Valentines Day 2018: How To Really Say It With Flowers

This winter, I’ve been passing the time rereading a few French classics. It’s been a great way to while away the hours, especially since many of the books focus on life in the garden. Such is the case with Honoré de Balzac’s 1835 novel, Le Lys dans la Vallée (The Lily of the Valley). It’s a great story of French love and society and how a pair of frustrated lovers establish a secret correspondence by flowers.

It’s also the perfect Valentines tale; albeit a bit tragic.

Set in the picturesque countryside of La Touraine (Loire Valley), Le Lys dans la Vallée portrays the vibrant but never consummated love affair between Felix de Vandenesse, a young man, and the virtuous Henriette de Mortsauf, a married woman. Desperate to express his passion, Felix scours the countryside for hours a day, painstakingly collecting wildflowers to create elaborate bouquets for his beloved.

Felix hypothesizes that just like musical phrases, the colors and leaves of individual flowers vibrate with their own internal harmony. And when deliberately grouped together, they can create melodies that sing with emotions. During his expeditions, he scrutinizes each flower for its ‘spirit’ and light patterns, studying it not as a botanist, but as a poet. In the process, Felix learns the power of quiet contemplation.

‘I saw a blue in the sky that I had never perceived elsewhere,’ he exclaims.

Back home at the castle, he assembles the wildflowers into impassioned arrangements in the hope that his beloved will understand their meaning.

Wildflower meadow in La Touraine

I love the passage describing Henriette’s surprise when she spies the flowers for the first time. Felix has positioned the bouquets in buckets on the threshold just outside the front entrance. She instantly deciphers the message in the arrangements, returning to them again and again to relive the experiences that have gone into their making.

Chateau de la Chatonnière in Azay-le Rideau 

Felix’s first bouquets for Henriette contained fragrant silver-cupped white lilies and wild roses ringed by cascades of sky blue forget-me-nots, bright blue ruffled cornflower and spikes of violet-blue viper’s bugloss. 

Just for fun, I pulled photos of the flowers that composed the arrangements. Balzac describes the bouquets as a ‘boullionnement’ (a ‘bubbling over’ or fountain) of blooms from the heart of which leap Felix’s aspirations in the shape of white roses.

Felix’s bouquet of love

I love the simplicity of the wildflowers and the juxtaposition of the white flowers with the blue, which Felix describes as the perfect marriage of two virtues: “he who knows nothing” and “she who knows all.” Once I’d arranged them on my screen, the flowers instantly awoke in me a sense of that early 1800’s garden. The bouquet seems so child-like, yet all-knowing somehow.

But clearly, there are more than 50 shades of meaning in Balzac’s vivid description of their arrangement.

What emotions do these bouquets stir in you?

In modern times, “Say it with flowers’ is a common slogan used by floral companies to sell flowers. Certainly the gift of a dozen roses at Valentines Day sends a beautiful message. But there’s something about Felix’s simple arrangement of wildflowers that stirs my heart. Is it the combination of flowers? Or the message conveyed by each?

Perhaps it is the dedication of Felix in collecting each of these blooms to create messages of love that touches me.

Something to think about on this Valentines Day.

 

 

Bamboo Gets A Makeover Thanks To A California Garden

The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College

I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind whose roots advance a foot a day and need to be dug out with a crane. But, I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views on the plant suddenly upended. It all started with a spectacular variety featuring aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading

Falling For Wilson Bentley, The Original Snowflake Man

Wilson Bentley Digital Archives of the Jericho Historical Society/snowflakebentley.com   

‘No two snowflakes are alike’ is a saying that many of us have grown up hearing. But few of us are aware of the person who coined it, a farmer from a small rural town in Vermont by the name of Wilson A. Bentley (1865-1931). Bentley was the first person to photograph a single snowflake, thus opening a window into this astonishing world of unique crystalline sculptures. Continue reading

10 Resolutions To Make In Your Garden This Year

Every year, I make a list of things I want to achieve or change in my garden. But the year passes, I get busy planning my clients’ landscapes and before I know it, it’s mid summer. That is not an ideal time to start something new in the garden.

