Category Archives: Travel

A Stroll through French Gardens

Paris has often been referred to as the “city of lights” but it could very well deserve the title “city of gardens.”   From the much visited Jardin du Luxembourg to the understated elegance of UNESCO’s Japanese Gardens, the city of Paris displays a very versatile green thumb.

jardin_de_luxembourg - © Vit Kovalcik -

The Jardin de Luxembourg is one of Paris’ most visited parks. It is located in the 6th Arrondissement (Metro stop: Odeon; RER: Luxeumborg). Created in the 1600s, it was not open to the public until the 19th century. The garden was a favorite haunt of the then starving writer Ernest Hemingway not only because of its beauty but because it was known for its extremely well fed pigeons.  More than a few ended up on his dinner table during his leaner years.

The gardens follow the classic French tradition of being formally laid out with plants and trees set out in precise patterns.  There is a central water feature leading up to the Medici Fountain, named after the garden’s founder Marie de Medicis, widow of Henry IV.  Urns and statuary, many on pedestals, frame the walkways on either side of the water basin. The garden is both adult and kid friendly. Children are encouraged to sail toy boats on the water, take pony rides and watch puppet shows.

The most famous sculpture sits at the southern tip of the Jardin du Luxembourg in a part also known as the Jardin Marco Polo.  The “Fountain of the Observatory” or “Fountain of the Four Corners of the World” is an elaborate structure that combined the talents of four artists in its creation.  The bronze fountain features the carved pedestal by Louis Vuillemot, the globe and its zodiac designed equator from Pierre Legrain and the horses, fish and turtles by Emmanuel Fremiet. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux crafted the four nude ladies.

Now we travel from the beautifully elaborate to the simplistically divine. UNESCO’s Japanese Gardens are located at the United Nations’ headquarters in the 7th Arrondissement (METRO stop: Segur/Ecole Militaire).  The gardens were designed in 1958 by Isamu Nogushi and are known as the “Garden of Peace.”  Refurbished in 1999 -2000 by Toemon Sano who stayed true to the original layout, the gardens cover 1,700 square metres. The garden features cherry and plum trees, bamboo, magnolias, a pond and stream and a sunken centre garden area done in the dry Karesausui traditional form.

Other countries are represented by gifts or with memorials within the garden. The Canadian government made a gift of a bench carved from one giant cedar tree from British Columbia.  Recently an olive tree was planted as part of memorial to Yitzak Rabin, the assassinated prime minister of Israel. One of the garden’s treasures is a carved angel’s head that was brought over from Nagasaki, Japan.  It survived the atomic bomb dropped in 1945.

These are but two of the many green spaces found throughout Paris. It is fitting that a city so vibrant, so alive and so culturally diverse should show equal diversity in the design of its gardens.  They are inviting locales for impromptu picnics, rendezvous with smiling lovers or just getting out and taking a walk in the sun. Parisians enjoy their open spaces and visitors are encouraged to join them.

San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is home to world class museums, a pair of Dutch style windmills, its own herd of bison and the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.


Originally built as part of the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition, the exhibit was transformed into an intricately designed garden by a Japanese immigrant, Makoto Hagiwara.  He imported native plants, including one thousand flowering cherry trees, birds and goldfish from his native Japan and personally oversaw the creation of this San Francisco treasure.

Much of the original garden remains, including the intricately carved Hagiwara Gate which once framed the entrance to Makoto Hagiwara’s in park residence.  The house was demolished in 1942 and has been replaced with the Sunken Garden designed to create the illusion of a landscape as seen from far away.  A brilliant red Buddhist Pagoda sits where a Shinto Shrine was also dismantled that same year.

The Tea House pavilion is also part of the 1894 original garden design.  It is said that Mr. Hagiwara is credited to have served the first fortune cookies in America at this tea garden sometime in the 1890s or early 1900s. The cookies were made by Benkyodo, a San Francisco bakery.

The tea house is also the site of one of the garden’s oldest trees, a rare Japanese umbrella pine. A smaller version grows close to the great bronze Buddha (circa 1790) in the Circle Lawn.  Sharing space with the umbrella pine in the Circle Lawn is an ancient black pine.  The roughened bark, thick trunk and relatively low height is reminiscent of a roughly manicured bonsai, but this tree has been naturally shaped by time and the elements.

