Arching Bells

Maybe because its Latin name could inspire fear in any designer, or maybe because it isn’t seen often, but Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. Bulgaricum should be used by more garden and landscape designers. A bulb, hardy from zones 6-10, it is delicate yet architectural with mauve, ivory and pale green bells arching from a single stem. N. siculum is sometimes called the Sicilian Honey Lily or sold as Mediterranean Bells. It is another underused plant that deserves more attention.

I have used it in my garden as well in those of several clients. The deer don’t eat it and it starts its show right after the alliums–to which it’s related. The leaves, like alliums, aren’t terribly attractive and can easily be hidden by careful planting design that allows N. siculum to punctuate shorter plants with more interesting foliage. The first time I saw it in a garden, its companion was Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’ and the combination stopped me in my tracks.

A European native, this bulb is easy to grow in sun or partial–so easy in fact that these have been slowly multiplying in an abandoned garden near here for as many years as I can remember.

Long ago I lived in Lille…France that is

I have long been fascinated with all things French. I even went so far, years ago, to live there for a while. Not in romantic Paris or sunkissed Aix en Provence, with its fields of lavender, but rainy, industrial Lille. My only garden there was a pot of geraniums on my kitchen balcony to brighten up the grey skyline view.

Even though the photographs evoke the grey that, for me, is unique to northwest France, imagine how thrilled I was to find the work of Frank Lefebvre and his company Blue Nature. Primarily interior, there are outdoor pieces as well. Some designs are modern and clean lined while others are traditional flights of fancy.

Inspiration–This would make a wonderful deer fence for any garden

I just flat out want this…for me or one of my landscape design clients

Using petrified, reclaimed and untreated wood this company, based near Lille, crafts beautiful and evocative pieces that honor and respect the materials they are made from. Isn’t this what the best garden design does also?

Clean and crisp–fusing ancient and modern
Just because–again a great inspiration piece

All photographs: BLEU NATURE – Sarl BN HOME Photographers : Didier Knoff and Gilles Piat


I started thinking about this when all of my white shrubs bloomed at once this spring. They are supposed to bloom in a kind of sequence. The absence of color was just as, if not more powerful, than a garden full of color.

Just the spireas–lilacs & fothergilla were blooming too

I know the idea is not new, but white has a symbolic power beyond the absence of color and I think it’s appropriate for our times.

The staircase at Chanel for the 2009 Haute Couture collection
photo via Chanel

A puff of dandelion seeds (plenty of those around here)

A lace table cloth


Nautical ropes

Weathered Picket Fence

Dodecatheon meadia–native and beautiful
Photo via
White wicker

The White Garden at Sissinghurst
photo via Meade/

Often way over my head

My neighborhood has some unusual street trees. A few blocks away there’s a solid block of Sweet Gums (Liquidambar stryaciflua) that make an incredible tricolored foliage show in the fall and an unbelievable knee high mess when they shed their macelike fruit. Bags and bags of them are heaved to the sidewalk by the homeowners who have to rake them from front yards, sidewalks and hell strips.

Anyway, when I was out for my early morning walk today I noticed a young, low branched Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) in bloom. An eastern native, it’s not often I get to see these exotic flowers at eye level as the trees in my parts are tall, tall, tall and their blooms are usually 50-60-70 feet above my head.

A sun kissed ‘tulip’

Talking to Myself

I have in some way and in fits and starts kept a journal for years. There have been times when just the act of chronicling what ever was happening in my life has helped me sort it out. As a teenager they consisted of pages and pages of laments, descriptions of parental and personal drama, social slights and ad hoc adventures.

After graduating from art school I starting making illustrated journals in black bound sketchbooks and for years I kept them safely in a box to be looked at now and then. Ten years ago, all but one of these sketchbook journals were destroyed in a basement flood.

Studies for a series of landscape inspired brooches circa 1977

What wasn’t destroyed were the two new types of journals I had been keeping. In dated composition books I kept a series of garden journals. My garden composition books were often carried with me to the nursery, library or bookstore. My first designed garden is in one. Although I have an extensive design education and years of experience, I am a self taught gardener. My garden journals contained sketches, ideas, bloom times, receipts, plant labels all types of information that I wanted to remember.

A page of one of my garden composition notebooks

In small sketchbooks I kept travel journals. Since I have always had to travel on the cheap, these journals became souvenirs of my adventures. I recorded descriptions of places and made collages of tickets, postcards and sketches. Ephemera was collected and the notebooks were created on the go. They were a record of where I had been in the world larger than my own backyard.

From a trip to London in 2001

In both of these new journals there were also tidbits of the old journals–personal notes and the occasional lament.