I’ve promised myself that this year, however, will be different. All those ideas I’ve jotted down in my garden notebook? I plan to convert at least some of them into reality. And January is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for just how all of it will happen. Continue reading

O Christmas Tree: Why Conifers Smell So Good

 

When I was a teen, a French girl came to stay with us for the summer. She caused quite a stir in northern Delaware with her flat fronted cigarette jeans, lace-up wedge espadrilles and oversized red glasses. But what I remember most was her preference for a men’s cologne named Pino Sylvestre. Wherever she went, a fresh, forest-like scent followed in her wake. Continue reading

Trending In Health: Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

Most of us are well aware that a walk in the woods is a breath of fresh air; especially if you’re stressed out from big city life or the artificial glow of computer screens. But now in a growing trend, people are heading to the woods to experience nature in a completely different way. It’s called forest bathing. Continue reading

Nine Things To Ask Yourself Before Designing A Garden

celeste in garden

One of the many things I love about being a garden designer is getting to know my clients’ story. By this I mean what role gardens have played in their lives, what plants, structures, and ornaments evoke certain memories, and what kind of garden makes them feel relaxed and most happy. Continue reading

A Little Taste of Japan In the Heart Of Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardin Japonés

There are so many beautiful, themed gardens in Buenos Aires I’ve almost lost count. But, there’s one last gem I’ll profile before we return next week to the United States. Located in the city’s Palermo neighborhood, it’s the zen-like Jardín Japonés. Think acres of green foliage, a shimmering lake spanned by lipstick red bridges and colorful clusters of over-sized koi, and you’ve got the picture.

We happened upon the Jardín Japonés on a sizzling hot day when most of the other public gardens were closed. Spying some Asian-style buildings amidst the trees in the distance, we made a beeline across a park towards the sloped-roofed structures. Along the way, we passed the customary assortment of cheerful dogs and professional dog walkers.

A professional dog walker (paseaperro) in Plaza Allemania

Located behind a tall wall and bordered on all sides by traffic-congested avenues, the Jardín Japonés proved to be a quiet oasis in the heart of a boisterous city. Originally given as a gift to Buenos Aires from the Association of Japanese Immigrants, it was constructed in 1967 to celebrate the visit to Argentina by Japan’s Prince Akihito and his wife in May of that year. The future royals’ visit was a big deal for Buenos Aires and the garden was to receive other similar official visits over the ensuing decades.

Entrance to the Jardín Japonés

Today’s 6-acre garden, however, is mainly the work of a Japanese born landscape architect named Yasuo Inomata. The city of Buenos Aires hired Inomata in the mid 70’s to redesign and enlarge the Jardín Japonés to look more like a traditional Japanese garden. Inomata modeled his design after a zen garden, focusing heavily on the critical elements of harmony and equilibrium. The renovation, which was completed in 1979, has since become a bridge for the city’s residents and its visitors to understanding the Japanese culture.

The first thing you notice when you enter the Jardín Japonés is a large artificial lake spanned by three traditional-style Japanese bridges. Painted a distinctive deep red, the bridges each take different forms and carry different symbolic meanings. The largest of the three is the Puente Okayama, also known as Puente Zig Zag Okayama. The flat bridge skims just above the water and meanders back and forth across the northern end of the lake.

Puente Okayama (the zig zag bridge)

The second bridge, called Puente Yamagata, takes the traditional arced form. Also painted red, it is a standout in the middle of the lake. (Also perpetually clogged with tourists, so a clean photo is pretty much out of the question.)

Puente Yamagata

The third bridge, el Puente Plan Ibaraki, is made from rough-hewn planks in a burnished red. The site plan shows it traversing a small cove at the opposite end of the lake. During our visit, however, we observed only two piers facing each other across the water. I loved how the open space between the two piers raised questions as to whether they were meant to connect or simply observe each other. Whether or not this was purposeful, it was one of the most memorable spots for me in the garden.

