Respite, refreshment & entertainment: Bryant Park, New York City

Imagine sitting upon a vast lawn, on a cozy blanket, surrounded by other like-minded souls, on a summer’s night.   You’re eating a scrumptious sandwich, picked up from a local eatery and enjoying the lush plantings that surround you.   Dusk begins to settle in and the outdoor screen starts showing the classic thriller, Rosemary’s Baby. 

But, guess what?  You’re not in Kansas (so to speak) or a friendly Canadian small town, you’re in the middle of New York City, Manhattan to be precise.  And you’re sitting with hundreds of well-behaved urbanites in the middle of Bryant Park.

In the daylight, this is what the park looks like.  Crushed stone paths surround the giant lawn, bounded by spectacularly colourful plantings (designed by the incomparable Lynden B. Miller) that are in their prime by late summer.  Bistro chairs and tables, reminiscent of a European park, cluster around, beckoning you to sit down and stay a while.

The piece of valuable real estate now known as Bryant Park has a long and storied history.  In the 19th century, it accommodated a potter’s field, then a water reservoir and state-of-the-art aquaduct system, a ‘Crystal Palace’ and observatory, and then an encampment for Union army troops.  In 1884 the area was renamed Bryant Park and work was completed in 1911 on the New York Public Library that stands next to it.

Although the early 20th century finally saw a redesign of Bryant Park incorporating a –

classical scheme of a large central lawn, formal pathways, stone balustrades, allées of London Plane trees, and at the west end, an oval plaza containing the Josephine Shaw Lowell Memorial Fountain..”

– the place degenerated for the next forty years into a spot where no one ventured except for drug dealers and ne’er do wells.  Several important names including Rockefeller, Andrew Heiskell (then Chairman of Time Inc. and the New York Public Library), and Daniel A. Biederman (a Harvard Business School graduate and systems consultant with a reputation as an innovator in downtown management) got the show on the road and made Bryant Park the spectacular place it is today. 

There are several things that make Bryant Park extraordinary:

1.  Its beauty – this translates into both the beauty of the design but also the quality of care that is dedicated towards the plantings and the maintenance of the well used paths and patios.

2.  Its people friendliness – no longer dark and dingy, the plantings and hard surfaces have been made more accessible and visually open, so visitors no longer feel hidden or unsafe.

3.  Its special events and amenities – the reading room, the movie nights, the excellent kiosks with food and flowers.

4.  Its commitment to the idea that the viewer/visitor/participant can enjoy the park for FREE.  An area that is new is called the Southwest Porch, an outdoor lounge with golden yellow patio umbrellas and comfortable cushions on the attractive and weather-proof furniture.  It was donated by Southwest Airlines and happily also provides power outlets to laptop-addicted New Yorkers and visitors alike.

The Bryant Park website lists the following rules and regulations while visiting the park.  I thought it was worth repeating since it gave me a chuckle and reflects the newer, friendlier New York – especially the directions for dogs.

You are welcome…

  • to visit the park during the hours posted
  • to use open areas, including the lawn
  • to enjoy the gardens without entering flowerbeds or picking flowers
  • to use a park chair or one seat on a bench designed for sharing
  • to deposit waste in trash receptacles
  • to bring your dog, providing you leash it, keep it from watering trees and plants, and clean up after it

Park guidelines prohibit…

  • entering the park after the hours posted
  • drug use
  • alcohol use outside the Grill and Cafe
  • organized ballgames
  • panhandling
  • sitting or standing on ballustrades
  • entering the fountain
  • feeding pigeons
  • rummaging in trash receptacles
  • amplified music that disturbs others
  • performances, except by permit
  • commercial activity, except by permit
  • obstructing park entrances
  • dogs on the lawn
  • use of plastic tarps on the lawn

Blooms that herald Spring: II

The white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) that is Ontario’s provincial flower is not the only trillium in our woods.  The red blooms of the wake-robin (Trillium erectum), that bloom slightly before the white trillium, provide a rich display in the spring forest echoing the ruby ribs of this Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). 

These spring ephemerals push up out of the leaf litter on the forest floor and then, when they’re finished blooming and their leaves have taken in enough energy from the sun (before the trees have leafed out and shaded them), they disappear back underground.

This same habitat is home to other spring blooming perennials that, if you look closely, often carpet a wooded hillside.

These dainty yellow blooms rise above a pair of spear-shaped leaves that are mottled in a burgundy brown pattern.  They are known as trout lily or dogtooth violet (Erythronium americanum), referencing this mottling or the canine tooth shape of the underground corm.

These little jewels carpet the forest floor for several weeks in the spring and then disappear, much like the trillium.  Young plants have just one leaf and no flower; as they mature, they produce a pair of leaves but just one perfect golden bloom with three petals and three sepals (with their distinctive brown backs).  Colonies are formed primarily by the corms multiplying, creating little corms (called ‘cormels’) around the base of each mother corm.  Think about how crocuses form huge populations when left to their own devices; they also grow from corms.

