Friday, January 30, 2009

Rags to riches… to rags?

A family building a stone wall in their garden in Lillängen in Sweden in the 1940's. Courtesy of Lokalarkiv for Nacka kommun.

It is difficult to stay unaffected by all reports of doom; just this morning, the Financial Times warned that 50m people could lose their jobs, and that the “economic pain will be worst for 60 years”. And as usual, nobody seems to know extend of the damage; new casualties seem to be surfacing every day. It feels like when the frost takes the seedlings and buds, leaving you to wonder just how much of the crops will be affected the next autumn.

Andy Sturgeon's Cancer Research UK Garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2007. Picture taken by me in 2007.

Christopher Lloyd inspired many of us by his fantastic writing about his plantings and garden at Great Dixter. Picture taken by me in 2007.

Within gardening and garden design, the prosperous period that started in the 1980’s and continued until 2007 (with a smaller hick-up of an economic crisis in the beginning of 1990’s), now seems to be coming to an end. During these years, we have seen a mix of greater affluence, more leisure time and ever-rising house prices, which have made property-improvement extremely worthwhile in most “Western” countries from Europe to the US and to Australia. Most of us have enjoyed better possibilities to invest in our housing and to spend money on our interests and hobbies. We have not only gardened, but also travelled to see other people’s gardens and diverse garden shows; we have spent ever increasing amounts of money on gardening books, magazines and equipment of all kind, much of our interests fuelled by the media. Many historical gardens have been restored and we have been able to visit them and learn about them in a way that was not possible earlier. Some landscape architects and garden designers have risen to a star status, creating new trends for the rest of us to follow. Just look at all the kitchen gardens (or potagers, as they often are referred to), greenhouses, gardens with native plants, or grasses and other “new perennials” made during this period; in addition to a keen interest in gardening, all of them also require financial resources that can be used for other than basic daily needs.

A sandpit beautifully fitted into to cliffs and made of local stones in the front of my house in Saltsjöbaden. Picture from 1936. The oak tree behind stands still there.

I am not trying to be overly dramatic, but if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, will we look at this period within gardening as the “last golden decades” of the 20th century, a bit like we talk about the “golden afternoon” of the Edwardian era in Western gardening, just before the First World War broke out in 1914? And the next interesting question is, what kind of gardens will we be making now? Some of us, of course, will not be affected at all, but with a predicted 50m unemployed people in the world, many of us will have no extra money to spend. The plunging housing prices will make fewer of us keen on investing in our homes and gardens, which means that architects, builders and garden designers will face harder times. As for so many other domestic services, people will probably spend less money for the maintenance of their gardens. And will we be able pay for new plants, tools, decorations and gadgets for our gardens? Not likely.

Planting between the cliffs with Solomon's seal, Polygonatum multiflorum, geraniums and sea thrift, Armeria maritima. All plants were typical in the 1930's, easy to grow and divide.

It might not all be gloom, though; seed companies will probably experience a new upswing, as many more of us will discover the delights of not only growing our own vegetables, but also other plants from seeds, for much less money than buying them pre-raised from the garden centres. In a similar kind of economic climate, the 1930’s gardening articles in Sweden were telling how to gather seeds from the nature to make a lawn, an effort that many of us would think unrealistic today, used as we are to the ready-made lawn turf. Old gardening techniques might also get an upswing, with taking cuttings and layering techniques rising to new popularity. All of this has a positive effect on the climate, as transport and watering of pre-potted plants in their plastic pots will diminish. (Not that I have anything against the nursery industry in general and I am very sad if many very talented and knowledgeable people in this area lose their jobs to the recession).

Gardening in the 1960's in Sweden. Courtesy of Lokalarkiv for Nacka kommun.
With fewer resources available, we will probably see sustainability both in terms of labour and other resources as an important goal within garden design. Will someone still want to import a water feature in Chinese marble carved to imitate renaissance fountains in Italy, and keep it flowing with spotlights lightning up it at night? Probably not. Instead, we need to use less of energy, less of earth's resources and probably less of our own time, and at the same time create gardens that satisfy our needs for recreation and enjoyment. And we will hopefully continue to explore the possibilities of native plants and recycled or locally sourced materials, as our choices need to be sustainable. Even here it is interesting to look at the 1930’s, when garden designers and landscape architects embraced the thoughts of “modernism” as the solution to design problems in similar times of distress. In Sweden, this often translated into gardens with native plants and designs that were well suited to their environments, just like the picture of a sandpit above shows. It will be very interesting to see how we will continue to express ourselves through our gardens, while we face the challenges of our own time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Witch hazels and other midwinter wonders