Puente Plan Ibaraki

At the far end of the park is a large Japanese building housing a restaurant, library and cultural center. There is also a traditional-style Japanese tea house. But what really caught my eye was this checkerboard lawn to the right. Crafted from bright white paving stones and lime green grass, it made me feel like we had popped in on Alice in Wonderland.

Checkerboard lawn

Directly behind the checkerboard lawn and adjacent to the center is a shop selling traditional Japanese plants such as bonsai, orchids and azaleas as well as other native flowering plants.

Plant store

And on the other side of the tea house is a rose garden.

Rose garden

A big draw for children is the giant koi and carp that live and feed in the garden. They swim in colorful clusters along the fringes of the lake and under the bridges where visitors are encouraged to feed them. Their open mouths can be seen bobbing above the surface.

We stopped for a fruit smoothie at the Salon Mie next to a large bell dedicated to immigrants. Its big gong-like sound resonated across the park and sent powerful ripples through our bodies. It was the perfect accompaniment to the next small patio, the Patio Hiroshima, which displays three numbered trees that are descendants of larger trees that survived the bombing of Hiroshima.

The sign reads that the surviving trees were located within a 2000 meter radius of the center of Hiroshima and that the city has registered 170 trees ‘a-bombardeados’ for which they have been given a plaque and a special name. That name is:

HIBAKUJYUMOKU (TREE SURVIVING THE ATOMIC BOMB)

In addition to these highly symbolic areas, the garden boasts more than 150 species of trees and a huge variety of plants representing a combination of Japanese and native Argentinian species. There are acres of white and pink azaleas, Japanese Matsumae-fuki cherry trees. mugo pines, magnolias and Japanese maples as well as native oaks, cedars, tipas and Pal Borracho trees. There are also beautiful mini waterfalls.

And carefully composed arrangements of stones.

The many different elements appear to have happened there naturally, although in the architect’s own words, this is a deliberate misconception.

Inomata said:

Japanese gardens that I create express an element of Buddhism called gokuraku (pure land). In these gardens, the trees and flowers are not arranged in a structured manner so that they can imitate what is found in nature [  ]. At first glance, they may appear disorganized, but in reality they follow an order.

Unlike most other public gardens in Buenos Aires, the Jardín Japonés costs money, with all proceeds going to its maintenance, which is administered by the Fundación Cultural Argentino Japonesa. The garden is also home to festivals and other cultural activities promoting Japanese culture within the city.

For more information on the garden, its location, hours and scheduled activities click here for the official website.

Planting the Seeds For A Happy New Year

‘Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.’ – Alfred Austin

My first adventure with gardening of sorts involved a decrepit white begonia in a cast iron pot belonging to my mother. Frail and anemic and sporting only one bloom, it languished, (but never died!) in its water logged container. I decided to give it a haircut to see what would happen.

I was very young and my first cut was rather severe. My mom and I waited anxiously for the plant to recover. But over time it did, and as I began experimenting more and more with the forlorn little specimen, I eventually discovered that by careful pruning I could coax the plant into a more uniform shape.

I also found that by playing with the plant’s watering schedule, the begonia gradually lost its yellow-green color and formed deep green healthy stems. Finally one day, I was rewarded with a few tentative white blooms.

Gardening has taught me a lot over the years. I’ve learned to anticipate the needs of my plants and to sense when they’re thirsty or feeling poorly. I don’t love weeding, but I know that it is an essential chore to help my plants thrive. I’ve become sensitive to the slightest shift in the sound of the wind rustling through leaves, the particular calls of my neighborhood birds and the stillness that envelops the garden with the approach of a storm.

These things and more, await even the most amateur of gardeners (and we are all gardeners.)

So as a new year begins, I ’d like to share a few things I’ve learned from a life taking care of plants in the garden. These are not resolutions so much as ways of looking at things. (You don’t need to be a gardener to ‘get’ them.) Here goes:

 

No matter how long the winter, spring always arrives.

