions of children in the English speaking countries. As it happens, my children now enjoy reading their "inherited" Dr. Seuss books, bought in the 1960's and 1970's in Australia and Canada by their respective grandparents.
"Dr. Seuss trees" on the middle left.
One day, driving through our area, my youngest one pointed to some conifers, calling them for "Dr. Seuss trees". And really, around here, there are lots of different drooping conifers, with their branches and tops hanging in the wind; varieties almost unseen in Scandinavia, where I come from. Of course, conifers are native to this part of the world and having them in all their different forms in gardens is completely natural. But I can't help to think about the theme that I did not write my Master's thesis about in Art History, as it proved to be all too complex and difficult within the limits of the thesis. What I was thinking about was how the imaginary world in children's books effects the way we make our gardens. More specifically, I wanted to specialize in the "classic" books in Scandinavia, as Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson etc, and analyze the plants and descriptions of gardens in them and compare with the most popular plants and features in our gardens. Now, looking at my plan, I completely understand why my professor politely shook her head and told me that this was far too complex and difficult task for me to take on and that I should keep to something more substantial. I still think that I should have specified my topic better; kept to one author only, and made something of it. As it is, I wrote about an early example of a woodland cemetery designed by one of the pioneers of modern garden design in Sweden...

Gumnut babies by May Gibbs, Australia.

Sov du lilla videung by Elsa Beskow, Sweden.
Anyway, I still find it interesting to think about the plants and gardens in children's books. When the writer illustrates his or her own books, it makes the preferred plants and sceneries even more explicit. A good example of this is the classic Swedish children's author Elsa Beskow with her richly illustrated books, most of which are from the beginning of the 20th century. Her books are full of images with idealized Swedish nature, together with small figures dressed as strawberries, mushrooms and other native plants and flowers. Actually, this must have been something of a trend at that time, as during the same period in Australia, May Gibbs wrote and illustrated books about Gumnut Babies with very similar images and figures, but now with Australian nature and plants. Or otherwise, think about all the flowering cherry trees in Astrid Lindgren's books; is this a reason why the Swedes love them so much (even if she did not illustrate her books herself)? And Moomin Mother by the Finnish Swedish author Tove Jansson, always tending her roses and edging her flower beds with seashells (which actually was a common thing to do in middle class gardens in the 19th century in Sweden and Finland)? Many Finns do love roses, so there might (and just might...) be something in to this.
Moominmamma's garden by Tove Jansson, Finland.

So, the question remains: what kind of images of plants and gardens do we grow up with? Do these images plant themselves in our minds and express themselves later in our choices of plants and when we are planning our gardens? A fascinating area, I think, and I would love to see a well-illustrated book about this, if not by myself, then some other book-loving gardener.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A fine, free expression of democracy

A fenceless front garden from early 20th century in Yarrow Point, near Seattle.

I have always considered the fenceless and open front gardens very "American", if such expression can be used in this huge and diverse country. But first now, after reading an interesting new book From Yard to Garden, The Domestication of America's Home Grounds, by Christopher Grampp (2008), did I understand what an important part the open front garden has played in the garden history here.
In his book, Grampp gives a detailed history of how the American gardens developed from agricultural spaces devoted to family sustenance, via urban utility yards supporting basic domestic operations, into outdoor family rooms used mainly for leisure activities. The fence forms a part of this development; as the gardens no longer housed animals that needed to be kept within it, the fences lost their function. And as the time went by, the fences became neglected. They were then seen as a reminder of the past, a symbol for something outdated and thus less desirable.
Fenceless front garden in Clyde Hill, Bellevue, near Seattle.

It is interesting to read in Grampp's book about how the fenceless front garden slowly became a symbol for the whole American lifestyle and democracy. In 1913, J.H. Prost, who was the Chicago Superintendent for Parks, wrote that "Unsightly and vine-covered fences or clipped hedges planted on the property line to divide the neighbor's yard are an expression of poor and selfish taste." Landscape architect Frank Waugh, went further in the 1930's as he wrote:

" I am glad that it is neither necessary nor fashionable for all my neighbours to shut themselves and their gardens up in high brick walls. This is nothing more or less than a fine, free, physical expression of democracy."

