Tag Archives: Abbie Zabar



img_7903Plump citrus yellow Cymbidium flowers just opening at McBean’s Orchids

img_7974_3Glamorous, particularly fine Oncidium plants at McBean’s Orchids

The scent is extraordinary – vanilla? clove? tuberose? Exotic of course, from far away.  It is outrageously seductive.  I have only just stepped out of an exhilaratingly frosty December day and into the first of a series of milky-paned glasshouses at McBean’s Orchids in East Sussex and already I find myself wanting more of the intense perfume, coveting an exquisitely salmon-marbled Oncidium and wondering simply where orchids have been all my life?

img_7977_3Just opening claret coloured Cymbidium in the glasshouse at McBean’s Orchids, East Sussex

img_7972_3Exquisite salmon-marbled oncidium, Mcbean’s Orchids, Sussex

I love the energy of the Cymbidium leaves:

img_7863_3Yellow flowered Cymbidium its leaves stretching upwards and outwards.

There are orchids everywhere in a series of greenhouses, stretching away on long wheeled tables.img_7870                             wheeled tables stretching away into the distance, McBean’s Orchids

There are junior plants dense in their trays  (it takes four to five years to nurture an orchid until it is ready for sale).img_7908_3                                      Tray upon tray of tiny orchid plants, McBean’s Orchids

There are teenage ones, signposted with delightfully incongruous Scottish names such as ‘Castle of Mey’ – never forget that Mr McBean, who established the nursery in 1879, was a Scot. Originally the business specialised in ferns but Mr McBean was canny enough to spot the potential of the seedling orchids that appeared uninvited on imported fern plants and so the revered orchid nursery began.

img_7921_3Young Cymbidium ‘Castle of Mey’

And there are champion ones such as ‘Big Tracy’, a 40 year old sweet smelling Cymbidium tracyanum with pistachio coloured flowers marked with brown. Every year there is a playful flower-count as the plant grows even bigger.  2016 has been a bumper year with 630 translucent tiger-striped blooms.



img_3227The enormous 40+ year old ‘Big Tracy’ – Cymbidium tracyanum –  at McBean’s Orchids

It has been a wonderfully crisp and blue-skied early winter here in London and the South East.  There have been freezing nights followed by glittering early mornings which have transformed the spreading leaves of cardoons and the sculpted mounts of Euphorbia characias in my local Ruskin Park into exquisitely shimmering ball gowns:

img_7857Gorgeous frosted leaves of cardoons and Euphorbia characias 

Sheets of Cyclamen hederfolium huddled in the grass are frozen solid, the frost lacing the slightly puckered marbled leaves with an icy pompom edging.

img_7855Frozen Cyclamen hederifolium

Stands of Calamagrostis are ablaze in the morning sunshine and the still-hanging-in-there, rich yellow festoons of wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere.

img_7854                                     Stands of Calamagrostis ablaze in the morning sunshine

Festoons of rich yellow wisteria foliage make for a slightly decadent party atmosphere

Back at McBean’s my spirits rise as I find out more about their speciality Cymbidium and Oncidium orchids and how they could fill my house with colour from December until April just as the garden has gone so quiet. Above the exuberant light-catching foliage there are bursts of speckled pink, an elusive grey-orange, white with dashes of the freshest egg yolk yellow and spotted claret and pink ones ones like slivers of the most expensive Italian marble.

img_7969_3Cymbidium December Orange

img_3246An arching stem of yellow Cymbidium

Cool growing Oncidium (formerly know as Odontoglossum) and modern hybrid Cymbidium hail from subtropical Asia and were hugely popular in Victorian times. But they have been lying quietly beyond the contemporary mindset, our interest dulled by the elegant but supermarket invading moth orchid (Phaelonopsis). Not that McBean’s does not sell tempting, strangely speckled or dark wine coloured Phalaenopsis too, but their speciality and comparative rarity lies in their range of gorgeous, exuberant Cymbidium and the more delicate and only slightly more challenging Oncidium.img_3253                                            A perfectly poised stem of deep pink Oncidium
img_3257                                          A prize Oncidium with marble-like markings in claret.

‘They are the ultimate sustainable plant’ explains the feisty Rose Armstrong as she takes me on an uplifting tour of the nursery which she bought – pretty much by accident – in 2015.  Rose had been coming to McBeans for years. On a visit to buy an orchid as a present she was distraught to find that the business was on the verge of closing down, and found herself buying the whole set up  (along with her headhunter husband, Stretch) and taking on the task of saving and reviving this longstanding British brand.  ‘McBeans have exhibited at nearly every Chelsea Flower show and have won over 80 gold medals. We are one of only three remaining British orchid nurseries, we have an incredible stock to breed from and unbeatable expertise.’  Indeed Head Nurseryman, Jim Durrant has worked at the nursery developing ever more exquisite plants since 1971.

McBean’s has provided orchids for Royalty – famously for Princess Diana’s wedding bouquet – Mrs Thatcher is said to have insisted on McBean’s orchids at No. 10 and there are still a handful of country house chatelaines who order several thousand pounds worth of orchids to decorate the house before a shooting party, but Rose is determined that the McBean orchid – the less well known cymbidiums and oncidiums in particular – are seen as a straightforward and cheerful addition to any contemporary home.


Princess Diana’s wedding – her bouquet contained trailing stems of white orchids from McBean’s

I think Rose Armstrong has the right ingredients to make this work. She has a great eye and orchids are in her bones: amazingly both her grandmothers used to come to Mcbean’s in the autumn to buy orchids for the house.  She is also refreshingly straightforward in her approach to the task ahead. She tells me fondly that her other business is a petrol station with a small, perhaps old-fashioned, but perfectly successful shop ‘that just sells what you need when you’ve got a hangover after Saturday night:  ‘Redbull, fags … and sauces for Sunday lunch’.

