Topiary Gardens: 6 Great Ideas From The Gardens Of Eyrignac

You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac. Continue reading

Historic Garden Tour: The Dolley Madison Garden Club Turns 100

It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time. Continue reading

Vietnamese Tet: The Top Lucky Plants And Flowers

Apricot blossoms flowering in southern Vietnam

Tet falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year. And for the Vietnamese, this is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and family members return home for the holiday. Still, one of the most important aspects of the celebration are the many decorative symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.

VIETNAMESE TET COMES EARLY

Ask the Vietnamese and they will tell you that Tet (also known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it celebrates the arrival of spring. This usually occurs somewhere in late January or early February.

Spring in February you say? Well, as we discovered after a month here in January, there is little variation between the seasons. Since Vietnam is located near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates year-round. So generally, people mark the seasons by amount of rainfall and what’s blooming.

Vietnamese Tet flowers outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh

This year, Tet takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees in business doorways, peach blossoms in store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit in living rooms and hotel lobbies. 

And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.

Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry

YELLOW APRICOT BLOSSOMS (HOA MAI) 

It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a jar of these brilliant yellow flowers. Commonly known as yellow mai flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.

In the South, apricots are one of the first trees to flower during Tet. As a result, they are seen as the embodiment of the holiday spirit. In Ho Chi Minh, we observed many artificial renditions as well.

Moreover, each aspect of the apricot blossom carries meaning. The individual petals, for instance, stand for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And according to Vietnamese Tet traditions, the color yellow represents happiness, prosperity and good luck

 Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam

PEACH BLOSSOMS (HOA DAO) 

By contrast, in northern Vietnam it’s the peach blossom that takes center stage. In Hanoi, these rosy-pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely-colored ones are the most favored.

Peach blossoms 

Peach trees blossom early in the North. Northern Vietnam is colder than the south, so the Vietnamese consider the flowers to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that peach flowers keep the family peaceful and healthy.

Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh

Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon

KUMQUAT TREE (CÂY QUAT) 

It may not be a flower, but the kumquat tree nonetheless plays an important role in Vietnamese Tet traditions as well. During the Lunar New Year, it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruits symbolize fruitfulness. Kumquats also bring good health and good luck to family businesses. 

Pruned kumquat trees

For the best luck, the Vietnamese believe a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. In accordance with Tet traditions, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday. 

Most businesses, in fact, place the shrubs at their entrance where they are in clear view of the street.

Kumquat tree fruits

As with the Tet flowers, all parts of the tree are significant. In this case, they represent many generations. As a rule, the fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.

BONSAI AND OTHER KEY VIETNAMESE TET FLOWERS

Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in Vietnamese Tet traditions, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.

Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh

During the holiday, pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers embellish homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.

The Vietnamese typically purchase these special plants from mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s  Ho Thi Ky. They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.

 

The Gardens Of Dalat, The ‘Little Paris’ Of Vietnam

It may be the middle of winter, but summertime flowers are blanketing the hills of Dalat. And the show is only just beginning. Continue reading

Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico: French Twist On A Spanish Garden

To my readers: I am in Argentina for the month where I’ll be writing about gardens.)

Buenos Aires Jardin Botanico

Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico

There’s a reason why people often refer to Buenos Aires as a little Paris in South America. The city is chock full of French-style architecture, grand tree-lined avenues and a wide variety of public gardens. It wasn’t always this way, though. Up until the 19th century the city didn’t have many green spaces at all. That all changed with the arrival of a French landscape architect named Carlos Thays.

THE STORY OF CARLOS THAYS

Carlos Thays was to transform the city of Buenos Aires into the lush green metropolis it is today. Born in Paris in 1849, Thays was the disciple of one of the leading architects of the day, the French landscape architect Edouard André. Together with André, he helped design some of the most famous public and private gardens in Europe.

Thays came to Argentina in 1889 as part of a contract to help create what was to become his first major work in the country – the Parque Sarmiento, the largest park in the city of Córdoba. After the park was completed, he decided to stay in Buenos Aires. In 1891, he was named the city’s Director of Parks and Walkways.

