Fool The Eye With Garden Mirrors


Slight of hand is what makes magic acts so confounding.  Your eye is betrayed by tricks that seem to defy all we know about physics.  Yet they are so effective we have no choice but to suspend our disbelief.  There is magic of a similar kind wrought by the skills of garden designers.  It’s the technique of creating visual space where none exists.  This ability to trick you into believing there is more there than meets the eye is called trompe loiel, the French term for “fool the eye”.   The traditional and most common example of French trompe l’oiel is the art of  trellage.  This arrangement produces trellis systems which use artist’s forced perspective to make it appear as though there is greater depth.  This works exactly the way an artist does with a painting.  While this geometric system of lines on a contrasting background can be effective, it doesn’t work well outside formalized landscapes.  There is a simpler way to achieve this sense artificial space that’s cheaper and adapts to virtually all garden styles equally.  It solves a dozen problems unique to small space outdoor living or urban postage stamp gardens bounded by oppressive walls. Imagine if you could borrow some real estate to create a whole new garden room to look into?  As you sit in a tiny claustrophobic patio, a window on another world could change the entire sense of place.  The technique to create such magic: exploit reflection with mirrors.  A mirror reflects everything in front of it to virtually double the sense of space.  We use them often indoors to make rooms seem larger.  It works just as well in the garden.    The size and position of a mirror can provide you a tantalizing, albeit artificial view.  If you’re using a mirror on walls beneath eaves or solid roofing, any type is suitable.  But without cover, rain can damage the silvering on the back of a standard mirror made for interior use.  For this situation order all-weather outdoor mirror for seasonal or year around applications.  To make the effect work perfectly you must fix the mirror solidly to the background.  If it is hung by a wire it will tilt, giving you too much floor or sky.  That just won’t fool the eye.  When considering the size of an outdoor a mirror, match the scale of gateways and windows to give it a more realistic look.  Decide if its to function best when sitting or standing.  Be certain of what is reflected in the mirror from those important viewpoints to get the illusion just right.  A full length mirror created to hang on the back of a door provides a natural looking portal in the garden where it’s placed.  It should be flush with the ground in order to completely pull off such a hoax.  If it is set into planting, be aware that splash when it rains may spot the mirror.  Ditto when it comes to nearby water features.  In those cases raise it
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Reconcile Your Garden To Climate Change

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Some say we are forever going into or coming out of an ice age.  So whether climate change is just further exit from the last ice age or something else, it means rethinking the way we use water resources.  With population rising we see water availability growing more stressed in areas never before seen as drought stricken.  And if this is the beginning of a nationwide trend, it’s about time we take a more critical look at our home water use.   One source of water waste is trying to force plants to grow where there’s insufficient rainfall to support them naturally.  Another problem is the way we grow plants, such as lawns, which are an unnatural, water and chemical intensive monoculture.   American cities are surrounded by natural wildlands rich in beautiful plants that grow all by themselves.  If we created landscapes from these species rather than needy exotics, we’d have our own little self-sustaining ecosystem.  Better yet, there’d be far fewer weekends spend mowing and manicuring.   To reconcile our homesites to what’s going on in the environment, the first step is to take a look at locally adapted plants.  These include trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, grasses and wildflowers that grow all by themselves within your local climate zone.  When you plant them in your yard they become automatically super-adapted, resisting drought, disease and pests the way nature intended.    Some of the most profound examples of these are the fabulous rhododendrons and azaleas of the Carolina mountains or maple trees of New England.  Coneflowers shine on the Midwestern prairies while iris bloom in the swamps of the deep south.  Blue spruce cloak the Rocky Mountains, silver lupine hugs the slopes of California foothills and saguaro cactus towers over the Arizona desert.    Botanists and horticulturists believe this is the future of the American landscape.  They have banded together to create native plant societies to promote climate conscious landscaping.  The groups are often associated with universities, botanical gardens and arboretums in your community where locally native plants are grown for demonstration, studied and propagated.  These societies also have links to small independent growers who specialize in native plants.  Some are dedicated to particular groups or genera they handle better than anyone else.  In fact, because some of the most spectacular natives never make it into garden centers, these are the only place you’ll find them.   At native plant society web sites you’ll find references to the best books on local natives for their individual states.  That illustrates the real issue here, that native plants are so regionally specific that national books hardly apply at all.  Plus, field guides don’t offer much because they’re designed to tell you how to identify natives in habitat.  The best books to choose direct you to the native plants proven garden worthy.  They won’t be over finicky and adapt to more varied conditions.    Thanks to the New England Wild Flower Society, we have an excellent database of state native plant societies. 
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The Dangerous Duality of Garden Ivy

