Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

I call this the Edgar Allan Poe season in my garden …


… that time at the end of summer, before the colors of autumn begin. The fog brings an atmosphere of something like despair.






Do these Gordlinia blossoms suit the Poe atmosphere? Perhaps they are luscious enough to suggest some deeply illicit, carnal, certainly subconscious, sexual note.


A bud.


The canal pond.


The bank.


Sanguisorba canadensis and Miscanthus in flower.














See the gravel piles below? This is an experiment.


The old septic system that failed last spring was here. The area had to be cleared and heavy construction equipment brought in, further compacting the already heavy clay (and doing much more damage). I’m adding tangent circles of pea gravel (the hula hoop is the unit of measure) throughout this area. I got the idea visiting Derry Watkins’ garden and nursery, Special Plants, near Bath, UK, in July. Derry, who gardens over wet clay, discovered that she can grow many plants that shouldn’t do well if she plants into gravel of various depths. The gravel also promotes seeding. This article in The Telegraph tells that story.

So I’m trying out the idea. Not such a new idea really. I’ve noticed that some of my plants clearly want to climb up from their clay dungeons onto the gravel paths, where they grow much more vigorously. Many garden plants also seed into the gravel paths in preference to clay. I’m simply creating opportunities in the garden for more of that to happen.

Now back to the Poe garden.




































The Old Rectory at Naunton

September 23, 2015

“I’ve always been drawn to plants which are on the wild side, drawn to gardens which are on the wild side, which feel like they might just be tumbling into something quite primitive and unmuddled with. The way I garden is to let things go almost to the brink of being lost, and that’s often quite a frightening thing to do.”

Dan Pearson, BBC Desert Island Discs interview February 2015


While I was fortunate to meet and spend several happy hours with the owners and the gardeners of The Old Rectory at Naunton, I didn’t attempt to take away their stories of the garden. This is a personal response to a garden that, on the surface, may appear to be merely an extraordinary ornament, but is much more.

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Even in the rain this is a stunning view of The Old Rectory at Naunton and its central canal garden, only one part of the larger garden designed by Dan Pearson. Phillip and I were fortunate to be able to visit it in July, and to spend a very special rainy afternoon with the owners and with their gardeners. The garden roots the house into a seemingly idyllic landscape bordered by a small river named Windrush on one side and by low hills on the other.

Pearson’s words, “to let things go almost to the brink of being lost,” were in the back of my mind as we walked the garden that rainy afternoon, mainly because what I saw looked very much under control, or so I thought on first seeing it. Later I remembered being shown photos of the area after the river flooded, and that reminded me of the delicate balance in this place between tranquility and vulnerability. Then I began to perceive the wildness bursting out in the small meadows in the pool lawn, in the lush plantings around a mysterious green pond, in the perennial and shrub plantings opposite the swimming pool, even in the swelling borders flowing onto the paving in the canal garden above.

All an illusion. Theater, but living theater subject to the vicissitudes of climate, topography, and time. This garden, and perhaps all gardens, becomes a place of memory, deep feeling, nostalgia. In a very real sense, the spirit of wildness, the proof of transience and vulnerability lingering in the atmosphere, is what gives this garden life. I’m reminded of Auden’s phrase “wounded into art.”


The garden at The Old Rectory is not formal, but highly structured, carefully ordered, made with precision. (Did I neglect to say beautiful?) The landscape, I’m given to understand, is a kind of palimpsest; here was an earlier garden, long decayed, with some similar features. But this garden was made totally anew, acknowledging the past and in so doing creating as near as possible a perfect setting for the 300-year-old house.

The concept of palimpsest is a useful one. It suggests layering of the landscape over time. Faint, partially erased, but perceptible marks of the past–historical and cultural “writings”–remain; so the new garden is a metaphorical reincarnation of past gardens, occupying the same space like a kind of misty avatar made manifest.

