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My garden this year was not necessarily the magical success which I had hoped for it to be…but that’s ok, I can just write about someone else’s garden.  My go-to garden for this kind of lazy blogging is Longwood Garden, a magical gilded age paradise in Chester County Pennsylvania which was the summer seat of the DuPont family.

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Autumn is not the traditional apex of the gardening season, however Longwood Garden is such a stupendous garden that its planners can insouciantly eschew such conventional thinking.  Every season is the apex of the gardening season there…up to and including winter (which is no petty feat in our temperate clime).  To celebrate late autumn, Longwood created a Chrysanthemum festival with thousands of chrysanthemums agonizingly shaped into geometric forms by otherworldly patience (and by weird sadistic potting contraptions).

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The effect is stupendous—it’s like what would happen if the world were invaded and colonized by beautiful alien flowers with a disturbing penchant for symmetry (although I guess that sort of did happen at the end of the Cretaceous).  I hope someday I manage to actually get to Longwood to see the Chrysanthemum Festival in person.  These pictures never do justice to the ineffable power of their pleasure gardens.  The show runs until November the 19th so maybe my East Coast readers want to visit too.

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A Quincunx

Continuing Q week, we come to the quincunx, a geometric pattern in which five units are arranged in an x shape.  That concept may have sounded complicated because there were too many letter-based phrases in the sentence, but the quincunx will be instantly familiar as the side of a standard six-sided playing die with five spots on it.  The quincunx takes its distinctive name from an ancient coin of the Roman Republic from the second century BC.  The little coin was worth 5/12th of an “as”–the standard bronze Republican coin of the time (which makes me glad I did not have to make change for buyers of that period).

The quincunx shape was popular with the Romans, who were inclined to numerological superstition, and subsequently, during the middle-ages, the shape found its way into many heraldic representations.

Five Fig Leaves in a Quincunx Pattern (known as "Saltire" in Heradlry)

Beyond its use in money, logos, and coats-of-arms, the quincunx shape has long been used for fruit orchards. To quote the Hegarty Webber Partnership, a website created by British garden designers with an eye for history:

Thomas Browne, in his Garden of Cyrus of 1658, claimed that the Persian King Cyrus was the first to plant trees in a quincunx. He also claimed to have discovered that it also appeared in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Seventeenth century diarist and garden guru Sir John Evelyn also thought it was the best way to lay out apple and pear trees.

The classical Persian precedent may be doubtful, but the quincunx is a wonderful way to lay out trees. As can be seen in the illustration below, such a staggered arrangement not only creates regular parallel rows (as would a normal four by four arrangement) but additionally creates regular diagonal rows.  A visitor to such an orchard would see a regular row whichever way she looked.  Such layouts create the illusion of more space (since we are used to rows which are perpendicular to each other) but they make it easy for orchard-goers to mistakenly turn down diagonal rows and become lost.

Finally, and most bafflingly, the quincunx is the underlying concept for a 2 dimensional square projection of a 3 dimensional spherical space.  Since a sphere represents an entire 3 dimensional frame of vision for a viewer in the center, such quincuncial projections show all aspects of a scene: above, below, side-to-side, in-front, and behind. An entire field of vision can thereby be distorted into a square. To better illustrate this concept, here is a quincuncial projections of the unusual octagonal (gothic!) crossing of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England.

Gah! A Full Field Panorama of the Octagonal Crossing at Ely Cathedral (a quincuncial projection)

A stained glass sky-light window is immediately above the viewer and thus at the center of the composition.  The floor is the grey border around the edges.  The entrance door is at the top of the composition (upside down) while the central knave stretches upward from the bottom of the picture.  The north and south trancepts stretch off to the left and right. Finally, since Ely cathedral is octagonal, there are 4 additional doors  running along the diagonals of the composition.  There! I’m glad to have cleared that up, now I’m going to go have a drink and clear my head.  If you are really ready to go on a dimension warping trip into the world of panoramic photography, here is a link to other quincuncial projections.  Good luck on the other side of the looking glass!

Claude Mollet, Innovator and Gardener to the Kings of France

Devoted readers may have noticed that I haven’t written a garden post for a while.  That’s, um, because my garden is kind of…well…flat.  It got hit by triple punches in the form of a tornado, a giant hail storm, and now winter.  All that’s left is to plant my bulbs, put my roses to bed, and sadly stare at the little yew bush in the corner until Spring comes again with its ancient magic.

During this cold dead season, gardeners fantasize about spectacular gardens they can never have or even see in person.  I personally have been reflecting on parterre gardens and wanted to present a little gallery with pictures of great parterre gardens around the world.  Parterre gardens are highly formal gardens which make use of gravel walkways, flat planted beds, and tightly clipped hedges and topiaries to create extremely precise geometric designs.  They were created at the end of the16th century by Claude Mollet (ca. 1564 – shortly before 1649), the first gardener for three French kings.  The Mollets were a dynasty of exalted gardeners who were much in demand by the French nobility.  Claude’s father was chief gardener at the Château d’Anet where young Claude saw formal style Italian herb gardens being planted.  He admired the geometric precision of these small geometric her beds or compartimens as they were known in France and wondered if they could be made larger.  From this concept sprang a vast world of “embroideries (passements), moresques, arabesques, grotesques, guilloches, rosettes, sunbursts (gloires), escutcheons, coats-of-arms, monograms and emblems (devises)” to quote Jacques Boyceau, another luminary of the early parterre movement.

But enough words!  Enjoy this tiny gallery of parterre gardens from around the world as you plan your spring gardens and get ready to pass the long winter.

Waddesdon formal flower garden

Villandry garden

Tatton Park Gardens

Parterre at le Chateau de la Hulpe

Longwood Garden Topiary Garden

Leaning Pine Aboretum at CalPoly

La Casa Pacifica flower parterre

West Parterre of Hatfield House

Parterre Garden at Hampton Court Palace in London

Parterre at Château de Courances

Bourton House Topiary

Brodsworth Formal GardenHillwood Garden Fountain

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