Thursday, September 17, 2009


It's amazing how easily we forget that the plants we grow in our gardens originated in the wild, and that they're still growing there now. I'm always surprised to find a common garden plant growing in nature, even though of course I shouldn't be. When we went to Dijon in May we took some walks around the hilly countryside which was chock full of plants we are used to seeing in our gardens. Cranesbill (hardy Geranium) covered many open meadows and was spectacular in full bloom. It was also neat to see hellebores, considered pretty 'fancy' in the gardening world, growing casually in the forest. Unfortunately, I can only write about these as I've lost all of our Dijon pictures in an unfortunate incident involving our laptop and beer. I do, however, have a bunch of other pictures that I've been taking since spring of beautiful wildflowers from around Belgium and France.

In early spring, the season started with these little white beauties covering the ground next to the driveway leading to our CSA.
A few short weeks later the same spot was full of blue Campanula, grasses and a dark-stemmed, dark-leaved artemisia.
Also in the spring time, I spotted these yellow irises blooming by the side of the canal in the middle of the city (the water looks a little brown...). Not sure if these would be native or spread here from a garden? Although we saw some nice wildflowers in Belgium, the most stunning vegetation was in the French Alps. I have tons of wildflower pictures, not all of which turned out so well, but here are a few. These are stunningly blue lupins blooming only in mid-July because of the high altitude.The plant diversity of the hillside meadows was absolutely amazing!
And the colour combinations! These giant verbascums lower in the valley were perfect with the tan seedheads of the grass.
I also loved this plant - unfortunately, I'm terrible with wild plant names, so I have no idea what this was.
Back in the Lowlands, we visited the Netherlands two weeks ago and went to the National Park the Hoge Veluwe. An amazing park with savanna-like woodland, open grass plains, sand dunes, and heathland. It was my first time seeing some of these sandy habitats and my favourite was the heathland, which was working up to full bloom.
Every habitat is an incredible source of unique and unexpected wildflowers - keep an eye out for them and you'll be surprised what you find!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Gibberd Garden, Essex, UK

The last garden we visited on our trip to the UK in May (yes, I’m a little behind!) was the Gibberd Garden. Sir Frederik Gibberd was an architect and landscape designer who started his practice in the 30’s and was quite influential in his time. One of his major projects was as chief architect planner for Harlow New Town, a new development not far from London designed to relieve congestion in the city. He himself decided to live in Harlow, and this where he spent the rest of his life, which in large part was devoted to his garden.

On its website, the garden is described as: “No high brow horticulture here. It is landscape as theatre” (Hugh Johnson). And that’s exactly what it feels like – dramatic, staged and expressive. But don’t imagine a glitzy theatre production – it reminded me more of a show that has settled into a long run, with the stage set a little run down and worn away, and the actors aging into their roles. Not that it’s a bad thing. It suits the garden perfectly, and in fact seems to be necessary to create the special atmosphere of this garden. The touch of wilderness and crumbling stone add the romance and mood that make this kind of garden great.
The garden is quite large and covers a sloping site with mature trees leading down to a brook. The design radiates out from the house, with the formal areas closer to the house giving way to more informal and wild areas at the far edge of the property. One complaint I have is the organization of the direction of the visit. Following the provided map, you start from the wild areas and make your way back to the house. It’s always nicer to experience a garden the way the designer intended, which in this case, and most cases, is starting from the house.
Around the house, the design is geometrical, in keeping with the 1960’s design of the house itself. One can tell that views from the large windows were carefully considered – there is a staged view from each of the main sides of the house, including this lovely view from the main windows.
The other sides of the house have views that are just as interesting, such as this small corner with a great water feature and sculpture off the west side.
The design concept of the garden is that of garden ‘rooms’, where one passes from one enclosed and unique space to another. Sir Gibberd approached garden design from an architectural perspective, so definition of three-dimensional space was key to him. As you move away from the main area of the house, a series of garden rooms feature include simple lawns and hedges, a pavilion, pools and many staged areas for sculptures. The garden features over 50 sculptures, which can sometimes overwhelm in a garden. In this case, I found that they were all well placed and in harmony with the garden rather than in competition with it. The rooms are a little bit disjointed so you never quite know what to expect. For example, there is an alleyway of huge plane trees smack dab in the middle of the garden, which, unlike any other alleyway I have ever seen, doesn’t align with any major features or views. Unconventional, but definitely theatrical.
By the time you get to the furthest area from the house close to the brook, things are quite wild. There is giant bamboo, small winding paths and jungle-like growth. After the super manicured gardens we saw earlier in our trip at Glen Chantry and Beth Chatto, this had a wonderful untamed character.
Overall, I found the garden to be original and unique. Really great gardens have their own special mood and provide visitors with a distinctive experience. In this garden, you can definitely feel the strong design perspective, but also a quirky, playful and eccentric character.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jardin Botanique Alpin "Flore-Alpe", Champex, Switzerland