Blooms that herald Spring: I

With the warmth that the spring sun brings, the first blooms of the season suddenly appear.  Here, in the ornamental gardens of Ottawa’s Dominion Arboretum, a languorous path is bordered by swaths of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), one of nearly fifty species within the genus Scilla, a member of the Hyacinthaceae family.

If memory serves me correctly, this whole area is also planted with a mass of hostas.  This is a great planting tip for novices; overplant your bulbs with perennials that will camoflage the bulb foliage as it begins to die down.

Pretty soon other spring flowering perennials will strut their stuff; these azure blue and pink blossoms belong to the shade loving lungworts (Pulmonaria sp; garden varieties are many including P. officinalis, P. rubra, P. saccharata, P. longifolia).  These plants, with their spotted and bristly foliage are reliable performers in locations that stay shady and cool through the season.  When their flowers finish and their leaves become tatty by mid-summer, they can be cut right back and new, fresh leaves will emerge and look much more presentable through the rest of the growing season.

The flowerbuds of lungwort present as pink and as they begin to open, shift to blue/purple, creating a doubly colourful display.

There is also a white variety called Pulmonaria x saccharata ‘Sissinghurst White’, that although it is less vigorous than the pink/blue types, makes for a classically elegant display.

A very useful edging perennial is Arabis alpina or Rockcress.  This mat-forming plant has fuzzy silver foliage and benefits from being placed in full sun with soil that is not too rich.  It provides a bright highlight in the spring garden.

And then there are the beautiful magnolias!  One of the largest hardy magnolias is the Saucer variety (Magnolia soulangiana), pictured here, with it’s huge and showy blooms.  One of the reasons Magnolias are so stunning in bloom is the size of the flowers, the delicate blush of pink on white, the grey branches and the muscular, organic shape of their limbs.

SeedLiving: A growing world-wide community with Canadian roots

Sources for open-pollinated seeds are increasingly few and far between.  This reality irked Anna-Monique West of Calgary, Alberta, and so she decided to do something about it. 

So last summer she started ‘SeedLiving’, a global marketplace for those who grow, harvest, and sell (or swap) open-pollinated seeds AND for those who want to source and buy them. 

She says,

Open-pollination matters because it is the oldest method of developing seeds, using natural mechanisms such as wind, insects and birds. Open-pollination helps increase biodiversity because it increases seed varieties. Gardeners who choose open-pollinated seeds can save them and hand them down to the next generation of growers.

Saving seeds should be a human right. Seeds that are sold commercially are often hybrid, genetically modified, or patented; none of which can be saved. These seeds are bred in controlled environments for specific traits such as colour or firmness.

There are 450 million small farms in the world farming on less than 2 hectares. Imagine if each of these small farms grew only one or two varieties of seeds? It would be a colossal mistake. Currently, much of the gene pool is being lost, as the same species of peas or carrots are grown for hundreds of miles. We have to grow them or lose them.”


Anna-Monique explains the premise of ‘SeedLiving’: 

“On SeedLiving, users can buy or swap directly with growers. They know their seeds because they grew them. Many are organic, without chemicals, or heirloom. Growers are invited to start using this resource to promote heirlooms in their community.

Registration is simple to join the growing SeedLiving community. The fees for using the site are Pay What You Can. Users may post news, gardening tips and events for free. They may swap seeds with another grower, or give them away online. SeedLiving is an exciting resource for increasing biodiversity in the garden.”

So get growing!  Visit the site, register and take a look at who’s selling.  And for more background, take a look at the article I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen about Anna-Monique’s endeavour here.

Emergency distraction!

This nasty weather we’re having this weekend has required the following post.  Take a look, imagine yourself there and then take a nap:

This incredible place is called Zama Beach & Lounge and is located on the tiny island of Isla Mujeres off the coast of Quintana Roo, Mexico, just opposite Cancun.  We visited it for the first time a few years ago and then made a return visit the year before last. 


It’s the kind of place that you drive by on a rented scooter or a golf cart while investigating the nooks and crannies of this small island and almost don’t stop because you think it must be a private club or something.  But, ever hopeful of finding that perfect spot on the perfect beach, we parked our scooters across the road and wandered in. 

A waiter approached us and we asked, brushing the hair out of our eyes, “May we come in?” 

“Of course!” he offered and I joyfully led poor Kent to a table for a cold drink and lunch.

We discovered that the only catch to staying and taking advantage of all the amenities here is that you must spend a certain amount at the bar and/or restaurant — I think it was the equivalent to $40 per person.  But this was NOT a problem, since the beach was lovely, the drinks were cold and the food was really good.  I ordered something like a marguerita (above) and a ceviche plate.  Surprise — I think K had a burger.  All was really, really good. 

