Bishop’s Garden at National Cathedral

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This week we watched on CNN the state funeral of the late 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. Held at Washington National Cathedral, the nearly two-hour service paid tribute with great dignity and respect. This “house of prayer for all people” plays an official role in this country that is similar to that of Westminster Abbey in London, although U. S. government has never designated it thus.

The cathedral’s surrounding grounds comprise fifty-nine acres.

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Frederick Law Olsmsted, Jr., designed the original plan between 1907-1927 during the time of the excavation of the nave of the cathedral. His purpose was to provide a rich tapestry complementing a 14th-century Gothic architecture with plants of the Bible, Christian heritage, and native American plants of historical interest, such as boxwood from Dolly Madison and Thomas Jefferson. But, first, he had to deal with a large mass of dirt.

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Florence Brown Bratenahl, wife of the cathedral dean then, worked with Mr. Olmstead to lay out the entire cathedral close to recall a medieval cloister garden on land that once was the home of George Washington’s U. S. Treasury registrar. Mrs. Bratenahl and Mr. Olsmtead concentrated their efforts on historic stonework among boxwood, holly, ivy, oak, rose, and yew, many from remote Piedmont plantations of Virginia.

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Mr. Olmstead designed the Bishop’s Garden as a private retreat out the back door of the Bishop’s House. Later, Mrs. Bratenahl created a larger public entrance through the Norman Court.

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She meant this garden to be set apart from the rush of the city beyond the walls, its medieval sculpture pieces such as a 9th-century baptismal font . . .

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. . . and incorporated bas-reliefs providing a calming retreat for visitors as well as for the bishop and other clergy.

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Old churchyards in England, planted with roses and ancient yews, helped inspire the Bishop’s Garden design, but in England yews can live a thousand years. These yews in the Bishop’s Garden, however, along with boxwood forming the garden’s bones, began to decline in this decidedly un-English sunny site. Adding cliched “insult to injury” was the infamous “Snowmageddon” in the winter of 2010, dumping tons of snow and damaging the garden. Since then, modern box varieties with more vitality but developed to resemble the classic box have replaced the damaged shrubs and borders.

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Stone paths lead to the Shadow House gazebo in one of the “rooms” of the Bishop’s Garden and an enclosed lawn beyond where one may sit to reflect and pray.

A wood bridge walkway . . .

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. . . leads to a five-acre oak and beech forest on Mount St. Alban, called the Olmstead Woods, home to migratory birds flitting among native wildflowers and shrubbery.

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Washington National Cathedral, officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is the center of the Episcopal Church in Washington and the nation.

Construction began on September 29, 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of more than 20,000, and ended 83 years later when the “final finial” was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

“Without faith, we are stained glass windows in the dark.”

Located at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., Washington National Cathedral is available for paid tours when religious services are not scheduled. The gardens and grounds remain open for free during the day. Call (202) 537-6200.


NEXT WEEK: Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.







Becky’s Square Challenge

Another blogger has enticed me to join “Becky’s Square Challenge.” The idea is to post photographs of SQUARE — as in square photos of square things or places. Well, now, let’s see what I can come up with . . .


. . . a square gate will do, this one found in Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland.

Now, y’all, it’s YOUR turn!


Ladew Topiary Gardens in Maryland

Picture of Topiary at Ladew Gardens

In Maryland, twenty-two acres of English-inspired gardens feature sculptured shrubbery shaped like a country fox hunt, and other forms. In fact, fox hunting inspired the garden’s original theme. The British hunt culture had enamored a wealthy eccentric fellow named Harvey A. Ladew (1887-1976) who incorporated it into his lifestyle in the rolling Maryland countryside.

On visits to England during the 1920s, he learned about the art of topiary — the trimming and training of privet, boxwood, and yew into ornamental shapes based on wire frames. His Hunt Scene, pictured below, became an international symbol of the Ladew Topiary Gardens.  

He bought over 200 acres in 1929 and began to develop fifteen small garden rooms, each devoted to a single thematic color. The topiary garden rooms display a hundred larger-than-life topiary forms. Even his manor is surrounded by living sculptures reflecting his style, elegance, and a decidedly British sense of humor. 

Picture of the exterior of the house at Ladew Gardens

Below is an aerial view of a few of these sculptures. Can you identify the whimsical shapes?

An aerial view of the sculpture Garden. Courtesy of Ladew Topriay Gardens.

Among the fifteen thematic rooms, the Pink Garden features beds of tulips in spring . . .


followed by peonies . . .


then borders of roses.


What is England without its roses? Mr. Ladew’s Rose Garden features a rosarium, a round bed surrounded by a lawn path and accented by a romantic birdbath feature.


The Yellow Garden exhibits a Japanese ambience.


An authentic English country garden landscape would be incomplete without at least one folly or pagoda, so Mr. Ladew included that, too, and called it Tivoli Tea House. It appears rather Italian, to me, possibly because of the playful Renaissance statue.

Picture of the Tivoli Tea House & Garden at Ladew Gardens

Up the hill, this garden folly design is more in keeping with the classical Greek form. Called the Temple of Venus, it serves as the focal point of a long vista from the Terrace Garden.

