Read an Excerpt
Revisiting the Garden
By Page Dickey, William Atherton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2011 Page Dickey
All rights reserved.
A Stroll Through Duck Hill
The Flower Gardens
No gardens were here, no flowers at all other than some twisted, shaggy-barked stands of lilacs that bloomed lavishly in May. When I came to Duck Hill thirty years ago, I was faced with a featureless canvas, nothing but ragged lawn and rough grass surrounding the house, and a young, weed-choked wood and a small field beyond. I brought with me a few treasures from my previous home — a clump of lungwort, Pulmonaria angustifolia, gentian blue in April, carried from home to home since it was given to me by generous neighbors when I was twenty-three and gardening with babies at my feet; a division of a May-blooming, fragrant daylily, golden yellow and star-shaped with brown dashes on the backs of its petals, related, I suspect, to the species Hemerocallis dumortieri. It was originally a gift from a friend named John and ever after has been called "John's daylily." I brought snowdrops, winter aconites, and Dutchman's breeches from the woods I used to own, a few tubers of a delicate white Siberian iris that naturalized in the meadow there, and several young bushes of antique roses — albas, damasks, gallicas — that I couldn't bear to leave behind. These, and more, I heeled into a square of dirt in the field above the house where the previous owners had had a vegetable patch. Then I plotted my first garden.
The old farmhouse sat squat and prim, facing south, in an open, sun-filled spot above a river valley. The maple that once stood by its front door had long since died, but ancient sugar maples and white ash still surrounded the property at its perimeters, providing shade at a distance and a beautiful backdrop. That first autumn, I staked out and dug flower beds around a fifty-foot-square piece of lawn just below the house, using the front door as the central axis. I ignored the fact that the land sloped a bit away from the house to the south, for, with limited means, I couldn't afford terracing, and I knew at least that the flowers would like the good drainage and exposure. The angled beds were generous in size, a good ten feet deep (and became more generous over the years, as straightening the edges each spring meant cutting away a little more lawn). I enriched the soil with manure from a neighboring farm and compost I had brought from my old garden, let the beds settle over winter, and in the spring planted them with the treasures I had heeled into the field. Other perennials, grown from seed or bought from mail-order nurseries, were added, and in the fall, daffodils, tulips, alliums, and Asiatic lilies were woven into the mix. To frame and enclose the garden, I planted a hedge around its outer edges.
Today, the main garden — for that is what we call it, because of its ample size and seniority — remains essentially the same, though inevitably some of its inhabitants have changed over the years. Shrub roses — gallicas, rugosas, Rosa moyesii,R. glauca — still share the beds with sturdy perennials, grasses, and bulbs, in a color scheme that is dictated by the roses' bluish pinks and velvety plums, combined with hues of blue, white, and clear yellow. In each of the four corners, a crab apple tree (the variety 'Katherine') offers some shade. It is a small-growing crab, slightly pendulous in habit with foliage that, I've discovered, doesn't flourish in our humid summers, becoming powdered with mildew and curling in distaste; but it is a memorable pink and white confection for a week in May. Great boxwood bushes mark the four entrances into the garden, axes of a central cross that cut through the enclosing privet hedge, which is now six feet high and clipped to a sharp horizontal line.
Because this garden is large in scale and seen across a generous square of lawn, bold stands and sweeps of plants seem to work best. Each month has its show, starting in April with the beloved lungwort, which paints the ground blue beneath the crabs and threads through later-blooming perennials in the back of the borders. In May the brief but glamorous flowering of the peonies is accompanied by amsonia's sky blue haze of starry flowers, and finally the early roses, the double pinks and deep crimsons of rugosas, tall silver-and-plum-leaved R. glauca with its tiny pink and white flowers, and R. moyesii, equally tall and arching, its branches studded with simple flowers of deepest red. Groves of lace-white sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) and fern-leaf tansy, hostas, iris, heucheras, and burnets offer a counterpoint of richly patterned foliage. By July the garden is brightened by clear yellow daylilies, pink burnets, and coneflowers. Joe-Pye weed is allowed to bully its way into the back of the borders, and its great umbels of soft mauvy pink in August and September complement speciosum lilies and wheels of summer phlox in rose pink and white. Asters bring a haze of blue and purple to the borders in autumn, and the waving seed heads of grasses here — pennisetum, deschampsia, panicum, hakonechloa — are at their most beautiful.