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English ivy suffers a most profound duality.  While at once refusing to grow where we want it to, escapees can naturalize to engulf whole landscapes.  This is just one aspect of an insidious spreader that has wrecked havoc unparalleled in the annals of horticulture.   Though it is commonly known as English ivy, Hedera helix is actually native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa.  It is an evergreen that takes on various forms and behaviors depending on conditions.  On flat land it becomes a groundcover, rooting as it travels to produce dense stands of foliage. This rooting also makes it a first class erosion control plant creating seas of deep green leaves.    What makes English ivy so dicey, though, is the fact that it climbs aggressively. This quality led to its long time use of cloaking ugly fences and walls with greenery.  Tendrils grow semiwoody and lined with dense modified roots that cling to any surface they contact.  The roots exude a kind of natural plant glue to help them stick tenaciously.  This substance can invade deep into porous materials such as mortar.    Once attached the runners grow ever larger in diameter.  Very old specimens produce main branches up to one foot in diameter.              Problems with this plant manifest in a variety of ways.  The clinging roots become so anchored in brick or mortar than when removed they take a good deal of the masonry with them.  This can be devastating to older structures when the plants are stripped off for restoration, painting or repair.  Residual bases of the roots can remain attached , leaving an unattractive pattern wherever they grew.    When ivy adheres to wood structures the results can be even more destructive.  The runners can invade gaps between siding boards or stretch into rafters and under roofing materials.  As these eighth inch tendrils grow woody and expand in diameter, they can literally break the structure apart.  When ivy climbs into shade trees there can be devastating results.  In gardens or landscapes poorly cared for, ivy grows rampant.  It will root its way up a mature tree seeking light, wrapping its tendrils around the entire trunk.  As it spreads out onto lateral branches, the tree leaves become overwhelmed.  They eventually die out for lack of sun.  Inch by inch ivy denies the tree’s ability to carry on photosynthesis.  When enough of the foliage is compromised, the tree can no longer support itself and dies.  The weight of a severe ivy infestation can make a dead or dying tree so top heavy it becomes a severe weather hazard.      Finally there is the environmental damage to consider.  Because all English ivy is imported from the Old World, those plants that have naturalized are dangerous exotics.  It will cloak a forest floor shading out grasses and wildflowers that support wildlife.  Because ivy rarely flowers it offers now direct food value.  Invasiveness has proven most significant along both coasts and selected states in between where the
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Aztec Dahlia Flowers of Mexico


In the south of the Valley of Mexico, the Xochimilca, people of the flowers, founded their city upon a verdant wetland.  They dwelled on earth just inches higher than the shallow lake surface that surrounded them.  To create more dry land they hauled lake bottom muck in baskets to create man made islands known as chinampas.  This land would prove among the most fertile places on earth, linked by a system of spring fed canals.  Building up the chinampas by hand just as it was done by the Aztecs. There they cultivated gardens of flowers and vegetables in what is today called Xochimilco, place of the flowers.  From the highlands that surround their valley they brought wildflowers, both the cempacuchil marigold and bright wayside blossoms known today as dahlias.  Growing like potatoes out of thick underground tubers, the many small flowered species produced a wide range of color.  The Mexican native wildflower, Dahlia coccinea. The Xochimilca were conquered by the Aztecs, their agricultural region taken over to support the needs of a rapidly expanding empire centered further north at Tenochtitlan.  The Aztecs were avid gardeners and dahlias soon found their way into the gardens of the Emperor and homes of the wealthy tended by slaves.  Flowers, with their short life and fleeting beauty would become vital to celebrations of their many gods and death.  They would deem Xochipili the god of flowers.  There is no doubt that the dahlias collected in Tenochtitlan from far corners of Mexico and Guatemala began to naturally cross pollinate in these gardens, producing ever more varieties. But again the dahlia and its people were conquered.  Hernan Cortez wrote of the flowers known in the Nahuatl language as acocotli, and even sketched them.  Sadly this and other Spanish works are all that remains of the Aztec records detailing how dahlias were used in garden and as a medicinal.  The valuable codex or written works of this culture were summarily burned.  Only seeds were sent back to Spain.  Flowers of three species eventually grew in Madrid:  purple Dahlia pinnata, pink Dahlia rosea and vivid red Dahlia coccinea.  All of these figure into the history of our modern day hybrids, but many believe even these were early hybrids themselves gathered from the gardens of the Aztecs. Europeans would soon discover that when grown from seed the offspring of dahlias were highly variable.  The original species contained genes of a whole rainbow of hues and forms, and when crossed the results were staggering.   Fancy modern dahlia hybrids. Nineteenth century breeding exploded around the world as fancy and show types produced larger and more complex colored flowers.  In 1872, a load of dahlia tubers from Mexico arrived in Holland, but only a single one survived.  This would become Dahlia ‘Juarrezii’, the progenitor of the spectacular cactus flowered dahlia.       Xochemilco canals and the floating garden boats formerly bedecked with fresh flowers. Xochimilco remains today the horticultural heart of Mexico, the chinampas farmed by boat just as they have been
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