Friday, March 20, 2015

If Walls Could Talk: Garden Design in Ecuador's Hacienda Cusin

 The stone garden walls at Hacienda Cusin are not unlike powerful arteries that silently pulse -- coursing throughout the body of the jardin, giving life  – while at the same time, outlining the bones of the various “garden rooms.”

So it was with great reverence that we garden designers from The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) Landscape Design Alumni Group  (LDSA) artfully removed the “over stimulated” Ecuadorean plants that were teetering in their version of “wall conquest.”
In this scenario, it might be said there IS too much of a good thing.

In our passion for good garden design and healthy plants, the Garden Team edited out plants, pruned back the “Hort Bullies” to reveal walls that nature has favored with her master brushstrokes. 
The gently aged look speaks volumes.  Not unlike the rambling stone  walls that grace the English countryside. The walls’ compositions could well make Pollack pea-green with envy; a dash of moss here, “drippings” of sea-foam green lichen streaked here and there, and colorful random plants perched in all manner of nooks and crannies hugging the walls and hanging on for hort companionship.

Post cleanup, er, garden makeover, the stone walls now can boast a bit more of their distinguished, sylvan yet “fuerte” heritage. 

How did we do it?
In the beds bordering or fronting the stone walls, we created plant compositions to highlight a “borrowed landscape” -- which is a natural garden design composition that captures the look that is just beyond, and usually more of Mother Nature – – known here as Pacha Mama.

With Amy as point person here - we employed the borrowed landscape garden design technique along part of the wall beginning nearest the Biblioteca and Salon, bringing the yellow of the canna plant to the corner access wall where more than a few paths meet.  
Amy editing out garden beds to create an artful borrowed landscape - & reveal the walls

It was agreed that the elegant calla lilly needed more of a presence so we transplanted enough for a few swaths of repeated plantings.  (We couldn’t help but “hear” Katherine Hepburn’s quintessential multi-syllabic cinema reference to this goddess of the plant world: “The Caaa-la-li-lil-lies aarre in bloo-um.”  
Peggy & Linda working to reveal Hacienda Cusin's artful garden walls
We later learned from Pablo, a favorite waiter and educated plantsman here at Hacienda Cusin, that calla lilies are ideal plants that do well in the Ecuadorian Sierra, despite not being a native. 
And just for the record – what hotel have you ever stayed in where a member of the wait staff is a knowledgeable, trained gardener and plantsman?  Yet another foot soldier for Pacha Mama – and a resource for the “green magic.”

We artfully edited some of the sweet looking and favorite, Forget Me Nots (Myosotis) whose periwinkle blue hue dot the borders’ front. 
See, plants have curious and powerful adaptations.  So despite it’s pretty blue blossoms, the Forget Me Not, too, is rather a hort bully – in that it sends out a kind of toxin to the other plants so that it can take over – even stealing nutrients from the soil…
One of our garden team members reacted to its toxicity on each of several days before we isolated the culprit plant and she subsequently walked to town to the pharmacie for relief.  It was truly a "forget me not – as in - unforgettable experience!

The red geraniums, that are almost as tall as me, were also revealed with the team’s plant editing – happy to be front and center.  These red stalwarts of the annual container and border gardens in the States, grow as tall as can be here – like a Jack in the Beanstalk curiosity. 
(Same for the impatiens!) 

We re-planted the multi-petaled eschevarria to show off her poised, Armani-like sculptured couture leaves in the front of the boarder where guests could surely appreciate the plant’s design.
Peg, Becca, and Linda cleaned the front of the wall area and put in calla lilies in the bed.
Left to right: Peggy, Linda, & Becca creating captivating garden art compositions from  the exuberant plant growth along the walls
Red and purple fuchsia, and well, fuchsia-colored orchids, and Datura and Bella Donna are the eye-popping seductive garden gems that adorn the borders and the handsome stone walls.
Plants soon learned they were no match for the "Plant Whisperer:" Becca!

Monet’s Water Garden in Ecuador

The piece-de-resistance of our garden work arguably is the water garden fronting number #10 casita (be sure to reserve this for your honeymoon suite  -- or second honeymoon, as we learned Mel and Peggy did a few years’ back!)
This is the first water garden one encounters after having descended the grand staircase from the Biblioteca and Salon Simon Bolivar.

