A Cottage Garden

Mackinac Island, Michigan, is any perennial garden’s heaven on earth.  The drainage is perfect.  The breeze off the water and the cool nights keeps fungus at bay.  It is a lean life; there is not much soil.  But it is a good life.  The air and the water are clean.  The color of the flowers is brilliant.  Though the island is far north, the water is a mitigating circumstance.  Most anything hardy for me in the Detroit area is hardy there. Mackinac Island?  A really great place for a cottage garden.

A summer cottage on the island means there is no particular call for evergreen structure. There is no need for a winter landscape.  The summer perennial gardens can be the sum total of the landscape.This particular garden-every shrub was a rose.  The thriving Rosa Glauca at the top right of this picture was beautiful in bloom, and equally beautiful in leaf. The large stands of shasta daisies, beautiful.  

What exactly is a cottage garden?  My understanding is as follows. The origin of cottage gardens reside firmly on English turf; such is their history.  Big, easy, loose, breezy, informal, friendly, meadowy-a cottage garden gives space for every plant to be the best it can be.  No edging.  No roll call. Local-most assuredly. Situated in the village or neighborhood-of course.  Low key-by this I mean artless.  A hello garden.  Come round to see the columbines-they look rather good today.  Later, the delphiniums might be representing.  No need for a letter-just a friendly call.  The delphiniums look great-want to pop by for a glass of wine and a tour?      

Cottage gardens are welcoming. A stone walk leading to the house from a pair of garden gazebos asked for some planting, some softening.  Rock garden plants thrived here.  Armerias, thymes, sedums, heathers and heaths, saxifrage, iris setosa, flax-I could go on.  I planted this walk with the intent that the way to the front door would be a garden experience.  Walkways can be planted.  A walk can be a garden, should you plan for this.  Any tall plant in a walk can slow down the pace.  If you have a garden, you are in charge of the experience of that garden.  This garden says hello, welcome, how are you doing-so pleased to see you.  All of this exchange, easy and exuberant.      

Herbs played a big role in the plant material specified for this cottage garden.  This patch of dill-beautiful. Cottage gardens suggest utility as much as they suggest the beauty of nature.  The generous intersection of the beauty of nature, flowers, herbs, and optimitistic community.  This makes for a cottage garden.    

Hollyhocks-what could be better?  This stand, accompanied by the salvia hybrid May Night- this is a good look.  Old fashioned hollyhocks-most every cottage gardener would fall for them, as well they should.        

The Carefree Beauty rose hedge across the front of this cottage provided structure, and stature.  Shrub roses are so easy to love. They are equally easy to make happy. Why would you not have them?  A Mackinac garden is different than most-the spring and the summer run together.  The dianthus blooms with the roses.  There is but one big blooming each season.  This garden is particular to a place.  Your garden is equally as particular.  Take notes.       

Plants thrive, given a judicious placement.  This stand of lamb’s ears-really happy.  Should you have and love a cottage garden, place every plant in the spot you deem the best.  Plan, and plan again.  Plant.  Once you have planted. watch what happens.  Interfere as little as you can.  Expect to hear music.    

Certain plants speak to the cottage garden idea.  Shrub and species roses, monardas, salvias, hollyhocks.  Boltonia, shasta daisies, astilbe, hyssop, dill, fennel, species delphiniums, columbines, echinacea, asters, Japanese Anemones-and so on.   There are lots of perennial plants out there.  A version of spring arrived today in my zone; it is about time.       

The roses, the herbs, the tomato plants, the rock garden plants, the perennials, the meadow, this and the structure that-write a recipe, and cook.  It is spring.

The Grand Hotel Topiary Sculptures

I do not remember what year it was, nor do I remember why, but Rob and I took a trip to New York-it may have been to see the Lucien Freud exhibit at the Met, and eat hot dogs after in Central Park.  On the way, we visited every place in Pennsylvania that we thought might have garden ornament or pots.  We visited Campania in Quakertown; I was unable to convince them to part with a single piece of their vintage Italian terra cotta.  Can you hear me sighing?  Meadowbrook Farm, just north of Philadelphia, was a delight to visit.  J. Liddon Pennock, noted garden designer and plantsman, willed his 25 acre estate and gardens to the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society in 2004.  He kept a small nursery and shop there; I made my first garden ornament purchase ever there.  Eventually we ended up at Longwood Gardens-wow.  I could write for days about that place, but what enchanted me the most were the topiary ivy sculptures.  I bought the book.   