I like to imagine the Windrush was the starting point of the design, that the water, its movement, its sound, sets the garden into motion. Anyone who has read much of Dan Pearson’s writing or seen his work knows he is exquisitely sensitive to context on multiple levels, to sense of place, so let’s look at this place. On the face of it, this is a peaceful Cotswold village; one would think there is little to suggest a sense of unease here.


Here is the Windrush tumbling over a rocky weir beside The Old Rectory. The stone wall on the left protects the property, the house, and the garden from the river, which can, and has, turned destructive in the past. The river’s presence brings a certain frisson to the garden that opens a door to emotion, as only the sense of nostalgia or loss, however gentle, can, waking the senses to heightened awareness.

Gardens are places of tranquility, rest and safety. But the very need for these things, the desire for a tranquil, safe place, requires the possibility of the opposite. Why are fairy tales so fraught with fearful characters and dark woods? Without danger, there is no safety. Without disturbance, no tranquility. Strangely, danger appears to be invited into the garden (another bit of theater). A small canal feeds water straight from the river …


… to a large, green pond. (The flow can be controlled or stopped with a valve mechanism, but the sense of the immanence of the river flowing in remains.) The green color of the pond immediately raises questions (why, how?), heightening attentiveness to the surroundings.


The scene evokes a feeling of something very old, even primal, mysterious, and that day in the rain, melancholy.


But I have seen images of this part of the garden in pleasant weather and the effect is quite different–a peaceful, meditative setting without a trace of melancholy. Only trickling water and the whisper of wind in the trees. So the pond garden does double duty, harkening back to primal origin then moving onward to a bright new day, a feeling of something wonderful about to happen, as in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus but here without the Venus. In its place, the yellow spires of Ligularia stenocephala and lush, mounding Darmera peltata rise from the plane of the water, a dramatic upward gesture, like an upturned hand.

Imagine sitting in that shady Adirondack chair hidden back in the shadows, enfolded by the voluptuous water plants crowding the pond’s edge. You can linger there in tranquility among masses of Darmera, Iris ‘Gerald Darby’, Osmunda, Typha, various primulas …


… or move to the other side of the wall, where you enter a different world, the canal garden, where water appears again, though here in strict geometric form.


The parallel lines, the powerful perspective create a riveting scene, quickly drawing your eyes down the canal to the house, then freeing you to enjoy the lavish plantings. The axial design makes it absolutely clear the house is the center of this garden. But any temptation to see the garden as formal is quickly dispatched by the lush and varied plantings that almost erase the parallel stone walls, by irregular, rhythmic episodes along the length of the canal–the box balls, the low seats, the crossing walls and “bridge” partway toward the house–so that the sense is of a bountiful, exuberant growth that might just overpower the strict confines of the structure. You don’t want to take your eyes away from this mesmerizing scene.

A closer view of the “hot” borders near the house reveals, among many other things, bright red Hemerocallis Stafford, Astrantia ‘Hadspen’s Blood’, Persicaria amplexicaulis, and tall Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’, and makes a dramatic contrast with the pale yellow daylilies and soft colors at the further end of the canal. (I remember seeing the Geranium rose in October at Sissinghurst about 30 years ago; the large hips were so colorful, I at first thought the roses were still in flower.) The rose canes will become a fountain of orange in autumn.


I wish I could have asked more questions about individual plants, but with rain coming steadily down, walking in starts and stops, asking about this and that plant, wasn’t possible.


This is the view looking out from the informal kitchen dining area. We would have eaten lunch outside had the rain waited for another day.


All the walls are dry laid stone. They are a completely new addition designed by Dan Pearson; the workmanship is of extraordinary quality. The pergola area at the end of the canal, opposite the house, reminds me very much of a Frank Lloyd Wright design …


… a modernist touch I found pleasing, and a testament to Pearson’s success in integrating new and old. A passageway in front of the back wall carries you from the pond garden on the left through to the lawn and swimming pool on the right.

Pearson designed arrow slit openings of green oak to allow glimpses to other parts of the garden through the stone walls. Below, you can see how intriguing are the views through the narrow slits. The rectangular shape of the slits echoes the rectangle of the canal garden, and a pattern of rectangular shapes used even more generously in the next area of the garden.