There is no doubt the water garden and its center island – with its newly christened moniker, “Bellar Island” so named for Mel and Peggy -- is exquisite and eye-catching. 
It and the walking bridge were already captivating.  Here again, we were doing our “garden makeovers” – getting the garden rooms ready for their close-up – and in this case, specifically for the big wedding taking place on Saturday night.
Peggy & Planca!  The before "Bellar Island"

I daresay when we were finished, not only were we all thrilled, but the plants also seemed to be smiling back at us. The fish in the pond were literally jumping for joy; nabbing the newly-acquainted hordes of buzzing dragon flies who were all elated we netted out pond debris and lots of the asparagus fern growing below. 
Mel launched the pond skimming clean up

The cleaner clearer pond created a visual delight for them – and created a canvas for the nearby plants and trees.  

Now, the lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and fuchsia (Fuchsia triphylla) and California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica)  – to name a few – shimmer their mirrored double exposure in the pond’s now-glistening water.

Gus continues pond clean-up while Mel works the border & Becca contemplates next plant patient!                
See, Gus had moved silt and stuff “upstream” from the gravity-led rill powered by a recirculating pump so that it now bubbles and gurgles with renewed aplomb – adding to the garden art’s sensory sensations. 
Later, I cleaned out the garden bridge and got that element of the pond’s egress to counter-point the flow, allowing the water’s exit on to the contiguous pond beyond the bridge. 
That the bridge’s garden-side entrance is beribboned with jasmine is just too good to be true. 
I carefully pruned out the unwanted vine stems and “interlopers” (aka leaves, sticks, etc.). 
Me pruning the bridge jasmine

The heady scent of jasmine there will leave you swooning with rapture. 
Now a bride and her groom can waltz through the jasmine–festooned bridge entrance and pose on the arching bridge for wedding photo memories, while they and the bridge mirror their image in the pond.  Double the pleasure. (Take that, Dorian Grey!)

I further scraped off the built-up moss and weeded out the plants who’d set up residence on the bridge and stone.  No more plant squatters!
Now the presently-named Monet Bridge is clean and visible because its happy reflection conjures the French garden setting for Monet’s water lilies.
However, we are coming up with an appropriate moniker for Hacienda Cusin’s own garden art.  After all, local, homegrown inspiration has its unique cachet…
Any suggestions? 
I can’t stop taking photos of the beauty of this water garden.  I’m sure you will be equally smitten and inspired after one look.  Please let me know your thoughts about what we might call it…
I’m thinking the “Millhouse Mirada” in homage to Nik, Barbara, and their artist/illustrator sabrina, Bek to honor their passion for all things artful…  Their name is Millhouse and “mirada” in Spanish is “look.”  It works, no?

Nik con poncho on his reclaimed bridge in Millhouse Mirada Garden 

The beds bordering the pond were weeded and re-arranged.  Snip, snip; here.  Snip, Snip; there.  A few of the purple and pink Margaurite Daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum) plants were staked for the wedding so that their blossoms could be enjoyed now.  Others were pruned back for a more robust regrowth, as they were getting too leggy.   
Before pond beds
Not that we don’t love a plant’s “gams” it’s just that we want more blossoms – and pruning back is the way to get there.  Gus brought new, homegrown, composted soil to the beds to nourish she soil and feed the plants.  Plus that black gold looks so darn good and rich!
Mel (L) & Gus on plant debris removal duty; Compost!

New orange canna plants were planted to even out the stepping-stone walk across the border to the Bellar Island in the middle of the pond.  (It had been covered over with plant growth.)

Anchored by the tall yucca and too many” plant squatters” – the island had become more of a battlefield adventure than a focal point.  
So with Peggy at the helm, she and fellow garden pirates Linda and Mel, helped turn that ship around – weeding out the invasive hort bullies and those seeming to abandon the ship by dipping all the way into the water.   
Peggy & Linda weeding & editing Bellar Island 


The island got a complete clean-up, makeover.

The day at the spa for the Millhouse Mirada and Bellar Island Garden was a resounding success. 

Soon, guests too were beguiled.  They couldn't stop taking pictures or painting the garden composition -- inspired by Pacha Mama / Mother Nature -- and Hacienda Cusin - and LDSA "Gringo" gardeners...


After the LDSA team all left to return home, I began my solo work in the garden. I stayed the extra days because I LOVE it here – but also because I came later than the team due to me and my husband’s vacation in Aruba, as I think I mentioned in the first blog post from Hacienda Cusin.

Initially, I planned to start on that contiguous pond, working the same garden makeover magic as we achieved with the Millhouse Mirada.
Yet, looking back at the water garden – transfixed by its bewitching beauty, I couldn’t help feel my sensibilities were a bit off or offended – by the site of all that brown, spent stems and bulbs from the crocosmia border beds that led out from the rill’s fountainhead.
Why, you could hardly see the wise, moss-covered walls there, hidden beneath encroaching, unwanted plant growth.