Most importantly her approach to caring for orchids dispels the kind of myths that may have built up in your head for years. You may have stored away information gathered from pieces such as Amanda Gutterman’s entertaining but worrying feature for Gardensita  – The Orchid That Owned Me – in which Ms Gutterman achieves success by watering her orchids with gently melting ice cubes: the ultimate way to ‘water sparingly’.

10-orchidcare-erinboyle-gardenista      Photograph of the melting ice cube orchid-watering technique  by Amanda Gutterman courtesy of Gardenista

But for Rose Armstrong the advice is much more straight forward.  ‘Rule no 1 is to water with rainwater only – just keep a lemonade bottle of rainwater mixed with Orchid feed under the sink and use this every three out of four times you water’.


Rule 2: Don’t water very much (use a wooden stick poked in the potting medium to see if there is still moisture available), and put a layer of gravel under the pot to help drainage and keep the atmosphere around the plant moist. Rule 3: Keep the plant in good light but not direct sunlight away from radiators and draughts.  Rule 4: In the summer (April to October) put the plant outside in dappled shade ‘under the apple tree at the back of the garden’ . The plant needs a drop in temperature at night to form buds.  You can keep watering and feeding a bit during this time but not in July when the bud formation is taking place.

The really exciting thing about orchids of course is that as well as flowering for at least six to eight weeks, they will come back again year after year.  Some people worry that they will get too big but ‘it is easy to split them in two with a hacksaw’ –  with the obvious bonus of creating two plants from one.

img_7924_2Mature Cymbidium tracyanum on a trunk at McBean’s Orchids

I love the way that even the smaller cymbidiums have the potential to really change a room, the way they offer something of the settled quality of a log fire or a piano. And the bigger plants can be spectacular. At McBean’s there is a particularly covetable, heavenly scented Cymbidium tracyanum comfortable on an old trunk at the end of a sloping red-floored passageway in the nursery against an industrial painted glass wall.

The red-floored passageway leads to the Exhibition Room. This is an extraordinarily atmospheric stage set of a place with a backdrop of futuristic, silvery-grey corrugated window panes, waterfalls, pools, scented tumbling orchids amongst ferns and tiered stands of velvety green, ear-shaped begonia leaves  – the whole hung with ghostly festoons of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).  I have only ever seen Spanish Moss before hanging spookily from gnarled trees in the ground of plantation houses outside New Orleans.  Here the Spanish moss is cool and airy and a curiously refreshing foil to the glossy firework exuberance of the tropical plants.



img_3233The amazing Exhibition Room with pools, waterfalls, scented orchids, begonias, ferns and Spanish moss.

Elsewhere in the nursery I am taken by further sturdily voluptuous plants against milky blue glass (am feeling an urgent need to expand my knowledge of a whole new area of plants!)

img_7967Sturdily voluptuous plants against pale blue glass

And everywhere there are workbenches with new treasures.   I fall for a wonderful table laden with  gawky, long-limbed shrimp plants (Judicia brandegeeana ), Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern (Phlebodum pseudoareum) – and more Spanish moss:img_7915_3img_7976_3img_7917_3A potting bench where Shrimp plant cuttings share space with Spanish moss and a Blue Rabbit’s Foot fern

On the next table I am introduced to the slim and elegant mahogany flowered Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and his neat, smaller younger sister ‘Princess Charlotte’

img_7968Cymbidium ‘Prince George’ and ‘Princess Charlotte’prince-georgeCymbidium ‘Prince George’

And so I am back in the sales area and in a mild panic about what to buy.  img_7971 img_7974_3ceramic-pots-main                                           The all too tempting sales area at McBeans’s Orchids

I go for a starter trio of Cymbidium ‘December Orange’, a soft pink speckled Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp Lewes’ and an Oncidium with magically suspended delicate pink on white flowers along a curved stem – just to raise the stakes.

img_7975_3My trio of orchids arrive home.

I have a Malaysian friend,  Valentine Willie who deals in contemporary art and has bases throughout Southeast Asia. He is crazy about orchids and I have always assumed that it is all very well for him – after all he will goad me with photographs of his jade vine in full bloom in his garden in Ubud, Bali – but that orchids are a no go area for me.

image-2Valentine’s Jade Vine, Ubud Bali

I am entertained to discover that where there is no garden at his KL apartment he has turned an entire bathroom into an ‘orchidarium cum fern house’.

imageValentine Willie’s KL bathroom/orchidariaum

A week on, my orchids are blooming away.  They are sitting on gravel, the rainwater/orchid fertilizer cocktail is mixed up in its plastic bottle under the sink and I hope I have chosen bright enough places for the plants to be happy.


Cymbidium ‘December Orange’ – in terracotta orchid pot designed by Abbie Zabar for Seibert & Riceimg_8021Cymbidium ‘McBean’s Loch Gilp ‘Lewis”

An elegant pink on white Oncidium

I didn’t quiz Rose for her line on misting the orchids. I feel I may succumb to a plant mister (Haws do a a very tempting nickel plated one which would make an ideal Christmas present – for me),  but I am unable to succumb to mixing olive oil, washing up liquid and water and using this to give the foliage a weekly polish.  Once you start reading up on orchids it is not too hard for the fear of impossibility to begin over again…Mostly I am excited at the way my new orchids add texture and colour to a room and even more excited by the challenge of keeping them going year after year.

