Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I’m always talking about how important patience is for the gardener. Probably because I have none. Or very little at least. The best I can do is ignore. I guess that is a form of waiting, at least in the garden.
I’ve ignored this climbing hydrangea for 9 years now. Actually the first 3 years my client and I dutifully watered it. I know they can be slow to establish, reticent to bloom , yet long lived and worth the wait. So ignored it. Weeding under it, planting around it, just giving it the corner of my eye.
2 years ago my client asked, “ Is that thing going to bloom in my lifetime?” I unfortunately had no answer. She had made a special request for a climbing hydrangea and we bought a particularly big one to speed up the process.
I had stopped caring, secretly harboring wishes that it would surprise us with the fragile airy clouds of flowers which make this vine so desirable. Reverse psychology doesn’t work on plants, I guess.
Yet it surprised me anyway.
Today as I came around the house a daffodil-yellow glow brightened the dark garden.
My sloppy “patience” was rewarded, though I still harbor secret wishes.
Maybe next year: flowers.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


The entrance to the Il Orto dei Semplici Elbano , a educational pleasure garden of native and endemic plants of the Tuscan Archipelago

The dramatic setting of the garden on the eastern slope of Monte Serra make it both challenging and extremely beautiful.

A homage to the botanist Gabriella Corsi, one of the seminal forces behind the creation of the garden.

Dario Franzin the current gardener, maintenance man, curator, administarator... actually he does everthing. He humbly calls himself uno uomo delle pulizie , "a cleaning man".

In Il Giardino Argentato, the Silver Garden, a Cesario Carena sculpture called "Cubo con nido e vegetale", " Cube with nest and plants"

Monday, October 13, 2008


"Eisenherbarium" By Berlin Artist Suzanna Besch, the rusted artifacts were collected on the beaches of the island.

Detail of "Eisenherbarium".

In the chapel a gravestone carving by an unknown stone carver from the 18th century.

A living sculpture by italian environmental artist Cesario Carena.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


I spent the fall and part of the winter of 1998 at Il Eremo di Santa Caterina. I gardened and wrote. The hermitage was created in the 16th century on a site that was held sacred since ancient times, some say even prehistory. It definitely is a powerful place and the monk who saw an apparition of the saint there was the inspiration for its creation. It had been abandoned in the 1800’s and remained so until the 1970’s when photographer, writer and old rose enthusiast Hans Georg Berger [ see link to his website ot the right] made it his project to revive the site and create an artist retreat. With the association Amici di Santa Caterina (Friends of Santa Caterina) they brought the space back and began the construction of a botananical garden devoted to the plants of the Tuscan Archipelago. That’s where I came in 10 years ago and again this October.
I was fortunate to be invited back to help the garden once again. But it was also a great blessing to be able to “retreat” from the world of candidates and market crashes and watch the full moon slowly rise, and listen to the pettirossos’ melodious chatter in the morning. We should all have such beautiful places to work. At least 2 weeks out of the year.

The entrance to the hortus conclusus, the private artist retreat space at Santa Caterina.

A perfect seat for moonrise viewing.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


The island of Elba has many typical mediterrranean plants and some lovely endemics.

Cork oaks( Quercus suber) were probably brough to the island millenia ago, they now form lovely colonies in abandoned vineyards.

These pumpkin orange lichens spread out on the lime rich rocks of Monte Serra.

Rosemary, the queen of herbs in my book, grows thickly on the slopes and scents the air with its camphorous perfume.

Lentisco ( Pistacia lentiscus), a relative of pistacios, with all the beauty of a holly at this time of year. The foliage was used to create a tea for treating dental inflammation.

This thistly looking thing is a carlina thistle ( Carlina corymbosa) . I find the seed heads as lovely as flowers.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Elba is an ancient piece of earth moving slowly away from the Italian mainland along with the other islands of the Tuscan Archipelago. It has a long history of human habitation, dating back to the stone age. Every great mediterranean civilization has tried to hold it, because it is rich in minerals gems, and most importantly iron. The iron mines are closed, but the beaches are open. Nearly 4 million tourists visit the island each year, primarily for the spectacular landscape and beautiful weather. The island is nearly all mountains and sea shore, with a small stretch of plain in the center. I came to Elba to work on a garden, il Orto dei Semplici Elbano, a small botanical garden devoted to the plants and horticulture of the island. I had started working there 10 years ago and have not visited since. I was happily surprised to see Il Parco Nazionale Arcipelago Toscano, had a stronger presence and the wild parts of the island felt wilder, freer than I remembered. This means a lot to an American, especially one form the Pacific Northwest, where there is so much wilderness. As much as I like to see progress I like to see regression. As much as I enjoy the wealth of history on the island, i like to know nature is taking over. Holly oak ( Quercus ilex ) forests once dominated the island, decemated for building and burning, especially on the eastern end of the island, and kept from returning by grazing. Oaks had notably returned, wildlife , in particular birds seemed everywhere. And because it was October tourists were scarce. I could hike the mountains alone for hours and soak up the splendor. Here are a few photos to give you an idea about why I returned to this place.

The island rises out of the Tyrrhenian Sea and reaches heights quite quickly.

The scirroco blew in fog and the fragrance of Saharan sands lingered in the air.

A view to the east from Monte Strega. The city is Portoferraio, the main city on the island. The mountain behind it is Monte Capanne, the largest on the island. It has it own unique flora near the peak.

A walk under the pines (Pinus pinea) Somebody had already eatten all the pine nuts.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Just one more photo of Cyclamen neapolitanum. Graceful.


