The Hampton Court Flower Show 2014; What a trip!


Attending the Hampton Court Flower Show has been on my short list of things to do for a long time. As a designer, I have the perfect excuse, as it is a way of staying on the cutting edge (I’m sure there’s a pun in there somewhere) of garden design. Why I waited so long to use that excuse is beyond me, as it was a truly fantastic experience.

The exhibitors at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show have ten days in which to install their gardens on a bare plot of earth and make them look like they have always been there. Prior to those ten days, months of preparation have taken place, from the development of the design, to the growing of the plants, to the careful manipulation of the buds so that they look their best and flower at just the right time. The amount of preparation is staggering, but the results are a hundred times worth the effort.

Besides seeing inspirational gardens, the show is, simply, a great way to spend a day. You will see conceptual gardens that are like nothing that you would ever have built for yourself, gardens containing flowers pouring out of enormous cans, gardens made up of an un-mown field or a heap of sand covered in pitchforks. They all have meaning to the designer, but I have to admit, the point of some of those escape me.

The other gardens, however, are more down-to-earth (definitely a pun there) and are brimming with ideas to take home. Perhaps after having my mind challenged by the conceptual gardens in a sort of horticultural warm-up, it was more open to the ideas in the other gardens, and I found many of the others genuinely inspiring. There was one garden called the “Forgotten Folly”- a small, shady garden complete with a stream, an iron fence, and a piece of a castle ruin, which, despite the crowds around it, remained quiet and peaceful due to the choice of flower colors and materials used. Further down the path was a modern garden, with a rill, stuccoed walls, and a full kitchen, complete with seating for six and a bottle of wine chilling in the rill. A stark contrast to the Folly, but extremely inviting in its own way. And the delights went on and on.

Most of the show gardens have volunteers who are happy to answer questions about specific plants, and many offer brochures with plant lists. If you want to recreate a certain combination of plants at home you can buy them then and there, as there is also a large nursery stocked to the gills with “show flowers”. Me, I fell in love with a smoky orange rose called “Hot Chocolate”, which looks like it belongs in an old fashioned vase on a lacy tablecloth, in front of a diamond-paned window through which dust motes dance in the light. Sadly, we aren’t allowed to bring plants into the US from the UK, but I suppose that’s a good thing. Six hours on a plane with a rose on your lap probably wouldn’t be much fun, especially when the person in front of you decides to recline…











The Costa Rican Rainforest: Nature’s Garden

Along the Banana Train route


In the strict sense, I realize, a rainforest is not a garden. However, in the sense that it is a collection of plants coexisting in one space, it comes close enough that I don’t feel that I am straying too far from the “gardens of the world” theme of this article. In fact, it is quite wonderful to observe what Nature does when left to do her own designing.

I was able to see the Costa Rican rainforest from both the land and the water, beginning with a thrilling ride in a pontoon boat on the Tortuguero canals. These natural canals run all the way to Nicaragua, and they and the surrounding rainforest are the home to an amazing amount of flora and fauna. Given where Costa Rica is, in the center of the “bridge” between North and South America, there is a dense concentration and mixing of species. Costa Rica has more plant species per square mile than the Amazon jungle, and more animal species than the US and Canada combined.

The rainforest was dense and lush, with not a spot of bare ground showing. Growing in abundance by the bank were Ylang-ylang flowers, the source of fragrance for a number of perfumes and even bug spray. The scent is very sweet, and “loud”, if a smell can be thought of as loud. Reaching to the sky were Costa Rican Nightshade vines, their proliferation of blue flowers contrasting wonderfully with the bright yellow blossoms of the 100+ foot Tabebuia trees. There is so much plant life per square yard that it is hard to visually tweeze out the individual plants for identification unless they are covered in blossoms.

About half way through the ride we went under a bridge that caused one passenger to exclaim “Oh, my God!”, and so the Oh-my-God-bridge it became. It didn’t look like it could support one human, let alone the banana train which crossed it twice a day. As the next part of our journey involved a ride on the banana train, we all eyed it with considerable trepidation.