There is one more immediate challenge of course (apart form three boys breaking up simultaneously next week from school and university, the whole of Christmas and the arrival of our first ever puppy …) to think of something artistic and festive to do with an entire bag of slivery-grey Spanish moss that Rose kindly gave me as I left.  Something for the weekend.

imageSpanish moss

NB If you are in London there is a Pop Up McBean’s Orchids now open at 235 Westbourne Grove W11 





‘Versailles’ planter with palm, Versailles green, Versailles

As I sit down to write my November post – the starting point, a family half term trip to Paris – I am filled with an aching sadness that our memories of those cheerful and inspiring three days have been shaken upside down by the horrifying terrorist shootings which took place a week ago today.

But I am keen to take you back to our trip to Paris, one of many visits over my lifetime (indeed I spent a few months living in Paris as an Art History student in my Gap year) to rekindle the deep fondness I have for the city and for French life beyond the city, to show my support and to tell you about my commitment to be back there again in the spring.


Still I worry a little about starting my account with our first stop on our first day in Paris: a return visit to the ultimate sock shop, Mes Chaussettes Rouges .


Cheery ad for Gammarelli ecclesiastical finery sets the tone at Mes Chaussettes Rouges

 Mes Chaussettes Rouges is a small, delightfully eccentric shop which sells such wonders as long red socks by the Italian tailor, Gammarelli – the Pope wears the white versions – and long green socks in ‘vert académie’ by the French brand, Mazarin, the green knee-highs worn by members of the Académie Française.  Fundamentally, of course, these are excellent quality, traditional socks, which have been introduced to a wider market. And if you have married a certain kind of husband you will make him pretty happy if you spend a few minutes in this immaculate rainbow of a shop helping select some hosiery of exactly the right weight, length and shade of soft blue.

The finest gentlemen’s socks on display at Mes Chaussettes Rouges

Some homemade pasta and a glass of wine in the cosy Italian deli on the other side of the rue César Franck and then an afternoon only gently frogmarching our sixteen year old son to the Army Museum at Les Invalides.  We had discovered this excellent combination of socks and spaghetti only six months earlier when we visited in the spring with our older boys on our way to the France v. Wales rugby match at the Stade de France – a post exam celebratory treat.  How heavily the name ‘Stade de France’ sits in my stomach now after the Friday 13th shootings.

The Musée de l’Armée is an enormous, graceful, museum of pale Parisian stone with exhaustive collections. We are on a mission to discover more about Napoleon. We visit Napoleon’s extraordinary oversize marble tomb, are dazzled by Ingres’ mesmerising, high-gloss portrait of Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne – we are moved by his battered black hat (famously and symbolically turned on its side and worn the way a commoner would wear a hat) and admire cases of beautifully crafted flags and ceremonial clothing decorated with the most exquisite embroidery.


‘Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne’, Ingres, 1806


         Fragment of military Tricolor in quilted silk, Musée de l’Armée, Les Invalides, Paris

IMG_3266Detail of oak leaf embroidery in gold thread, late 18th Century French uniform

I have never even walked close to the Eiffel Tower before and am rather amazed to understand that I have agreed to a twilight visit .

IMG_3029Eiffel Tower, late October, late afternoon

But the tower looks elegant and a satisfyingly subtle shade of brown against the autumn leaves of the surrounding trees. I learn riveting facts about the painting of the Eiffel Tower. Originally, in 1887-8, it was painted a rich ‘Venetian Red’, in 1899 the tower was painted in shaded tones from yellow-orange at the base to light yellow at the top, in 1954-61 it was painted a ‘brownish red’ and since 1968 the exclusive ‘Eiffel Tower Brown’ paint has been used – a sort of milk chocolate grey-brown, a colour chosen to blend in with the Paris cityscape. Cunningly it is still painted in three different tones, darker at the bottom and lighter at the top to accentuate its height.

 I start to smile when we get to the top. I love spongy, painterly quality of these iPhone images capturing the glowing autumn colour and rhythmic layout of the trees along a network of pale Parisian paths.

IMG_3044IMG_3048IMG_3043Autumn colour along a network of pale paths viewed from the Eiffel Tower

Our son is completely riveted by the whiteness of the City’s architecture.  It is a privilege – and perhaps more so in retrospect –  to to see this silvery city lluminated by the last rays of sunshine:

IMG_3040Sunset over Paris, October 2015

When the last burst of red sunset has gone I enjoy the scale and very French precision of the stretch of green park – the ‘Champ de Mars’ – which leads to the École Militaire:

IMG_3042I love the pearly green of the elliptical central pool and the way the soft light of the water seems to fragment into sophisticated pockets of glowing green light as darkness falls:

IMG_3045The milky green of the elliptical pool, Le Champ de MarsIMG_3055IMG_3054Le Champ de Mars at night – an elegant network of green lights

The next day we travel out to the town of Versailles, only twenty minutes from the centre of Paris by train.  We have arranged to visit the grounds of the Château de Versailles – originally the hunting lodge of Louis XIII and transformed into a sumptuous palace by the Sun King, Louis XIV who moved the Court and government there in 1682, where they remained until the French Revolution in 1789.

Our plan is to get a feel for the 2000 acres or so of palace grounds – with the famous gardens, avenues of lime trees and the imposing Grand Canal designed by André Le Nôtre – and to travel around by bike. We stop first to buy a picnic lunch in a market square.

My heart stops at the sight of the perfect wooden Versailles planter, painted in a soft ‘Versailles Green’ containing a slightly ragged palm which fits perfectly with the gently sagging, peeling shutters on the building behind. Versailles planters were designed by Le Nôtre in the 17th Century so that the hundreds of orange trees at Versailles could be moved under cover for the winter with reasonable ease. They are brilliant, of course, for permanently potted trees and shrubs as the sides of the planter can be easily removed for root pruning. The ultimate source of the Versailles Planter today is the Parisian company  ‘Jardins du Roi Soleil’ who make the original design under licence in different sizes and twelves classic colours using a muscly cast iron frame, solid oak from the Auvergne and heavy duty steel bolts.


