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If Walls Could Talk: Garden Design in Ecuador’s Hacienda Cusin

 The stone garden walls at Hacienda Cusin are not unlike powerful arteries
that silently pulse — coursing throughout the body of the jardin, giving
life  – while at the same time, outlining
the bones of the various “garden rooms.”

So it was with great reverence that we garden designers from
The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) Landscape Design Alumni Group  (LDSA) artfully removed the “over stimulated”
Ecuadorean plants that were teetering in their version of “wall conquest.”
In this scenario, it might be said there IS too much of a
good thing.

In our passion for good garden design and healthy plants,
the Garden Team edited out plants, pruned back the “Hort Bullies” to reveal
walls that nature has favored with her master brushstrokes. 
The gently aged look speaks volumes.  Not unlike the rambling stone  walls that grace the English countryside. The
walls’ compositions could well make Pollack pea-green with envy; a dash of moss
here, “drippings” of sea-foam green lichen streaked here and there, and
colorful random plants perched in all manner of nooks and crannies hugging the
walls and hanging on for hort companionship.
Post cleanup, er, garden makeover, the stone walls now can
boast a bit more of their distinguished, sylvan yet “fuerte” heritage. 
How did we do it?
In the beds bordering or fronting the stone walls, we
created plant compositions to highlight a “borrowed landscape” — which is a
natural garden design composition that captures the look that is just beyond, and usually
more of Mother Nature – – known here as Pacha Mama.


With Amy as point person here – we employed the
borrowed landscape garden design technique along part of the wall beginning
nearest the Biblioteca and Salon, bringing the yellow of the canna plant to the
corner access wall where more than a few paths meet.  

Amy editing out garden beds to create an artful borrowed landscape – & reveal the walls

It was agreed that the elegant calla lilly needed more of a
presence so we transplanted enough for a few swaths of repeated plantings.  (We couldn’t help but “hear” Katherine
Hepburn’s quintessential multi-syllabic cinema reference to this goddess of the
plant world: “The Caaa-la-li-lil-lies aarre in bloo-um.”  


Peggy & Linda working to reveal Hacienda Cusin’s artful garden walls

We later learned from Pablo, a favorite waiter and educated
plantsman here at Hacienda Cusin, that calla lilies are ideal plants that do
well in the Ecuadorian Sierra, despite not being a native. 
And just for the record – what hotel have you ever stayed in
where a member of the wait staff is a knowledgeable, trained gardener and
plantsman?  Yet another foot soldier for
Pacha Mama – and a resource for the “green magic.”
We artfully edited some of the sweet looking and favorite, Forget
Me Nots (Myosotis) whose periwinkle blue hue dot the borders’ front. 
See, plants have curious and powerful adaptations.  So despite it’s pretty blue blossoms, the
Forget Me Not, too, is rather a hort bully – in that it sends out a kind of
toxin to the other plants so that it can take over – even stealing nutrients from
the soil…
One of our garden team members reacted to its toxicity on each
of several days before we isolated the culprit plant and she subsequently walked
to town to the pharmacie for relief.  It
was truly a “forget me not – as in – unforgettable experience!
The red geraniums, that are almost as tall as me, were also
revealed with the team’s plant editing – happy to be front and center.  These red stalwarts of the annual container
and border gardens in the States, grow as tall as can be here – like a Jack in
the Beanstalk curiosity. 

(Same for the impatiens!) 

We re-planted the multi-petaled eschevarria to show off her poised,
Armani-like sculptured couture leaves in the front of the boarder where guests
could surely appreciate the plant’s design.
Peg, Becca, and Linda cleaned the front of
the wall area and put in calla lilies in the bed.

Left to right: Peggy, Linda, & Becca creating captivating garden art compositions from  the exuberant plant growth along the walls

Red and purple fuchsia, and well, fuchsia-colored orchids,
and Datura and Bella Donna are the eye-popping seductive garden gems that adorn
the borders and the handsome stone walls.

Plants soon learned they were no match for the “Plant Whisperer:” Becca!

Monet’s Water Garden in Ecuador
The piece-de-resistance of our garden work arguably is the
water garden fronting number #10 casita (be sure to reserve this for your
honeymoon suite  — or second honeymoon,
as we learned Mel and Peggy did a few years’ back!)
This is the first water garden one encounters after having
descended the grand staircase from the Biblioteca and Salon Simon Bolivar.
There is no doubt the water garden and its center island –
with its newly christened moniker, “Bellar Island” so named for Mel and Peggy —
is exquisite and eye-catching. 
It and the walking bridge were already captivating.  Here again, we were doing our “garden
makeovers” – getting the garden rooms ready for their close-up – and in this
case, specifically for the big wedding taking place on Saturday night.