When I first started writing Miss R, I didn’t realize that it would evolve into a new type of journal. The first year was stop and go, and I didn’t really pay much attention to the content or frequency. Now I realize that the content is really an extension of my years of writing about my life. No, I don’t often write about personal drama, but I do definitely write about the way I feel about what I do. I also write about places I’ve been and plants I’ve seen and post drawings, designs and other tidbits of my creative life.

A recent page from my current notebook

I still carry a notebook with me to jot down ideas, plant names, or make a quick sketch of something–although digital pictures have replaced some of my sketches. I realize that recording my ideas and experiences has been part of my life long creative process.

Field Trip–Upper Montclair

I have a soft spot for bearded Iris. I use them often in the gardens I design. They are reliably deer resistant and I like their sculptural blooms and their grey green spiky foliage.

Each May, when I was a teenager, my mother and I would go to a neighboring town during bloom time to visit Mr. Grey–an Iris expert who grew and sold hundreds of varieties in straight rows in his suburban yard. We would choose one or two to try in my mother’s garden. I still have a yellowed and much cherished typewritten sheet that I follow from Mr. Grey explaining his best practices for dividing, cleaning and planting the tubers. I learned from Mr. Grey that the easiest way to keep track of when to divide iris is to do so every presidential election year.

Yesterday was a glorious, perfect day. Off I went to Upper Montclair to the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

One of the long Iris borders at Presby and the crowd of admirers

Van Gogh’s Iris, 1889 (Getty Museum)

Iris at Presby Iris Gardens 2009

It’s close by–less than 30 minutes away, yet I’d never been at bloom time before. Consistent here, Iris start on May 15. Of the 3000 varieties in the garden dating back to the 1500’s, here are a few of my favorites.

Thornbird (1988)

Auntie Em (2007)

Quaker Lady (1909)

Gracchus (1884)

Fringe Benefits

I love our native fringe tree, Chionanthus virginicus. Hardy to zone 3, it is delicate, fragrant and underused in the landscape. Sometimes I see it used here as a multi-stemed shrub, but seldom as a mature understory tree.

I’ve used it in gardens as a shrub, but never as a tree–I will after this week. On a road I have driven down hundreds of times, there it was in full glorious bloom, at a bus stop on Mountain Avenue in Springfield.

The Fringe tree on Mountain Avenue


Dreaming of Other Places

I have itchy, gypsy feet. When the weather gets nice my longing to pick up and go gets worse.

I want to go some place exotic–full of color, odd sounds and history.


I want to go some place I’ve never been that will inspire me.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I need to get outside of my comfort zone.


Maybe it’s just the May-hem of being a landscape designer at this time of year causing me to want to escape.

Yellowstone National Park

Don’t get me wrong–I love what I do, but I need to recharge and my creative batteries sometimes need a jump start.

Nikko Temple, Japan

Travel does that for me–it jolts me into a new direction every time.

Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’ve always had wanderlust and have luckily been able to indulge it on mostly a whim. When I was younger with less responsibility, I’d just pack a bag and go.

Fez, Morocco

Now it’s not so easy. I dream of the places I want to see and save and save until I can afford to go. One of the above will be next.

First Year Snapshots

Yesterday on my way to somewhere else, I stopped at a garden I designed and installed last fall. The design mostly followed the footprint of a formal garden that had fallen into ruin–the concrete pond was there as was a crumbling low garden wall. I updated it and designed a scheme of mostly deer resistant plants–the exceptions being roses and daylilies planted at the owner’s request.

These are not the best photos I’ve taken and I usually don’t photograph gardens in their first season –they need time to fill in. First year photos are like taking baby pictures–the gardens are going to morph and mature and come into their own as they grow–and really they’re just another cute baby. I made an exception yesterday since really liked what I saw.

Upper and lower borders–the wall is very old-and was covered with ivy

Lower border–it has a sequential bloom pattern

Chelsea Flower Show Junkie

Yes, I admit it. I’m a Chelsea Flower Show junkie and this week it’s time for my big fix! I follow the Chelsea Flower Show like some guys follow the Jets. I can’t get enough.

I find the gardens to be great sources of inspiration. Flower show gardens, regardless of size are places to experiment and often exciting ideas emerge. I know the Chelsea gardens have huge corporate budgets and I know they’re theater, impossibly perfect and created to last a week instead of a lifetime. It doesn’t matter…I have to have more, more, more.

Here’s a video of this year’s Best Show Garden designed by Ulf Nordfjell for The Daily Telegraph:

Garden Visits–Chester and Far Hills

Accompanied by a friend, who is also a landscape designer, a map and our cameras we set off to see three gardens in Morris and Somerset counties for an Open Days garden crawl. With my trusty point and shoot, I took many more photographs than I have here. Some are for inspiration, some are for reference and others will be shared here later illustrating other posts.