Versailles Planter with palm, Versailles Green, Versailles

ImageCast iron frame of the Jardins du Roi Soleil Versailles planter

And so with our picnic in our bicycle baskets, (baguettes ‘tradition’, fresh goats cheese studded with raisins and huge, speckled yellow ‘Pommes Golden’ – completely different to the insipid ‘Golden Delicious’ apples available in the UK ) we set off through the park gates:

IMG_3084Avenue of Lime Trees, Chateau de Versailles

It is a perfect, gently rich moment in the  year to see the park and the autumn colours are wonderful – I love the way the leaves gather in pools around the trees.

IMG_3086 IMG_3089 IMG_3085Autumn colour in the parkland, Château de Versailles

We visit the particularly curious Queen’s Hamlet given by Louis XVI to his Austrian bride Marie-Antoinette in 1783 – a model village based on rustic Normandy vernacular architecture. There are glimpses of the perfect country idyll in the individual buildings framed by neat kitchen gardens enclosed by gates and fences made from chestnut paling (see my post on the garden at the Prieure D’Orsan for really covetable uses of chestnut paling in a kitchen garden), but there is something a little forlorn about the atmosphere of this place.


The ‘Queen’s Hamlet’, Versailles

IMG_3099IMG_3102IMG_3100IMG_3101Rustic buildings with immaculate kitchen gardens, chestnut fencing and glowing autumn woodland behind, The ‘Queen’s Hamlet’, Versailles

In the more relaxed, fiery woodland surrounding the hamlet we sit for a while admiring this fine Malus transitoria – my favourite crab apple – which has a spreading cloud of white blossom in May and in autumn hundreds of tiny yellow fruit which hang like miniature pumpkins from crimson stems.


Malus transitoria

We cycle away towards Le Grand Trianon – built in 1687 for Louis XIV and described modestly by its architect, Mansart, as ” a little pink marble and porphyry palace with delightful gardens”.  The soft pinks and beiges of the palace frames the autumnal woodland beyond perfectly. It is interesting that Napoleon Bonaparte had the palace restored after the Revolution and enjoyed staying there with his wife, Empress Marie-Louise, and that in 1963 Charles de Gaulle had it restored and modernised for use as an official Presidential Residence.


The pink and beige arches of the Grand Trianon provide a perfect frame for the autumnal woodland beyond.

The regimented avenues of fastigiate hornbeam opposite the Grand Trianon are exhilarating in the richness of their gold leaves and the soaring precision of the way they are so grandly ordered.



Elegant avenues of fastigiate hornbeam

We cycle five or so kilometres around the Grand Canal and picnic at the far end enjoying the late afternoon sun lighting up battalion after battalion of impeccable lime tree:


Regiments of lime trees around the Grand Canal, Versailles catching the light

Inside the Palace itself it is a crazy international tourist bunfight, everyone wanting a piece of the dazzling Hall of Mirrors and the King and Queen’s ‘Grand Apartments’.  We have something else to catch before dusk so we hurtle through. I stop for a moment amongst the bustle to admire the brilliant succession of jewel-like colour in the rooms I am walking through. It would be wonderful to design a contemporary formal garden inspired by this intensity of colour – with a blue garden room, behind which is a garden of brightest green, and behind that perhaps a red garden and then a magenta garden …

IMG_3263IMG_3145IMG_3148Room upon room of intense colour in the Palace of Versailles

As I look through the window, every element of the garden beyond is so finely balanced – the perfect velvetiness of the clipped yew, the pristine white of the statuary, the shell pink of the paths and the hazy softness of the woodland beyond – that I cannot believe it is quite real.


View onto immaculate Palace Gardens, Versailles

The light is fading, but the Potager du Roi (The King’s Kitchen Garden) is only a walk away from the main palace and I cannot leave without at least a glimpse.











Original plan for the Potager du Roi

The 22 acre potager was created for Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie who was named first director of the garden in 1670. The original site was swampland and completely unsuitable but the King was keen on fine fruits and vegetables –  especially when tantalisingly out of season – and so the site was cleared, drained, filled with good soil and it was the architect Mansart, again, who designed a series of terraces and walls that would create particularly hospitable micro-climates for certain fruits and vegetables. La Quintinie must have been thrilled to note that he was successful in producing “strawberries at the end of March … peas in April, figs in June, asparagus and lettuces in December, January …”  He raised fifty varieties of pears, twenty varieties of apples and sixteen different types of lettuce for the King’s table.  Louis XIV would send samples of his favourite pear, ‘Williams Bon Chrétien’, as a gift to heads of state and the brilliant letter writer, Mme de Sévigné  remarked drily on the fashionable fervour for the finest produce “the craze for peas continues; the impatience of waiting to eat them, to have eaten them, and the pleasure of eating them are the three subjects our princes have been discussing for the past four days now”.

Almost as soon as we enter the Potager we come across an entire wall of figs with purple fruits and leaves turning a deep yellow:


IMG_3154wall of figs, Potager du Roi, October 2015

This is modest of course compared to the pre Revolution ‘Figuerie’ – a sunken garden dedicated to the production of 700 fig trees grown in pots so they could be moved and housed under glass each winter – but it is a gorgeous sight and I step further into the garden.