Continuing through the passageway at the back of the canal garden, you move through a constricted space, then experience a sudden opening as you enter the area of the lawn and pool, encountering water a third time. You can just glimpse an edge of one small meadow on the right.


A further turn to the right and you can see “the wild side” again. This view of the house through apple trees and a small meadow looks quite wild compared to the canal garden only a few feet away. Dan Pearson’s ability to combine such radically different scenes into a unified vision is one of his hallmarks. I think he does this through very effective use of spatial and emotional (they can be the same) transitions. As you move from the pond garden, to the canal garden, to the open area of the pool and lawn, you also move through a series of alternating compressive and expansive spaces created by the walls at the back of the canal garden. This repeated opening and closing has a theatrical aspect, and makes the garden more interesting by manipulating your emotions in a very subtle way. (I found similar effects when visiting Rousham.)


Although taking photographs under an umbrella in the rain doesn’t produce optimum images, I show this view of the lawn because it’s essential to seeing how the parts of the garden fit together. Looking down the length of the pool, the rectangular meadow on the right reflects the rectangular shape of the pool. Not visible now, because it was recently cut, is another smaller meadow under the Gleditsia on the left. You can see its brown footprint. These shapes, in turn are echoed by low squares of box topiary used at the far end of the garden, several with Amelanchier growing out of their centers. In the center distance is the tower of the church, a fitting end point for this part of the garden at The Old Rectory.


Moving on to this prospect on the far side of the lawn, you can see the remnants of the recently cut smaller meadow and, in the left mid-distance, one of several low box squares used as a motif on this side and in the front garden. The two openings in the stone wall of the canal garden allow, on the right, passage through to the pond garden and the Windrush and, on the left, to the “hot” borders and outdoor dining area. Though the garden is slightly over one acre in size, Pearson’s design keeps all parts in close relationship to the house–the center of it all–and to each other, so you never lose intimacy with the house or easy access to other parts of the garden.


The color transitions in the three major parts of the garden are quite dramatic.

In the garden beside the outdoor terrace a completely different color palette is used : pinks, blues, mauves of Dianthus carthusianorum, Dierama pulcherrima, Echinops ‘Veitch’s Blue’, Eryngium x tripartitum, Lychnis coronaria, Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’, Stachys byzantina, Verbena bonariensis, and in the background Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (weeping in the rain) and Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Lavendelturm’.


Looking from near the house and across the terrace toward the pool at the back, you see repetition of rectangles in various forms (theme and variations): the stone terrace itself shining in the rain, rectangular box hedges, the uncut meadow straight ahead, pleached hornbeams making an elevated rectangle behind the pool, the pool itself, the large rectangle of lawn, the rectangular lavender plantings in the terrace, the vertical wall of the canal garden. There is an almost musical interplay in the garden as a whole, from the curves and irregularities of the pond garden, to the vanishing point perspective of the canal garden, to the flat stability and varied textures, colors, and reflective surfaces of the lawn and surrounding geometries.


So where do I find my theme–“the wild side”–now? Yes, it’s still here. This whole side of the garden is one giant rectangle erupting into smaller rectangles, like a quantum field generating unexpected parts, perhaps magical, impossible new things. I find this view immensely pleasing. It so well captures the spirit of wildness with painterly frames, entertains the vision and the mind with spatial satisfactions, and appeals to a sense of order amid chaos that may be a synonym for paradise.

. . . . . . . .

For views of the garden not taken in the rain, click this link to Dan Pearson Studio.

For an extraordinary 18 minute video of the garden, watch this:



Green, green

August 23, 2015

Green, green grass of home


The garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole at Bury Court

Back from over a month in England and Wales, I ask myself what those weeks of garden visiting mean. Or do they have to mean? I certainly felt at home living amid a garden culture with far more breadth and depth than our’s in the U.S., regardless of superficiality and tradition-bound conservatism I was made aware of from time to time, and I’m trying to resist a temptation to compare and judge the gardens I saw, unsuccessfully as you will see. What is this impulse to rank and group experiences as if they were commodities?


