Windcliff: A Book Review

Here is a book that surprised me.

I did not think that Daniel J. Hinkley’s book about his Seattle-area garden would be for me, but Windcliff: A Story of People, Plants, and Gardens is a special and often surprising book.

Hinkley is a global plant collector, nurseryman, and home gardener. His garden Windcliff sits on a windy bluff above Puget Sound with views of Tahoma, or Mount Rainier. I did not think this book was for me because in my zone 6 garden I cannot grow most of the plants Hinkley mentions, and I am much more interested in native plants than specimens from Asia and South Africa.

Or, so I thought before I read this book.


A few quick things:

  • It’s beautiful! The photography by Claire Takacs is stunning. I also love that Hinkley admits that Takacs captures the garden in its most beautiful moments, but that these are only moments. Hinkley is eager for us to know that his garden does not always look this good.


  • It’s personal. Hinkley’s writing style is unique (he relishes big words and imaginative metaphors), and he is not afraid to offend. He speaks his opinions boldly, but he is also humble and spends as much time dissecting his mistakes and failures as his successes.


  • It celebrates a global abundance of beautiful plants. I love native plants and tend to read mostly about local flora and fauna. Hinkley’s descriptions of plant collecting trips around the globe helped me better appreciate this work which, at its best, is about conservation and education.


Who is this book for?

I assumed this book was not for me because I have never heard of most of the plants Hinkley rhapsodizes over, and I cannot grow them outdoors in Pennsylvania anyhow. But I was wrong.

This book is for anyone fascinated by the process of making a new garden from scratch. This book is for anyone who thinks “plant collectors” only lived during Queen Victoria’s day. And this book is for anyone who appreciates personal garden writing and gorgeous garden photography.


Is this a book to buy or borrow?

I love collecting gardening books with beautiful photography and slightly out-of-reach inspirational gardens.

I bought my own copy of Windcliff because I was so curious to read it, and my library doesn’t carry it, but many of you will likely prefer to borrow a copy. Inter-library loan might be helpful here.

Some of my favorite quotations from this book:


“I have to come clean and break it to you as gently and kindly as I can. My garden is not the one captured in these extraordinary photographs at just the right moment, in the precise light, by a talented artist. It is an improv performance with more days dead in a ditch than anyone could imagine.”


Beginning a section titled “Garden as Play,” Hinkley immediately writes,

“Note to self: It is still a lot of work.”


“The downside of any deliberate rehash in the garden is, of course, that you are left with the embarrassment of a new beginning.”


“If shown any plant with even the most sensational leaf form or pattern, [the audience members] ask me the same question: ‘What does it do?’ I am often moved to reply, ‘Well, what do you do?'”


“There is no sacrifice to any season if thought is given to foliage, silhouette, flower, fruit, and bark. Nor is there a magic ratio of plants performing in spring or autumn, summer or winter. It is simply a matter of visiting gardens–and nurseries–in all four seasons and rationing your plant budget.”


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Ready, Set, Grow: My Spring Garden Tasks

Don’t Clean Up Your Garden, Restart It

Are gardens dirty places?

I suppose they are, but that’s a good thing, surely. Why then do we talk about “cleaning up” our gardens for the next growing season?

“While the conclusion of winter brings about a necessary period of garden work, I prefer to think of this as a restart rather than a refresh. As the garden reenters an active period, how you steward the return of life should be the focus of your efforts.”

I read these words by Kelly Norris in his book New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden, and I love the subtle shift in perspective he offers.

Rather than viewing our gardens as tattered and messy after the dormant season–in other words, in need of a good tidying–we can see ourselves as caretakers helping everything to get growing again.

Where a garden cleanup might focus on removing plant matter, a garden restart will focus on re-using plant matter, whether in a compost pile or right there as a mulch in the borders.


Here are some of the chores I’ll be tackling in the next few weeks as I help prepare my garden for spring:


  • Cutting back the dead grasses: I am going to try chopping up some of this material and leaving it in place as a mulch


  • Pruning the roses: this will stimulate growth so I will wait till after the chance of really cold weather has passed


  • Removing some (but not all) of the drifted leaves from my flower beds


  • Cutting back the dead foliage of perennials: for instance, I have a lot of catmint (nepeta) needing to be cut to the ground


A Tip: For years, I would “clean up” the foliage of last year’s annual flowers by tugging them out of the ground, roots and all. Now I use clippers to cut them back to the soil. I leave the roots in place, which means I don’t lose any of my precious soil, and the old roots are left to decompose under the ground which improves the soil.


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The Joy of Seasonal “Emblems” in our Gardens

What do I mean by a Seasonal Emblem?

Think tulips in spring.

Sunflowers in summer.

Chrysanthemums in fall,

and holly with bright red berries in winter.

Seasonal emblems can be universal, but they can also be entirely personal and place-dependent.

Here at Maplehurst, there is the pink magnolia blossom in spring, the tall trumpet lilies in summer, the dahlias in fall, and the coral berries of the ‘Wintergold’ shrubs in, yes, winter. When I lived in Florida, summer was for the bright foliage of caladiums and winter was for orange blossom.

An emblem of a season is a snapshot, an image, and a powerful distillation of the season itself. It is not the plant that blooms and blooms from spring till frost.

Emblems are more ephemeral than that.


I’ve been reading a book by Kelly Norris called New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.

This book has been helpful for me because it emphasizes the ecological function of plants rather than their ornamental attributes.

If you are like me, you design your garden or imagine new planting possibilities by thinking of favorite blooms and much-loved colors. But Norris is challenging me–indeed my own garden has been challenging me–to think more about year-round function.

Instead of asking myself, what color flower do I want here? I am learning to ask questions like,

What plant will cover the soil and shade out weeds in this bed?