It feels a slightly unfair moment to visit this incredible collection of 450 varieties of fruit trees, including 5000 espalier trees and possibly the world’s largest collection of fruit trees pruned into historic forms – now also the home of the  National School of Landscape Architecture (ENSP)  – but even now as the light is fading the variety of shape and tireless skill sing out.

IMG_3173IMG_3183IMG_3178IMG_3193  A tiny sample of trained apple and pear trees, Potager du Roi, October 2015

This is a garden of experimentation which has moved with the times and is always trying something new. The slightly unkempt feel to the garden is due to the more recent approach to let the grass grow up amongst the rows of trees to encourage the presence of insects and other natural predetors and reduce/eliminate the need for chemical controls.

 My heart goes out to the row of ‘Reine Claude’ greengages which are being trained into ‘Palmiers concentriques’.

IMG_3187IMG_3269Reine Claude greengages being trained into circles, Potager du Roi

And I am smitten by the tall walls of white peaches – including the white fleshed ‘Donut’ peach, Saturn – which are grown as double vertical ‘wavy’ cordons – ‘cordon vertical ondulé double’.


Double wavy cordons of white fleshed peach, Potager du Roi

Although there are fine examples of this kind of fruit tree training elsewhere, France is undoubtedly at the forefront of this painstaking art. If you want to know more you must turn to Jacques Beccaletto’s extraodinary ‘Encyclopédie des Formes Fruitières’ which continues to be a five star recommended bestseller even on UK Amazon.


Encylopédie des Formes Fruitières

Everything I discover about the Potager du Roi makes me want to come back for more in the spring. Historic varieties of fruit and vegetables are regularly re-introduced and selection is based on taste as well as rarity. The garden is keen to champion diversity in everything it grows and is determined to remind us that strawberries, for example, need not be the glossy giants available in supermarkets today – instead they grow varieties such a ‘Versaillaise’, ‘Vicomtesse Héricart de Thury’ and ‘Capron Royal’ which have relatively modest crops of small sweet fruits.

Back in London, thinking about the crucial work being undertaken in Versailles to keep local  heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables from dying out, I am delighted by the timing of a message from Amy Goldman: she tells me that the Potager du Roi is ‘one of her favourite places on Earth’. For the last couple of days her gorgeous and powerful new book, Heirloom Harvest has been distracting me from other tasks. I was introduced to Amy by the exuberant New York artist and plantswoman, Abbie Zabar (see my May 11th 2015 post ‘An English Gardener in New York, Part 1). I love the way that gardening and writing about gardening brings new friendships and connections from all over the world.

IMG_3361IMG_3346The sumptuous front and back covers of ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

For me, whereas France and all things French have been woven in and out of my life for decades, the world of American fruit and vegetables is tantalisingly exotic. When Amy writes of serving up ‘homegrown specialities from “the old country” like Tennessee Red peanuts, Southern Giant curly mustard greens, Clemson Spineless okra and Beauregard sweet potatoes’ I am transported to her beautiful 1788 white clapboard farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, New York and I begin to see, smell and taste her life starting with the produce from the soil around the house.

And what a productive life. Amy Goldman has been gardening seriously since she was eighteen, has already written three award winning, personal and intensively knowledgeable books, ‘The Heirloom Tomato’,’ The Compleat Squash’ and ‘Melons for Passionate Growers’, and is a dynamic and influential advocate for heirloom fruits and vegetables and the importance of protecting genetic diversity.

images‘Heirloom Harvest’ is gripping because it is the story of one person’s life and the garden they have made and how one stage of the journey lead to another. She is clear that two key books changed the course of her life. Rosalind Creasy’s ‘Cooking from the Garden’ which ‘opened my eyes to the splendour and diversity of heirlooms, their uses in cookery and edible landscaping’ and Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney’s ‘Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity’ which ‘alerted me to the dangers of crop uniformity and the staggering and mounting losses of genetic diversity in agriculture’. If Paris is the ‘City of Love’, it fits well with this post that Amy ended up falling in love with and marrying Cary, and they now live and farm together, always trying to grow and protect new varieties of fruits, vegetables and now rare breeds of animal too,  and storing seeds in their basement refrigerator seed bank.

Equally compelling are the book’s startlingly rich daguerreotype photographs by Jerry Spagnoli.  I try to work out what it is about the images that is so fascinating.  There is an inviting, shimmering softness to many of the photographs but perhaps it is the depth of tone  – one critic describes it brilliantly as ‘an austere sepia’ – which surprises me into looking more closely. The technique is wonderful for capturing the roughness of earth-caked vegetables or for the almost gritty surface of the ‘Tyson Pear’ and there is a wonderful, clear, light-catching quality to  photographs such as ‘White Currants’:

IMG_3349 ‘American Flag Leek’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3357 ‘Garlic Chives’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3369‘Tyson Pear’, photograph by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

IMG_3363 ‘White Currants’ by Jerry Spagnoli from ‘Heirloom Harvest’ by Amy Goldman

I remind myself what the daguerreotype process entails. There is a sobering You Tube film by Anthony Mournian of Jerry Spagnoli demonstrating the basic principles. It is a complex, hard graft, photographic technique invented in 1839 that produces images on highly polished, silver clad copper plates. Jerry Spagnoli collaborated with Amy Goldman for a period of 14 years on the photographs for the book. His depth of commitment and constant, inventive resourcefulness in producing these beautiful, time-suspended images is inspiring.

In Paris we are staying in our favourite, relaxed  Le Citizen Hotel (not to be confused with the Citizen M hotel chain!) in the Canal St Martin area.  We love the easy friendliness of the hotel, the quirky breakfast or fragrant cup of tea that they will make for you at any time.  It is our last day and we call in at the small and charismatic flower shop,  Bleuet Coquelicot.  The charming ‘Tom des Fleurs’ invites us – but what is so uplifting is the way his plants spill out onto the pavement – in front of the cafe next door and beyond.