The meandering pathways lead you past another tribute to Mr. Hagiwara, the landscaped Mt. Fuji hedge, dedicated in 1979.   Along side sits the elegantly trimmed Dragon Hedge, its curved back fronting a curtain of bamboo.  The Drum or Moon Bridge, another remnant of the original garden, is not only scenic, but rather a challenge to cross. Thin steps have been added to make the climb easier (think ladder) but though the view and the bragging rights are excellent, some folks do decide to go around.

More than anything this is a garden of peace. There can be no greater symbol of this than the Lantern of Peace donated by the Japanese government in 1953.  Given as a gesture of reconciliation after the horrors of World War II, it is the ultimate olive branch extended by a people who value serenity above all else.

A gathering place in the land of Aloha!

The Big Island of Hawaii is probably best know for the sun washed mega resorts of the Kona Coast, its strong, rich, delectable coffee beans and of course nature’s light shows at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But there is a hidden treasure on the island’s more laid back eastern coast.

The islands largest town, Hilo, is home to the Lili’uokalani Gardens, the largest ornamental Japanese park outside of Japan.  Named for Hawaii’s last Queen and dedicated to Japanese immigrants who worked on the sugar plantations, this thirty acre sea level park is well loved by the locals and admired by visitors who are lucky enough to find it.

This is very much a people’s park. The park is open daily and there are no gates so entry can be made from any direction. The gardens frame the shores of Hilo Bay, facing the east and are perfect for watching the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean.  Locals and visitors from the hotels on Banyan drive often head to the park in the early hours to walk or jog as the sun comes up.  Just before dawn, local fishermen will toss their nets in the ocean on the bay side of the park, or even in some of the native Hawaiian style fish ponds that have been incorporated into the garden’s design.

As the day progresses, families come out to picnic on the wide expanse of lawns.  Fathers and sons play catch, tourists sunbathe and bamboo fishing poles cast their lines into those same gently curved fish ponds.  Some of these ponds are open to the open ocean so at high tide paths leading to them tend to be water soaked.  Not a problem, just wear some “rubbah slippahs” or better yet, go barefoot.

A Japanese rock garden in the dry Karesausui style is a recent addition. Half moon bridges, small pagodas, gazebos and Tori gates greet visitors as they follow the meandering pathways. Stone lanterns and bonsai trees share space with native palms, banyan and banana trees along with fragrant hibiscus and ginger blossoms.  Ocean birds visit the ponds for a quick snack, mongoose play hide and seed among the rocks and trees and the mynah birds are very vocal in letting you know they are out and about.

The Big Island of Hawaii shares Sister Island Status with Oshima, Japan and the reverence for that culture is evident. Tea ceremonies are held in a traditional Japanese Tea House named Shoroan.  It was donated by the Fifteenth Grand Tea Master of Urasenke and may be booked for special events.  The gardens also include a sumo platform and a shelter for Okinawan style canoes. Special Okinawan race days are held at the ocean side of the park fronting Hilo Bay.

Hilo is very much a sleepy island town that rolls up its sidewalks in the early evening. Most people that visit Hilo drop by on the way to or from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A few stay a night or two and discover the warmth of this charming area.  The very lucky ones put on their slippahs and find their way to the Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens at sunrise. Perhaps they might even go local and cast their own fishing line in a garden pond as they watch the waters of Hilo Bay shimmer with the colors of morning.

The Chinese Venice of Suzhou

chinese-templesSuzhou is one of the most beautiful cities of China. Its the motherland of silk and one of the oldest traditional forms of Chinese opera – Kunqu, listed as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity (UNESCO).

The city is located in the south of the province of Jiangsu and enjoys mild climate and beautiful nature. Marco Polo called Suzhou, this city of canals and gardens 85 km west of Shanghai, the “eastern Venice”. One Chinese proverb even says “There is heaven in the sky, and Suzhou on earth”. Its gardens appeared 2500 years ago and are still the best place to come to and enjoy the world as it is seen by Chinese poets, artists and men of wisdom. But for this they have to arrive there in advance, before crowds of people deprive the gardens of their calm charm. The city had about 250 gardens during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Nowadays there are about a hudred of them left, and only a few are opened for visitors.