This area of New Jersey is known for its history and tradition. Homes dating from late 18th and 19th century sit side by side with those built in the last real estate bubble. The three gardens we visited were traditional, based in European traditions, and on properties with old homes. All three gardens were several acres, the result of years of vision, personal attention and financial commitment. Aliums were in bloom everywhere. Container plantings were significant players at both Hedgerows and Kennelston cottage forming their own small ‘gardens’ or creating focal points within larger plantings. I think I’d like to explore containers as a contributor and design element later.

A stone pier, containers and gate at Hedgerows

With the morning’s fog still creating an atmospheric haze, down Old Chester Road we drove, our first stop was Dan and Jeanne Will’s garden, Hedgerows. For me, the most interesting part of this garden was the woodland. Meandering paths wove in and out of plantings that were in places highly edited and in others self seeded. The combination of intent and abandon was charming.

Self seeded Primula japonica were abundant, as were Myosotis sylvatica

Gravel paths weaving in and out of plantings

A small rustic yet elegantly proportioned summerhouse

Our second stop, Hay Honey Farm, was one of two we planned in Far Hills. I first visited this garden 4 or 5 years ago. This time, the owner requested that photos not be published, so I won’t share mine here. A series of gardens included hillside woodland with a beautiful Rhododendron walk, a hayfields with remarkable views across the valley and a Laburnum allee. This garden is well worth the visit.

A gravel path through a shady garden room at Kennelston Cottage in Far Hills

After a drive on dirt and gravel roads through some of the most beautiful country in New Jersey we arrived at our final stop–Kennelston Cottage. This was the most traditional garden of the three. Recently featured in New Jersey Life magazine, Kennelston’s gardens are a series of interrelated rooms and vignettes.

The Potager with chimney pot planters

A lovely purple and white poolside planting scheme

The view to the house from the pool

Field Trip–Chester and Far Hills

I really do what I say I do.

Find Gardens to visit on Open Days

Even though I design gardens and landscapes every day for a living, I still love to discover other people’s gardens. Today, despite the gloomy forecast, I’m going to take advantage of the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days in Morris and Somerset counties. I never know what discovery I’ll make or if I’ll even like the gardens I visit…usually there’s some tidbit that I find interesting or worthy of a quick sketch or photo, but sometimes the gardens are absolutely breathtaking.

The remnants of an Ellen Biddle Shipman garden in Lamington from a previous year’s visit


I love books. Since I first learned how, I have been a voracious reader.

For me, books have been gateways to the larger world. They have been a source of inspiration, information and escape. I like them as objects as well. I am always fascinated by the mystery between the covers, the tactile discovery of turning a page to see what’s next. I have spent hours of my life in libraries and everywhere I’ve ever lived, both here and abroad, I’ve had a library card.

I am no longer an indiscriminate book buyer. At several points in my life I had more books than anything else. I am fortunate to have The Chatham Bookseller, a great used bookstore , in the next town over that has three shelves of books on gardens and landscape design and many more on interiors, graphic design, fine art and just about any other subject I might want to explore. With their greatly reduced prices penciled in on the flyleaf, I’ve bought more than a few books here.

My design library isn’t big since I don’t have the room for the hundreds of books I would have if I did. It is carefully edited and often culled when new additions need to find a home on the overstuffed shelves. Some of my favorites are out of print, some are new, some are eye candy coffee table books, some are serious reference books. I’m going to share some of my favorites over the next few weeks.

Inspriation and Influence–1st Dibs

I really like 1st Dibs. I don’t visit it every day, or even every week, but when I do it sucks me in and when I’m done I’ve spent more time than I had planned.

1st Dibs is a huge on-line marketplace for antiques and mid-century modern furniture and accessories–Portobello Road or the Paris Flea Market on steroids. 1st Dibs also has a beautifully designed and edited section on people, places and ideas. There are great garden elements to be found–bought or used as inspiration.

The profiles in Style Compass or books in Required Reading get me every time.

My Garden State–Jockey Hollow

The footpath to the Cross Estate Gardens in Jockey Hollow

This lovely garden is about 20 minutes from my studio on the way here and there. It is on National Park Service land and is maintained by a staff of dedicated volunteers. I stop there often. There are other elements not shown here, a walled formal garden with two beautiful terra cotta urns and a view east over the foothills and a three story fieldstone water tower. Perhaps another time or visit for yourself…

Spring in the wildflower garden at the Cross Estate Gardens

Massed ferns at the base of a Metaseqoia glyptostroboides

The Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) allee before it blooms next month

The Garden State–It’s Not What You Think

I have lived on both sides of this continent as well as on a completely different one. I have lived in New York and Los Angeles. There are still other places I dream of living–Italy for one. The fact is that most of my life has been spent in the most maligned state in the union.

