Interview with Myself as Gardener

Tuesday, June 05, 2012


Many visitors come to see our gardens and when they do it’s always an honor and a pleasure to stroll with them and  talk about the gardens. Usually, when I do this, I tend to notice the flaws, a plant that needs staking or cutting back, weeds  that escaped my notice earlier, an embarrassingly unsuccessful color combination, that sort of thing. Now, tonight, at dusk, in the muted, soft light that filmakers call “the magic hour”, the gardens are at their poetic, romantic, best  and I am able to enjoy what characterizes our gardens; the effusiveness of the plantings, the ebulliance of the colors, and their impressionistic quality.  My thoughts turn to other gardeners and their gardens. I imagine myself walking through them in the company of their authors; a thousand questions come to mind. I want to understand the garden through the mind and the mind’s eye of the gardener. Perhaps visitors to our gardens are too polite, or, maybe, the gardens are so unusual, because in our ‘neck of the woods’ (literally) gardens with full sun or so rare, that questions about intent or design don’t seem to surface.The questions I would ask of any gardener, are, the questions I now ask myself. This will, of course, bring me full circle to observing flaws. But that’s okay. (I also intend to interview Andrew and ask him the very same questions. I’ll do it and post it here and on his blog. Heave and Hoe.) So, here’s my interview with myself:

Q: Of all the numerous garden areas here at Stonewell, do you have any favorites?

A: Yes, but these change with, well, I won’t say the seasons, because our gardens are not designed for fall and winter interest, but maybe with the months. At the moment, I’m fond of the herb garden. The roses; the beautiful, striped Honorine de Brabant, the exquisite Pierre de Ronsard, and the climbing Iceberg are all flowering in shades of pink and white, and the salvia officinalis and chives, flowering at their feet, as they ought,  in moody shades of blue and lavender, and the thyme in a whitish froth, make for a poetic  garden moment. The giant rhubarb leaves and the grapes, climbing up the hen pen fence add an earthy, utilitarian charm and a gratifying sense of abundance.

At the moment, the driveway border is  a source of refreshing entertainment, because I sow hundreds of poppy seeds there each year and there’s no telling what will crop up, and now is the time that the poppies are emerging. I think there’s a lot of cross pollination going on. We’re seeing a tremendous variety of blooms colors and many striated bicolors. Great fun! (Harvesting the seed pods in July and August, resulting in quart containers full of seeds…somewhat less fun, untill you remind yourself of the fun to come)!

Q: If you had an unlimited budget what would  you change in your gardens?

A: How ‘unlimited’? Unlimited like buying an island, rounding up all the deer in the state and shipping them to that island?  Probably not. ‘Unlimited’, like, I can wrap my head around the multiple zeroes and decimal points?  OK. First, I would fence the property from deer. Next, I would hire Andrew Pighills to create some beautiful stonework and hardscaping; particularly a stone patio at the back of the house, easily accessible from the kitchen, defined by an 18” high stone wall with smooth capstones for comfortable seating. Next I would commission a sculpture from Dan Snow for the Memorial Garden. Then, I would commission Michael Fogg  to create a series of garden benches,  that would be made in  three or four sections, to encircle the magnolia tree.  Next, I would create a better driveway and a suitable parking area. (I’m fond of crushed oyster shells, but pea gravel would do). Next on the list, define the grassy, or what others might call ‘lawn’ areas and plant groundcovers that would require no mowing, and reduce our carbon footprint.  I would expand the orchard and steal the idea that I saw at Levens Hall in Cumbria, England, namely, plant a wildflower meadow amidst the fruit trees, and then mow clean, clear , rectilinear paths between them.  The result was lovely: square ‘foundations’ of wildflowers at the base of each fruit tree and crisp, fresh paths that invited one to engage with the landscape.(Those gardeners at Levin’s Hall  were no slackers  in the ornamental kitchen garden, either, ..but that’s a subject unto itself).

Q: What aspect of your gardens do you feel are the least successful?

A: Aesthetically or horticulturally?  The gardens  at Stonewell are a work in progress. We have killed many plants, things that ought to have done well in certain locations but simply did not. (We have trouble with Mountain Laurel, for example). The Fruit Garden is a recent transformation from a flower cutting garden/ vegetable garden annex  to a garden that serves only to create either dessert or jams and jellies, with the exception of the asparagus, which, after a  long  winter, are practically dessert,  if blanched, and tossed with homemade, egg  fettuccine with   cream and parmesan (I digress).  To my mind, the least successful gardens  are those in which we’ve been a bit too permissive with the self-sowers, that is, the self-sowers that I don’t love.( FYI, these gardens have two gardeners with different opinions). We need to edit out much of the anthemis, and the agastache and the bog standard daylilies, which seem to crop up when we’re not looking.  There’s a preponderance of the wild rudbeckias, weeds to me, but endearing creatures to the other gardener. On the subject of structure, I would prefer more. On the subject of color, I continue to aim for greater control of the structural plants, and their flowering sequences and yet, encourage the mindful ‘haphazard’, chaotic quality that self-sowers contribute to making the garden seem new and different every year.