Far from a distance the city impresses with its magnificent walls and gates, its ancient pagoda produces a fantastic impression as well. In the old times Suzhou was renowned as “the land of fish and rice”, and this patriarchal appearance is still characteristic for the city. The hubbub and laugh produced by local people is a typical Chinese “song”. There are several attractions not to be missed while staying in Suzhou.

Blue Wave Pavilion (Canglang Ting) is the only garden part of which is not fenced. Moreover, this is the oldest garden in Suzhou. It is filled with the atmosphere of wilderness, decorated with stone hillocks, artificial mounds and bamboo groves. The name of the garden derives from the name of the pavilion built here in 1044.

Humble Administrator’s Garden (Zhuozheng Yuan) is one of the largest and the most beautiful Chinese gardens. Its a magnificent ensemble, with water as its focus: the areas next to its ponds are covered with ornaments of summerhouses and pavilions, the ponds themselves are covered with islets, which can be reached by refined bridges and narrow stone dykes.

Lingering Garden (Liu Yuan) is dominated with a high rock, pavilions are rather big, and its main landmarks are the Yuanyang (mandarin duck) Hall and the luxurious Wufengxian Hall. The garden’s attractions are connected with a corridor 700 meters long. Hundreds of windows with patterned guards are overlooking the rocks, plants and water.

Master of the Nets Garden (Wang Shi Yuan) is Suzhou’s smallest garden. However, its small size is compensated with its elegant layout, which set a good example for other Chinese gardens. Names like the Hall of Captured Grace will help you get inspired with the atmosphere of calm contemplation which former owners created here. In summertime the garden is opened till late. It is illuminated with lanterns while musicians and dancers entertain visitors.

The nine-storied North Temple Pagoda (Beisi) was built in the end of the X century, then reconstructed several times. Visit the pagoda for unforgettable views over the city suburbs. Another city landmark – the leaning Yunyan Pagoda – can be found on the Tiger Hill (Huqiu). It is in fact taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Xuanmiao Guan, or the “Temple of Mystery” is thought to be one of the best local Taoist temples. Built in 276 AD, it was later demolished and rebuilt again. And, finally, a spot not to be missed is the Suzhou Market street, covered with restaurants, shops, stalls, theatres, snack bars, silk stores and confectioner’s.

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The apple pie of shrubs

dwarf korean lilac
dwarf korean lilac

When you choose a lilac you are planting a shrub that is part of our American heritage – some have even called the lilac the “apple pie of shrubs.” Thomas Jefferson planted lilacs at Monticello and lilacs greeted guests as they entered George Washington’s flower garden at Mount Vernon. Poet Walt Whitman’s elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” evokes an image of a lilac bush that may be familiar to many:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle – and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break

French and Dutch colonist first introduced lilacs to the United States, carrying them during their long journeys across the Atlantic Ocean. Lilacs soon found themselves all over North America, arriving by saddlebags and coach. Today there are over 2,000 named varieties of lilacs thanks to many industrious and passionate breeders all over the world. Our feature plant this week is the Dwarf Korean Lilac – the most useful of all the lilacs, and Alan’s favorite of all the shrubs we grow. It is easy to grow and maintain, making a beautiful and welcome addition to your garden.

The Dwarf Korean Lilac (Syringa meyeri Pablibin)
The Dwarf Korean Lilacs’ parent, the Syringa meyeri, is named after Frank Meyer who discovered it in a garden in Beijing, China in 1909 and sent cuttings home to the United States. Many lilacs are offspring of the Syringa meyeri, but the palabin Dwarf Korean Lilac is the smallest and most delightful. The clean, dark green foliage provides the perfect backdrop for the exquisite powerfully fragrant, lavender pink florets that will cover the dense bush from head to toe. Expect it to bloom in May-June, with lighter rebloom in later summer and fall, extending the season and allowing you to enjoy its beauty and fragrance twice during the year. Foliage turns bright yellow in autumn.