Following the particularly rocky year we’ve all experienced in America and abroad, this comes as a reminder that things never stay the same and that life can spring forth from even the darkest of times.

 

Perennials may look like they’ve died, but they’re only resting beneath the surface.

And not only are they resting, they are gathering strength for the coming spring.

 

A little TLC can make almost anything look good.

This goes beyond a good haircut. All living things respond well to a little personal attention. And practicing tender love and care benefits the giver, too.

 

It’s important to periodically clear the weeds.

When weeds become invasive they can have a devastating effect on life’s quality. Taking the time to remove them benefits everyone.

 

Nursing a sick plant back to health produces a really good feeling.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of bringing a sick plant back to health and being rewarded with new foliage and blooms.

 

Life springs eternal

Ok, so maybe this sounds a little hokey, but all gardeners know that new life is always waiting just below the surface. May 2017 be the year that we all strive to tend our own gardens by pulling the weeds, extending a hand to those who need it and appreciating those cycles of life that are so essential to our well being. Wishing you all a very Happy New Year.

Jardin Botanico in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires’ lovely Jardín Botánico

 

New Study Reveals Ants Know How To Grow Plants

fiji-ant

“Even the sharpest ear cannot hear an ant singing” -Sudanese Proverb

(Red ant on Fijian palm leaf)

Just when you thought you’d heard it all, this week comes the revelation that a certain species of Fijiian ants has been growing plants for millennia.  And they’ve been doing so for far longer than humans. The ants have been growing crops and establishing their colonies within them all while tending their own teeny tiny community gardens.

Researchers from the University of Munich in Germany made the surprising discovery while studying a species of ants called Philidris nagasau. The ants, which are indigenous to Fiji, establish their colonies high in trees on the tropical islands. While observing the ants’ behavior, the scientists discovered that the insects had formed specialized communities devoted entirely to gardening. And they were growing fruit.

fijian-forest

Tropical forest in Fiji

While the earliest known human farming dates back roughly 23,000 years, DNA evidence suggests that Philidris nagasau may have been growing plants as far back as 3 million years. And not only have they been growing fruit, they’ve been cultivating six different species of the same plant known as squamellaria. Squamellaria is a genus of flowering plants in the Rubiaceae family (that includes the coffee plant among others.) It is endemic to the islands of Fiji.

squamellaria-in-macaranga-tree

Squamelleria fruit in macaranga tree

Although many epiphytic plants (plants that grow harmlessly on other plants) have teamed up with ants before to gain nutrients, this is the first instance of a single species of ants actively engaged in planting and fertilizing the seeds of a plant.

How they garden

ant

“The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.” – Ezra Pound

It turns out that the Fijiian ants are involved in every aspect of gardening, from planting to harvesting, which has a direct impact on their housing and social behavior. The process begins even before the squamelleria are ripe, when the ants start gathering the fruits’ seeds and sowing them in elbows and cracks of the host tree’s branches. As the seeds germinate, the ants stand guard over the tiny sprouts, while fertilizing them with their feces.

ant-drawing

Once the squamelleria begin to mature, they swell into soft, bulbous structures composed of many chambers called domatia. The domatia serve as the ants’ home once they’re large enough for the mini gardeners to enter. As the fruits expand in size, the chambers do, too, and more and more fertilizer-producing ants move in, thus establishing a relationship that is beneficial to both parties.

The ants live inside the domatium during the life of the squamelleria where they form ever expanding colonies. Once the fruit appears, the ants eat the sugary flesh, collect the seeds and repeat the cycle.

According to the researchers, each ant colony farms dozens of fruit plants at the same time, while producing a system of mini highways that link one to another. The entire connected network of community ant farms often encompasses many trees.

palms

Researchers have never encountered these ants living anywhere other than in these fruits nor the plants living without the ants. Neither species can survive without the other.

The study was led by Professor Susanne Renner and Guillaume Chomick and published in the journal Nature Plants.