A visit to Hillwood

Marjorie Merriweather Post's Hillwood in Washington, D.C.

Hillwood, Marjorie Merriweather Post’s estate, in Washington, D.C. opened its doors for the Garden Bloggers’ flingers on our first morning of tours. Hillwood reminded me of numerous other estate gardens I’ve visited over the years. It’s kept in about the same condition and style as it was when Post still lived there from the mid-1950s to 1973.

Post wanted her last home to be a museum, and, after some wrangling, it eventually happened. Post was an heiress, socialite, and philanthropist who inherited the Postum cereal fortune from her father. She began running the company at the age of twenty-seven after her father’s death. Post collected Russian and French art, jewelry, and furniture. You can view some of her jewelry, including a pair of Marie Antoinette’s earrings, at the Smithsonian. She is also known for overseeing construction of Mar-a-Lago, now owned by President Donald Trump. Her Imperial Russian collection, established while her third husband, Joseph E. Davies, was ambassador to Russia, is located at Hillwood.

Post purchased Hillwood, originally named Arbremont, after her divorce from Davies. That’s quite a story in itself. You can read it at the link about Post’s museum hopes, above.

Being a garden writer, I was most interested in, you guessed it, the gardens. Although the gardens comprise twenty-five acres, they don’t seem that large because they are broken up into rooms. Post was a fan of 18th Century France, and her French parterre is a tribute to her interests.

There is also a small Japanese garden which despite its size, is very well appointed. It’s quite beautiful and has wonderful views. You can see it in the first photo gallery show above. Click on the photos to make them larger.

My favorite part of the landscape was the cutting garden. Situated near the greenhouse, this garden supplies all of the flowers used inside the house/museum. It’s probably the best cutting garden I’ve ever seen.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a lot of gardens, but I’m a bit weary of grand estate gardens. They all seem to have similar attributes, especially if they were created between the 1920s and 1950s. You can almost always bet upon a formal rose garden, a Japanese garden, either an Italian formal landscape piece or a French one–you get the idea.

Post did also have a really interesting pet cemetery and a dacha in her garden too.

Graves in pet cemetery at Hillwood.
Graves for Post’s favorite pets still reside in the pet cemetery at Hillwood.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s all very pretty, but I’m more interested in a working garden, and the cutting garden was just that. I loved how the gardeners placed netting in the rows for the flowers to grow through–a brilliant idea to keep stems straight and strong. Also, this cutting garden had great filler plants like bells of Ireland, dill weed, and Queen Anne’s lace to nestle between larger blooms.

After we had our photo made on the Lunar lawn and had lunch, the bloggers split up and were off to our next destinations. I really enjoyed Hillwood and hope you enjoy my thoughts about it too.

Tour gardens are pageant girls

Hemerocallis Small World Lolly Pop Kid daylily

Tour gardens are pageant girls.

And, yes, I could have used contestants in the headline, but that wouldn’t be alliteration would it? So, don’t take the girl thing personally. I know they are women, not girls, and I’m not hating on pageants either.

Tiered borders side view two weeks after the tour.
Tiered borders side view two weeks after the tour.

Do your thing. Just do it well.

Tour gardens are pageant girls. Long view of the back garden.
Long view of the back garden.
Why are tour gardens pageant girls?

Each involves a lot of fluffing and fakery in the best sort of way. Think eyelash extensions and faux tans, both of which are fine by me. I adore a Fake Bake tan and eyelash extensions. Acrylic nails are great for deadheading roses–trust me–but don’t confuse them with a real garden or an All-American woman au naturel.

Acrylic nails are great for deadheading roses--trust me--but don't confuse them with a real… Click To Tweet
Both are also all about competition.

My husband will tell you that gardeners are the most competitive people he knows. Gardeners who love a particular plant are even more discerning. They will go to great lengths to get their gardens pageant, ‘er tour ready.

I’ve seen gardeners install new landscapes, build new buildings, create ponds–oh, wait, that’s me, or should I say, Bill? He doesn’t know it, but Bill would make the best pageant mom ever. He sees the overall woman–I mean–garden and works on improving what Mother Nature gave her. You may not remember, but three weeks before the Oklahoma Horticulture Society tour, he built a pond with a lot of help from his friends.

I could have killed him.

Cover of Country Garden Spring 2017 issue with the shed as model for my own.
Cover of Country Garden Spring 2017 issue with the shed as model for my own.

Our garden was again on tour two weeks ago. The American Hemerocallis Society Region 11 celebrated its summer meeting in Oklahoma, and my garden was one of six on tour. So, of course, Bill decided to build a potting shed similar to the one in the Country Gardens Magazine Spring 2017 issue. He finished it about five days before the tour. I would have panicked, but I was too busy weeding and laying mulch. After twenty-eight years of marriage, I just let him have his head and run with it.

Then, last weekend, I joined garden bloggers from all over the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada for the Garden Bloggers’ Fling, held this year in the Washington, D.C. area. I strolled through beautiful gardens and knew how much of the gardeners’ hearts and souls went into preparing for our visit.

In other words, I felt their joy and pain.

When you arrive at a tour garden, often the owner or their landscape designer will be outside to welcome you. They will be clean, cool, calm and collected, but that’s not the real story. One owner whispered to me while on our bus that she was out weeding only thirty minutes before we arrived. How she got inside, showered and put on makeup, I’ll never know. She’s seventy and moves faster than I ever will.

Owners and landscape designers smile and answer questions as though the garden always looks this immaculately groomed. Maybe it’s different for landscape designers. After all, they often have crews to help.

Owner/gardeners are usually a one or two-person show. I can tell you from experience that… Click To Tweet

Owner/gardeners are usually a one or two-person show. I can tell you from experience that everyone took three Advil and maybe a shot of whiskey for courage before you arrived.