We made it across the Oh-my-God bridge without incident, I am pleased to say, and the train lurched and rattled and clattered and groaned through small towns, (“populated areas” is perhaps more correct) through more jungle, and past row upon row of banana trees which reminded me of cornfields. The people living along the tracks were out in their gardens, machetes in hand, taking care of their lawns and small flower beds. They seemed to have a lot of pride in their little pieces of land, and they grinned and waved as we went past.

Although not technically a garden, the Rainforest is definitely worth a visit. Mother Nature certainly had a lot of fun when designing it!

The "Oh My God" bridge DSCN0710 DSCN0725 DSCN0671


A Ft. Lauderdale Treasure

Bonnet House: Art Inside and Out


It is said that when art is indistinguishable from real life, it comes alive, and when it lives, it changes the viewer. I think that is one reason why I love gardens and have chosen a profession which allows me to create them, combining plants in such a way that the viewer can immerse themselves in the creation. The original owners of Bonnet House in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, artist Frederick Bartlett, his first wife Helen Birch and his second wife, Evelyn Fortune Lilly, seem to have had a similar mindset. Their house, now a museum, is full of paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and countless other wonders. But art doesn’t stop at the door. The property, a 35 acre slice of a barrier island, is alive with all sorts of horticultural wonders that have been skillfully arranged, from an impressive orchid collection to enormous Plumbago hedges, to a Hibiscus grove, planted for Evelyn’s 100th birthday. (She lived to be 110!)


On a visit to Bonnet House, you will see Blue Agave, from which Tequilla is made, a Night Blooming Cereus swarming rather improbably up a tree, a Mahogany tree, and even a few Strangler Figs, epiphytes which smother their hosts to death. (For more information on Strangler Figs, see my blog, From across the slough, where it is not unusual to see the resident swans, you view the house- a cheery, white and yellow confection of a building- through a tall, majestic row of Royal Palms. Traveler Palms are also found on the property, so named because they will only grow in fresh water, and thus finding one is a good sign if you are a thirsty wanderer.


Within the gardens, there is also a cooling fountain, a Pavilion, and an old barn which is called “Rosie’s Palace”, after the original owner’s donkey. Today, however, Rosie is no longer, and the new Rosie, a 1935 Case “CC” tractor lives there.


There are even a few monkeys…


All in all, you can spend a delightful day at Bonnet House and its gardens, discovering all the wonders both within and without. The terrain is easy to manage and there are many paths to explore, and if it is a hot day, or you would rather not walk, one of the staff will cheerfully give you an excellent tour of the gardens via golf cart. The pace at Bonnet House is relaxed, and welcoming, and you will feel changed for the better when you leave.



Strangler Fig



Night Blooming Cereus



Royal Palms



The Orchid Greenhouse


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Never post blog entries before 5:30am

If I had been half awake, I would have noticed that my latest post for The Sunny Side was being put on Garden Room Inked, instead. Yet, that is what has happened, so my apologies; this latest post, “Why I love my Job”, has very little to do with actual travel, just a little time traveling, perhaps… I promise to be more careful about cross-pollination in the future.


Why I love my Job


Imagine a job where you get to learn how to fly, and to travel through time. A job where you take something less than ideal and turn it into something both beautiful, and practical; something which makes people feel good. A job in which you get to solve puzzles. A job which combines music, art, sculpture, and dance all in one. And, you get paid to do it, to boot.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it isn’t. It’s my job, the job of landscape designer. My job brings me to interesting places, and in contact with interesting people. It begins in a place where there is a problem to solve; a muddy back yard, an ugly view, or no usable space for the kids to play in. I get to hear people’s dreams and hopes for their leisure time, and in doing so, learn about them and the way they approach life. Every job is different, and there is no room to be bored.

Back at my studio, thoughts full of both the current and future states of the landscape, my mind kicks into full gear.  I travel through time – from winter, to spring, to  summer, and fall, and back again, choosing plants that will bloom both together and in succession so that there is always something to delight. I fly up to the tops of the trees and look down, imagining shapes of the drifts of flowers, and then fly down again to grass level to check to make sure that the colors and shapes of the plants are comfortable together. Next I travel one, three, five, or even thirty years into the future. Has one species of plant overwhelmed another? (Is that ok?) Is that tree shading the other plants too much? Do the mature sizes of the plants make sense with one another?

