Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baroquely Junglesque: Buenos Aires Botanical Garden

The Buenos Aires Botanical Garden is very much a garden of the past, a garden of the Belle Epoque. When I first visited a little over a year ago, I felt some disappointment (it is rather frayed around the edges, but then Argentina's economy is a troubled one). In retrospect, I found much of interest for an afternoon stroll, a reverie of a perhaps fictional past splendor, and one very interesting plant called Ombu.

The entrance, echos of the jungle, impressive trees, a planting with impatiens ... not exactly cutting edge garden design ... but a pleasant scene, and there's much to be said for sensuous appeal which is, after all, the starting point for appreciation of most gardens ...

As I understand it, Buenos Aires is actually part of the pampas. Very few trees are native to this part of Argentina. What we see here is not native to the area. But the garden has a formidable charm even in its decrepitude.

The main building, occupied for a time by Carlos Thays, the designer of the garden, and of most of the parks in the city ... Note the red of the brick is outdone by the brighter orange-red of the dirt paths, typical of most of Buenos Aires' public gardens and parks.

Below one of several notable sculptures in the garden. I don't know its name but it's clearly illustrative of the European, and most notably French, influence on Buenos Aires.

A copy of a noted work, Los primeros Fríos by the Catalan sculptor Blay y Fabregas. I know nothing more of it. Certainly a moving work, but appropriate to this garden? Probably not, though I am glad to have seen it here, or anywhere.

This huge tree was the highlight of my visit. Its name is Phytolacca dioica. You may notice the similarity to the botanical name for Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. This, in fact, is not a tree. As an Argentinian friend told me, "It's a giant herb." Herb, yes, a 60- or 80-foot-tall herb.

When I saw the fruit, I knew immediately it had to be related to our North American Pokeweed; the similarity is immediately apparent.

Known locally as Ombu, this is the "tree" of the pampas. It survives in that treeless region because it's poisonous like its American relative, thus is not grazed by animals, and its massive water storage capacity protects it from fire.

Another fascinating plant was this Ficus luschnathiana.

This patinated bronze Saturnalia, depicting the ancient Roman festival, by Ernesto Biondi was a special delight. It was installed in 1963.



Something of the wierdness of this sculpture seems quite appropriate to this baroquely junglesque setting with paths of deep red dirt so characteristic of Buenos Aires--sort of a crazy Martian landscape of oddities and beauty tarnished by time and neglect.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Garden Diary: Greening, and plans for the season

Nearing the end of April green is becoming the predominant color in the garden, finally beginning to cover the stubble left from burning and cutting last year's growth. The benefit of leaving the dried detritus of winter will, eventually, be a higher organic content in this mineral, heavy clay soil. It's messy to look at, but once the greening begins, it gradually disappears.

The woodland entrance to the garden above has been waiting for five years now. I've been focusing on development of the wet prairie garden beyond, the stone walls, most recently replacing the wood chip paths with gravel (the one on the left will be graveled this weekend). Other than a few scattered ferns and carex around the edges, this area awaits its future. I still don't know what it wants to be. Should I block the view beyond with taller woodies--willows perhaps, for coppicing? I do intend to extend the mass planting of Petasites in the middle distance back into the grassy area in the foreground, and to add Senecio aureus to start an early spring community when the plants arrive over the next few days.

To the left are the rough stone steps (Argilite, native to the property) up to the raised terrace area at the back (front?) of the house. Perhaps I should explain. The back of our house is the front, fully windowed, opening to the garden. What Americans call the traditional front (facing the road) is a rather blank slate. The house turns its back to the public eye. The internal life of the house, and most of the garden is hidden.

Amazing that this crab apple was planted in the late 1960's. It remains healthy and blooms profusely each spring. Its semi-weeping habit makes a pleasing veil through which to view the more distant garden.

The sitting area on the old bluestone terrace is surrounded by casual plantings. I do intend to add a slightly formal element with simple lines of boxwood outlining a small part of the stone perimeter, and underplanted with Bergenia. The aim will be to emphasize the linearity of the terraced area seen from the distance, and to add a contrast to the informal plantings all around. As time permits, I'm also adding plantings to obscure the view of the garden below, to entice visitors to venture out, and to add a sense of mystery.

In the far left center, above, behind the large maple, I've planted a Hornbeam hedge. It went in only last weekend, so I don't expect to see my eight-foot barrier for quite a few years. When it matures it will screen an unattractive stretch of deer fencing, forming one of several offset "layers" of vegetation.

In the middle right of the photo is a linear stone planting area, which you can see in the closeup below, filled with box and Bergenia. This stone structure echos and visually extends a linear pond off to the right. Another project I hope to complete this year was the idea of my friend, garden designer Peter Holt. Peter suggested I extend the visual line created by long pond and long planter, by adding a second raised stone planter across the path, carrying the eye back toward the large maple and new Hornbeam hedge.

This structural feature is much more effective when the garden is flat, as it is now and in late winter, and will add considerably to the garden's central structure, which strongly echos the drainage pattern across this wet land. The flow of water across this land dictates much of the garden's shape, character, and plantings.