Monument to Carlos Thays in Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico

The title of Parks Director gave Thays lots of leeway to influence the character of Buenos Aires, especially when it came to panoramic views of the city. With the exception of Parque Tres de Febrero, an older park opened in 1876, the city had no public green spaces. To rectify that, Thays began major tree planting projects. These included lining the grand avenues and neighborhood streets with such large shade trees as purple-flowering jacaranda, yellow-flowering tipas and the massive evergreen ombús,a native to the lowlands of South America.

One of the many Jacaranda trees in Buenos Aires

Simultaneously, Thays got to work remodeling the aging Parque Tres de Febrero and designing and constructing 69 new parks, gardens and plazas. His French heritage was reflected in many of his designs.

TOURING THE JARDÍN BOTÁNICO

One of the most famous of all of Thay’s projects is located in the urban neighborhood of Palermo where it takes up an entire city block. Completed in 1898, the Buenos Aires Botanical Garden is considered one of Thay’s greatest achievements. Today it bears his name Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays and it is home to more than 6,000 species of plants.

Surrounded on all sides by high walls, the park includes rare trees and a broad mix of native and exotic plants hailing from all parts of the world. The garden is also home to 33 classical sculptures, fountains and monuments in keeping with French style.

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La Loba Romana, one of the garden’s many works of art

THREE MAIN GARDENS

In order to best display his collection of plants and landscape styles, Thays designed the Jardín Botánico in sections. There are three main gardens: a Roman Garden planted with huge cypresses, alamos (a variety of cottonwood) and laurel trees, a French Garden built around a classic symmetrical design and an Oriental-style Garden featuring species indigenous to Asia.

One of the many enormous cypress trees in the Roman Garden

While working on the construction and planting of the garden, Thays and his family lived in a large brick Gothic Revival style house that still occupies a central place in the garden. Today it is home to the city’s Garden School. It also features a revolving art collection and library.

Thays’ home during construction of the garden

JARDÍN BOTÁNICO’S GREENHOUSES

One of the Jardín Botánico’s most important features is the five greenhouses that house a wide variety of native and exotic plants. The largest of them, a Beaux-arts style building, was first erected at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and brought back to Buenos Aires to be reassembled in the garden. Measuring 35 meters long, it is now home to a couple thousand bromeliads and orchids.

The largest of the greenhouses

View inside the large greenhouse

View inside the bulb greenhouse

SPECIALTY GARDENS

In addition to the main garden sections, there are also a number of specialty gardens including a cactus garden and butterfly garden. The cactus garden features many unusual varieties of aloe.

Cactus garden walkway

Aloe marlothii from Africa

In January, the lovely African agapanthus plant flowers all over the garden.

In total, there are hundreds of flowering shrubs.

Jardin Botanico in Buenos Aires

As well as huge stands of sky blue plumbago.

Thays died in Buenos Aires in 1934, but his public works live on for the whole city to enjoy. For more information on Buenos Aires’ Jardín Botánico, click here for the official website.

 

The Story Behind The Gardens of Annapolis’ William Paca House

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In Annapolis, Maryland there’s an impressive brick mansion that towers over the city’s historic district. Built in the 1760s, the home once belonged to William Paca, a signatory to the United States Declaration of Independence and third Governor of Maryland. In the 1960s, the property underwent a painstaking restoration. And today, the William Paca House and Garden is a faithful representation of what a Colonial-era residence used to be, offering visitors a quiet respite in the heart of this capital city.

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RESTORATION OF THE GARDEN

Aided by two seemingly unrelated events, the restoration of the William Paca garden took an unusual course. Separated by almost two centuries, the events ended up providing important details about the original garden. The happy coincidence enabled historians and horticulturalists to recreate the original 18th-century landscape, complete with buildings and plants, with near-perfect precision.

The first event took place in 1772 when Charles Willson Peale (1741-1847) painted a full-length portrait of William Paca in front of his garden. The painting documented key architectural features of the landscape. These included a red brick wall, central pathway, two-story white summerhouse and a Chippendale-style bridge.