The topiary were not rooted in the ground.  The plants were rooted in every surface of the sculptures. The New Topiary: Imaginative Techniques From Longwood  was a do it yourself topiary stylist’s dream book come true.  Patricia detailed exactly how they were constructed.  The steel frames had been made at the Longwood Manufacturing Corporation (no relation to the gardens) and stuffed with plants at the gardens.  I could not get these sculptures out of my mind.  On the strength of what I saw at Longwood, and what I read in the book, I managed to persuade Grand Hotel to invest in 3 topiary sculptures.  A pair of Hackneys, drawing a carriage, as depicted in their logo.  They agreed.  Some months later, the three steel and wire topiary frames were delivered to me-it was my turn. 

This glimpse of the interior of one of the horses helps tell the story of the construction.  The topiaries were built in horizontal layers, from the hoofs on up. A layer of the frame was covered in a netting of fishing line.  Florists moss was pressed into the fish line.  3 inches of soil came next; individual ivy plants were planted sideways in the breaks between the moss.  The body of the horse-much too large a volume to load up with soil.  The belly of each horse, a collection of styrofoam peanuts packed loosely into individual plastic baggies.  The worst enemy of any topiary built in this way-topiary erosion. The styrofoam interior had to perfectly conform to the available space without any air pockets.  We packed and stuffed, and packed again.  This photograph was taken when I had to repair a horse that had suffered a too rough a ride back to Mackinac Island in the spring.  A large topiary such as this requires a lot of patient work.   

It is easy to see in this picture how the plants were layered horizontally.  Finishing the forms took 400 hours-I remember this-and the countless miles of fishline and boxes of moss.  Truth be told, it was much more than I bargained for.  What it took to make these sculptures road ready-I had no clue; frankly, I grew up with these sculptures. I soaked the sculptures thoroughly before they got packed in their crates.  I would get them back in the fall, and winter them in a makeshift greenhouse I had put up for exactly this purpose.

I kept the original crates that the frames came in; Mackinac Island is 340 miles north of where I live. I knew the sculptures would need to travel.  A forklift loaded them on a boat, and offloaded them onto a horse drawn wagon for their trip up the hill.

I planted Stella D’Oro daylilies in the manes and tails.  I found glass eyes for the horses from a taxidermy shop.  They were finally ready to be placed in the garden. 

They made quite a statement.  This garden had a focus.  No matter when I visited, someone was taking a picture.  This part felt great.  They made the garden so much more friendly, and personal.  They invited people to interact with the grounds and gardens.

Back then, they were the star attraction in the Triangle garden.  Today they reside in a giant lawn space in the tea gardens.   This particular year, the tea garden was all white, pale yellow, and dilly.  So many dill plants and white nicotiana alata. 

Dorothy Farmer, noted gardener and supervisor of the Cranbrook Gardens auxiliary for so many years took my favorite picture of these sculptures.  She framed a copy of her picture, and gave it to me.  My photograph of her picture is terrible, but perhaps you can discern a little of what felt like magic to me.  The one red canna at the lower right-the odd man out.  She asked me about that.  Every garden I design has one plant that does not fit.  Most times I do it, in acknowledgement of nature.  In this garden this particular year, 1996,  I planted it for the owners of Grand Hotel.  Their interest and committment made a special moment in a garden possible.

Designing Gardens


The chance to design large and multiple gardens for a resort hotel firmly committed to a landscape of distinction for many years-this was a dream come true.  Did I dream about gardens?  Absolutely.  Did the owners of the hotel dream about gardens?  Oh yes, and by the way, long before me.  My tenure with Grand Hotel was a good one; I was hired into a very friendly garden oriented environment.  They encouraged and supported me.  I grew lots of different kinds of plants in challenging conditions.  I sweated every detail.  When I design a garden now, I assess those conditions first, before I ever put a pencil to paper.  Mackinac Island has almost no native soil.  It is comprised of big rocks, and little rocks, with a thin layer of compost over top. An island means any materials have to be freighted over on a boat.  Yes, we brought soil over on a boat, until the composting program was mature enough to supply all of the garden’s needs.  Mackinac Island is in northern Michigan; the cold comes early, in the fall, and stays late in the spring.  Plants that tolerate cold did well.  The thousands of the geraniums that are a signature on the porch-they hated the May cold.         

There are no motorized vehicles on the island but for the fire truck and ambulance.  Plants were hauled from the dock to the garden holding area on horse drawn wagons.  Plants arrived loaded on tall racks; flats frequently came in their own custom made box.  In between the design and the planting, there were lots of steps needing lots of energy.  The gardens were beautiful-none told the tale of how difficult it was to make them.   