Said planter with box and Bergenia ...

and the infant Hornbeam hedge ...

Taking the path back across the garden, you can see what I mean about drainage. Note the very sharp slope of the land to the left. Immense amounts of water flow across this area during heavy rains, and for hours afterward.

And at the far side (below), a different kind of hedge, just planted, of Alder (Alnus gultinosa), which I will keep cut in a version of a Piet Oudolf-inspired camelback hedge, also to hide the unsightly deer fencing. But more importantly, to create a human-scale edging of shrubby materials that emotionally distance the tall surrounding forest and help familiarize the garden space.

Below, a sure sign of wetness:  Petasites hybridus x 'Dutch' in bloom across the path from the Alder.

And Darmera peltata in bloom, another lover of the wet ...

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Caught a glimpse of the Great Blue Heron today. I assume there are several since sightings are rather frequent in the heavily wooded haunts of the Lockatong Creek valley. Stopped on the bridge just as the heron sighted me and took off ...

... rising from the creek bed, with wings on the down stroke.

The heron alighted quickly on a dead tree to wait for my departure. (The creek is full of trout, released by the state each spring.)

It looks small, too small, considering its six-foot wing span.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Weeping Cherry

This weeping cherry tree was planted by the original owners of our house, the Howeths, in the late 1960s, making it about 40 years old. It's showing signs of age and diminishing vitality, but it may well last another 20 years.

The terrace is over 40 years old too, but I'm resisting thoughts of renovation. I like its patina of age. Perhaps a line of boxwoods outlining the near right corner will provide a pleasing finish.

Yes, that's likely to go on the "to do" list ...

 ... underplanted, of course, with a bergenia groundcover, to reflect the same combination used in other parts of the garden.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Garden Diary: The prairie garden in black & white

This is the garden in early spring, after all the herbaceous plants have been burned or cut down. I rendered several photographs in black and white to emphasize the underlying structure of this wet prairie garden, and to help decide what to do to add meaningful structure at such bare times of the year.

The photo above shows a  large network of intersecting lines that make the underlying structure of the garden:  three stone walls on the right and left, as well as one at the base of the bank from which the photo was taken, another major diagonal formed by the narrow pond and its visual extension in a long stone planter filled with 'cloud' box woods and Bergenia, a diagonal line of Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) along the path on the right, and an evolving 'screen' of deciduous woody shrubs at the back.

Above in close-up you can better see the screen of the shrubs. Three high-pruned Salix sachalinensis sekka (Japanese Fantail willows) appear to be small blooming trees on the right (they are not). The lack of color, even without fine resolution, clearly reveals the varied structures, shapes and textures of the shrubs. Further to the left, in the center of the photo, are two thin twigged willows (Salix koriyanagi 'Rubikins'), all verticals, with a structure that waves gracefully in the wind. Yesterday, I took long cuttings and planted them further to the left to create a screen of five evenly spaced willows. These will stand immediately in front of a line of five Arborvitae. My intention is to extend the screen with a hedge of European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) starting a few feet beyond the Rubikins willows and continuing for ten or twelve feet. After a further space, there will be a smaller hedge perpendicular to the longer hedge.

In the photo above you can see how the hornbeam hedges will form a corner that will visually terminate the garden at the far side, creating an enclosed space that I want to enhance with a 'forest' of various hydrangeas.

Above, a view of the far 'corner' taken from a position slightly to the right reveals how the right angle of hornbeam hedges will extend the line of the distant stone wall, then turn to the right to join with the rows of shrubby greenery across the back side of the garden.

Another shift in point of view to the right, above, almost shows another focal point--one not visible in the photo: a circle of dark red painted logs. The red, unfortunately, shows as black in these photos. And below, the main path, newly paved in gravel, has become a prominent geometric feature, far more so than when covered in wood chips.

A color photo, taken in July of last summer, just to show the dramatic difference when the herbaceous vegetation is at its full.

And next two more photos ... one in black and white taken today, contrasting with a color photo from last summer, taken from approximately the same position. Here you can clearly make out the dark red circle of logs in the distance.

Here is a photo taken from the opposite end of the garden, just inside the enclosure that will be formed by the hornbeam hedges. You can clearly see on the left the slant of the land, which becomes rapidly steeper as you near the Lockatong Creek about 1200 feet below the house. The rough, stubble field will soon be invisible beneath the wet prairie of the summer of 2011.

Below the three Japanese Fantail willows clearly show their high pruning. They require rather frequent pruning down below, where new growth continues to emerge throughout the season.

A view toward the house from the far end of the garden shows the need for embellishment of the view, particularly the wooden fence leading up to the house (made necessary to prevent deer from entering the garden). Cutleaf sumac on the bank will provide some interest. I've already dug holes for two new groups of Japanese Fantail willows, which will add visual interest as well as a feeling of intimate enclosure to that garden entry point.

Note the circle of red logs on the right above, and in the center below. This metaphorical feature will be a focal point of the 'private' space that will be formed by the hornbeam hedges and the 'forest' of hydrangeas between this viewpoint and the path.


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