When you tell people you live in New Jersey the conversation changes course. I have never gotten and ‘Oh, I’ve always wanted to live there’ or ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ Most people think of New Jersey as the state sandwiched in between New York and Philadelphia–a place so uninteresting that their best course of action is to get on the NJ Turnpike and travel just as fast as they can through it.

New Jersey is probably not what you think it is. It’s diverse, historic and yes overcrowded in many areas. There is beauty to be had in its cities as well as in its countryside. It is a place in danger of becoming so altered by urban sprawl that it will never be able to find its way back. I am thankful for the Farmland Preservation Program or much of our open land would become more subdivisions of houses too big for their lots. I wish some of our cities would enact historic architecture preservation laws–a small 19th century farmhouse and barn just down the street from me was knocked down and a generic faux stone clad beast went up in its place.

As a landscape designer, I drive over a significant part of the state searching for plants and materials, meeting clients and just going places. I have resolved to remember to put my camera in my bag and over the next few months I’m going to share images from my summer journeys through the state that seems to draw me back.

Big Garbage Day–A Backyard Observation

Big garbage day comes on the first Thursday of the month in my neighborhood. Regardless of my own history of incredible finds in other people’s cast offs, I have become more and more mystified by the paradox of some what is being thrown out. I first started thinking about this a few months ago when all three houses in the dead end across from my front garden put pink plastic playhouses out for pick-up.

Eager to give their children a safe and fun backyard experience many well meaning parents purchase plastic toys and play equipment which are inexpensive and plentiful in the marketplace. Even if these toys are made with recycled plastic, they are ultimately not recycled. Parents who normally recycle, are environmentally aware and have switched to refillable water bottles don’t even consider the impact of these toys on the environment their children will inherit once the toys are outgrown and tossed out.

The oh so common and (bleck!) cute turtle sandbox (photo via Little Tykes) below, along with easels, lawn mowers and plastic basketball hoops, racing car beds, and yes, another playhouse were on the curb this morning. Every single one was in good enough shape to be passed on to some other child instead of ending up in the landfill.

A Bouquet of Garden Blogs

There are so many garden blogs that it boggles the mind. In my little town, there are three garden blog writers that I know about + Miss R which isn’t really about gardening. Sometimes it seems as if there’s as many garden blogs as there are gardeners. How do you find a garden blog you want to follow or a writer you’d like to read?

This past winter, when I was exploring Web 2.0 with a vengeance, I met Stuart Robinson (@bussogardener) via Twitter. He was always winding up his day as I was starting mine–he’s in Australia–and we had some very lively exchanges.

Stuart is the creator of Blotanical which houses and showcases garden blogs from around the world. He graciously invited Miss R to join–and I did. Spend some time there and you won’t believe the diversity of ideas, opinions, advice and gardens you’ll find. Thanks, Stuart.

Why not Wisteria?

As beautiful and romantic as it is…

Here’s why I never recommend it, plain and simple.

Wisteria escaped from a garden climbing a very large Picea abies on my block

There are wisteria vines choking out, shading foliage and pulling down garden structures in more places in New Jersey than I care to relate.

My Studio

This photo was taken last fall. My converted sunporch studio is unheated but full of light and looks out to the neighborhood. At one end my drafting table spans its width, at the other books, catalogs, plans and client files. In the winter or when it’s cold–like today–I work on a large round oak table in the dining room that was my mother’s–but this is where I work during late spring, summer and most of fall.

My drafting table is at the other end of the narrow sun porch that serves as a three season studio

Above the desk, along with a black clay cherub collected in Mexico, hang two quotes. One from Raymond Jungles, ‘let what it wants to be, become what it is’ and the other from Marcel Proust…’Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom…’

Why Fit In?

I have never fit in. There have been times, like when I was in high school, where fitting in seemed important, so I tried. I still didn’t really fit in–there was always the nagging sensation that I wasn’t really being authentic.

As I grew and evolved as a designer, I learned to get used to blunt critique and/or praise of my work and view it with my own value meter. Reject what I didn’t believe, embrace what I did. This process also made me more secure in who I was as a person. The nagging sensation of not being authentic mostly disappeared. What didn’t disappear, however, is the fact that I still don’t really fit neatly into any ready categories that people seem to need to organize their thoughts, lives and ideas.

Miss R doesn’t really fit in either. It’s not a garden blog–although I sometimes write about gardens and post garden pictures. It’s not a design blog, although I certainly explore that also. It’s not a blog of personal revelation, but that is definitely a component. It’s not a blog about process either. It doesn’t fit in.

It is a blog about the thoughts, ideas, images, work, people and places that fill my creative life. I’m standing in the middle of my life as individual as ever, as unable to fit neatly into anyone’s categories as I ever was. The difference is that I now know that’s because I don’t need to. I am authentically me.