To set off the bold plantings in the main garden, the stretch of lawn serves as a quiet plane, a negative space, so rare and precious in a gardener's garden. We forget in our insane desire to have ever-more plants how important it is to have unplanted stretches as contrast, simple planes — lawn, field, sky. Fifteen years ago, in my madness, I considered cutting up that square of lawn to add four large, square flower beds (oh, the sun! the roses I could grow!) so that this garden would be nothing but beds intersected by grass paths. In a dreamy way, I plotted it out on graph paper. But my oldest daughter, Kim, hearing of my scheme, pleaded with me not to, saying she hoped one day to be married on that piece of lawn. Who would not listen to such a plea? And indeed she was married there, on a sunlit June evening in 2001. We woke to rain that day, buckets of it, and in the afternoon I caught a trickle of tears on Kim's face as we walked in our slickers and boots up to the tent in our back field where we knew the wedding ceremony would have to be. But just as the guests were arriving, the rain stopped and the clouds gave way to golden end-of-the-afternoon sun. We hurriedly wiped off the chairs, set them on the lawn, and rolled out a red carpet, and she had her garden wedding. The year before, on another beautiful evening, Bosco and I had celebrated our own marriage on the same patch of grass.
The cross path in the main garden leads to smaller gardens on each side. To the west, in a half-shaded spot, I made a small enclosure of white flowers, finding the idea of such a limited palette appealing. Its luminous blooms, I knew, would light up this shadowy place, and shimmer with the approach of nightfall. Its diminutive size, thirty-five feet by forty, was not at all intended, but dictated by the discovery of a septic tank on one side and septic fields on the other. Unexpected developments such as these often give a garden character. The smallness of the white garden turned out to be its asset, giving it a sense of intimacy in contrast to the large, open feel of the main garden. Two bracket-shaped borders are backed by a three-foot-high boxwood hedge, which highlights the white flowers and the silver and variegated leaves. Four large, round bushes of box mark the little garden's central grass path, and a stone vase, sporting white violas in spring and variegated geraniums in summer, stands in the center. Much is made of bulbs in this garden — white-flowering daffodils, tulips, alliums, and lilies — for they take little room and generally pack a punch. Single-flowered white peonies, Campanula latiloba 'Alba', summer phlox, and lacy-leaved burnets with bottlebrush blooms weave through the beds. White Japanese anemones and false asters, Boltonia asteroides, offer a final show. Despite the tiny size of this space, I included several shrubs for weight and winter interest — two fragrant white rugosa roses, the elegant Rosa × dupontii, hydrangeas, a variegated dogwood. Just as overscale furniture is sometimes effective in a small room, statuesque plants can often be charming if unexpected in a small garden.
For many years, an old white ash shaded this little place, and, under its limbs, I clustered chairs for lingering with a glass of ice tea or wine. The ash is gone, felled by the fungus that is sweeping this area, and has been replaced by a young hybrid dogwood; but the chairs are still here. Sitting here many years ago, I was struck by the fact that, at the opposite end of the axis through the white garden and the main garden, I was looking at a blank green wall, namely, the tall hemlock hedge that screened our property from the road. I felt something needed to be added to end the perspective and catch your eye: a statue, perhaps, or a large, beautiful vase. As a temporary measure, I placed an old stone urn we had in front of the hedge, a little too fancy in style, I thought, but all right until I found something more appropriate. The urn is still there.
The space between the main garden's privet hedge and the hemlock hedge was long and narrow, quiet and green, a grass walk barely twenty feet wide and sixty feet long. What fine backdrops those hedges would make for a double border of flowers, I thought one day, and proceeded impetuously to dig beds all along their lengths. I scattered hybrid rugosa roses down the long borders, and underplanted them with perennials and bulbs (in like colors of clear pink, magenta, plum, and cream) that would offer a succession of flowering and good foliage from spring through fall. I dotted boxwood bushes down the edges of the beds, for contrast as well as added structure and winter color. The hemlock garden became a pretty place for a number of years, romantic and heady with fragrance when the roses were blooming, and pleasing in its limited color scheme. Cranesbills in various pinks and magenta carpeted the ground in summer, and plum-colored burnets, spotted foxgloves, and pink astilbes added vertical plumes and spires; in autumn, low asters washed the beds with pink and white, and the charming bush clover, Lespedeza thunbergii, exploded with a fountain of magenta pea flowers.