Peggy & Planca!  The before “Bellar Island”

I daresay when we were finished, not only were we all
thrilled, but the plants also seemed to be smiling back at us. The fish in the
pond were literally jumping for joy; nabbing the newly-acquainted hordes of
buzzing dragon flies who were all elated we netted out pond debris and lots of
the asparagus fern growing below. 

Mel launched the pond skimming clean up

The cleaner clearer pond created a visual delight for them –
and created a canvas for the nearby plants and trees.  

Now, the lantana (Lantana montevidensis) and
fuchsia (Fuchsia triphylla) and
California Poppies (Eschscholzia
 – to name a few –
shimmer their mirrored double exposure in the pond’s now-glistening water.

Gus continues pond clean-up while Mel works the border & Becca contemplates next plant patient!                

See, Gus had moved silt and stuff “upstream” from the
gravity-led rill powered by a recirculating pump so that it now bubbles and
gurgles with renewed aplomb – adding to the garden art’s sensory sensations. 

Later, I cleaned out the garden bridge and got that element
of the pond’s egress to counter-point the flow, allowing the water’s exit on to
the contiguous pond beyond the bridge. 
That the bridge’s garden-side entrance is beribboned with
jasmine is just too good to be true. 
I carefully pruned out the unwanted vine stems and
“interlopers” (aka leaves, sticks, etc.). 

Me pruning the bridge jasmine

The heady scent of jasmine there will leave you swooning
with rapture. 
Now a bride and her groom can waltz through the
jasmine–festooned bridge entrance and pose on the arching bridge for wedding
photo memories, while they and the bridge mirror their image in the pond.  Double the pleasure. (Take that, Dorian

I further scraped off the built-up moss and weeded out the
plants who’d set up residence on the bridge and stone.  No more plant squatters!

Now the presently-named Monet Bridge is clean and visible
because its happy reflection conjures the French garden setting for Monet’s
water lilies.
However, we are coming up with an appropriate moniker for
Hacienda Cusin’s own garden art.  After
all, local, homegrown inspiration has its unique cachet…
Any suggestions? 
I can’t stop taking photos of the beauty of this water
garden.  I’m sure you will be equally
smitten and inspired after one look. 
Please let me know your thoughts about what we might call it…
I’m thinking the “Millhouse
” in homage to Nik, Barbara, and their artist/illustrator sabrina, Bek to honor their passion for all
things artful…  Their name is Millhouse
and “mirada” in Spanish is “look.”  It
works, no?
Nik con poncho on his reclaimed bridge in Millhouse Mirada Garden 
The beds bordering the pond were weeded and re-arranged.  Snip, snip; here.  Snip, Snip; there.  A few of the purple and pink Margaurite Daisy
(Osteospermum fruticosum) plants
were staked for the wedding so that their blossoms could be enjoyed now.  Others were pruned back for a more robust regrowth,
as they were getting too leggy.   

Before pond beds

Not that we don’t love a plant’s “gams” it’s just that we
want more blossoms – and pruning back is the way to get there.  Gus brought new, homegrown, composted soil to
the beds to nourish she soil and feed the plants.  Plus that black gold looks so darn good and

Mel (L) & Gus on plant debris removal duty; Compost!

New orange canna plants were planted to even out the
stepping-stone walk across the border to the Bellar Island in the middle of the
pond.  (It had been covered over with plant growth.)

Anchored by the tall yucca and too many” plant squatters” –
the island had become more of a battlefield adventure than a focal point.  
So with Peggy at the helm, she and fellow
garden pirates Linda and Mel, helped turn that ship around – weeding out the
invasive hort bullies and those seeming to abandon the ship by dipping all the
way into the water.   

Peggy & Linda weeding & editing Bellar Island 


The island got a complete clean-up, makeover.

The day at the spa for the Millhouse Mirada and Bellar Island
Garden was a resounding success. 

Soon, guests too were beguiled.  They couldn’t stop taking pictures or painting the garden composition — inspired by Pacha Mama / Mother Nature — and Hacienda Cusin – and LDSA “Gringo” gardeners…


After the LDSA team all left to return home, I began my solo
work in the garden. I stayed the extra days because I LOVE it here – but also
because I came later than the team due to me and my husband’s vacation in
Aruba, as I think I mentioned in the first blog post from Hacienda Cusin.

