Saturday, January 2, 2010

I'm Not Bunny Mellon

I recently was given a copy of "The World In Vogue: Parties, People, Places," a delicious catalog of the impossibly chic lives of the uber-glamorous, and a book so absorbing that it verges on pornography.

In its pages I came across this picture of Bunny Mellon that, among other things, vividly drove home to me the observation that I’m not her:

Mrs. Paul Mellon, as photographed by Horst in 1965,
courtesy of Vogue

Well, in a lot of ways.

But what really got me about the picture was that she was photographed peering out of a window overlooking a grouping of the most perfect, living, healthy, small topiaries in clay pots. I love topiaries. I have loved them for as long as I can remember, and I have bought dozens and dozens of them over the years. I’ve bought singles, doubles, and triples. I’ve bought pairs. I’ve bought tiny ones, and I’ve bought rather large ones. I‘ve bought them from florists, at shows, and from specialist dealers.

And I take good care of them. I give them plenty of light, I water them – but not too much. I feed them from time to time, and I carefully trim their tiny little leaves to preserve their perfect ball shapes. I mist them. I rotate them...

My topiaries in the sink of our flower-arranging room at Darlington,
as photographed by me in 2009

...and then they start to die. Some of them die all at once, suddenly becoming desiccated one day for no apparent reason. Others start to die gradually, slowly losing their leaves. Some of them stay green, their leaves appearing to be freeze dried, like a jar of herbs. Some of them start to look weak, eventually dropping their leaves in a shower, leaving the skeletal remains of what had at one point been a vibrant, beautiful living thing.

Nary a leaf left on this one

And yet Bunny Mellon’s topiaries look wonderful, thriving under her ownership and care. I look at her photograph and wonder, does it require a greenhouse to ensure a long-lived, healthy myrtle topiary? Is she able to keep them alive because she entrusts their care to professional topiarists? Does she replace them every two weeks?

My one remaining living topiary

Even though the daily care of her topiaries is undoubtedly in the hands of her very able gardeners, I suspect she actually has something to do with them, beyond simply enjoying them. Certainly not always, but probably from time to time – and I suspect she’s involved in overseeing that they are properly nurtured. After all, she’s a highly accomplished gardener and garden designer, famous for her elegance and respect for natural beauty. She’s interested in such things.

What should I be doing differently? Or, rephrasing that question – what would Bunny do?

Please advise...

All photos, except of Mrs. Mellon, by Reggie Darling


  1. Bunny Williams you may not be, but being Reggie Darling is certainly a fantastic feat. You may have failing topiaries, but you've got Darlington, a wicked ability to write, style in spades, a "flower-arranging" room, and a captive audience. If I had to chose, I think I'd be perfectly happy being Mr. Reggie Darling.

  2. OK I've been trying to do topiaries FOR YEARS and they always succumb to white flies and aphids. The solution? Faux, of course! They look so life-like now you cannot tell the difference, especially the myrtle. No babying, no coddling and they always look great. Plus, you can put them anywhere you like- what could be better?.....Just read you're a Hudson Valley boy- you might like my post today on one of my idols, Frank Faulkner. Robin

  3. She experimented with the shapes & growing of the herb tree. In the early 60's when this pic was taken,Mrs Mellon said in Vogue that hers are the 1st of its sort in the states. Her distinct gift to the history of gardening-like the Japanese bonsai.She followed the instructions from her gardening library dating to the 1300's. All this- she credited with her superior specimens-coddled with old methods superior to those used now.Mount Vernon supplied her first myrtle slip-which took about 2 years to develop and begin shaping.Adding patience and disappointment to the necessary disciplines of gardening. GT

  4. Reggie, I'm new to the blogosphere and landed here by Mrs. Blanding's recommendation. Delightful reading and it seems you have found invaluable advice from little augury (and possibly LPC). Cheers!

  5. I've had just the same experience, but have followed LPC's advice to the letter and it worked perfectly.

  6. Love them as well- and I think it may be humidity-certain varieties need that. Perhaps a saucer filled with tiny {attractive of course} pebbles. And if that doesn't work-those skeletel remains have a special appeal.

  7. Little Augury,
    Do you mean to say that myrtle topiaries did not exist in this country prior to Mrs. Mellon reviving their art? If so, my respect for her now knows no boundaries.