Unlike other common lilacs, the Dwarf Korean Lilac blooms profusely at an early age and is not susceptible to powdery mildew. Expect it to grow four to five feet high and wide, the perfect size for a perennial border, foundation planting or shrub border foreground. No matter where the Dwarf Korean Lilac is planted in your garden, it is sure to be a standout year after year.

Planting and Care

The Dwarf Korean Lilac is one tough plant, a real survivor. Over ten years ago we planted some in wooden planter boxes that were fabricated over a black top parking lot in full sun. These planter boxes never get any supplemental water, only what mother nature provides. Every year the lilacs bloom profusely, hold their leaves all summer without browning, rebloom in the fall and never suffer any winter die back. After the drought of 2002, I expected the lilacs to be totally dead. When I drove by in the spring of 2003 they were in full bloom, just as they have been every year.

  • For best results, plant in early spring.
  • Lilacs require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • Plant in good, well-drained soil.
  • Water regularly until established and during the summer.
  • Prune old blooms away immediately after flowering to encourage more blossoms.
  • Fertilize with Bulb-Tone at planting and again in the spring.

Butterfly Gardens

Austrian Gardens: Sachertortes, Butterflies and a Garden of Earthly Delights.

Vienna, Austria. Land of Mozart, of chocolate cake layered with apricot jam and decadent frosting and of leaping Lipizzaner stallions that almost seem to give the tale of Pegasus credence. But would one expect a greenhouse complemented by free flying butterflies and tropical vegetation in the heart of this multi-dimensional city?

Dating back to 1809 when Napoleon destroyed the bastions to make way for an Imperial Garden, the grounds have only been open to the public since 1919. Inside, the Mozart Memorial created by Victor Tilgner in 1896 holds a place of honour. Prior to World War II, when it was seriously damaged, the sculpture stood in Albertina Platz. After restoration, in 1953 it was moved to the Burggarten, which is what the gardens are known as today. Other statues of note are those of Emperor Franz Joseph I, and Emperor Francis I.

The Imperial Tropical Butterfly House or Schmetterlinghaus is located inside a 128 metre long greenhouse with foundations that date back to 1822. Part of the original city wall was incorporated into the structure. In 1901 the structure was replaced when the Jugendstil palmhouse was built by Friedrich Ohman. After a ten year refurbishment started in 1988, the building, now housing the Palmenhaus restaurant and the Imperial Tropical Butterfly House has become one of Vienna’s most popular attractions. Hundreds of free-flying butterflies flutter all around in a brilliantly created rain forest environment complete with waterfalls, hollow trees and tropical plants such as the Bird of Paradise and fragrant ginger. Step outside the greenhouse to an area near the restaurant and suddenly you are in a miniature Japanese tea garden, complete with koi pond and bamboo plantings. The Burggarten is only 200 meters from the opera house in the city center, easily reached by subway. The station to look for is Karlsplatz/Oper. If that little taste of Japanese tranquillity has you searching for more of the same, there is Setagaya Park to be explored. Located in the 19th District of Vienna and reachable by bus 10A or Tram 37, this park’s 4000 square metres was designed by Ken Nakajima in 1992. Vienna’s Dobling district shares Twin City status with the Setagaya district of Tokyo. Visitors are greeted by a poem set in stone and are encouraged to follow the pathways that wind through Japanese maples, ornamental cherry trees, azaleas, waterfalls and stone sculptures.

The grounds also feature a Japanese tea house and a stone lantern of the Yukimi style. As a gesture of respect for the elderly, who are cherished in Japanese culture, the gardens were located near a retirement home. From gardens created with the help of man we now go to those of the natural variety. Perhaps the Vienna Woods is not technically a garden, but it is 1,000 square kilometres of Alpine forest, vineyards and plant life all connected by a network of hiking and biking trails. The Vienna Woods stretch all the way from the north western edge of the city to the southern boundary.

If you are energetic, you can hike up one of Vienna’s landmark mountains, Kahlenberg or Leopoldberg and see this age old Austrian city from a different perspective. Just don’t forget to pack the chocolate layer Sachertorte in your picnic lunch.