In his new book, Grampp does not connect this thinking to Modernism in general, but it really is an excellent example of the modernist philosophies of that time; form follows function (no function=no form) and that the past was imperfect, while the future holds a promise of a better life (which naturally was totally understandable, as the reality of life during the recession of the 1930's was everything but easy). Even in Sweden during this time, garden designers and architects promoted openness in the gardens, but they had a more nationalistic attitude; the Swedish landscape and nature was seen as the ideal to which the private garden should submit to. A fenceless garden never grew very popular, and it became reality only in some of the "purest" Modern areas, as Stora Ängby near Stockholm, where the front and back gardens flow seamlessly into each other (Modernism is called Functionalism in Sweden, often shortened to "funkis"). But generally, fences during this time in Sweden were very low and the gardens opened to the streets and surrounding nature.

A typical, low garden fence in stone and iron from the 1930's, in Nacka near Stockholm.

Grampp describes in the third part of his book how the fences in USA now are becoming higher and more popular; a similar development can even be seen in Sweden for the moment. People yearn for more privacy, which partly is an expression of the new needs and thoughts of how we should and want to live our lives. And as we have become more individualistic, the ways we express our thoughts in our gardens, as well as in all other areas of our lives, have become more diversified. (Or do we just follow ever changing trends, faster and faster? hopefully not). I just hope, that without letting go of our individuality, we would spare some thoughts for the origins of these open front gardens, before we totally fence us in to our small, private worlds.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Seasonal delights

Isn't it wonderful to "meet" a plant that you have been reading of but never experienced in real life? Well, this morning, I walked past one of the houses here and was greeted by a strong but delicate scent wafting towards me from a whole row of flowering Sweet Olives, Osmanthus fragrans. As it's common name indicates (in this case, quite correctly), it belongs to the family of olives, Oleaceae, and the word Osmanthus is derived from Greek osma, meaning "fragrant", combined with anthos, meaning "flower". The fragrance is similar to some of the winter flowering jasmines, which belong to the same plant family. Coming from the Nordic latitudes, I've always considered any plants that are either green, flowering and/or scented during the winter months a complete luxury. So this evergreen plant that fills all these categories, and in addition to that, flowers for months here in Seattle, will definately be up there on my list for must-have plants for my future garden.

Camellias, which are other winter-flowering favorites from my time in Melbourne, are beginning to flower here now. The Sasanquas with single blooms are out, with their frilly yellow pillows of stamens brightening up the grey and cloudy days. Here, they can start flowering as early (or late...) as in September or October and bloom off and on throughout the late fall and early winter. After them, the Japonicas will start blooming sometimes as early as Christmas, but more commonly in January. The mild, almost frost free climate in the Northwest suits well these beauties from China and Japan, and like so many other influences from there, have been a feature in local gardens here for more than 100 years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fading away

Beautyberry, Callicarpa bodinieri
Just a short stroll at the tiny little beach park quite near us once more reminded me of the extraordinary beauty of grasses, especially when seen back-lit in the low sunlight of the late autumn. I just can't keep my fingers out of them, I have to touch and caress the feathery, soft axes. There were also several bushes of Callicarpa bodinieri, known as the Beautyberry. I've always been a bit uncertain about the steely purple colour, but the berries contrast quite well with the orange and yellow tones of this season...KThese days of bright sunlight are invaluable, just getting out there in between the rainy days is a treat for the soul. And what a sweet little City Hall and Police Station, don't you think?

Dry axes of unidentified grass...

City Hall and Police station by Lake Washington.

I don't know if I can ever learn to like Berberis, even if it makes a good splash of colour this time of the year.

The last roses of the season, looking like they want to drink up the fading rays of sunshine.

Cotoneaster, another more than common plant (I'm not sure of the variety here), by a fence towards the water.