Eventually, I come back to my own time and plant my feet firmly back on the ground, ready to put the garden down on paper. If I have done my job right, the garden will act like a mixture of art forms. It will be the painting that you see from the kitchen window, a two-dimensional still life to be enjoyed from a distance. It will be a three-dimensional, sculptural experience as you walk through it, experiencing the forms of the flowers and the shapes of the beds. It will be a dance, as the plants sway in the breezes and twine themselves around one another, and it will be music, as the symphony of the seasons plays out, different plants coming into their own at different times, while others recede into the background, still others offering short bursts of color against the constant background of green.

That is the goal, at least. If I sound smug and I have made you envious, then I apologize. I can’t help it; I just love what I do. Someone once said that if you find a job you love, then you’ll never work a day in your life. I would agree. I may be gainfully employed, but I never work.




Proposed garden from the sky


Proposed garden from the ground


Freshly planted




Needs to be screened, but accessible


Less visible



Boring, in need of freshening


A new look; plants soften the edges in the spring and summer






The Sunny Side



For a different sort of garden-related blog, try my new blog, Instead of a particular theme, like gardens of the world, it consists of garden ramblings, mostly mine, but also posts that I find elsewhere that I think might be useful or entertaining. Feel free to comment on what you might like to see posts about… this blog content is open to suggestions!

A Marriage of Art and Gardens The Chauffeur’s Flat in Tandridge, England


The Chauffeur’s Flat

I have always found that I have a fairly low threshold for “things” in the garden. Too many statues, fountains, gazing balls, gnomes, and decorative wicker things, and I start to shut down and stop enjoying a garden, however marvelous it may be. I cease to appreciate the plants, and begin to feel the urge to clean out the garage, or something.

Oh, how wonderful it is to have my beliefs challenged, bent, twisted, and shattered into a million pieces! How great to be caught by surprise, when that elusive exception to the rule hits me hard in the face, leaving me bewildered, but changed forever. Such was my experience in the garden behind the Chauffeur’s Flat in Tandridge, England, at the home of John and Carol Richin.

Built in 1904 as part of the Tandridge Estate, the Chauffeur’s Flat is a section of a circular building built around a central courtyard. Built both into, and on top of a hill which slopes dramatically down at the back, the view is breathtaking, a 30 mile vista over the fields and hedgerows of Kent. When they bought the 1 acre property in 1976, John and Carol inherited the Estate’s old rose garden on the lower half. It had been neglected to the point where few roses remained, and at the upper part of the slope was a knotty tangle of Rhododendrons and Laurel, punctuated by a few unhappy Maple trees. Next door, behind the neighboring “wedge” of the circle, was the Estate’s old vegetable and fruit garden, complete with orchard and greenhouses, and John and Carol felt that, although they might have the better view, next door certainly had all the magic.

It did not stay that way for long. Two more creative and determined people you will never meet, and before long, the garden was on its way to being transformed. In order to clear the property lines for fences, they had to take out machetes and attack the thicket. Healthy specimens were carefully set free from the deadwood and unwanted tangle of struggling plants, and soon there was a distinct shape to the space, and things started to seem more  controllable.

While John was at work, Carol tackled the lower part of the garden, which was reasonably flat. Flat, but not without surprises. Tiles set into the ground in one corner suggested that there had been a greenhouse there at some point, and upon closer inspection, steam pipes were found underneath, with holes in the tiles to let out the steam and warm the plants. In another place was an old ice-house, a bomb shelter-like structure, which had been used to house the blocks of ice brought in for use by the residents of the Estate. Under what little soil that was present in the garden, there was sand and brick rubble.

Carol set to work to make the lower garden more level, digging out the offending bricks, saving as many whole ones as possible, and skimming off soil from one area and depositing it where it was needed. Soon there was a workable canvas on which to create the design which she and John would bring to life, an intricate set of garden “rooms”, each with its own character, and sometimes offering views into the next, enticing the visitor to explore. Beds of shrubs and perennials were framed by grassy paths of varying widths, causing the visitor to slow down in places, with twists and turns strategically designed to cause the eye to look in a certain direction. Here and there, specimen trees were planted, and existing trees pruned into shape. Slowly, the wooded hill became criss-crossed by pathways.