Having three garden rooms of soft and muted colors, I longed for something fiery — yellow, red, orange, gold. Just beyond the kitchen terrace to the north, there was a scruffy grass slope that burned out with the first hint of a drought, remaining an eyesore through much of the summer. With the help of a stonemason, the slope was terraced with small retaining walls and steps, and in beds between gravel paths I planted what I called the nasturtium garden. Visitors are always asking where the nasturtiums are, but I named the garden that not because it contains nasturtiums particularly (we do plug some in occasionally), but because it celebrates those luscious hot colors. Daylilies are the stars here from May through October, mostly species and early hybrids that are fragrant and star-shaped in golden yellows, oranges, and rusty reds. Poppies are here in abundance, the old-fashioned orangey red oriental packed with crepe paper crinolines, and a fragile paler Atlas poppy that flowers through much of the summer. A winterberry, Ilex verticillata 'Winter Gold', with berries that are not gold but a luminous orange, and a black pussy willow (Salix melanostachys) serve as a backdrop to this garden, and six box bushes mark its central path. In summer we add tender cupheas and crocosmia in pots for some extra shots of scarlet and orange.
Yellow has seeped into another small garden on the other side of the pussy willow, an extension of the herb garden that unfolds its pattern above the kitchen terrace. This was originally my vegetable garden, and laughable as such, with barely enough room among annual flowers for a few rows of lettuces, one maybe of beans, and a tomato plant or two. The vegetable garden finally graduated to a respectable size at the back of the property behind the barn. Now this is the last of the flower gardens we pass through on the way to the barn or the meadow and pool, a small graveled enclosure surrounded by beds of clear yellow, white, and blue flowers with a sporadic dash of red. A fence fashioned from locust posts and thin locust branches borders this garden, half obscured by the shrub rose 'Harrison's Yellow', an old twisting-branched purple-leaved smokebush, Viburnum plicatum 'Summer Snowflake', and the black salix. Perennial yellow daisies — the tall willowy Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' and coreopsis (our native C. tripteris) — along with a white selection of Joe-Pye weed, its great heads alive with butterflies, back the garden with blooms in summer. Miniature trumpet daffodils and the pale sky blue grape hyacinth 'Valerie Finis' bring the borders alive in early spring. A stone rooster on a round pedestal marks the center of this small garden and is surrounded first by pots of yellow violas and later, in summer, by agapanthus and pineapple lilies (varieties of eucomis).
These rooms of flowers, each with a character and color scheme of its own, were added gradually over the years, not with any master plan in mind, but one by one, as the desire took me, but always connected with a strong axis in the form of a path, so that you catch glimpses of one garden from another, and are lured on in your stroll around the house.
The Herb Garden
Just beyond the kitchen, on a piece of slanting ground that was leveled by the previous owners to accommodate a plastic aboveground pool, I hacked away at the stony earth that first year to make a garden of herbs. I planned the garden in a geometric pattern of small beds and gravel paths around a central sundial, using the kitchen door as my main axis. An opposite axial path led down a few steps to the eventual white garden on the south, and up a step to what is now the little yellow garden to the north. Boxwood bushes were planted to mark the entrances and a hedge, originally of barberry I regret to say, was planted around its perimeter. Because the garden was raised — up several stone steps from the kitchen terrace — it was high and dry and sunny, just what most herbs crave.
It is a garden primarily of scents, pungent and sweet, some thrown into the air, others released as we rub a leaf or tread on a green carpet, a medley of perfumes on a summer's day from thymes, sages, artemisias, lavenders, and mints; tansy and sweet cicely; pinks and roses. It is a garden for touching and smelling, for snipping: a garden of lore and history too, for there are endless tales of how these plants were used over the centuries, and still are, in medicine, as dyes or bug repellents, in cooking and the making of perfume.
The garden is prettiest in June, when the thymes that spill out of the beds are studded with tiny mauve and white flowers, and blue-green mats of cheddar pinks and cottage pinks are littered with spicy pinwheels, and the roses, ancient damasks and gallicas prized for their perfume, are daily opening their sweet muddled blooms. Rosa mundi, streaked and splashed with crimson, pink, and white, fills one corner, its branches low and spreading to four feet, through which starry, spherical heads of Allium christophii thrust and explode. Spears of Florentine iris in ghostly gray-white flower accompany the rose 'Leda', sometimes called the painted damask, extravagantly dressed in white petals tipped in crimson, a graceful five-foot shrub that weeps over the hedge near the kitchen terrace. Pink ruffled 'Celsiana', another gorgeously fragrant damask, mingles with furry apple mint, sweet cicely, and bee balm (Monarda didyma) in another corner. Bushes of the gas plant, Dictamnus albus, in white and streaky mauve add their lemony scent and are valued verticals along with foxgloves and, later, tall yellow and white mulleins, varieties of verbascum.
Excerpted from Embroidered Ground by Page Dickey, William Atherton. Copyright © 2011 Page Dickey. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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