The green oak pavilion and pool at the garden’s center are essential to its success

Visiting Bury Court, where John Coke has the pleasure (and perhaps burden) of having two significant gardens in one–on one side of the house Piet Oudolf’s first garden designed in the UK and on the other a superficially similar garden by Christopher Bradley-Hole–clarified some of my own preferences, quite unexpectedly. I preferred the Bradley-Hole garden. Though I don’t think it necessary to choose favorites, and I’m a long time admirer of Piet Oudolf’s work, my immediate realization that I had a definite preference was both unexpected and a surprise. So why?


Parthenium integrifolium (Wild quinine), a plant John Coke pointed out as a particular favorite

First the Oudolf garden, briefly. After being gripped by, and finally throwing off, an initial feeling of something like “reverence” I usually experience on first seeing gardens I’ve long known only through books and magazines, I immensely admired the Oudolf garden for itself, though it’s been changed over the almost twenty years of its existence in ways I don’t know. I was especially impressed with the now “archetypal” Deschampsia meadow that has been widely imitated.


Oudolf’s much imitated, and by now almost archetypal, Deschampsia meadow



The garden is quite small compared to the much more expansive gardens we now expect from Piet Oudolf, though its enclosure in a courtyard had the benefit of imposing a structure lacking in the far larger and perhaps more ambitious garden at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Somerset, which we had seen just the day before, and which I felt lacked sufficient structure to satisfy my need for focus (perhaps a premature judgment considering the early state of that garden’s development; more on that in another post).


A satisfying contrast of hard and soft, the green oak pavilion with miscanthus and delicate bobbles of Sanguisorba.

John Coke unexpectedly came out as we were about to move on to the Christopher Bradley-Hole garden on the other side of the building. I hadn’t expected to see him, and was very happy that he chose to walk with us to the Bradley-Hole garden and stay for the remainder of our visit. I had recently read the Noel Kingsbury’s reconstruction of the history of the New Perennials movement in his and Oudolf’s new book, Hummelo, where I’d learned John had a significant role in the development of this garden design movement that has been so close to my heart. I wish I’d asked more about that, but I limited myself to practical questions of plant identification and his own feelings about the garden.


John Coke. How could you not like this man?

I’ve admired this garden, again only in photos, for years, but I was unprepared to be so powerfully affected when I first walked into it. It was like passing into another dimension, certainly a very different place–a place of transcendent greenness, green wildness anchored in a rigid, almost hidden (at this time of year) structure of 20 Corten steel squares. I felt the space suddenly open up and welcome me, envelope me. The garden is intensely immersive, though it works with such a light, airy touch it’s not at all claustrophobic or oppressive. The transition from the Oudolf garden, beautiful as it is, to the utter simplicity of this green, immersive garden was a minor shock to the nervous system, but one of unalloyed pleasure.


A star plant, Datisca cannabina

So why did I feel a preference (most definitely it was an emotionally led preference, not an intellectual one) for the Bradley-Hole garden? Probably because it strongly reminded me of my own garden, I have to admit, though vastly different.


Can you see the suggestion of a paradise garden here? My husband Phillip talks with John Coke near the pavilion

The central pavilion and pool create a dramatic contrast with the loose plantings and are critical to the garden’s effect. The space required for these central features is relatively long and large, and suggests, at least to me, the paradise garden of the Persians, an emotional resonance that further confirmed my preference for this garden. The linearity and openness of this part of the garden makes it possible to see a bit more of the structure of the formal grid of steel squares that anchor the garden into the highly structured gravel matrix. Within this open center, you can see, or easily imagine, vanishing points that suggest the enclosed linearity of a paradise garden, and the pool, the water so typical of such gardens. So, for me, a paradise garden in southern England in the 21st century …


The garden is full of Sanguisorbas

… respite, restoration, un dolce ristoro.


Helianthus salicifolius, a beautifully shaped and easily recognized form in the garden, appears in repeated colonies

Mostly green, the garden works through simplicity and repetition of shapes.