Here’s what really happens to a tour garden before you walk through the arbor gate.

If it’s a daylily tour, work begins about two years prior. Gardeners will purchase many, many daylilies that are newer cultivars. Daylily aficionados don’t want to see older plants. It takes at least two years to increase the number of fans–individual plants–for a good show. Daylily people want the newest and brightest. Also, the gardener needs to go around and make an inventory of all the plants they didn’t label. Every daylily in an official tour garden needs to be labeled with the name, year of introduction and hybridizer. Bill and I made a complete inventory and a map of our gardens.

It took us two days, and I don’t even have that many daylilies.

For three years prior, I bought garden markers. I am now very good friends with Bernie of Triple AAA Quality Engravers. You can use any kind of label, but these are the ones I chose because they don’t show up so much in photos if you’re not looking for them. Since the tour is over, I’ll move the labels behind the clumps. I’m not really a label person, but I’m glad to have the names of various plants at my fingertips.

How does this compare to the pageant contestant?

Imagine our young woman is vying for Miss Oklahoma. I’m no pageant mom, but I know several. Our contestant will be evaluated and placed in a local show where, if she wins, she will go on to bigger things. It takes a lot of hard work to get ready for a pageant and a lot of money. The same thing holds true for large garden tours. Pageant contestants get sponsors. I guess Bill and I are our garden’s sponsors.

So, after clucking over your new plants like a mother hen, it’s finally the year of the tour.

If it’s a fall tour, you have all summer to prepare. However, if you live in a hot climate, you have all summer to fail. The Death Star, i.e., summer sun can sure take its toll on a garden. I’ve been on spring and fall tours, and both are stressful, but rewarding too.

Just one of many loads of mulch I laid this spring.
Just one of many loads of mulch I laid this spring.

This spring, I laid 135 bags of mulch–at last count. Yes, I could’ve bought mulch in bulk, but then I’d have to dig it out of the pile, and I find the bags easier to move. On a normal year, I just use my shredded leaves as mulch, but on tour, I like shredded pine bark.

This border once held roses, but after Rose Rosette Disease ravaged it, I replaced them with grasses, perennial hibiscus and daylilies. Then, I mulched the whole thing in shredded leaves.
Normally, I use shredded leaves throughout the garden as mulch. With the earthworms help, shredded oak leaves make beautiful soil. This is from two years ago. That border is now fully grown.

For the past two years, I’ve pumped up the garden with leaf mulch and then put on the finishing pine bark this year. Mulch is like makeup, or as one visitor said concealer. Anything that looks bad in the garden, you just rip it out and apply mulch. So, perhaps it’s like plucking your eyebrows and then putting on concealer. You get the idea.

Mulch is like makeup, or as one visitor said concealer. Anything that looks bad in the garden,… Click To Tweet
Baby oak trees from acorns abound in my garden this year.
Baby oak trees from acorns abound in my garden this year. I hates them Precious.

But, first, you have to weed, and weed for months and months and months.

Weeding is the laser hair removal of the garden world. Click To Tweet

Weeding is the laser hair removal of the garden world. You weed until your hands have tendinitis. You basically become an investor in Advil or Aleve, and your reward for all that weeding is a glass of wine after a long day. Those baby oak trees that from little acorns grow are very hard to get out of the ground. This year, I had thousands of them. I’ll go outside today and find thirty or forty more.

A clump of one of my favorite daylilies. It's an old Munson cultivar.
A clump of one of my favorite daylilies, Yasmin. It’s an old Munson cultivar.
There’s also a lot of fertilizing to plump up the garden plants.

Daylilies like high nitrogen fertilizer so I use an organic one. I like Mills Magic Rose Mix myself. However, anything with alfalfa like HuMore or sewage sludge like Milorganite will work. For pageant contestants, the equivalent would be lifting weights to get those defined muscles.

And, then, there’s the fluffling. Look at it like all the clothes and accessories a pageant contestant needs. In my case, I grow a cottage garden so my contestant needs loads of plants to fill in spaces where I ripped out nonperformers. You must also buy them early enough that they grow in and look like part of the landscape. Since my Oklahoma garden is a hot one, that means pentas, salvias, lantana, echinaceas, etc. If you have roses, you want to deadhead them almost exactly one month prior to the event. Then, they will hopefully bloom for your guests. Getting a garden tour ready takes much more planning than one would think.

If you have roses, you want to deadhead them almost exactly one month prior to the event. Then,… Click To Tweet

And, you can’t control the weather. I don’t know what to compare this to in the pageant world, but perhaps, you can’t control your contestant. If she doesn’t stay on her high protein, high vegetable diet, she may gain weight. If she doesn’t do her cardio, she won’t look like a thoroughbred racehorse I suppose. In my case, the garden made me gain eight pounds over the spring in spite of working like a dog. I didn’t have time to cook meals, and we ate a lot of carbs in our restaurant meals as I watched spring rains wash away seeds, gravel in the paths and the all-important mulch.

Hemerocallis 'Tomorrow is a Another Day' daylily
Hemerocallis ‘Tomorrow is a Another Day’ daylily

However, one fine June day the rains stopped, the buses came, and people unloaded to see what we worked so hard to achieve. I think the garden looked the best it ever has that day. I truly enjoyed having people over although I will never do a plant-specific tour again. They are just too stressful. My garden is a mix of many, many plants, and although I love daylilies, I’m not very serious about them–or any other plant either. I learned not to love any plant to exclusion when I lost over eighty roses to Rose Rosette Disease.

It was a lesson well learned. Diversity is always key. Well, that, fake eyelashes and faux tans.