The second time we visited, there were two lovely women set up with massage tables over to the left in the shade of the palm trees and I took advantage; it was one of the best massages I have had.  I’m sure the location helped. 

There are beautiful open air washrooms and changing rooms, lots of different areas in which to sit, even a small pool if you prefer that to the ocean and no one hurrying you.  The perfect spot to spend a lazy Mexican afternoon on a fairly undiscovered part of Mexico, just a stone’s throw (ferry ride) from Cancun (which you can see across the water and be so relieved to be where you are instead). 

Shhh.  Don’t tell anyone.

Goodbye winter…

Here’s just a last look at winter since I KNOW it’s on its way out.  But the ‘renaissance’ light and the puffy, freshly fallen snow is one of its few redeeming features, imo. 

The sun shines for a much longer day now but in January, a 3 o’clock walk would allow you to see the sun already starting to go down!

And the barren quality of the landscape allows you to see things that you would otherwise overlook.

As still as everything appears, there is evidence of life below the snowy blanket…

What ‘choo say?  Is there life under here?

Allotment Garden: Prelude

About a week ago and first thing in the morning, I packed the three of us into the car and off we went to sign up for something we have never done before…

It’s hard to see here, but take my word for it:  the line for renting your own allotment garden from the City of Ottawa went right out the door of the community centre!  There we were, at the end of it (with Skye-dog waiting patiently in the car) …. crossing our fingers that enough plots would be left for us to have just one…


Where would you choose?

We waited about an hour in line and then blindly chose a plot by number — there were a surprising number of spaces left on that first day —  but we had NO idea what the pros and cons were of each section.  Others had come already armed with this map and their desired plots marked out.  When it was all over, we trekked off to see our designated garden in person.


Doesn’t look too promising, does it? 

Well at least the former gardener left a lot of perfectly good stakes.  But still, I think we have our work cut out for us….


Of course, even though I have visions of grandeur which includes parterres like these, don’t expect too much!  If I can get the place dry and weeded, we’ll be ahead of the game.

Stay tuned….

Garden designer profile: Tom Stuart-Smith

The winning garden at the 2010 edition of the Chelsea Flower Show in London was designed by the now famous and in my eyes, god-like Tom Stuart-Smith.  This garden designer has won seven gold medals since 1998 as well as three ‘Best in Show’ titles, making him the winning-est designer at that prestigious show since its inception 87 years ago.

This particular garden, as well as several of his previous winning ones at Chelsea, demonstrate seemingly effortlessly and without any awkward obvious intention, Stuart-Smith’s philosophy:

“We seek to create landscapes that offer a rich and multi-layered experience – places with an emotional depth that derives from the ideas behind their design. Juxtaposition and contrast is a theme that runs through much of our work: between simplicity and complexity; the modern and the romantic; between subtle intervention and decisive statement. Our work has a richness of form and texture which belies the economy of means by which this is achieved.” 

Photo reproduced with kind permission. Copyright Sabina Ruber;

These Chelsea gardens are perhaps most immediately statements of colour; this 2008 garden (above & below) is a study in blue and white and green, the blue being achieved through the distinctive patina of the zinc boxes, planters and rear wall.  The white is provided by the structurally important flowering perennials (i.e. Rodgersia, Peonia) and the green through the varied and elegant juxtaposition of foliage plants (both grassy and flat-leafed).

Photo reproduced with kind permission. Copyright Sabina Ruber;

In all Stuart-Smith’s gardens there is an incredibly satisfying dialogue going on between the rigid and the effusive —

You might be tempted to say that these show gardens are all well and fine but what about Stuart-Smith’s real world work?  Many of the gardens he’s designed are highly structured within expansive spaces on traditional English country estates.  These kinds of gardens are hard for us here to accept as part of the North American vernacular.  The rigid contrast between lawn and deeply planted bed, often with ancient walls behind, is traditionally English and are perhaps even ‘on the outs’ these days, even across the pond.
I think it’s in Stuart-Smith’s own garden where he is able to strut his stuff.  Elements that have been a part of his show gardens find their place here (literally) not in part, I’m sure, because he is his most amenable client. 

Spanish designer Jaime Parlade

While I was doing a bit of reading about the 14th century Moorish gardens at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain,  I stumbled upon the work of contemporary Spanish designer Jamie Parlade.  Don’t ask me how that happened!

From his website, these words give you an insight into his influence as an established designer (and made me smile…):

“…quality has no price nor should price ever be discussed with an artist … he insists that mutual trust between client and the decorator is essential.”

Image:; photo by Derry Moore

His Andalusian home and garden was featured in this 2008 article in Architectural Digest magazine.

Image:; photo by Derry Moore
I love the vibrant, rich colours in this kitchen as well as the rustic, dare I say, ‘humble’ details.

What a beautiful, light, airy bedroom — and gorgeous fabrics!


This place radiates warmth and the pleasures of summer.  What a comfortable room in which to spend time.