It is only my first winter in Seattle, but I already disagree with all reports of a rainy and dull place that would better be avoided. Instead, I have fallen in love with these foggy and cold winter days; just look what I enjoyed this morning in the Washington Park Arboretum, only a couple of minutes drive across the lake. So many beauties flowering in the middle of January, gently wrapped in the fog, giving themselves off by their delicate scents! I first went to see the witch hazel collection in the Southern end of the Arboretum, but surprisingly none of the plants there were flowering. But then, I fortunately had better luck in the Witt Winter Garden, near the visitors centre.

Most of the witch hazels at the Arboretum are of the Chinese species Hamamelis mollis or Hamamelis x intermedia, which is a hybrid between the Japanese witch hazel Hamamelis x japonica and H. x mollis. Especially lovely is the excellent, strongly scented cultivar of H. X intermedia 'Pallida', here in full bloom, looking like clusters of lemon zest are hanging from its branches.

Another beautiful, but less scented cultivar is Hamamelis x intermedia 'Winter beauty', with much darker orange petals. I just love the way the damp climate here makes mosses and lichens to grow so well and to cover many of the woody plants, often looking like green flowers themselves hanging to the branches.

The stinking helleborus, Helleborus foetida, with its pale green flowers in full bloom complements well the witch hazels.
The European hazel, Corylus avellana, is quite common in the wild in Sweden, and my garden in Sweden had many of these large shrubs growing around it and producing small, dry nuts late in the autumn. Commercially cultivated hazels are called filberts. They are most often hybrids between Corylus avellana and Corylus maxima, the giant filbert, which achieves thirty feet and produces large, edible nuts. Corylus maxima 'Atropurpurea Superba', seen here with its large, purple catkins, is a beautiful and unusual relative of these cultivated hazels.

A new find was the fragrant wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox, which flowers for the moment with a strong and sweet, hyacinth-like scent. It seems otherwise to be quite an unattractive shrub, a bit like the more common forsythias, but in the right place, where it can hide behind showy perennials during the summer months, it definitely earns its place in a garden for its scent.

Another "friend" from my time in Melbourne, Australia is the silk-tassel bush, Garrya elliptica that I used to admire when it was flowering in the middle of the mild Australian winter. This genus was actually named for Nicholas Garry, a Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Company who assisted David Douglas in his explorations of the Pacific North-West in the 1820s. It is both an evergreen and a drought tolerant plant, and native to woodlands in Western USA, Central America and the West Indies. The male catkins are the most attractive, just like for so many other early flowering plants as hazels and birches. An especially attractive cultivar with extra long tassels is Garrya x issaquahensis (pictured above), cross that was found in a private garden in Issaqua near Seattle for some years ago.

And just one more picture - I just loved this bird's nest up in a large Magnolia, full of silky buds. What a beautiful place for the small baby birds to start their lives in when they hatch in the spring!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Quote of the Day

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.

- Alice Morse Earle, 1897 -
Sometimes I wonder if our gardens really do exist, other than as a projection of our dreams in our minds and thoughts. I've so often seen that empty look in other peoples eyes when they look at my plantings, unable to imagine them as I do. I my mind, I see the promise of beauty with no bare soil, all the tiny seedlings forming beautiful mats of well-combined perennials, the twiggy saplings as full grown trees.
I found the pretty snowdrops above (Galanthus elwesii, the giant snowdrop) on my morning walk and started wondering if the ones I planted in my garden in Saltsjöbaden, hundreds of them between a large group of Hostas, would soon come up. And of course, I started to contemplate new plants to complement the scheme in my garden. So, even if I am not getting the physical exercise of gardening for the moment, my mind is definitely being busy with the creative part of it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Nordic touch at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show

Yesterday, I was thrilled to notice that Ulf Nordfjell, one of the most celebrated Swedish Landscape Architects, is giving two seminars at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle on February 18-22, 2009. I just felt like a "bit of home" will be coming here, as even if I do not know Ulf personally, I have followed his career closely for many years and visited several gardens designed by him. Some of these are private gardens located near my home in Saltsjöbaden close to Stockholm, some show gardens or public gardens.