The ‘potager’, or, Kitchen Garden would be a more pleasurable work area destination for me if it were level. I long for raised beds, and the organizing, structural quality that they provide, but our soil is so sandy that we will have to continue to add vast quantities of manure and compost and till it in with our tractor for a long time coming before we have the quality of soil to establish raised beds.

Privacy. This falls within the ‘unlimited budget’ category. At between $5000. and $10,000. per tree we could create a $ 100,000. privacy buffer that would enable me to drink my tea and write on the aforementioned, non-existant patio, at 7:00 am in my pajamas, without any sense of obligation to wave  a cheery ‘Hello’ at all and sundry. Bliss.

Q: What aspects of your gardens do you feel are the most successful?

A: Garden areas that have a backdrop of shrubs and trees, in other words,  mixed borders; garden areas where we’ve incorporated greater structure possess a more established quality. We propagate many of the plants in our gardens in our greenhouse and so there is repetition in the gardens. This is desireable.  On the other hand, when we do purchase plants or shrubs we do it mindfully. Cotinus coggygria, both the purple leafed and the golden leafed, and the physocarpus, both golden and purple leafed ‘Ninebarks’, play leading roles in setting a theme for the color palettes in the gardens.

Letters from Stonewell: Garden Design

Spring Flower border

The exuberance of Spring.

Speaking personally, the creative work of making paintings,or creating gardens ,or designing  interiors (even writing about them), emerges from the same place; a passion for beauty, harmony,grace, clarity,colorfulness and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of playfulness.  I share a professional commonality with painters, landscape designers, landscape architects, interior designers, architects, sculptors, and, yes, farmers and gardeners. My interest in horticulture, and the studies I’ve pursued in this field, are similar to those that I pursued in painting; knowing my materials and tools, knowing the history of the craft and the art. Pigments, paints and techniques are supplanted by plants; trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and their behaviour and how they contribution to a landscape, and yet, I still garden like a painter. I see the big picture and focus on the overall effect, not the details of particular plants and their attributes.

Andrew’s vision comes from a different place. Born, raised and having lived most of his life in a designated protected area in England, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, his point of reference is farmland; sweeping vistas of sheep and heather clad hills and dales, into which are nestled villages, into which are further nestled, like Russian dolls, cottage gardens nestled within those villages. He knows those personal, private gardens. They create luxurious floral displays and fecund kitchen potagers in cozy settings that suggest homeiness, intimacy and respite. Andrew’s horticultural qualifications, through the Royal Horticultural Society, have provided him with the training and education to objectify and analyze the workings of  gardens and landscapes. He’s good at it, and, as a stone artisan, he understands the importance of hardscaping and structure in a landscape.

We share a dialogue about gardens and garden design. Perhaps not always verbal, but usually visual; we move plants around, we place shrubs and perennials in different locations, we shift ourselves and the plants to various places until we find an arrangement that we feel can,and will, in time, become settled,rich, beautiful, exuberant. Only then do we commit to a garden plan, and when that happens there’s a sense of great satisfaction we share because we know that our individual strengths have come together, in a way that could not have been articulated through language or pen and paper, but through a shared sense of beauty.

I don’t remember who it was who said that creativity is ” 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”, but whoever it was, he/she wasn’t far off the mark.

I’d like to think and write more about the process of creating a lifestyle along with a landscape into a more self-sufficient and aesthetically satisfying environement.  With this is mind, I took the plunge and registered ‘lettersfromstonewell’ as its own domain. The new location is ‘’ I hope you’ll visit often.

I beg you pardon, I never promised you a rose garden.

One evening, a couple of months ago, I went on-line to my favorite purveyor of roses to select and order bare root plants for a client.  (I buy from these folks because they are in a climate that is comparatively chilly to ours ( Zone 5- Ontario, Canada) and, therefore, does not harbor the same diseases that you might find in a warmer climate, like Texas or North Carolina…..). Anyway, while I was at it, I noticed that this rose nursery, world renowned for its selection of historic and heirloom roses, was discontinuing several classic, important varieties that I’ve always longed for. I’m no rose aficionado and so what I mean when I say ‘important’ is heirloom, late 18th and early 19th century roses. Their importance, to me, resides in their longevity and my thinking that these old cultivars ought to be preserved . The threat of discontinuation came as a shock and I acted upon it, immediately. A volley of urgent emails between Andrew and I ensued, (me in the studio at my laptop, he, in the house watching BBC news on TV, and shopping for roses on his smart phone).  The ‘Final Offer’ roses were keenly researched. Together, and separately, we came up with a list and ordered them, along with our client’s roses.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. It was around Oct. 23rd or so and I’d received confirmation of my rose order. I was exiting the house, walking across the lawn, headed to my studio, Andrew had just returned from somewhere and was approaching me, when it suddenly struck me. Oh dear God! I threw my arms around him, gave him a kiss, and said “Happy 10th Anniversary”! He responded in-kind, but equally shocked, and we both nearly fell down laughing. “When was it?”, he asked. “I don’t know, maybe last week,” I said. Of course, most married couples don’t experience the same ambiguity about their anniversary date but, in our case ,it’s justified. We were married on Oct. 18th, 2001 but we (and I’m using the ‘royal ‘we’ here) forgot to bring the marriage certificate to the church, and so, had to return the next day to have it signed, which, technically, bumps our actual marriage to the 19th of October.