Structural plants with distinctive forms, such as the Helianthus salicifolius (above), liberal use of Datisca cannabina, Miscanthus giganteus, Macleaya, Persicaria polymorpha, bobble-headed Sanguisorbas, Stipa gigantea, Molinia, Panicums, various other grasses and some perennials provide visual interest within a unified field of tranquil green. I can only imagine how colorful this garden must be in autumn; you can see a glimpse of it in this Stephen Lacy piece in the Telegraph.


Though the garden is relatively small, the plants are overscaled to create a sense of enclosure and protection, refuge and prospect, but an illusory refuge of thin veils of vegetation. The big sky and the see-through quality of the plantings prevent any sense of claustrophobia. The formal structure of the garden, too, allows glimpses out (where the plants haven’t blocked or fallen across the view corridors, a natural and desirable occurrance).


The garden invites the viewer’s eye to enter in a specific way. First, you see the setting, the sky and natural fields and woodlands surrounding it, and which the garden imitates in a more structured way. Then the pavilion attracts attention with its tall, hard structure, and invites contemplation of the complexity of that structure, consisting of two-interlocking cubes slightly offset vertically and horizontally. The pavilion’s structure can work subconsciously or consciously to create the idea of movement, a kind of metaphorical stepping aside, perhaps suggesting dance, and this is picked up by the plantings, both in the ground rhythm of the squares within squares, and more loosely, by the dance and swirl of the grasses and perennials, which even when still, also suggest movement.


As I write this, I’m sitting in my living room looking out a wall of windows. The morning is unusually cool for this season, about 68 degrees, with a light breeze, and outside the view of the garden is blocked by a brightly lit scrim of miscanthus in flowery plume and greenish yellow Patrinia scabiosifolia. Sunlight glints off the miscanthus foliage, almost blinding in its brightness. This scrim, only twelve feet or so from the house, is echoed by the tall woods on the far side of the garden. Sunlight pours into the woods making an abstract chiaroscuro of dark trunks and bright green going deep into the trees, like some magical, extremely complicated lantern no human would ever think to try to invent. These two shapes, the scrim of miscanthus and Patrinia, and the looming hump of woods, make the main garden down below totally invisible. The beatific buzz of cicadas rises and falls in a calm, meditative rhythm. All of this brings the Bradley-Hole garden back to mind–the interplay of large grasses, especially miscanthus, with the sunlight streaming lavishly down, the gentle, random movements of the plants, the tranquility.

It’s good to be home.







Catch as catch can

July 7, 2015

I’m leaving for England for a month tomorrow. Last weekend, I realized I hadn’t documented the garden’s summer progress, so I made the rounds.


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Hidcote is generally considered to be the apogee of the English Arts and Crafts garden, though it was made by a wealthy American, Lawrence Johnston. It is very much a garden of rooms, and in that way very typical of Arts and Crafts gardens of the period. I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. The very next day, we visited Rousham. What a contrast! I found this tour so well designed to elicit meaning and understanding, I mention two other tours Carolyn will be taking to Europe this summer, Contemporary English Gardens in Summer in August and Piet Oudolf & the Dutch Wave Gardens in September.

Spring woodland garden-2

Hidcote and Rousham seem to exist at two extremes of garden making, and they reveal something about each other. [..read more..]



It’s time for another Garden Conservancy Open Day at Federal Twist, next Saturday, June 27, from 10 to 4. Everyone’s welcome. Click on the photo for a selection of views.



First seeing Rousham

June 18, 2015

Rousham was the last of many gardens I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. Rousham was the only eighteenth century landscape garden on the tour. In that sense, it appeared to be an outlier, but it turned out to be a key to […]

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Off to England … working with carexTours

April 29, 2015

Is good fortune a kind of grace, a gift of an inherently generous universe? I’d like to think so. But it may just be the luck of the draw.