IMG_3215Bleuet Coquelicot, florist, inside and out

Bleuet Coquelicot is thoughtful and gentle and unorthodox in its approach to flowers and to life – Tom is well known for only selling plants to people he can trust to look after them properly. If you order flowers from the shop you will be likely to receive what French Vogue has described as ‘more wildflower meadow than curated city bouquet’.

I am hugely saddened to say this is exactly the part of Paris, youthful, vibrant, constantly evolving, with its network of tiny restaurants and experimental shops that was hit so hard on Friday 13th November.

We walk through the Tuileries Garden admiring a pair of ever handsome ‘Luxembourg’ chairs painted in that familiar shade of mid green, now empty at the end of the day.  We promise to return to the city in the spring.

IMG_3243IMG_3244‘Luxembourg’ chairs, Tuileries Gardens, Paris



THE A-Z OF A SPRING WEEKEND IN MANHATTAN shadow cericis arainbowCercis canadensis in silhouette against a rainbow painted building – a view from the High Line

IMG_3791Ready for scones and raspberry jam, looking onto Abbie Zabar’s rooftop garden

IMG_0271Non – in Brooklyn – the freezing wind overwhelming the lure of the Japanese Cherry trees in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

I have just returned from probably the last truly chilly spring weekend in New York. The temperatures this week are in the high 20’s, but ten days ago the skies were still a cold, hard blue (or grey) and there was a gasp of surprise that trees, especially, were getting on with their spring unfolding against all odds in this extended winter.

love pic cercis amelCercis canadensis and Amelanchier, wonderful companionson the High Line

But Spring was relentlessly trying to make itself felt. In Central Park, magnolias and azaleas presented sudden ballgown sweeps of pink against the familiar buildings towering at the park edges:

central park azalaeacentral magnoliaAzaleas (above) and magnolia trees in Central Park

Walking the streets – which often felt tougher and grittier than I remember – the wonderful, free-limbed Gingko trees were lighting up the darkest redbrick with brilliant, fresh green leaves. Individual branches caught the light like a streak of liquid metal.

IMG_3939Ginko trees in a Manhattan street

gingko like goldGinko leaves catching the light 

Our first morning began at the wonderful Frick Collection.  I have always loved the pale, formal elegance of the three dome-pruned, 1930’s planted, magnolias in the Fifth Avenue Garden, a flurry of restrained pale pink against the extensive grey of the museum and simple topiary planting below. It is rare to prune magnolias – you are generally advised not to do so unless you have to – but these trees have become distinguished sculptural shapes and look great all through the year, especially wonderful when covered in snow.

mags oneMagnolias, Fifth Avenue Garden, Frick Collection – images courtesy of the vivacious NYC blog, Tales of a Madcap Heiress


Magnolia in snow – image from The Frick Collection archive

After our happy pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca, Vermeer and Holbein we wandered down to the Seaport area on our way to Brooklyn. We made a beeline for Emily Thompson Flowers on Beekman Street who has a reputation for creating extraordinary floral decorations.


IMG_3673Emily Thompson Flowers, Beekman Street, New York

Emily is an accomplished sculptress, trained at the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA who has become know for exquisite, unconventional flower arrangements which aim to combine ‘the uncultivated organic world and the delicacy of classical ornamental design’.  The girls taking a lunch break in the shop were incredibly welcoming and invited us to look around.   The colour palette in the studio was vibrant yet subtle – burnt oranges, pale pinks, dusky mauves. I loved the delicacy of garden plants such as hellebores and fritillaries – graceful plants which usually stay firmly in the border and are not generally used as cutting flowers. There was an atmosphere of rich potential everywhere you looked: in the intriguing selection of foliage plants, the towering shelves of tarnished brass vessels, the hanging rows of black and natural candles and the collection of natural props such as wasps nests.

Now back in the UK I look back at this palette and think how wonderful it would be to design a planting scheme using the same balance of brilliant and muted shades as a starting point …


IMG_3654 IMG_3651

IMG_3672IMG_3656IMG_3669The exquisite palette at Emily Thompson Flowers candles etc IMG_3657 IMG_3658Towering shelves of vases and candles at Emily Thompson Flowers IMG_3671 orchidsBrilliant foliage against geometric floor tiles and a silver tray at Emily Thompson Flowers

In the evening, after Evensong at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue where our son, Llewelyn is singing with the wonderful choir, we went to our new favourite Italian restaurant, Il Buco on Bond Street, just off The Bowery.IMG_3631

How did they know that ‘roasted gnocchi with morels and English peas’ would be my new favourite supper and that placing a gorgeous vase of blown peach coloured peonies on our table would make me smile from the moment I arrived?IMG_3965 (2)

The further advantage of the relaxed and delicious Il Buco is that there is a relaxed and delicious sister deli/restaurant Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in the next street. Obviously this means that each day in the city can begin with a perfect breakfast of fresh orange juice, imaginative homemade bread, ‘red-eye coffee’, and homemade ricotta with olive oil:bucoIMG_3972

IMG_3638Our daily breakfast at Il Buco Alimentari&Vineria

On our second morning I head up to The Cloisters  – an extraordinary museum of medieval art, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, situated way up on 190th Street in Fort Tryon Park which overlooks the Hudson River.  As you emerge from the subway it is disorientating to be in Northern Manhattan, but to feel so far away from the hub of the city:

HUDSONView of the Hudson River as you emerge from 190th Street Subway Station

CLOISTER TOWERView of The Cloisters through early spring trees at Fort Tryon Park

It takes me a while to get my head around the very premise of this museum which is a dazzling collection of important cloisters, chapels, stained glass, sculptures and tapestries, mostly French, mostly from the 12th to 15th Centuries, which are incorporated into a single purpose built museum funded by John D Rockerfeller and which opened to the public in 1938.  But I am soon wooed by the staggering beauty of the collection and by the feeling that everything is so well loved and so intelligently cared for.

