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.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.


Four Different Flavors of Garden Shade

Not all shade is created alike.

I used to wonder why certain shade-loving plants did not perform well for me. Over time, I discovered that garden conditions are multi-faceted and complex. They are never simply “sunny” or “shady.”

Every garden is unique just as every human is unique. It is as if every plot of soil had an individual fingerprint.

The gardener’s responsibility (and it is a wonderful responsibility) is to become the expert witness to her own bit of earth.

In this sense, gardens come in infinite flavors. However, just as we describe food with broad categories like salty and sweet, there are four categories that can help us make sense of our shade:

Full Shade:

On the spectrum of light conditions, there is “full sun” at one end and “full shade” at the other. Full shade is fairly easy to identify. Perhaps, it lies under the heavy canopy of a large tree. It might lie alongside a wall where the sun rarely reaches.

Full shade is usually defined as any area that receives less than three hours of direct sun daily. And most shade-loving plants would prefer cooler morning sun, rather than the burning sun of late day.

Impatiens, yew, climbing hydrangea vines, and bleeding heart all do well in full shade.

Dappled Shade:

This is a lighter shade where sunlight is filtered but bright.

Woodland plants generally love dappled shade. A honeylocust tree, with its feathery leaves, offers bright, dappled shade beneath its branches, while tall trees with large leaves, like the saucer magnolia in my own yard, can cast a very heavy shade.

Japanese anemones, like those pictured above, appreciate dappled shade, as do hydrangeas and hostas.

Dry Shade:

The quality of light isn’t the only thing to consider. There is also the matter of water. That tall, large-leaved tree? Chances are it blocks light and water. As a result, not every shade-loving plant will grow well in shady, dry soil.

Euphorbia, liriope, epimediums, and Dryopteris ferns all tolerate dry shade.

Damp Shade:

Damp shade tends to be less of a challenge than dry shade.

Plants that appreciate shady, damp areas of our gardens include astilbe, hosta, Brunnera, primulas, and trillium.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

My Favorite Kale and How I Eat It

I no longer have an enormous vegetable garden, but I still can’t live without ‘Lacinato’ Kale.

Sometimes called “Tuscan Kale” or “Dinosaur Kale,” this dark, crinkly Italian kale is thought to date back to the 18th century. If the leaves are picked small (8 to 10 inches), it is incredibly tender and sweet, especially after a frost.

Kale, like other greens, is very easy to start from seed on a windowsill and can easily be grown in a container. It makes an ideal spring or fall crop, and would look lovely grown with flowers as edible landscaping.

I have never yet found this kale for sale in my supermarket produce section, but it is the star ingredient in my favorite kale salad recipe.

“Kale Salad with Cherries and Pecans” is found in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman.


  • 1/2 cup pecans
  • 8 ounces Black Kale, also known as Cavolo Nero, or Lacinato, Dinosaur, or Tuscan Kale
  • 4 ounces radishes, sliced into paper-thin rounds
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • 2 ounces soft goat cheese, chilled


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste


  • Optional step: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and spread the pecans on a tray. Toast them for 5 to 10 minutes, tossing them once or twice to make sure they toast evenly. Remove them from the oven and set them aside to cool.
  • Wash your kale and let it dry on spread-out kitchen or paper towels. Then, with a knife, remove the rib from each stalk, leaving long strips of kale leaves. Stack the leaves in small batches, roll them tightly the long way, and cut the roll crosswise into thin ribbons. Add the kale ribbons to a large salad bowl.
  • Add the radishes, pecans and cherries. Crumble the goat cheese over top.
  • Whisk dressing ingredients together in a small dish, and pour the dressing over the salad.


  • This salad is great to eat right away, but even better after 20 minutes of tenderizing in the dressing.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Let Yourself Hope

The lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives.

-Gertrude Jekyll

All gardens are full of failures.

I know, I know. You’ll never see those words on a motivational poster! But they are true.

Eden is a memory and a promise in our hearts. Eden inspires our garden dreams, but we do not garden Eden’s soil.

That means no matter how experienced we are, no matter how hard we work, our gardens will sometimes fail: terrible weather will wreak havoc, invasive pests might run amok, we might plant a precious tree in exactly the wrong place, and an adorable bunny might mow down every one of our lettuces. These things–and so many more–happen to all of us.

The goal of gardening is never to avoid failure (though we can learn from it and make adjustments).

The goal of gardening is to love our place. And love in a garden is always fruitful.

When we love a garden something will ALWAYS go right. Something will always be worth celebrating, even if some days we must simply celebrate the fact that we managed to feed one cute bunny a feast of fresh, organic lettuces.

Garden for long enough, and you will trail a list of failures. The key is to learn from failure without carrying it around like a burden on your back. Instead, we can look toward next year’s garden with hope.


What will go wrong this year? Who knows. Who cares! It’s always something.

But what will go right this year?? Now that I can’t wait to see.

(pictured above: ‘Ollioules’ tulips and creeping phlox or Phlox stolonifera)



Leaf Season

It is leaf season here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania.

The trees are almost bare, and the grass is covered in fallen gold. And leaves really are like gold for our gardens.

Leaves help lighten up heavy soils, and they help light, sandy soils become more moisture retentive. They are good for every garden.

Rather than see them as a nuisance, here are tips and reminders for harnessing their goodness for your plants:

  • Mow don’t rake

Raking up leaves is hard work, and may not be necessary. Here at Maplehurst, we mow over our leaves with a push or riding lawn mower. Once they have been slightly chopped up and shredded, fallen leaves make a wonderful mulch. A mulch of chopped leaves will eventually break down, feeding the soil and improving its texture. Un-chopped leaves can also be used for mulch, but they could become matted and waterlogged in a way that prevents water from penetrating down into the soil.

  • Store don’t discard

Can’t use your chopped leaves right away? Simply store them in a large container, such as a garbage can, or pile them in a protected place. Over time, they will break down into leaf mould, which makes a wonderful additional to potting soil mixes.

  • Leave them be

It is possible to be too neat as a gardener. The soil in a forest is naturally rich because no one goes in to clear away the leaves. Especially in a woodland garden, it is probably best to “leave your leaves” right where they are. Leaves are also an important winter cover for wildlife.

  • Insulation for tender plants

Each autumn, piles of leaves accumulate in my flower garden especially. And I’m so glad! A thick pile of leaves makes a wonderful protective blanket for shrubs and perennials. I try to make sure that my roses, especially, all have their rootballs well protected by leaves. If you grow strawberries, chopped leaves are a great alternative to straw mulch.

  • Add them to a compost pile

Leaves are a great source of “brown” carbon to balance the “green” nitrogen in a compost pile. You can speed up decomposition by shredding the leaves first, but I generally take a lazy and slow approach to composting, which means I just add them in whole.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

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