Since I was already on the topic of rock gardens in the last post, I thought I would continue the theme with the greatest rock garden I have ever visited: Le Jardin Botanique Alpin, in Champex, Switzerland.

“Huh?”, you may ask. I would guess that not a lot of people have heard of this garden, which is a real pity. We accidentally stumbled upon it on a hiking trip to Switzerland a few years ago and I was completely blown away. So much so that on our trip to the Alps this year, we absolutely had to hike for a full day there and a full day back to see it again.
A quick disclaimer before I begin: I don’t really like rock gardens. In most cases, rock gardens are created to grow alpine plants in places where alpine plants really don’t want to grow. More often than not, the result is a few microscopic plants, evenly spaced and completely lost in a sea of rock and gravel. Even worse, these “alpine” gardens are frequently found in flat suburban gardens or parks, hundreds of miles away from any hills or mountains. It’s not surprising then that results are usually artificial and tacky, and no matter how well done, they just don’t feel right. While the plants may be interesting and beautiful, visually one can’t get around the fact that the rock garden just doesn’t belong.
Le Jardin Alpine doesn’t have any of these problems. Located in the heart of the Swiss Alps, it benefits from a naturally rocky, sloped site with a spectacular backdrop of snow-capped mountains and pine forests on one side, and Champex lake on the other side. There is even a natural spring at the top of the site, which is channeled through meandering streams and waterfalls to several small ponds below. Unfair advantage, I know. But in truth, this is the only place where a rock garden actually belongs.
The garden grows an incredible 3000 species of plants. To put that into perspective, the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario grows 1100 species of plants on an area about 50 times bigger (counting landscaped area only). However, in my opinion, the best part of the garden is how the planting is done. Plants at Le Jardin Alpin are not what one has come to expect from the standard, controlled rock garden. Instead, they come in billowing masses, spilling over each other in the beds, between cracks in the paths and on the side of streams. If you’re a plant enthusiast, you can probably spend a few hours just examining the incredibly diverse flora in a small corner of the garden.
It’s so refreshing to see that rock garden plants can grow together, and don’t have some sort of aversion to neighbors which requires them to be kept a foot apart. I think it also better reflects the true nature of rock garden plants – in their natural environment, they are not as delicate as we think. In most cases, many plants will be found elbowing each other for room in a small crack with favorable growing conditions.
Although the garden is quite small, it has a great feeling of discovery, even after walking around it several times. All the paths are relatively narrow, with many changes in level, which means you can’t rush through the garden (though I can't imagine anyone wanting to!). They are laid out informally, and meander between the lush plantings, along streams and over miniature stone bridges.
One more neat thing about Le Jardin Alpin is that you can stay overnight in the small chalet in the garden, which we did this year. It’s not very fancy and could use some upkeep, but it’s well worth it for a chance to enjoy the garden all by yourself. Watching a sunset over glowing grasses with Champex lake as the backdrop was definitely something I won’t soon forget.