  8. Ah, yes, the mystery of the dying topiaries. I too suffer from this one---most plants flourish under my touch, but clip one into an elegant little ball on a stick, and it has six months to live, tops. Years ago, a little shop opened next to mine. She sold topiaries from the legendary Allen Haskell. I bought them from her like candy (a whatchamacallit and his money), until I realized that I had become a mass murderer.

    Last summer, I dared try again. I bought two from the wonderful Snug Harbor Farm in Kennebunkport from their exquisite selection. Dead by winter, they were. Oddly, the only one that has ever survived is a lemon geranium that I topiarized (?) myself. But, it's really just a bunch of droopy leaves on a very long stem...........thanks for starting the dead topiary support group..

  9. Reggie, yes it does seem so according to Mrs. Mellon who wrote the article that accompanied the picture int the V. book. la

  10. DED: I take solace in such distinguished company as yours...glad to know I'm not the only grim reaper of these little beauties.

    LA: I am all astonishment! Thank you for sharing this profoundly important piece of information regarding Mrs. Mellon's contribution to the betterment of the world, and the repeated frustrations of one Reggie Darling...

  11. Clearly, I am not Bunny either. Why, oh why do they always die?

  12. Not sure, but I think that the conditions of the greenhouse, lack of dry central heating, ventilation, and the very cool nights keep the topiaries happy. The unnatural and quite aggressive pruning is already a shock to their little systems, so it would seems that other measures, such as greenhouse conditions, must be taken to keep them healthy and content.

  13. There was an article in House Beautiful, ages ago, 20 years ago, perhaps, in which Paul Leonard (then Mrs Mellon's personal decorator) wrote about those very topiaries and how they were cared for.

  14. May I suggest trying topiaries of English ivy grown on wire forms? I bought mine at Trader Joe's last year, and have found them to be indestructible--a bit coarse compared to myrtles, but still elegant in that tall lollipop shape, and a deep, satisfying green. They are happy in indirect light, with an occasional deep watering, a bit of compost, a misting if the air is very dry. You just weave the new sprigs back in among the old ones. Oh--and they are inexpensive, too!

  15. Is she able to keep them alive because she entrusts their care to professional topiarists?

    She has very good gardeners, a very nice greenhouse, an airstrip and jet of her own, and a fairly unlimited willingness to spend money on those things she cares about. (Which are largely inanimate, John Edwards notwithstanding.)

    P.S. I can't imagine how much she's spent building and rebuilding and rebuilding some more the library that will house her gardening books. Many millions, to be sure.

  16. I have better luck with boxwood topiaries. Also the clay pots really draw the moisture out of the soil so maybe a plastic liner?

  17. The most important part of a plant are its roots. Did you check the topiaries periodically to be sure that the roots did not completely fill the pot ("pot bound") leaving no room for soil nor for water retention. Myrtle wants to be a large shrub. You must either put it in larger and larger pots or you must trim the roots before replacing a pot bound plant in the same pot (similar to bonsai). Plants in large pots do not, as a general rule, dry out as quickly. Yours are quite small. In the pictures your pots show a great deal of salt build up on the terra cotta. Bunny's do not. This alone can kill a plant.

    I suggest that when you buy a topiary. check the roots to see if it is pot bound. If so, take appropriate measures. Also, transfer the plant to a plastic pot (Yes, I said plastic because it retains moisture better than terra cotta and this is especially critical in small sizes). Then place the plastic pot in a cachepot. You can place pebbles or a jar top in the bottom so that water may be kept in the cachepot without the plant sitting in water which would kill it. This will increase humidity. If you cover the soil with sheet moss no one will ever know that the pot is plastic and it will give you an excuse to buy lovely cache pots. Do keep the plant in very bright light but out of direct sun. (Again to prevent the plant from drying out.) As others have suggested, pruning the plant when you bring it in for the winter is unwise. the plant will be struggling to grow with the (drastically) lowered light levels and pruning would make that struggle even more difficult. Periodic spraying of the foliage is good and you might try watering with distilled or rain water. Many plants prefer it.

    1. Dear Anon,
      Thank you for your lengthy and thoughtful comment, it is much appreciated! I no longer can bring myself to buy myrtle topiaries, given my murderous record with them, and our house has been bereft of myrtle topes for over a year now. I am having better luck with other species. However, the "Trade Secrets" garden show is coming up in May, which I am very much looking forward to attending, and I suspect that I may succumb to the beauty of a myrtle "tope" or two when I am there, as I love them so. To be continued, I am sure! Thanks, Reggie


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