For the international audience, Ulf is probably best know for his gold award winning "A Tribute to Linnaeus" show garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2007. This garden explored the legacy of the great Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, and interpreted it in modern terms. Many of the references to Linné (Linnaeus before he got knighted and took the name von Linné) were very subtle, mere hints included in the modern and clean design. In general, Ulf's design style could be called "poetic modern", with influences from both the Swedish nature and landscape to classic Italian gardens. His planting schemes, always thoughtfully expressed within the architectural limits, are clearly related not only to the traditional Swedish meadows, but also to the new perennial movement, with swathes of grasses and perennials planted in interlocking groups and patterns. Oehme, van Sweden and Piet Oudolf come to my mind if I need to describe Ulf's plant schemes to people here. Obviously the international audience is going soon to hear more about Ulf, as he is doing a new show garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2009, this time for The Daily Telegraph.

Ulf's seminars in Seattle are held on Wednesday, February 18th at 11:30 AM (Twelve gardens - designing gardens and public parks) and on Thursday, February 19th at 10:00 AM (The Garden Society of Gothenburg - spectacular Swedish show gardens). Both in the Rainier Room.

For those who are interested in a close look at Ulf's work, see his book called 12 Trädgårdar av Ulf Nordfjell (12 Gardens by U. N., 2008) with beautiful photos by Jerry Harpur. Check also out Skogens trädgårdar, a display garden by Ulf at Wij Trädgårdar in Ockelbo in Sweden.
I took all pictures above at the Chelsea Flower Show 2007 - the quality is not quite there, as it was difficult to take photos jostling between hundreds of other show visitors.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The floating gardens of Seattle

Houseboats are something I usually connect with Amsterdam, but they actually are a distinctive part of Seattle too. Some of us might remember them as a background scenery in the romantic comedy "Sleepless of Seattle", where Tom Hanks portrayed a lovesick father looking for a new mother for his only son. Or was it the son looking for new partner for his father? Anyway, some of the earliest houseboats were constructed already in the 1880s by mill workers on the West Coast, but by the early 1900s many of there were converted into weekend cottages, suitable for recreation by the lakes in the summer time. By 1920s there was about 2500 houseboats in Seattle, since then the popularity has somewhat declined. Some time ago, I bought Caroline T. Swolpe's book "Classic Houses of Seattle. High Style to Vernacular, 1870-1950" to learn more about the early housing styles here, and found some interesting pictures of these early houseboats, small houses complete with porches and Victorian scrollwork.

Even today, there are several houseboat communities by the lakes in Seattle. I walked by one of these at the Western shore of Lake Union, and despite the signs of "no trespassing", I could not help slipping down to the piers and taking some photos. The houseboat owners here seemed to be very garden orientated; there did not seem to be much that you cannot grow on a houseboat. Tall grasses, topiary, bamboo... all of them in pots and containers, gently swaying with the waves. I really felt my bohemian side calling me, telling me to leave the present bourgeoisie life and to settle down on one of these cute dwellings... I could almost see me sipping tea and growing vegetables by the lake, taking a tour with my kayak before sitting down to write that hugely successful book. I wonder if the reality of a houseboat dweller is as romantic as I imagine?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Garden Book of the Year 2008

Book about The Botanical Garden of Visby by Ila.

Just as the year was fading away, a small package made its way from Turku in Finland to Seattle, carrying Christmas presents. Amongst them was my absolute choice for the Garden Book of the Year 2008; my 10-year old niece Ila's lovely booklet about her visit to the Botanical Garden of Visby, on the island of Gotland in Sweden. I am so impressed with her idea of documenting her visit and making a lasting memory of it. Ila's way to photograph the roses after a light rain, with drops still hanging to the plump flowers is just exquisite (my scanner does unfortunately not catch the real beauty of the pictures, 24 of them in total). The layout of the book is beautiful and the names of the roses have been noted correctly with all the details. I just wonder what Ila will be up to next, as talented and artistic child as she is...?

Rosa Kalmar

Both photographs: © strictly Ila Narjus.