Something had to be done.

So two days of hacking back at the sterile mounds of bulbs, roped in by the menacing roots of the cursed St. Augustine grass, ensued.  I’ve tangled with this hated beast back in the States.  I knew my enemy.  I looked fearlessly ahead and knew it would succumb. 

Gus started the rill - circulating water fountainhead

The 15” or so of brown mounds did not go down easy.
Half-way - or kinda -- cleaning up the rill area to reveal garden walls. Foot-high bulbs were muy fuerte!
But eventually – all was removed; creating garden beds around the stone walls and rill; creating garden beds. 
I redirected the water, adding in grey stone boulders to match the medieval-looking water walls.
I envisioned a piece of marvelous garden art from Nik and Barbara’s collection here.
What Nik brought from the Salon Boliver salon exceeded my garden fantasy.
It is a two-foot or so wooden statue of Santa Barbara! 
Nik explained it used to be a rooftop ornament. 
She looks best in the new garden, gazing reverentially at the water flowing at her feet.

I re-purposed ferns to surround Santa Barbara so that they radiate a lush, green backdrop for her “statuesque solemnity.”
Nik noted she needed color.  I observed and dreamed a bit, all the while looking around like a soldier on watch.
I spotted those weeping California Poppies beyond in the Bellar Island and I knew I had the color we needed, along with a continuing, repeated garden narrative.  That the leaves are a soft bluish-hue is the icing on the cake.  We had a yellow and blue and green color palette.
Now we needed some structure.
With shovel in tow, and the two llamas assistance (I will swear their eyes led me to the plant when I asked them for their suggestions) – I came upon the succulent of choice.  Plus the tall, “mother” plant needed pruning.
The low-growing architectural succulents worked gracefully to highlight the Santa Barbara composition.
Newly-designed Santa Barbara garden

I wanted the much-acclaimed calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) to front the new garden. Their pristine white flower is elegant (a nice nod to our Saint, even though it’s bold, stamen is a kind of in-your-face-sexual wahoo!) 
Plus the height of the calla lily helps better engage the guests.

It already looked good.  Moreover the guests, the staff, and especially Nik and Barbara were enthusiastic, having watched the garden room’s transformation.  Many offered suggestions for protecting Saint Barbara from both the elements – and sticky fingers…

The next day, Nik invited me and Bek to accompany him and Cesar to the nursery to buy plants. (More on that later.)
For the Santa Barbara garden, we got two kinds of ground cover plants: bluish-purple, fragrant alyssum and the white, daisy-like ground cover that is an annual by us. 
I also got two white gladioli-like beauties for either side of our Saintly gal. 
The white blooms of these new plants, along with the calla lilies suggest a purity that is so spot-on for a garden room watched over by a saint. 
Plus the white will “glow” in the evening dark.

Despite the heavy rains, I planted the newly-acquired plants, introducing them to their new plant companions. 
The entire plant composition is now a splendid hort community.
The integration of the elements: water, stone, plants, art; along with height, texture and color, combine to produce an enduring garden design.
Thank you, Hacienda Cusin – the perfect garden design inspiration and palette.

And about those garden walls conversation skills, here?
Well, they in fact do talk.  They are a bit of the gossip too. 
I have it on the best authority that none other than famed gardener, Penelope Hobhouse  preceded our team in doing garden work here. Wow.  This garden is a magnet for all garden lovers to be sure.
The Hacienda Cusin’s garden walls also whispered that the “Domestic Diva,” Martha Stewart, was a guest here, along with naturalist, David Rockefeller, and the Pulitzers.  I would swear too, that the walls told me famed garden art curator, Barbra Israel, also is a Cusin enthusiast.
Shhhh, pass it on.

NY Garden team post Bellar Island makeover: top row: L-R: Gus, Becca, Peggy, Mel, Nik - Cusin's owner & inspiration - Nik wanted an "American Gothic" photo memento;
Bottom: Me/Leeann, Amy, Linda
Nik, and Me/Leeann with happy, garden grins

Having fun "fanning" our leader, Nik, with Papyrus plant on the reclaimed, made-over bridge in "Millhouse Mirada"

Plants now are mirrored in the pond

We had a lot of fun in the garden too:
Linda, Gus, & Mel sporting fashions of the garden!

Some critters looked more "fun" from a distance:
Gus & a "cusin" the area's BIG beetle and the Hacienda Cusin's namesake!

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