I head first for the Cuxa Cloister – a salmon pink marble cloister from the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa near Perpignan, France, dating from around 1130-1140.



IMG_3715The Cuxa Cloister, The Cloisters Museum, New York

The monastery was sacked in the 17th Century and had fallen into ruin by the 19th Century.  As reconstructed here, it is about a quarter of its original size, but the proportions remain the same and additional stone required for the reconstruction was painstakingly sourced from the original quarry. It is bizarre to find yourself peering through stone arches at a twelfth century stone fountain having been on the A train from Columbus Circus only moments before – but I am quickly enjoying the intriguing early spring planting in the beds under the four expertly pollarded crab apple trees. I am enchanted by the tall spires of Fritillaria persica – both the greenish white form and the very dark bruised purple form.   NARCISSUS FRITILLARIAFritillaria persica alba and Narcissus poeticus in the Cuxa Cloister


Two forms of Fritillaria Persica with Narcissus poeticus above and a small white Narcissus  – possibly ‘Jenny’ or ‘Thalia’ – below

They look rare and elegant amongst sheaves of neat white Narcissus  –  and the jewel-like mood is extended by flashes of sharp pink from low-growing species tulips (for example Tulipa ‘Little Beauty’) and touches of delicate rose from pink muscari. This is a satisfying and contemporary interpretation of planting inspired by medieval treatises, herbals and works of art. It would be exciting to try out a similar scheme at home: Fritillaria ‘Ivory Bells, an excellent new selection of the greenish white flowered form, and Fritillaria persica ‘Adiyaman’, with dusky purple flowers, are available from Broadleigh Bulbs, and Kevock Garden Plants offers ‘Ivory Bells’ and Fritillaria persica ‘Midnight Bells’. Both nurseries offer the pale pink grape hyacinth, Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’.


Muscari ‘Pink Sunrise’ with white Narcisssus in the Cuxa Cloister

I drink in the endless gorgeous candelabra, perfect orange trees in terracotta pots and the vaulted halls of exquisite stained glass until I have to stop and linger again in front of the Unicorn Tapestries – a series of seven beautiful and complex story-telling tapestries from the South Netherlands (1495 -1505) woven in fine wool and silk with silver and gilded threads.


IMG_9782 IMG_3687Potted orange tree and medieval candelabra, The Cloisters Museum

The iconic ‘Unicorn in Captivity’ may have been created as a single image and is rich in imagery of love, fertility and marriage:

UNICORNThe Unicorn in Captivity part of The Unicorn Tapestries, The Cloisters Museum

The unicorn sits under a tree laden symbolically with ripe pomegranates, and the tapestry is wonderfully and intensely decorated throughout with delicate, mostly botanically accurate, representations of flowering plants offering layers of symbolism on the theme of love and sex. Of the 101 plants featured, 80% have been identified by the New York Botanical Society.

IMG_3750The sweet smelling white stock – Mathiola incana – symbolising love and purity

IMG_3751The Madonna Lily – Lilium candicum – with its symbolism of purity and the Virgin birth

IMG_3753The blue of the  Iris – often associated with the blue of the Virgin Mary

In the next room, I fall completely for a single, earlier – 1400-1415 – South Netherlandish tapestry, ‘The Falcon’s Bath’.

IMG_3758Here courtly figures are persuading a trained falcon to take a bath against a richly clothed rose trellis and a perky flowering turf bench. It is the vibrant, celebratory, highly stylised traditional ‘millefleurs’ background that draws me in.  Such strong shapes, sureness of touch and wonderful use of colour – milky pastel pinks and oranges against an inky blue-green:



IMG_3761IMG_3766Details of ‘The Falcon’s Bath’ tapestry, The Cloisters Museum – at the bottom my favourite detail complete with excellent red stockinged foot

And so I tear myself away from the 15th Century and rattle back on the A train and then up to the fourteenth floor of an Upper East Side apartment block to meet artist, writer, designer and gardener, Abbie Zabar, and find out about the passionate way she gardens on a tiny Penthouse rooftop.  It was Abbie who had warmly recommended The Cloisters to me.  I had not met her before but we had corresponded via The Dahlia Papers and she had very kindly invited me to visit. I knew (not least when she announced that her great friend, Chris, CEO of a major not for profit organisation, was managing to find time to make me her ‘special scones’ !) that the visit would be a brilliant treat.

From the moment I emerge and step directly into her rooftop garden, the collection of olive oil jars which house a refreshingly free-growing collection of boxwood, create a sense of shelter and intimacy away from the blasting wind and industrial feel of the roof tops beyond:

ZABAR OLIVE POTSOlive oil jars with a collection of boxwood, Abbie Zabar’s garden, New York

IMG_3844Looking beyond the intimate grouping of wooden bench, boxwood and terracotta

The elegant apartment paved with smooth limestone flags and discreet, perfectly proportioned cupboards, is orientated always to the rooftop terrace at its perimeter. From the neatest stainless steel kitchen – where lemon verbena tea is simmering away in the covetable vintage pyrex coffee pots she has been collecting for years – a single slim window frames the now famous hawthorn terrace ( see New York Times feature) and an 18th Century gilded Italian mirror above her caramel leather sofa holds an image of the terrace which greets you as soon as you arrive:

