If T.S. Eliot had spent Aprils in Washington he might have started “The Wasteland” out differently. In Washington, April is hardly, as he famously wrote, “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs from the dead land”.
At least not this past week or so, when days have been relatively warm and sunny, and the buds on every tree and shrub visibly swell with each passing hour. When it hit 80 degrees last week, I headed for the nursery.
This was my fourth nursery trip this year – and it is only April. My first was in mid-February when I wandered off to one of my favorite nurseries in Connecticut. Covered in snow, it was closed. In early March I found that though the nurseries here weren’t closed, they weren’t carrying much besides pansies and other annuals.
So last week, I was ready. I’ve just finished the long planned revision of my garden in which, to the horror of a surprisingly large body of friends, I replaced every blade of grass with gravel and paving. It’s lovely. Spacious and open, it has plenty of room for entertaining and lounging, as well as three tracts of empty soil just waiting to be planted.
My thought is to plant my garden in pale yellows and bluish greens, with lots of texture and, of course, year-round interest. For me, pale yellow does something special to a garden. It feigns sunlight in dark or dappled places, sets off brighter colors, and never seems to fade in the heat of a Washington summer day. Pale yellow and bluish greens are gorgeous together. I plan to have big pots of annuals, so my borders need to be neutral enough to work with anything I choose to put in the pots in the years to come. Orange, pink, white, apricot, and myriad other colors complement pale yellow and bluish green.
As I drove out River Road, the excitement of finally planting my new garden overwhelmed my training and experience as a garden designer. Discipline yielded to exuberance and impulse. I didn’t care. I had a serious case of gardener’s spring fever.
All winter I have dreamed of planting yellow Knockout roses. It’s a bit of an experiment because my garden is not especially sunny, but I can’t waitto try them in the one spot where perennial salvias bloomed last year (casualties, alas, of the excavation for the new stonework). Disease resistant Knockout roses start blooming in May and persist well into late fall when they finally succumb to the first serious frost.
I have also been thinking I might try Annabelle hydrangeas. They are not exactly yellow but a creamy white that fades to light green as summerprogresses. Then there are azaleas. And I wants lots of yellow foxgloves, euphorbias, forget-me-nots, ferns, hostas, toad-lilies and and and …
By the time I pulled into the crowded parking lot (I wasn’t the only one with spring fever) I had worked myself into a frenzy. I picked out a pair ofshovels and loaded five or six bags of potting soil in the car. Then, it was off to the plants. There were lots of early blooming perennials but I just couldn’t pick so I drifted up past the vines to the shrub department. The evergreen Armand’s clematis (Clematis armandii) was in full bloom (I had spotted it weeks ago on a fence in the East Village) but I wasn’t sure where I’d plant it or what its’ sun requirements are. There were no roses, no hydrangeas, no late summer blooming perennials like hostas. What a disappointment! Perhaps April is the cruelest month, I thought, after all.
Slowly, disappointment gave way to sanity. Other than a color palette, I had to admit I had no plan. I had no idea what I wanted to plant besides Knockouts, yellow foxgloves and hellebores. Did I even want shrubs? What was I thinking?
I slaked my plant appetite with begonias and clematis, and drove back to Georgetown silently lecturing myself about the need to make a planting plan so I could proceed exuberantly but sanely. I sternly reminded myself of my own planting rules.
First, I must make a list of what’s important in this space. If possible, every plant should have more than one season’s interest, especially in a small garden. That could be any combination of bark, foliage, inflorescence, texture, or berries. My second requirement is that everything has to be a super-favorite plant, a delight in deer-free garden.
Next comes the color palette. My summer palette will be yellow and blue, but it should change throughout the seasons. I love unrestrained color in early spring and lots of fall colors with a good dash of purple worked in for autumn. In winter it can be reds, whites, and even yellow or chartreuse.
Then I will make a list of all the perennials, trees, and shrubs, I want, based of course on my first two lists. It is important to have a good sense of the soil and sun/shade conditions before beginning this process. My list is long, but I surprised myself by I ruling out most shrubs and trees once I actually thought about it.
I will take this third list and sit in my garden to review and try to envision where each plant will be. My rule is that if you can’t envision it, it’s off the list. The final list usually needs one more cut if you are plant crazy. I know from experience that a garden often ends up looking like a plant sale or a pig’s breakfast when you try to fit everything in. It’s better to plant fewer different species boldly than to plant a little bit of a lot of different things.