Initially, I planned to start on that contiguous pond,
working the same garden makeover magic as we achieved with the Millhouse Mirada.
Yet, looking back at the water garden – transfixed by its
bewitching beauty, I couldn’t help feel my sensibilities were a bit off or
offended – by the site of all that brown, spent stems and bulbs from the crocosmia
border beds that led out from the rill’s fountainhead.
Why, you could hardly see the wise, moss-covered walls
there, hidden beneath encroaching, unwanted plant growth.
Something had to be done.
So two days of hacking back at the sterile mounds of bulbs,
roped in by the menacing roots of the cursed St. Augustine grass, ensued.  I’ve tangled with this hated beast back in
the States.  I knew my enemy.  I looked fearlessly ahead and knew it would

Gus started the rill – circulating water fountainhead

The 15” or so of brown mounds did not go down easy.

Half-way – or kinda — cleaning up the rill area to reveal garden walls. Foot-high bulbs were muy fuerte!

But eventually – all was removed; creating garden beds around the stone walls and rill; creating garden beds. 
I redirected the water, adding in grey stone boulders to
match the medieval-looking water walls.
I envisioned a piece of marvelous garden art from Nik and
Barbara’s collection here.
What Nik brought from the Salon Boliver salon exceeded my
garden fantasy.

It is a two-foot or so wooden statue of Santa Barbara! 
Nik explained it used to be a rooftop ornament. 
She looks best in the new garden, gazing reverentially at
the water flowing at her feet.
I re-purposed ferns to surround Santa Barbara so that they
radiate a lush, green backdrop for her “statuesque solemnity.”

Nik noted she needed color. 
I observed and dreamed a bit, all the while looking around like a
soldier on watch.
I spotted those weeping California Poppies beyond in the
Bellar Island and I knew I had the color we needed, along with a continuing,
repeated garden narrative.  That the
leaves are a soft bluish-hue is the icing on the cake.  We had a yellow and blue and green color
Now we needed some structure.
With shovel in tow, and the two llamas assistance (I will
swear their eyes led me to the plant when I asked them for their suggestions) –
I came upon the succulent of choice. 
Plus the tall, “mother” plant needed pruning.
The low-growing architectural succulents worked gracefully
to highlight the Santa Barbara composition.

Newly-designed Santa Barbara garden

I wanted the much-acclaimed calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica) to front the
new garden. Their pristine white flower is elegant (a nice nod to our Saint, even
though it’s bold, stamen is a kind of in-your-face-sexual wahoo!) 
Plus the height of the calla lily helps better engage the
It already looked good. 
Moreover the guests, the staff, and especially Nik and Barbara were
enthusiastic, having watched the garden room’s transformation.  Many offered suggestions for protecting Saint
Barbara from both the elements – and sticky fingers…
The next day, Nik invited me and Bek to accompany him and
Cesar to the nursery to buy plants. (More on that later.)
For the Santa Barbara garden, we got two kinds of ground
cover plants: bluish-purple, fragrant alyssum and the white, daisy-like ground
cover that is an annual by us. 
I also got two white gladioli-like beauties for either side
of our Saintly gal. 
The white blooms of these new plants, along with the calla lilies
suggest a purity that is so spot-on for a garden room watched over by a
Plus the white will “glow” in the evening dark.
Despite the heavy rains, I planted the newly-acquired
plants, introducing them to their new plant companions. 
The entire plant composition is now a splendid hort
The integration of the elements: water, stone, plants, art;
along with height, texture and color, combine to produce an enduring garden
Thank you, Hacienda Cusin – the perfect garden design
inspiration and palette.
And about those garden walls conversation skills, here?
Well, they in fact do talk. 
They are a bit of the gossip too. 
I have it on the best authority that none other than famed
gardener, Penelope Hobhouse  preceded our team in doing garden work here. Wow.  This garden is a magnet for all garden lovers
to be sure.
The Hacienda Cusin’s garden walls also whispered that the
“Domestic Diva,” Martha Stewart, was
a guest here, along with naturalist, David Rockefeller, and the Pulitzers.  I would swear too, that the walls told me
famed garden art curator, Barbra Israel, also is a Cusin enthusiast.
Shhhh, pass it on.
NY Garden team post Bellar Island makeover: top row: L-R: Gus, Becca, Peggy, Mel, Nik – Cusin’s owner & inspiration – Nik wanted an “American Gothic” photo memento;
Bottom: Me/Leeann, Amy, Linda
Nik, and Me/Leeann with happy, garden grins

Having fun “fanning” our leader, Nik, with Papyrus plant on the reclaimed, made-over bridge in “Millhouse Mirada”

Plants now are mirrored in the pond

We had a lot of fun in the garden too:

Linda, Gus, & Mel sporting fashions of the garden!

Some critters looked more “fun” from a distance:

Gus & a “cusin” the area’s BIG beetle and the Hacienda Cusin’s namesake!

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 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

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