IMG_3841Lemon verbena tea in vintage Pyrex coffee pots ZABAR KITCHEN VIEWAbbie Zabar’s roof terrace framed by the kitchen window


The terrace is tiny, but Abbie – who has written books about container gardening, topiary and is a herb and alpine plant specialist – had the brave idea 12 years ago to plant three hawthorn trees (Crataegus pyracantha) in containers to see if she could harness their long season and fantastic toughness to create a natural shade canopy fourteen floors up in a position which is battered by wind and harsh winter conditions and then overwhelmed by sun and heat in the summer. The project is a continued labour of love – Abbie, who as a matter of extreme good fortune ‘loves to prune ‘, is a petite woman of a certain age, but she gets up on a seven foot ladder with goggles and protective clothing throughout the winter to remove the staggeringly long thorns from the trees. She has just repotted them into newly made oak Versailles tubs –  which took serious man power and the risk of a slightly slower start to the season, as the trees adjust to their new homes.

IMG_9932Thorns collected from Abbie Zabar’s Crataegus pyracantha

ZABAR HAWTHORNZABAR CHIMNEYThe winter framework of Abbie’s hawthorn trees against sky and chimneys

Abbie loves the trees for the shape of their leaves, their flowers, their vibrant orange berries and rich autumn colour, and most of all she loves them for the shelter they provide once the temperatures begin to rise which allows her to enjoy being outside despite the heat and to grow a host of other plants in the gentler climate the trees create at their base. The new oak containers and the immaculate trellis (which includes a cunning sliding trellis section to screen a working area of hose pipe and garden tools) are all painted in an excellent demure milky brown which will be a perfect foil for the rich greens and reds to come:


IMGZABAR TABLEVersailles tub and trellis painted in the same demure milky brown – with the beginning of a summer collection of pots.

Abbie is a passionate and inspiring collector of beautifully made objects. As well as 1950’s Murano glass and rare Shaker baskets, she has collected these ‘Jailbird’ nesting boxes made by prisoners in the 30’s and has arranged them in a soaring pattern on her dusky brick wall:

ZABAR BIRD HOUSE‘Jailbird’ nesting boxes, Abbie Zabar’s roof top garden

Abbie’s spirited approach to making the most of every possible opportunity to garden in this limited and often hostile space is uplifting. Away from the main terrace, at the end of a skinny external passageway between terrace wall and the interior solarium, I am led to a specialist rock garden – a tiny dynamic city of terracotta and stone containing an expertly nurtured collection of low-growing alpine plants. I love the way the pots hold their own against the sky scrapers beyond.

IMG_3813 IMG_3818


IMG_3814Abbie Zabar’s brilliant roof-top Alpine rock garden

Here she nurtures rather battered young olive and fig trees with impressive faith:

OLIVE TREES Two young olive trees hoping to make it through

And yet the Boston Ivy beginning to make its presence felt against the brick suggests that this is a garden which will blow your breath away for its lushness – and sheer audacity – in a couple of months time:

IMG_3831Boston Ivy beginning to make its presence felt

I am taken along a further black painted passage, passing two elegant green-painted wooden benches, hooked up efficiently ship-cabin style, on the way:


Vintage wooden benches, folded away and hooked up ship-cabin style

Here, in the toughest, darkest section of rooftop is a background of dark paint, mirrors, green glass pebbles and softening elements of terracotta and wood ready to be clothed in green as the summer progresses:



IMG_3824Abbie Zabar’s rooftop garden, continued

Buffeted by the wind we are relieved to get back inside where Abbie serves me a quite wonderful feast of the scones, homemade jam and cream delivered to her, wrapped in a cloth  – for me! – earlier that morning:

IMG_3839 (4)

Chris’s special half moon scones IMG_3791 Abbie’s hand monogrammed napkins – she sources antique napkins to embroider in the annual ‘Christmas rummage sale’ at St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue.

There is too much to talk about, but we manage to cover the beautifully, solid orchid pots in fine Italian terracotta she has just designed for Seibert and Rice. I naturally bought one to bring home in my hand luggage. The orchid pots are reviewed in detail on Matt Mattus in his excellent blog GROWING WITH PLANTS.


abbie4Abbie Zabar’s Seibert and Rice Orchid Pot photographed by Matt Mattus

Abbie also told me about her exhibition which begins in June 2015: Abbie Zabar: Ten Years of Flowers at Wave Hill, the public garden and cultural centre just outside the City. This is a woman who managed to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art every week for ten years to make an unbroken record of the famously extravagant floral arrangements in its entrance hall …


A taste of Abbie Zabar’s works on paper or board for her Wave Hill Exhibition, Summer 2015.

I wish I could be back in New York for the exhibition and to revisit this garden when it has fully sprung to life. Instead I go on my way back to street level and down to the Lower East Side.

That evening we discover the serene underground Japanese restaurant, Kyo Ya.  I am charmed and calmed by the wooden interior with beautiful iron screens, the opportunity to taste different ‘Spring sake’ from tiny pottery vessels, and completely delicious food.

IMG_3867Elegant, geometric iron screens at Kyo Ya

Each slice of pressed sushi with marinaded mackerel was decorated with tiny flowers and delicate piles of wasabi or pickled ginger:

IMG_3866 (2)

Pressed sushi of marinaded mackerel with flowers at Kyo Ya

We sit against a perfect screen of almost luminous Honesty (lunaria annua) seed heads pressed within panes of glass.

IMG_3861 (3)Glass screen with honesty seed heads, Kyo Ya Japanese Restaurant

Part II of An English Gardener in New York, From the High Line to Ground Zero, to follow shortly.