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Here is the Terrace Garden with the Temple of Venus folly in the far distance.


A sheltered Garden of Eden provides a few moments of whimsy.


Virginia bluebells carpet the floor of this Woodland Garden that features a large dovecote.


There is even a small cutting garden, featuring a wrought iron swan gate.


The Sculpture Garden features ducks, swans, chess pieces, even Churchill’s top hat.

Picture of the Sculpture Garden at Ladew Gardens

Of course, Mr. Ladew had to include an example of a Cotswold cottage garden. Are those real hounds dashing across the green in the background? You decide.


The Garden Club of America awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award to Mr. Ladew for “creating and maintaining the most outstanding topiary garden in the country without professional help.”

No one gave me any advice in gardening but I had read a lot and knew what I wanted,” he told the Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1957 interview. “Now I look back and wonder how I ever got the job done.” And, in a letter a dozen years later, he wrote, “My garden isn’t finished yet. I have only worked on it fifty years and it will take another fifty years to finish it.”

Picture of Harvey Ladew

Today, the 250-acre landmark estate is one of the top five public gardens in America, located 30 minutes from Baltimore and an hour and a half from Washington, D.C.  It draws more than 30 thousand worldwide visitors a year. Closed now for the winter, the gardens reopen on the first of April, 2019. Be sure to check out the site map by clicking onto the link below.


First American Thanksgiving

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Contrary to what American children were taught in elementary schools throughout the country, the first official Thanksgiving service was held not in Massachusetts but down in Virginia, on the banks of the James River. The first English colonists to settle this area arrived earlier, in 1619, when a little ship called Margaret anchored near Jamestown, it having been first settled a dozen years prior to that. 

The thirty-nine passengers included one Richard Berkeley who carried a charter from the Virginia Company of London. This charter stipulated that the day of their landing “at the assigned place for plantacon in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually keept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.”

On that cold December 4th, the ship’s captain carried Bibles and the English Book of Common Prayer as he stepped ashore. Passengers unloaded muskets, tools, nails, and barrels of gunpowder, as well as food supplies such as grain, hogs, seeds for spring planting.

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To the musical quacks and honks of wild ducks and geese calling over the river, they knelt under the pine trees and held a brief ceremony, completely religious in nature, unlike the later New England Pilgrims’ event based on old English harvest festivals. 

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This event featured no feast of wild turkey roasted to brown perfection, or baked sweet potatoes, not even a pecan pie. In fact, the colonists most likely fasted that day, a common religious observance by the Church. Only much later, in Williamsburg, did English colonists begin to celebrate with a fall festival meal. However, after their fast, these settlers probably ate simply from the ship’s provisions.

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In time, they developed what today we call “farm to table” and “bay to table” menu. Chesapeake Bay held a bounty of crab, oysters, sturgeon, and flounder to supplement  the cattle, sheep, and pigs that Colonists had brought with them. Virginia ham began to acquire quite a reputation because pigs were allowed to forage from the forest, thus contributing to a more flavorful meat.

In spring and summer, the colonists grew seasonal fruits and vegetables such as beans, cabbage, collards, lettuce and peas. The currant plants they brought with them from England failed to do well here, and the European grapes vines quickly fell victim to diseases in the American soil. However, peach saplings thrived. Below is a current view of the formal gardens in spring.

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Berkeley Plantation was originally called Berkeley Hundred and named after the Berkeley Company of England which purchased 8,000 acres. Here the charter stipulated that the colonists were to build a community of farms, storehouses, as well as homes. They continued to celebrate their arrival day as a stipulated holy day for only two years, sadly. Native Powhatans attacked Berkeley on 22nd of March 1622 and killed 347 people in several settlements. Any survivors abandoned the plantation. Not until 1726 did their descendants build the manor house that remains today. It is the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison V, signer of the Declaration of Independence and governor of Virginia. 

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The mansion is furnished with 18th century antiques and artifacts. On the first Sunday in November, Berkeley celebrates the historic 1619 landing and prayer of Thanksgiving service, followed by a Virginia Thanksgiving Festival. In December, the plantation is decorated with traditional holiday decorations of fresh greenery and natural arrangements from Berkeley’s own gardens.

Self-guided tours of the gardens include five terraces of boxwood and flowering gardens leading to the James River, seen here in late fall.

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The Harrison family graveyard, too, is included in the tour of the grounds. 

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Berkeley is open daily for self-guided tours of the gardens and grounds. Docents in period costumes welcome visitors to the mansion’s interior rooms. Landing and Thanksgiving reenactments occur in November. Call (804) 829-6018 or visit the website at for further information.

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A blessed Thanksgiving Weekend to all my readers, wherever you are and however you celebrate a fall harvest!




Cypress Tree Varieties in Florida

Cypress trees native to the Southeastern United States are quite a different kettle of fish from the ones we see in classical Italian gardens. Growing in swampy areas from Louisiana to the Carolinas and even to Virginia, these are deciduous conifers that shed their needles and cones in the fall. They’re distinguished by their knobby “knees,” massive, buttressed trunks found on older bald cypress, thought to develop in response to growing in soft, wet soil.