What plants will provide long-lasting structure?

What plant will shoot up quickly in spring in order to out-compete the weeds before fading away to let the summer perennials take over?

But as critical as such questions are, it is also important to ask ourselves:

What will greet me in spring when the long winter is finally over?

What says summer to me?

And what will I anticipate all summer long before it finally emerges in the fall?


In other words, in our search for plants that look great all year round, we must not neglect the “emblems” of each season.

As Norris puts it,

A garden without these seasonal pacesetters can lack rhythm and start to look more like the mass-produced landscapes of the commercial world than the kinds of lovingly crafted creations better suited for home.

What sets the pace in your garden?

What are the emblems you love best?

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

My Favorite Beet And How I Eat It

I loathed beets as a child.

I thought of them as “farm food” and associated them with visits to my grandmother’s north Texas farm, where jars of dilly beans, pickled beets, and peach jelly–all made by my grandmother or one of my aunts–often graced the table.

My father, an avid home gardener, loved pickled beets, and enjoyed them as a delicacy. I found the pickled taste and dark red color horrifying. I had no idea back then that I would one day seek out farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants.

I grew up, I made my own food choices, and I never gave beets (or beetroots) another thought until we joined a Community Supported Agriculture program in Florida (or, CSA for short). When you join a traditional farm CSA, you receive all kinds of things you might never notice at the grocery store. Thanks to our family farm CSA in northern Florida, I learned about kohlrabi, collards, and beetroot.

The beets astonished me. What were these fresh, golden root vegetables? They could not have been farther from the pickled oxblood red lumps of my childhood.

These were golden beets, and I learned to love them. Roasted at high heat with olive oil and salt, they were delicious, and they did not stain my hands. Even the greens were a gift. Sauteed in a pan with olive oil, they tasted better than fresh spinach.


Golden beets are so easy to grow, so delicious, and take up so little space in our gardens, that I have planted them every year I have gardened here at Maplehurst.

I typically plant the iconic heirloom “Burpee’s Golden Beet,” available from Burpee seeds or many other suppliers.

Beet seeds are large, which makes them easy to direct sow. However, I find germination rates for my golden beet seeds are sometimes low, so I prefer to start mine indoors rather than give outdoor space to beets that might never germinate.

I grow my beets in a small raised bed, but beet seeds can easily be sown in a large pot, or planted out in a bed or border amongst other things. Just remember: if you grow edibles in your flower beds, do have your soil tested. Because I live in an old home, I don’t grow anything edible in the ground near my house. The soil there is likely too contaminated from decades of flaking lead-based paint.


Here is the method I follow for roasting beets. Once roasted, it is easy to wipe off the skin with a paper towel.

A recipe for sauteed beet greens with garlic and olive oil. Though, to be honest, I typically don’t even bother blanching the greens first.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Gardens in the Spirit of Place: A Book Review

Some gardening books happen to be on my shelves, and some are there because I tracked them down.

Books by gardener and garden writer Page Dickey are worth tracking down.

I found a used copy of Gardens in the Spirit of Place online because I was intrigued by the title and because I had grown to appreciate Dickey’s writing in other works.


Gardens cannot exist apart from the particular qualities of particular places, and yet it is far too easy to forget about place when we first begin to design and grow a garden.

Whether we garden in a place already full of character or are looking to inject a bit of character into an otherwise ordinary space, the gardens featured in this photographic book will inform and inspire (even if they might also make us wish for a larger budget of time and money to spend on our gardens!).

Dickey writes about American gardens on farmland, woodland, seaside, and desert from Maine to Texas and on to California. What unites the gardens showcased in this book is that, in Dickey’s words, they “are in harmony with their landscape and celebrate their regionality.”

Here are three things I love about this book:

  1. It’s inspiring! The writing and photography celebrate such very different gardens that I am reminded to appreciate the unique qualities of my garden rather than wish I had a different kind of climate or soil.
  2. It’s personal. Dickey has listened to these gardeners and shares their unique perspectives as well as her own. These gardens may have been designed with professional help, but each one is also a very personal expression.
  3. It celebrates limits. Not everything will grow well in our gardens, but that’s not a bad thing. Rather, it’s a big part of why our own garden will be special.


Who is this book for?

This book will be enjoyed by anyone who loves visiting gardens, but it will probably feel most useful to those who are gardening on a bit of space. It will especially interest those gardeners who are struggling to celebrate the limits of their particular climate or topography.

I was especially encouraged by the words of a Virginia gardener who “welcomes the challenge of gardening in the South, coming to grips with its heat and humidity.” I’m afraid I generally DO NOT welcome the challenge of summer heat and humidity, but I will remember this garden portrait come July.

Is this a book to buy or borrow?

I love collecting gardening books with beautiful photography and slightly out-of-reach inspirational gardens.

I re-read these books year after year. However, if you are not a collector of gardening books, you might prefer to look for this one at your library.

My favorite garden portraits from this book:

  • I loved reading about a rural garden set in the dry, stony landscape of the Texas Hill Country. It’s a landscape I know and love, but it was also incredibly helpful to read about how this garden designer relished the limitations of extreme heat and drought.
  • I was inspired by a woodland garden in Delaware that prominently features moss, but I appreciated the gardener’s admission that his garden is high maintenance. It’s helpful to know that I can’t achieve the same look unless I am willing to spend time with sprinkler and hose.
  • The portrait of a Wisconsin farm garden is one I know I will return to because it seems so simple and attainable. When I am feeling overwhelmed by ambitious garden plans that I may never be able to achieve, I will be encouraged by this reminder that simple terra cotta pots, filled with pelargoniums, and lined up along a path are utterly enchanting and hold up well even against the fanciest, most professional garden designs.

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