Later that evening, after the belated champagne, I returned, dizzily, to my studio and Andrew to watching BBC news on TV, and checking his email on his smart phone) another volley of emails between Andrew and I ensued. This time, it went like this. “We’ve order six heirloom roses. We get three each. Two each for our birthdays and one each for our anniversary. Here’s the list of what we ordered, You go first. Select your anniversary rose, then I’ll select mine, then you your first birthday rose, then me, …….” Amazingly, our personal selections mirrored our favorite personal choices. More amazing is that I’m writing about it, because, after all, Andrew and I, through thorns and dis-ease, lush, floral display or the disfiguring and disheartening effect of deer predation, we share the same rose garden, and, I beg your pardon, I never expected or even dreamed that I would ever have such a garden to share with such an impeccable man.

How I think about designing gardens…

Recently installed, this garden will take a year or two to fill out and come into its own.

Every request to I get to design a garden fills me with excited anticipation.  I rejoice at an opportunity to create a destination that did not previously exist. In this sense, it is similar to creating rooms. Interior, exterior…it’s the same to me. I’ve only recently come to discover that it’s the same as painting and this realization has clarified my thoughts about my own particular creativity and the ephemeral and difficult to describe thing that I aspire to. It’s an opportunity to create a kind of beauty that evokes an emotional response. I have difficulty defining this. Impressive, grand gardens are not  foreign to me. I like them, too.  But, it’s the intimate, contemplative, richly varied yet harmonious, inspired, cohesive and yes, exuberant , and, dare I say, ‘traditional’ garden that I want to see. In art history terms (painting, that is), the gardens I try to create would evoke names like Chardin, Vermeer, Monet,  a gentle sort of moody, static, elegant repose; floriferous and uplifting.
I have a landscape designer friend who is a great advocate for conceptual, avante garde gardens. She attends all the important English and French shows and keeps up on internationally known, cutting-edge landscape architects and garden designers who are creating ‘salt’ gardens, or vertical urban orchards, or gardens made of lights, teepees, metal cutouts woven into chain link fences. She thrusts herself, with the unceasing energy of a hummingbird, Slam! Bang! into the middle of it and I admire her for it. I LOVE her blog and feel honored to be able to keep up with the garden design trends through it.  I am not, however, a conceptual artist. I get it but unless the elements of natural beauty are there to enhance and enliven the idea, I quickly lose interest. I don’t want to create clever, self-conscious, intellectually driven spaces.

I want the magic of Bach or Vermeer or Yeats. No rare plants for the sake of it, no clever ‘tongue-in-cheek’ juxtapositions, few poetic combinations that will only be memorable through a macro lens, no showmanship or valedictorianizing. In the spaces where I want to tread or sit or ponder, I yearn for (and aim for) cohesion, vivacity, color, abundance, respite, …..that’s what I like.

Andrew and I recently designed and installed the new garden pictured above for a client, whose remark upon seeing it was “this is a magical place”., and that’s exactly what we were aiming for.

Upcoming Shoretalk Feature

ShoreTalk; People, Trends and Lifestyles

Dr. Kathleen Skoczen and Michelle Becker in the studio

ShoreTalk; People, Trends and Lifestyles
on the Connecticut Shoreline is the brainchild of Belinda Jones and Dr. Kathleen Skoczen. This much-needed Public Access TV program does just what it says it does; introduces us to the rich and diverse community that we share here on the CT shoreline.

I am honored to be  a featured guest on the show to discuss the work I do in decorative painting, paint archeology, and fine art paintings. I will appear on the show in the following time slots:

Michelle Becker

  Weds. August 10th, 4pm or 7:30pm

Fri., August 12th, 2pm or 7:30pm

  Channel 19

Luxurious Shrub Borders

Lately I’ve become increasingly interested in shrubs. They provide the all-important structure, of course, but its the range of the foliage color palette that really gets my attention and opens up all sorts of possibilities. This chartreuse-leaved weigela next to the purple berberis is a stimulating color combination in itself, but I’m eager to plant a few glowing powdery-blue-lavender perovskias in their neighborhood and some golden-leaved lamium at their feet for an even juicier effect. The backdrop that shrubs can create in a mixed border adds a whole new range of color combinations that one can work with; almost like creating micro-gardens within a garden, the flowering shrubs are just an extra, added bonus.

Similarly, this purple-leafed cotinus glows like stained-glass when the  sun sets west of it. The rosa rubrifolia, with its beautiful blue-grey leaves, that remind me of the bloom on a plum, is a perfect complement and the vibrant monarda and glossy fountain of miscanthus behind it seem to add a sense of levity, while the bright chartreuse groundcover of lamium does what wasabi on sushi does….zing!