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Portrait of William Paca by Charles Willson Peale

The second event took place over a century later during the early 1900s when the house functioned as a hotel for the U.S. Naval Academy. To make room for new dormitories, the Academy added fill dirt to a portion of the property. By happy accident, the soil acted as a cushion, preserving all of the brick foundations of Paca’s original garden and outbuildings.

According to Joseph Sherren, an intern with the curatorial department,

“It was one of those happy accidents that come about once in a lifetime.”

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Main view into the William Paca Garden

Using the details in the Peale portrait along with what was revealed in the excavated foundations, researchers and historians gradually reconstructed the bones of the original garden. They then consulted Colonial-era garden manuals and plant lists to determine what plants might have grown in the various spaces.

Today the garden is composed of a series of terraces enclosed by shrubbery and brick walls, a style characteristic of colonial gardens in the Chesapeake region. The third terrace slopes down toward a pond and the Wilderness Garden. And the property’s focal point, the two-story white summerhouse, presides on a small hill at the end of the garden, just like it does in Peale’s painting.

TOURING THE WILLIAM PACA HOUSE GARDEN

The tour begins on the uppermost terrace, which was designed to serve as a platform for entertaining and for viewing the garden. It is the first glimpse a visitor has of the garden.

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The next two levels are laid out in parterres. The Rose Parterre (on the left) features many heirloom roses including alba roses, which were being grown as far back as the Middle Ages. There is also a broad assortment of companion annuals and perennials. During my afternoon visit,  the flesh pink rose ‘Maiden’s Blush’, purple allium, verbena bonariensis, perennial foxglove and tropical-looking yellow canna lilies were all blooming.

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Rose Parterre

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Close-up of purple verbena bonariensis

The Flower Parterre, which lies directly opposite from the Rose Parterre, was designed to provide three seasons of colorful flowers. At the time of my visit, pink and apricot daylilies, soft pink echinacea and purple liatris were all in bloom. Spiky blue veronica, golden lantana and lavender-pink Stokes’ asters rounded out the mix.

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The Kitchen Garden features a colonial-style shed and trellises and latticework crafted from branches and string. I observed lush crops of salad greens, snap peas and squash growing in raised beds, a tiny shelf stacked with herbs planted in terra cotta pots and many heirloom varieties of apples, pears, plums, cherries and figs trained as espaliers. (Products made from the fruits, herbs and vegetables grown in the garden are sold in the gift shop.)

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Kitchen Garden

On the second terrace, the Holly and Boxwood Parterres provide year-round interest with their carefully maintained geometric designs.

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Boxwood Parterre

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Holly Parterre

The Summerhouse is the focal point of the garden. It lies in the wilderness area, which consists of a series of meandering paths through beds of mixed plantings. Reminiscent of the ‘picturesque’ style of gardening that was popular in Colonial America during Paca’s time, the miniature, thumb-shaped building is reached by crossing a Chinese-style latticework bridge that spans a fish-shaped pond.

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The upper floor of the two-story building served as a viewing point for the garden during the summer while providing the Paca family with cool garden breezes from the Chesapeake Bay.

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Tail-end (literally) of the fish-shaped pond

 

THE ART OF DRAINAGE 

Paca was an innovator when it came to designing ways to channel the natural runoff across his property. He built a system of drains that diverted water into pleasing garden elements. At the lowest level of his garden, he constructed a brick canal to direct water into a spring house. It is a key architectural element in the lower terrace of the garden.

Today, the natural spring, which is still active in the spring house, feeds the pond. In Paca’s day, the water was also repurposed for household use.

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One of Paca’s brick canals used to drain water from the garden

 

The State of Maryland and Historic Annapolis bought the Paca mansion in 1965 to save it from demolition. They spent the following decade restoring the house and garden. In 1971, the site was recognized as a National Historic Landmark. For more on the house and gardens, click here for the website.

The property hosts the annual William Paca Garden Plant Sale on Mother’s Day weekend every year.