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April 27, 2015

The failed septic system in my garden represents the contingency we all live with, raising the question, in my case, of how to get the garden back. So it’s time to pause, look away from the present mess, and recollect the garden’s past–a long Flickr set of photos through the year. Click on the photo. (When […]

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Rot, decay, more life

April 20, 2015

Behind the house, a very old Japanese weeping cherry has reached the end of its life. Flowering has declined dramatically over the past few years and limbs have begun to rot and fall.

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Where not to put a garden

April 15, 2015

The best I can say is that it happened in the early spring. The plants aren’t up yet, and though a great deal of damage has been done, and much more may come, I can at least imagine the damage can be repaired. But in time?

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First salamander

April 12, 2015

One of the guys here to do some tree work last Thursday told me he had seen the largest salamander he’d ever set eyes on in my small reflecting pool. This is a spotted salamander, apparently common, but rarely seen, throughout the eastern US. When I found it the next day, it dove under water, […]

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What if a visitor arrives before the garden’s up to snuff?

April 3, 2015

One of the few disadvantages of a prairie-style garden is the mostly vacant stare it gives you until June. I have a garden visitor coming in early May, when the garden has barely begun to turn green and most of the high summer’s 12-foot behemoths are only 6 to 10 inches high. It certainly won’t […]

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Federal Twist in Elle Decor – Redux

March 14, 2015

Thanks to Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, my garden makes a brief appearance in the April issue of Elle Decor.  I know Nancy and Susan from their recent book, Gardens of the Garden State, where they featured Federal Twist among the astonishing variety of gardens in New Jersey. Only one small caveat; I don’t agree with Elle Decor’s […]

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An artist

February 26, 2015

I recently saw an exhibit of the work of Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit runs through March 29. Some of the work is beautiful. Some is deeply emotional, especially once you know her story.

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Paley Park

February 2, 2015

I stopped by Paley Park after visiting the Museum of Modern Art a couple of weeks ago. This is one of my favorite places in Manhattan. Probably one of the most tranquil places in Manhattan too, especially when it’s empty in early evening.

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MOMA Garden (yes, on iPhone)

January 28, 2015

Went to see Matisse cutout exhibition. Of course, I stopped to visit the garden.

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The Circle: Finished

January 26, 2015

We finished the stone circle last Friday, the day of my self-imposed deadline. Fortunate, because about five inches of snow fell Friday night.

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The Circle: Progress

January 21, 2015

One more day of work and it will be finished, just before a possible snow storm this weekend.

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In praise of weather (again)

January 7, 2015

I look at photos of Dutch and British gardens and am a little envious to see how long and gentle their autumns seem to be.  Our climate in the Northeast US is vastly different; our foul and stormy weather often comes much sooner. The garden was decimated by snow and freezing rain Thanksgiving week, two months earlier than last year. […]

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Stone circles

December 23, 2014

I’d been thinking about making more open space in my garden for a long time … a significant feature, somewhere in the middle. Then Carrie Preston visited from The Netherlands last summer and said, “Why don’t you use more stone. You have so much. Use what you have.” Or something to that effect. I eventually would […]

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December 21, 2014

Flaxmere, a garden near Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, is a quiet beauty. We visited in February 2014, in the height of summer there. The country has such extraordinary growing conditions, some New Zealand gardens

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Weather traces … funny moods

December 1, 2014

First snow, November 13, one-half inch, but heavy and wet. Though the snow flattened much of the garden, it recovered in a day.

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Apocynum cannabinum – Dogbane

November 30, 2014

From Wikipedia Apocynum cannabinum (Dogbane, Amy Root, Hemp Dogbane, Prairie Dogbane, Indian Hemp, Rheumatism Root, or Wild Cotton) is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows throughout much of North America – in the southern half of Canada and throughout the United States. It is a poisonous plant: Apocynum means “poisonous to dogs”. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause cardiac arrest if ingested. The cannabinum in the […]

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Atmosphere in the dying garden

November 20, 2014

Last photos, taken November 13, before a small snow and plunging temperatures. Winter arrives in another month, but the last few days have felt like February. I’ve been reading about atmosphere and mood, but I’m not sure it’s possible to put a name to what I feel in the garden. Perhaps it’s too personal, perhaps it […]

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