Finally, I need to measure my borders and draw them to scale so I can mark down where my choices will be installed. You can take a photo of yourspace and mark that up if it is easier. This will help me determine quantities. Then I will return to the nursery to buy what is available on my list, leaving spaces for anything that won’t be in stock until later in the season. If you can’t bear empty spaces, you can always tuck a few annuals in as fillers.
A true gardener will always be tweaking and bringing home something new to tuck in somewhere, but as long as you have a plan, you will start the process off without too many costly mistakes. April is not so cruel after all.
This week is going to be hot. After walking on the sunny side of the street to stay warm for the last three months, I am looking forward to being warm enough to walk on the shady side of the street. Thanks to Trees for Georgetown and the street trees it has planted over the past 14 years, there is always plenty of shade to go around.
The tradition of planting trees began with Thomas Jefferson, who was distressed over the destruction of natural groves of trees in Washington which were being felled as the city grew. Unable to stop this trend, Jefferson directed that Lombardy poplars (Populus nigra), a native of Italy, be planted along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House – the first recorded planting of street trees in Washington, DC.
According to Melanie Choukas-Bradley and Polly Alexander, authors of the excellent book, “The City of Trees”, the practice of adding and preserving trees in Washington was continued on by the landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, in the mid-1800’s; Alexander ”Boss” Shepherd (the second of two District Governors); and the planting of the cherry blossoms given to the United States by Japan in 1912. Today, Washington boasts one of the most diverse and extensive tree canopies of any city in the world.
Street trees need to be maintained and replaced when they die. Fortunately for us, Trees for Georgetown, a volunteer committee of the Citizens Association of Georgetown oversees this effort in our community. This year, Trees for Georgetown hopes to plant up to fifty trees.
“We’d love to plant more, but it all depends on how much money we raise at this year’s Spring Celebration on May 8th”, says Betsy Emes, long-time chairperson. “Every year we lose trees and it’s important to keep replacing them. One of our oldest trees was lost to Hurricane Sandy last fall, and another was knocked over in a traffic accident. Other trees have been lost to drought, and other acts of God and people so we are always replacing them.”
On May 8th, Trees for Georgetown will hold its annual spring celebration and fundraiser to help raise money for its work. It is also launching a new program that will help Georgetown residents connect and care for its street trees. Called the “Georgetown Initiative for Family Trees (GIFT)”, the program ‘s mission is to “root the people and businesses of the community to the trees that shade our streets”. Jackie Pletcher and Constance Chatfield-Taylor, two of the co-chairs of the Spring Celebration, are excited at the prospect of connecting residents and their trees.
“When I was a child, we planted mimosa trees in our garden, and we watched them grow as we grew up”, said Constance. “GIFT gives people and families right here in our neighborhood a chance to do the same thing."
Georgetowners will be able to sponsor a tree, whether to celebrate the birth of a baby, commemorate the passing of a milestone, memorialize a special person, or even to honor a pet. Each sponsored tree will be marked with a tag containing a QR code that will list the reason the tree was sponsored, by whom, and what species of tree it is. QR codes are the next generation of bar codes and can easily be read with a smart phone equipped with a special app that can be loaded for free. GIFT’s vision is to fill every tree box and maintain and name every tree in Georgetown.
Since its inception in 1989, Trees for Georgetown has planted over 2000 trees, provided tree box fences, and watered our street trees in partnership with the Urban Forestry Administration and Casey Trees.
The Spring Celebration will be held on May 8th from 6:00-8:00 pm. For more information on how to sponsor a tree ($500) or have a tree planted ($1000) by GIFT, please call 202.345.2400 or e-mail email@example.com
If I were a cardinal, about to elect a new pope, I would take my duty very seriously. Yet, as I was walking solemnly into the Sistine Chapel, singing “Veni Creator Spiritus” and mindful of the immense responsibility resting on my shoulders, I would harbor one tiny secular thought: that when the untold days of silence and voting had passed, and white smoke had ascended the specially erected copper chimney, I would slip out to stroll through the incomparable Vatican Gardens.
Rome’s oldest surviving gardens, they are incomparable, in part, because of their the history and the grandeur of the Vatican, but also because they are simply gorgeous. Gardens, like super Tuscan’s, gelato, and tartufo bianco di alba, are among the things at which Italians excel. Italian Renaissance garden designers instinctively knew how to combine water, views, stonework, woodland, and whimsy, and the result is a legacy of gardens renowned for their extraordinary beauty and that have since inspired countless garden designers.