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Home to 39 species of fish, Okefenokee Swamp is the largest blackwater swamp in North America, covering nearly 500,000 acres in South Georgia and North Florida. 

Bald Cypress

I am more familiar with this variety because, as a native of the Florida Panhandle, I had occasion to visit Okefenokee Swamp with my Georgia cousins. Bald cypress trees grow throughout the Atlantic coastal region as far north as Delaware. In the wild, they can live up to 600 years. In autumn, their feathery foliage will change to a copper color before falling off. A flush of green in the spring marks their return.

Bald cypress’s several cultivars include “Monarch of Illinois” with a very wide-spreading form, “Shawnee Brave” with a narrow, pyramidal form, and “Pendens” with its drooping branchlets and large cones.

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Autumn coloration on a Pendens cypress

Pond Cypress

Pond cypress photo by Dr. Edward Gilman 

Pond cypress photo by Dr. Edward Gilman of the U of F

The pond cypress usually  is found along the edge of swampy ground along the coasts from Louisiana to Virginia, but less likely to pop knees. Compact enough for home landscaping, they still can reach heights up to 80 feet. They add interest in the fall, when the leaves turn from green to light yellow or copper colored before falling. A smaller cultivar, “Prairie Sentinel,” has been bred to fit tight spaces in the home garden with its more narrow upright form.

“The Senator” Cypress

The Seminoles and other Native American Indians who lived throughout Central Florida once used this tree as a landmark in its native hammock swamp, home to several species of fish and other wildlife.

It was named for Florida State Senator Moses Overstreet, who donated the tree and surrounding land to Seminole County for a park in 1927.

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Photo from Florida History Archives

Located in Central Florida, this 3,500-year-old cypress was the second oldest in the United States until a crystal meth user burned it down in 2012. 

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More Cypress Trees

This morning I chanced upon this photograph of cypress trees in a private garden in Provence, a timely follow-up to yesterday’s post about Palazzo Giardino Giusti de Verona. These cypress trees, however, appear less rigidly arrange in the garden, serving more as accents than demarcations dividing terraces.

The gardens are part of the grounds at a farmhouse that designer Bunny Williams renovated for an American couple living in the south of France. Here a window at the base of the stairs frames another view of the garden’s cypresses.

bunny williamsI imagine myself almost flying out the window into a spring morning! I say “spring” because this story was featured in the May/June 2018 issue of Veranda magazine.

The family spends sun-soaked afternoons under the shade of an arbor while the unofficial mascot of the region, the cicada, chirps overhead. When the living room’s French doors are open to the terrace, the home’s interiors meld with the garden—everything in perfect harmony.

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Search on Google for this issue to read the complete story with photographs showing the elegant but relaxed interiors of the farmhouse.



Goethe in Palazzo Giardino Giusti di Verona

Although I am not particularly fond of Wolfgang Goethe’s works other than his opera, Faust, I was intrigued by his comment on the cypress trees in the Giusti Palace Gardens in Verona, Italy. He said they resembled the “stitching awls” used by shoemakers.

Verona Giardino Giusti

A 600-year-old cypress so fascinated him on his 1786 visit there that he described it in “Elective Affinities” (Journey to Italy, 1817):

“A plant is like a self-willed man, out of whom we can obtain all which we desire, if we will only treat him his own way . . . A calm eye, a silent method, in all seasons of the year, and at every hour, to do exactly what has then to be done, is required of no one perhaps more than of a gardener.”


These impressively tall cypresses serve as demarcations between various terraces of the palace gardens located just over the bridge from Old Verona and close to the Teatro Romano.



The so-called giardino all’italiana (Italian-style garden) designed during the Renaissance is inspired by classical ideals of beauty and geometry. A labyrinth of box hedges form a low maze, its squares dominated by statuary. Terrapins and fish seem to frolic  in the fountains.


The cypress walk climbs to a stalactite cave. . .

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. . . dominated by a gargoyle.

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An orchard for herbs and medicinal plants used to be cultivated inside the top level of the stone Belvedere Tower. From up here, visitors can see rooftops and bell towers across the city of Old Verona.

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Laid out as a semi-formal setting on several levels, the earliest gardens were created in the late 1400s. In 1570, Italian diplomat Agostino Giusti in service to the Medicis perfected the original garden as background for the palace. He was a notable patron of the arts as well as a gentleman of the Archduke of  Tuscany, residing at the Giusti Palace. In 1583, he became the sole heir.

The Palazzo Giardino Giusti usually is devoid of the crowds that insist on flocking to Juliet’s Tower in Old Verona. Personally, I’d much rather imagine the pair of star-crossed lovers free to slip away and wander among the boxwood hedges, quote Shakespearean sonnets to one another, perhaps steal a kiss when no one’s likely to catch them from a palazzo window at the top of a wall.

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As for Goethe’s Cypress, was it poetic exaggeration that carried him away, or was his impression simply something beyond words?

Address: Aia Giardino Giusti, 2 – 37121 Verona, Italy

Hours: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Spring/Summer) and 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Fall/Winter

Tel: 045 803429


NEXT WEEK: Thanksgiving in Williamsburg, Virginia