Lunch With Hope Taft, A Chelsea Flower Show Designer And Topiary Animals? Count Me In!

Who wins your award for congeniality? I would bestow the honor on two people.

One is Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the jovial clergyman with the gift of the gab, a taste for hot dogs, baseball and Donohue’s Steakhouse, and an obvious love for his job. The other is Hope Taft, the former First Lady of Ohio, whose down-to-earth ways and delightful personality make strangers feel like her special friends.

So when Mrs. Taft issued an invitation to join her on July 26 for a lecture by award-winning English garden designer Amanda Patton, 160 people responded. After all, this special event supporting the Friends of the Ohio Governors Residence and Heritage Garden just wouldn’t be any fun without us!

As the throng gathered in the conservatory’s toasty Palm House, we lined up to feast on a buffet lunch that began with lemon-and-basil-dressed greens topped with peaches, candied walnuts and goat cheese; continued with grilled chicken, vegetable soup and a side of summertime couscous salad; and finished with bite-sized coconut macaroons and lemon bars.

After lunch, Mrs. Taft introduced Amanda Patton, who not only has designed over 150 gardens from her home base in Storrington, West Sussex, but also leads garden-themed trips for the Friends. Patton was stateside for the Friends’ “Natural Gardens for the 21st Century” event at Lakeside, Ohio, for which she gave lectures on European influences in the development of natural gardens, new garden trends in Europe, and new approaches to gardening with native plants.

Amanda told us about designing a garden for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, the prestigious annual event that attracts millions to see the latest in flower and landscape design. In fact, the Prince of Wales has designed two award-winning Chelsea gardens. In 2001, he created an Islamic garden, filled with colorful flowering plants found in early Islamic gardens, to replicate the geometric patterns on Middle Eastern rugs at Highgrove, his country home. His 2002 Healing Garden, dedicated to the Queen Mother, was symbolically filled with medicinal herbs, shrubs, culinary plants, structures and hidden symbols to remind people of what has been lost in nature.

A professional illustrator with a degree in textile design, Amanda relies on natural plantings in garden designs to create an atmosphere and inspire feelings. In 2008, Walter de la Mare’s poem The Listeners led her to design “The Traveller’s Garden” for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

That same year, she also designed “Somerset Revival,” her first entry for the Chelsea Flower Show. Inspired by the idea of rural regeneration, she transformed a 10-by-22-meter space into a blue-and-yellow-themed garden with wildflowers and cultivated species alike, an upturned milk churn planted with Phlox Chattahoochee, and a cider apple tree. She used old bricks and roof tiles to create paths and edgings and turned a Somerset cider press into a water feature. Her entry won a silver-gilt medal.

She then described her travels to a land beyond the forest, where Jack Goes To Bed At Noon, Veronica flourishes, and hay rattle and peonies bloom. “Count me in,” indeed!

As my Brooks Brothers “Indian Garden” look wilted in the heat, Mrs. Taft displayed her characteristic cheerfulness as she presented Amanda with a copy of The Prairie Peninsula, a new book in which naturalist Guy Denny and nature photographer Gary Meszaros describe the millions of acres of tallgrass prairie that once covered Ohio, but today is an endangered ecosystem.

After we said goodbye to Mrs. Taft and Amanda, we hunted for 10 topiary sculptures of endangered animals who have made themselves at home in the conservatory.  You can too, in Topiaries at the Conservatory: Wild Wonders, on view through October 29.

In this exhibition, each animal topiary is covered with plants that mimic the colors and textures of fur, skin, scales and feathers.  Some nest in their native environments. 

A trio of flamingos, all crafted from Begonia semperflorens “Cocktail Mix,” stand outside the visitor center.  A Green Peacock in the north courtyard is composed of Ficus pumila ‘Variegata’ for the body, plus seasonal bedding plants for the tail.

A Green Sea Turtle and the Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterfly blend into their habitats in the Pacific Island Water Garden. In the bonsai courtyard, the West African Lion topiary is made of 773 plants of Carex flagellifera and Lysimachia congestiflora “Variegated Lemon,” while over 1,000 plants of Lysimachia nummularia “Goldilocks” and Ajuga reptans “Golden Glow” create the West African giraffe topiary.

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla topiary in the conservatory’s tropical rainforest room is made of 348 plants from two cultivars of Ajuga reptans: “Metallica” and “Chocolate Chip.” About 225 plants went into the making of the Slender-horned gazelle topiary in the conservatory’s desert. Vibrant chartreuse-green Sedum rupestre “Lemon Ball” forms the body, while reindeer moss creates the gazelle’s hair.

In the Himalayan Mountains area of the conservatory, a red panda topiary is made of 368 plants, including two cultivars of Sedum album: “Red Ice” and “Coral Carpet.” Preserved reindeer moss was used to replicate the animal’s white fur.

For more on the Chelsea Flower Show, read A Passion for Plants: Behind the Scenes at the Royal Horticultural Society, by Carolyn Fry.  Alan Titchmarsh’s Royal Gardeners: The History of Britain’s Royal Gardens includes information about Prince Charles’ exhibitions at the Chelsea Flower Show and his keen interest in gardening.  

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