The complex Vatican gardens, originally laid out by Bramante who had been commissioned in 1503 by Pope Julius II (1445-1513), are a wonderful example. They take up nearly half of Vatican City’s 108 acres and have been used by popes as a place of contemplation, ceremony, and production of vegetables and fruit since the 13th century. Bordered on one side by St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, they are otherwise surrounded by medieval walls and encompass buildings that date back to the 9th century. Each pope has left his mark on the gardens since. The contribution of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was a very modern heliport.
As a cardinal, I surely would have had opportunities to visit the gardens on past trips to Rome, and would have scoped out spots that I would be eager to see again, especially the fountains. With the multiple natural water sources and changes of grade in Italy’s eternally beautiful landscape, it was probably inevitable that Italian garden designers would invent fantastic fountains. According to author Elizabeth MacDougall, “the story of the development of Roman fountains begins at the Vatican…” Today, at least 100 fountains trickle, gush, and murmur within the Vatican walls. The 100th was added in 2010.
My first destination, then, might be the Casina Pia. The Casina, started by Pope Paul IV ((1558-89) and finished by Pope Pius IV ((1559-1565), was referred to as “a fountain in the woods” though it is actually at the edge of a wooded area. It is a small complex of buildings around a stunning terrace, and with a magnificent loggia intricately decorated with mosaics and sculpture. Now part of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Casina’s loggia is one of the single most beautiful garden buildings I have ever seen. Its murmuring fountains would entice me to sit and contemplate its three statues, Youth, Virtue, and the pagan goddess, Cybele, while resting in the cool quiet of the space. The multiple urns of spiky yucca, a drought tolerant plant, complements the abundance of water in this garden, however incongruously.
As if the interior space of the Villa’s courtyard isn’t beautiful enough, the lower fountain, with its lovely blue basin of spilling water and mosaic walls is truly stunning. Though my eyes would be attracted by the interplay of water, light and sculpture, inevitably they would stray to the left. There I would take in one of my favorite views of the dome of St. Peter’s. It would not be easy to move on.
Nevertheless, I would want to revisit the Fountain of the Eagle, built by a Dutch sculptor for Pope Paul V (1605-1621). This fountain, started in 1611 is very unlike the Casina Pia. It is a rustic combination of natural stone on top of which stands a proud eagle, the symbol of the Borghese family. Once surrounded by vineyard and woods, the fountain’s jets of water spurt from hidden lead pipes into a basin in which swim little figures. My favorite features are the water-spouting dragons on either side. Over their long tenure they have grown mossy manes and beards that mitigate their ferocity, and they almost seem like cartoon characters. It is not impossible that the creators of Scooby Doo found inspiration in them. Behind the Fountain of the Eagle stands the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery where Pope Benedict will purportedly live out his retirement.
The details of the Vatican Gardens, in spite of their size and gravity, would definitely amuse me. I would return to The Fontana della Ranocchie (Fountain of Frogs), a small, round fountain in the shadow of the immense medieval wall, to be sure the little bronze frogs were still there, spouting clear sparkling water into the fountain’s reedy center. I would also walk past the Fountain of the Spinster, the statue of which is said to date back to the first century, and is supposed to have some association with Lucretzia Borgia. I would linger on my way through the gardens to wonder from where various pieces of statuary, some just abandoned remnants of ancient Roman, had come.
I would certainly make my way to the Italian Garden, added by Pope Pius XI (1857-1939). Set on a level terrace on the hillside and emblematic of a revival in Renaissance gardens, its clipped geometry of dark box hedges are dramatically set off by light grass-green spaces and beige walks. Again, enticed by water, I would be compelled to walk into the garden to hear to my footsteps crunching on gravel and the spilling of water from a pair of basins near the center of the garden. The surrounding trees include enormous cedars, cypress, firs, pines, and palm trees and I would stop to admire their majesty and diversity.
Ever a plantsman, I would take note of the remarkable diversity of plants and trees that have taken root in the gentle and nurturing Roman climate throughout the gardens. There is an olive tree that was given by the nation of Israel in 1995 to mark the first anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. There are enormous dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) from China, an Australian silk-oak (Grevillea robusta), magnolias from North American, and shrubs from all over the world.
Alas, I am no cardinal and am not planning to visit the Vatican any time soon. I think I will wander over to Dumbarton instead to enjoy its vistas, terraces, and fountains laid out by Beatrix Farrand. She, like her aunt Edith Wharton, was inspired by Italians gardens and gracefully combined this inspiration with French influences and Dumbarton’s Italian-like hilly topography. It will suffice.
If you are planning to go to Rome, however, the good news is that one needn’t be a Cardinal nor to wait for the selection of a new pope to visit the gardens. In fact, they are now closed until the conclave is over. Click here for tickets.