Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Urban Jungle

I love coming across surprising little plants in unexpected places in the city. It reminds me of the incredible resilience of green things, as well as just how quickly they will take over once humans move out.

It seems that plants can make do with almost any growing condition. Here is Buddleia (Butterfly bush), looking perfectly happy on the narrow ledge of an old building in the center of Leuven. We coddle and fuss over these plants like new grandmas in Toronto, but here in Belgium they can break through concrete.

In a mild and wet climate such as Belgium's, any level or slightly angled surface can quickly be overtaken by vegetation. Moss is ubiquitous on almost any textured surface, while wider ledges can support a veritable garden. The side entrance of this local stone church was in full bloom this spring.

Old stone walls are also plant favourites, as well as tourist favourites. To me, there's nothing more romantic than an old stone wall, partially draped in wild vegetation. To most Belgians, they're really just old stone walls of doubtful structural stability. A friend has one in the backyard of her old farmhouse that I would kill for, and she can't wait to tear it down and repair it. Luckily the one around the old abbey in Leuven is still standing.

Flat ground is of course also a pretty good place for plants. This was an empty lot I spotted while riding my bike a few days ago. It looked absolutely brilliant, a perfect little jewel among cookie cutter houses and uniformly mowed lawns. Isn't it amazing that we spend so much time and effort to prevent this from happening?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

RHS Garden Rosemoor, Devon, England

Rosemoor garden in Devon is one of the four large, public gardens maintained by the famous Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the UK. Similar to some of the other RHS gardens, Rosemoor was a private donation, and came with a house, an English-style garden of flowering perennials, shrubs and trees, and about 65 acres of surrounding, undeveloped land. Needless to say, the RHS had its work cut out - since taking over in 1988, they have invested a lot of resources and effort in converting the site into an world-class garden and educational resource.

Today, Rosemoor makes for a great, relaxing garden visit. While its main aim is not necessarily to pioneer break-through ideas in horticulture, it does a good job of balancing good old-fashioned horticulture with some new and more adventurous developments.

As with every garden we have visited in England thus far, the first thing that made an impression was the plantsmanship. The stream-side planting below is just one example – the damp conditions were perfectly suited to Carex elata ‘Aurea’ (Bowles’ golden sedge), bold gunnera, primulas and ferns.

Given that the main aim of the RHS is education, the garden includes a little bit of everything, from annual plantings to woodland. This perhaps detracts from making one strong impression, but it does allow visitors to see many different habitats and scenarios, from model city gardens to traditional cottage gardens, which I never seem to tire of.

Another nice area was the woodland on the steeper, upper side of the garden. This is a spring garden and was especially good at the time we visited in late May – masses of thriving rhododendrons were in full bloom under the filtered light and protection of the mature canopy.

An example of the RHS’ efforts to incorporate contemporary design into its gardens is showcased in the new Square garden, designed by Roger Webster and installed in 2007-2008. The planting here is decidedly more modern – ‘new perennials’ and grasses are used to support the hot colour theme. The development and design intent of the Square garden is detailed in this article by Rosemoor curator Christopher Bailes, which also includes some nice pictures of the garden at its impressive peak during late summer. Even at the time of our visit it was looking great – public gardens face a tough challenge trying to balance one spectacular peak with year-round interest, but this garden seems to have figured it out.

I also really enjoyed some of the meadow areas. Given the large grounds, meadows are almost a necessity at Rosemoor. In the second one below, Camassia was dotted through the grass to great effect. I saw a lot of Camassia in England, and it’s always interesting to see how some of our North American natives are often ignored at home but much appreciated abroad. Wonder if the Camassia manages to naturalize here – they still looked rather sparse in this area, but perhaps it’s still too soon to tell.