Big fluffy persian cyclamen ( hybrids of Cyclamen persicum) are a relatively new phenomenon in the florist trade and are especially useful in the milder coastal climates where they will bloom all winter, especially if given protection from winter rains. My grandmother kept one on her window sill in Wisconsin for years, so I always think of them as old lady flowers. Pink, pink, pink. And more pink. Of course there are red and white ones. And as I began to pay attention some with beautifully marbled foliage. I have a friend who is not much of a gardener, but manages to keep her cyclamen blooming on her bathroom window sill year round. I was inspired and thought I’d give it a try. 2 months later it was gone never to return. I can’t grow African violets either. Or orchids.
But we’re talking about cyclamen. And why would I bother?
Species cyclamen.
I saw my first hardy cyclamen in the Arboretum 20 years ago. It must have had 100 flowers. Fragile pink flowers poking out of the leaf litter under a maple. I was enchanted. I have planted some in every garden I created, but nothing compares to masses of them in the wild.
You can see why I was so happy when I got to Italy and the cover story on Giardinaggio was Tema del Mese CICLIMINI. ( focus of the month: Cyclamen). I knew when I’d be getting to the Island of Elba I would find the wild cyclamen in bloom. On Elba the most common species is Cyclamen neapolitanum. And they were every where, loving the rocky lime stone of Monte Serra, accept where the cinghiale (wild boars) dug them. They are called pane di porco, or sow’s bread, because the tubers are a great delite to swine, wild or not.

In the mid-week market in Rio nell'Elba persian cyclamen en masse.

Happy among horsetails and grasses.

There is a brief and blushing hopefulness to cyclamen as they flower happy like a child ignorant of death.

L'Orto Botanico di Pisa Ambiance

Built between 1886 and 1891,this neo-classical building now houses the School of Biology and is the center piece of the botanical garden.

The gardener I spoke to said this wisteria was over 100 years old. All I know is that it's the biggest I've ever seen.

The arched wall surrounding the Orto del Cedro, the Cedar Garden.

The entrance to the Orto del Cedro, my favorite part of the garden. It retains a peaceful quality from its former life as part of a monastery garden. Acquired by the botanical garden in 1783, it is home of Europe's oldest ginkgo, which was planted in 1787.

The garden as seen from the top of the leaning tower, the reason most people come to Pisa.

L'Orto Botanico di Pisa

At first it feels in shambles. Though its origins are medieval and organized. This was and is a place of study. The first botanical garden in Europe, it was built between 1543 and 1544 on the banks of the Arno River. It was moved to its “new” location near the university in 1591 and has grown progressively since then, as the university acquired adjacent properties over the centuries. Each new acquisition reflected the period, Renaissance layout replaced some of the more geometric mannerist planting for the original Giardino dei Semplici. The garden was a place for the study of medicinal plants of the old and new world as most botanical gardens of the time were, being connected to schools of medicine. And in the late 1700’s into the present the focus is more on pure botany and Linnean systematics.
Modern botanical gardens seem heavily focused on pleasure and display gardens, attracting visitors and patrons. The Pisa Botanic Garden remains a time piece. A museum even to man’s interest and study of plants over the last 450 years. And though It lacks the cutting edge of Chanticleer or the pomposity of Longwood, I lingered a whole day within it’s walls. I discovered plants I’d never saw before, marveled at centuries old trees and soaked up an atmosphere that most gardens can only dream of.

The facade of the Instituto di Botanica, the original school.

A detail of the facade , created in the grotesque style using pink granite, organogenic stone, coral and sea shells.

The 200 year old garden laid out systematically for study.

Sea Squill ( Urginea maritima), a dramatic bulb of the mediterranean coast, sends up new foliage in October and blooms in spring.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


I had the the good fortune to tend a garden on the Island of Elba back in the summer and Fall of 1998. I have the good fortune 10 years later to be invited back. Today I’m packing, but not my lap top. There is no internet access, or electricity even, where I am going, il eremo di Santa Caterina and her adjoining gardens, il orto dei simplici elbano. But I will bring my camera and a notebook, so I can post thoughts and photos from my trip when I return near the end of October.
There’s a link to the right if you’d like a sneak preview.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


My love of beauty, which is relatively expansive, rarely ventures toward the “pretty”.
These craving for prettiness that I’m having seem odd this time of year when beauty tends towards boldness, the orange of pumpkins, the flames of turning trees. The sublime morning fog clothed the the valley with a gothic secrecy that is far from pretty, but is beautiful.
Maybe like the proverbial dirty old man I long for the sweet youthfulness of the year inherent in prettiness. In spring prettiness is everywhere in the young fresh growth and pastel flowers. In fall prettiness is melancholy, and momentary, ready to leave with the windstorms and downpours. Prettiness seems so fragile, more precious in fall.
I met an old artist friend, who now works as a gallerist. It seemed the worst critique she could give a piece of art was that it was “precious”. I’m sure she would have thrown the word “pretty” around like an insult too.
It seems we have moved away from prettiness, like we moved away from TB or polio.It is almost criminal or uneducated to appreciate the precious beauty called prettiness. According to Webster “pretty” comes form the Old English word for “tricky”, what transformations this word went through to reach its current meanings--- “ pleasing by delicacy or grace”, “having conventionally accepted aspects of beauty” or “appearing or sounding pleasant but lacking strength, force, manliness, purpose or intensity” --- I don’t I understand. But prettiness without purpose seems absurd, all the pretty little flowers that spend their days attracting bees, what sort of strength is that? I must admit I’ve always preferred the manlier aspects of beauty --the majesty of mountains, the garish hotness of reds and oranges, the architecture of agaves and yuccas. But right now at this strange intersection of time when the world seems a little too full of majestic hot architecture, I crave some prettiness.
And I found some.

This pretty china aster is not a agave. And I love it.

The not so pretty collapse of Colchicum 'Violet Queen'. Poorly sited and rained on, they were truly a momentary beauty.

Colchicum 'Waterlily', need I say "pretty"?