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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Dumbarton Oaks - A Lesson on Garden Rooms

As part of a recent Colonial Garden Tour, one of the Washington DC area gardens we visited was Dumbarton Oaks.

It is a huge estate garden in Georgetown, one of historic significance as it once was the home of Robert Woods Bliss, a US Diplomat, and host to a "pre" meeting of what was to become the United Nations.  The Bliss' purchased the home in 1920 and did extensive remodeling of both house and gardens.  Bliss was also an avid collector of pre-columbian art, many of the pieces which still reside in the home.    It is now the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, administered by the Trustees for Harvard University.

The gardens were designed by Beatrix Ferrand who was inspired by the great European gardens.  She was one of the founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and had her hand in several prominent gardens, one of which was the National Cathedral.
Dumbarton Oaks is stunning and huge.  It is about 50 acres and it comprises a series of terraces that step down the steep hill.  Within each terrace are several gardens, and for the first time I really started to understand the design concept of "Garden Rooms."  I know now that my idea of garden rooms was really "garden alcove".  Walking through this estate garden was a revelation - as only these big manicured places can be.  It was quite overwhelming at first because I can not even fathom the cost of such an undertaking.  This is truly how the .000001% lived.  We were there for several hours but still were only able to see glimpses as we hurried through the grounds.  I could have lingered in each garden room for an hour or more.

The design is artful.  Each of the rooms is separated visually by a gate, wall, or walkway.  You truly discover each one because your view is blocked until you enter it.  And once there, it as if nothing else exists.  It's an outdoor mansion so vast that one could forget that some of the gardens exist - like a room you haven't been inside of for ages.

Some of the gardens feature a partial overlook into the other,
but for the most part, each must be entered to be viewed.  One that particularly caught my imagination was this fanciful chicken wire "cloud" with chandelier crystals hanging from it. I'm going to try to reproduce this in my yard - on a MUCH smaller  - more alcove style - scale.

Another amazing garden was the old tennis court.  It is now a gigantic pebble garden featuring the Bliss family crest.  Our docent didn't have any details on how many workers or how long it took to complete this. I imagined myself going shopping for the rock.

 "The Orangery" is an enclosure off the main house that is covered within by a huge creeping fig (Ficus pumila).  The fig is impressive - even more so when you discover that it was planted in 1860.    One of my relatives was just establishing the homestead in Talent, Oregon about the same time.  I thought about Frank Kerby out there clearing trees in the wilderness while someone in Georgetown planted this ficus.

Certainly a lot to think about and some good inspiration to take home.  While building separate rooms in my garden is completely impractical - I can still use some of the visual cues to give my visitors a sense of discovery.  A well placed arbor, shrub or fence can suffice.  I'd really like to do a pebble garden but I just don't think I have the patience - and I fear I'd have to resort to chemicals to kill the tree seedlings that will invariably bully their way into it.  That chicken wire cloud is definitely a go though, as long as I can find a cheap source for the crystals.  Might be fun with plastic tear-drops in all sorts of wild colors.  Anyone have an old beaded curtain they want to get rid of?

That's interesting.  I swear I just heard Beatrix Ferrand gasp and Frank Kerby laughing "that's my girl."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Inside Jefferson's Head - A Visit to Monticello

I was lucky to visit Monticello on our recent Colonial Garden Tour.  It was raining that day but the view was still magnificent and we were able to go through the house and gardens.

Thomas Jefferson has always fascinated me.  How can one guy be so talented?  Land owner, architect, scholar, inventor of the United States of America, founder of a university, President - a complete over achiever.  What kind of person was he?  I was sure that the key to him must lie at his home in Monticello.

And so it did.  I came away from Jefferson's home with an impression of a fussy, animated, brilliant, exacting, tour de force of a person.  From the books to the clocks, the wall paper, the design of the windows, to the exact measurements for his cubby hole bed and his thousand foot vegetable garden, I started to understand - and relate to this man.

That Jefferson was an intellect, it was plain for anyone to see.  His house reflected his fascination with design and gadgets, and if he were alive today he would have more twitter followers than Lady Gaga.  His gardens had the same sort of obsessive approach.  Everything was laid out to specific plan and placed just so.  The thousand foot restored vegetable garden and orchard had the same sort of precision - and if it had a sound track it would be the mechanical sounds of a Bach concerto.

The views are stunning.  The house sits on top a fairly good sized hill and you can see the Virginia landscape stretch away before you.  I have never seen such huge hardwood trees - so big that they rival my beloved Pacific Northwest Douglas Firs in enormity. This place will steal your heart for sure and I can understand why he loved it so much.

But as a gardener - I find Jefferson lacking.  And I think the reason is that he was too much into the scholarship and not enough into the real production of a garden.  This is a weakness that I share with Mr Jefferson - and rather than be inspired, like I was at Mount Vernon, I came away duly chastised with what could have done better.

Jefferson kept very detailed records - which is why the restoration of his garden was done so well by Peter Hatch and the large extended team of plantsmen and historians. (Please pick up " A Rich Spot of Earth" by Peter - excellent book.)  The garden today reflects Jefferson's zeal with trying out new plants and the newer types of vegetables his African slaves grew (okra, gherkins, squash, and even tomatoes.)  This was pretty revolutionary during his time since European vegetables dominated the dinner plate.  It is laid out in a long terrace with the parade of vegetables dutifully marching and never straying out of line.  There is nothing interesting about how the plants were cultivated and no hint of soil improvement or irrigation techniques.  I was so uninspired that I didn't take a single photograph of it.

Of course, this might say more about me than Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden.

What I do greatly appreciate about him is his pursuit of plant varieties and zone pushing.  I love that he cultivated a community of gardeners and enthusiastically traded seed and plants with just about everyone he met.  He kept a garden journal and his garden calendar got published in the local agriculture magazine.  In a way, he was acting like a Agricultural College Extension agent - with Monticello functioning very much as an Agricultural Experiment station.  Quite fitting considering the garden tour I was on included Doug Welsh from Texas A&M and a bunch more Master Gardeners.  Another achievement for Mr. Jefferson - America's first Horticulture Extension agent.  I like that.