A resort hotel has to be ready for guests every day of the week, every month of the season. A big stand of shasta daisies yet to bloom, or past their bloom-this scenario would not work.  I met so many guests for whom their visit marked a special event or anniversary.  The gardens needed to be a special event for them, and new guests came every day. I took to designing with annuals that had the look of perennials.  Generously sized and lushly growing borders, in the English style. Pink hollyhocks and Park Princess dahlias, red geraniums and white alyssum-you do not have to be a gardener to relate to this.  A garden that invites guests to react emotionally to their moment, their visit-this is a garden that is designed to serve a specific viewer.     

The cold temperatures made certain plant choices obvious.  Red cannas so beautifully represented the red color integral to the identity of the hotel.  This robustly growing dill served to hide to slow growth of those cannas that only longed for some heat. Herbs grew beautifully here, and were an integral part of the garden.     

The tea gardens, on either side of the fountain-a wild mix of tall and gracefully growing annuals.  Not one bit pretentious or formal, these giant and generously designed gardens were friendly to the eye.  Lily bulbs would go in these gardens by the hundreds.  Various nicotianas,  green eyed daisies, marguerites, goldenrod, calendulas, and verbena bonariensis all spoke to profusion.    

On the border, dianthus and sweet william provided solid blocks of color.  Park Princess was the only dahlia I dared use.  It performs well under duress. The air on Mackinac Island is so cool and clean-no vehicles.  The color there, like no other color I have ever seen.  Brilliant and crisp.      

The hotel itself is white.  I designed with intense and saturated color up next to it, knowing it would read strongly against all that white.  The gloriosa daisies and nasturtiums spilling over the curb-I was especially fond of any plant that would soften the borders.     

A horse drawn carriage is a trademark, and part of the logo of the hotel. That we interpreted in the landscape via a lifesize topiary saculpture.  An iron frame was home to many thousands of ivy plants.  The manes and tails-Stella D’Oro daylilies.  The Triangle garden was any visitors first view of Grand Hotel, coming up the hill.  I would have named this the enchantment garden, had it been up to me.  That garden set the stage for the experience to come.  

The Victorian era celebrated the planting of bedding annuals.  I designed true to the period in certain gardens.  An election year featured stripes ands stars in the ribbon garden.  Big gardens need big and clear gestures.  This garden was primarily viewed from a distance.  A simple pattern with big blocks of color would read well from far away.

Small gardens bordering a walk-what do they ask for?  If you are a big resort hotel, that garden may ask for company at eye level.  We did grow lost of Carefree Beauty roses here; they perform reliably. The best part of my time at Grand Hotel?  Learning about what it takes to enable people to relate to nature.

Speaking Of A Garden

I speak to groups on occasion.  As I believe that exchange between gardeners is a form of gardening, I am happy to do so.  I have met lots of interesting people this way.  Today I hosted a local chapter of the PEO.  I don’t know much about their organization, except that they make a point of encouraging and funding women who seek higher education, and need help getting that.  A group with a mission such as this-I felt a story about an experience which served to educate me seemed appropriate.  In the early eighties I worked for the landscape designer, Al Goldner.  My brief tenure with him before he retired proved to be an experience that greatly influenced my design life.

He had that bel’occhio gene-the beautiful eye- so aptly described by Thomas Hobbs. I discussed this last week;  gardeners are optimistic, and  appreciate and require beauty in their lives.  Al  loved all manner of plants.  He was a landscape designer with as much heart as skill, and great instincts.  When I first went to work for him in 1983, he had already struck a deal with Grand Hotel. 

Anyone reading who lives in Michigan knows that the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island has been in business since 1887-this would be 124 years.  A resort hotel dating from the Victorian era still hosts countless guests and groups beautifully every year.  A stay there-lovely, luxurious, relaxing, and gorgeous.  Dan and Amelia Musser-they too have the bel’occio gene.  Once they met Al, they decided more beautiful gardens were in order.   I am making short written work of what proved to be a long and important relationship.

By the time I came to work for Al Goldner, Grand Hotel had already invested much time, money, and people to the development of their landscape and gardens.  I would be sent there on occasion to plant.  Later, I would be sent there to design, and then plant. The property is enormous.  The hotel has an identity which is crystal clear, and an equal committment to providing everything that makes for a great experience. When Al retired, they asked me to take on the design of the gardens.  Why would I not?  They were clients with a bel’occio gene; I designed and supervised their gardens for ten great years.

My point to my group this morning is as follows.  No other hotels on Mackinac Island had gardens or container plantings when I first went there to work.  Today, the gardens and plantings all over the island attract countless visitors. Three people with a vision transformed the landscape of an entire community.

The time I spent working there was an incredible experience.  It was a winter’s work to design and order the plant material for all of the gardens.  They took every bit of 6 weeks to plant.  I have never since seen so many flowers in one place.  Though I have not been there for a very long time, I hear the gardens are still beautiful.