You might think that this is the end of the story, but nothing would be farther from the truth. You may have noticed that I have mentioned very few specific plant names. That is deliberate; not because the plants are unimportant, but because they are but part of the overall tapestry of this garden, and naming them might give them more importance than they warrant. Both artists, Carol and John were not content to sit back and enjoy their garden as it was.  Although the health and vigor of their plants would mock their modesty, they say that they are not gardeners; they are artists who create in the garden. Plants are just one way to express their creativity, and you could perhaps even go so far as to say that the plants were only there as a backdrop against which to showcase their other creative ideas.

John and Carol’s marriage is one of those rare ones in which the two parts together equal more than either part alone. Carol calls John her “technician extraordinaire”, as they work on projects, Carol designing a sculpture, and John making it come to life, either by welding the bits and pieces together at Carol’s direction, or by making a mold from a clay sculpture that she created, forming it again in concrete. John is very talented and observant in his own right, creating masterful stained glass creations, and welded iron sculptures, like the giant Poppy seed head that greets visitors to the garden.

Believe me when I say that you could spend many, many hours in their garden learning about each element. It would make a very good book, and I hope someone writes one, one day. But for the time being, I will touch on a few of the treasures within the garden.

One of my favorite elements has always been the rather surprising presence of a white, wrought iron spiral staircase which allows you to climb up into the canopy of a Beech tree, walk along a little bridge, and sit in an iron seat and look out over an even more breathtaking view than one gets from terra firma. The top of the Beech has been pruned into a shallow bowl shape, in the center of which is the seat, and boughs have been grafted together so as to provide hand holds, if necessary. As you sit, bird-like, in this nest, you have a feeling of complete solitude.

The staircase originally belonged to John’s brother who lives in France, and was shipped over to England in parts. A few balusters were missing, so John gamely made some new ones out of recycled iron bars, adding ornaments to them and painting them white, so that you would really have to look to see that they were different from the others. The whole structure is so solid that eight people can stand on it without a wobble. Over time, the tree has absorbed the staircase, bridge, and chair, and in a rather fantastical way, it looks inevitable.

Whenever and wherever they can, John and Carol scrounge bits and pieces with which to build their sculptures. When a local butcher’s shop closed, they got the kiosk where customers would pay for the meat, and turned it into a playhouse by adding old kitchen cupboard doors. In another part of the garden, a table made of broken china plates stands in one corner. In another, old materials from the roof have been transformed into fish,  and nearby, green and blue bottles have been buried, bottom up, in sand to create a water-like path. Always efficient, John has invented a device for replacing any bottles that get broken, a hook that easily removes the old bottle. “We are make-do or mend”, says Carol.

An excellent example of this, and something that became a real eye opener to me, were the stones that edge some of the borders. Rectangular and sturdy, they have patterns on the top that are quite decorative. When I commented on them, John grinned and said that he had made them. The molds had been plastic containers that mushrooms come in at the supermarket! I don’t think grocery shopping will ever be boring for me again.

I haven’t even begun to do this creative couple and their garden justice, but this blog entry is already much too long! I have always considered myself a fairly creative individual, but after talking with John and Carol for a couple of hours and hearing their stories about all that they have created, I feel awe-struck. I realize that while I look at things, I do not always see them. John and Carol have managed to take ordinary things and make then extraordinary, incorporating them into a beautiful garden setting without overdoing it, and completely making me rethink how I feel about the “right” amount of art in the garden.

The garden next door is still beautiful, but now, thanks to John and Carol, the Chauffer’s Garden also has magic.


A table made from broken bits of china


Cement heads representing “Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Say no Evil”, designed by Carol and made by John


The spiral staircase brings you to the top of the trees. See the picture below for the view from the top of the tree!



Edging stones made from old mushroom containers


The Butcher’s Kiosk playhouse


The greenhouse is an integral part of the garden