In Search of a ‘Practical’ Potager

After my last post ((G7 Woes in the Pearl) I wanted to write about something less stormy. Something that wouldn’t lead to popping Advils.  The Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Sicily’s north-east coast, seemed like just the thing.  (The volcanoes – apart from Stromboli –  have been inactive for a very long time.)  I had spent a couple of days there on my first trip to Sicily almost 15 years ago.  But as I was going through my old photos and notes, a strange thing happened.  I began to long to visit the islands again.  Given that I’m going to Sicily in May, these weren’t just pie in the sky longings. After a few days of this I took Oscar Wilde’s advice and gave in to temptation and booked a room on one of the islands.  The new itinerary felt great and I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it in the first place. But now I had a problem.  There was no point writing about a place I was soon going to, so what was I going to write about?

On a boat ride around the Aeolian Islands almost 15 years ago.

The answer came in my email Inbox.  A reader was planning to create a potager and wanted to know if I had any suggestions for gardens to visit in the Veneto that might give her some ideas.  She stressed that she was interested in PRACTICAL potagers.  My full reply is in the Comments section of the Welcome page, essentially that I didn’t think she would find much of practical use in that region.  On the upside I thanked her giving me the topic for my next post and with the wind howling and the snow gusting, I went looking for all the potagers I’ve visited over the years. I didn’t expect to find much that was practical for a Canadian gardener, but I felt sure it would be a lovely antidote to what was going on outside my window.

I started with the Veneto, the region the reader was interested in, but as I had expected found nothing there that had anything even remotely connected to a vegetable garden.

Entrance to the gardens of Villa Pisani, along the Brenta Canal, not far from Venice.  No lowly veggies here.

Then I headed west to Italy’s lake district – Lakes Garda, Como and Maggiore.  Lots more gardens there, but again not a single vegetable garden.

The ‘Japanese Garden’ of Giardino Melzi on Lake Como.

I went all the way over to Liguria, Italy’s most westerly region.  Go any further and you’re in France.

La Cervara, Portofino, Liguria.

Then I headed south, to Tuscany, the birthplace of the classic Italian Renaissance garden. While not the first, Villa Gamberaia, on the outskirts of Florence, is considered by many to be the most ‘perfect’.

The ‘Hidden Garden’ of Villa Gamberaia.  On the upper terrace to the left is a lovely lemon parterre.  But no veggies.

I was beginning to despair.  Then I remembered another garden I’d visited in Florence.  I’d forgotten about it – probably because it wasn’t a favourite.  Despite the gardeners’ hard work, the focus here was clearly on the statuary rather than the plants.

Villa Pietra was created not by a gardener or even a plant lover, but by an antiquarian.

But it did have an orto (or-toe).  Although, as you’ll see, despite some very serious vegetables, it is not a very ‘practical’ orto.

The monumental entrance to the vegetable garden of Villa Pietra.

I might be missing something but I don’t see anything here that would be of practical use to a Canadian gardener.

A young woman picks fava beans for a gala dinner in the villa that evening.

Continuing south I came across a few veggie gardens.

The orto of the Abbey of Passignano, Tuscany.

A private veggie garden in the hilltop village of Monticchiello in the south-east corner of Tuscany.

But the pickings were very slim, something I will have to remedy when I go back to Tuscany this fall.

Continuing south things didn’t get any better.

Ninfa, Italy’s most romantic garden, is designed to look as if it is on the verge of collapse. Compelling, but definitely not a place for someone looking for inspiration for a veggie garden.

Italians love vegetables.  And they love growing their own.  Just walk around any part of Toronto where Italians have settled.  When space is small, they even plant vegetables in their front yards.  To the consternation of neighbours who think that sort of thing -especially tomatoes plants with their ungainly stakes – should be relegated to the back yard.  I was flummoxed.  Why did I have so few photos of vegetable gardens in Italy?

I figured the Amalfi Coast, for all its stunning, natural beauty, was hardly the place to look for veggie gardens.

Along the Amalfi Coast, where land is scarce, terraces have been carved over the centuries up the mountainsides.

Still, I found a few.

One of the loveliest potagers I’ve seen in Italy is along the path to Villa Cimbrone in Ravello.

It also has one of the loveliest views.

I looked through thousands of photos from my trips to Italy searching for potagers, even impractical potagers. Then one day, in one of those moments when you don’t think you’re thinking about something, the light bulb or the penny or whatever your personal Eureka moment is, hit me.  Potager is a French word.  Even though I spend less time in France and had probably visited far fewer gardens there than in Italy, I had visited numerous French vegetable gardens.   And I had hundreds of photos of these gardens!  What was going on?  Do the French celebrate their potagers more than the Italians their orti?  I have no idea.  But I will try to find out.

Like many veggie gardens in France, the potager of the Val Joanis winery in Provence is both beautiful and full of practical ideas.  Even for a Canadian gardener.

In the meantime I have to end this post now because I’m leaving for the Rivieras – French and Italian – in a few hours.  This is an experiment.  My first ‘March break’ in many years.  I’m a little worried because I see a lot of rain in the forecasts for both Nice and Ventimiglia.  But at least there is no snow.

Every potager needs a shed. Val Joanis.





The Symphony – Green Gardens Part II

If the Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac (previous post) are an ode , then the gardens of the Manoir d’Eyrignac are a symphony to the colour green.


The manor courtyard.

Depending on what time of day you arrive, you might want to have a bite to eat before you visit the garden.  And since you’re in serious gourmet country, why not try some of the delicacies the Périgord is famous for.  However…

In the centre, Périgord’s exquisite smoked duck, foie gras and walnuts.

… be forewarned.  If you’re even a bit of a foodie or at all susceptible to the charms of bucolic views, once you sit down it won’t be long before you’re sorely tempted to forget about the garden and simply while away the afternoon sampling more of the region’s culinary delights.  Which, of course, you’d have to wash down with more of its wines.


View from my table.

Fortunately, after a while it becomes impossible to resist the temptation to see what lies beyond the manicured field.   A strong café and ‘Allons-y!’


The entrance to the garden is through an ivy-covered arch.

If you continue along the path you will come to the Chambre de verdure.


But you won’t continue along to the ‘Green Room’ just yet because a few steps past the arch another path intersects the one you’re on.  To the right the new path is quite short, so you can clearly see the structure at the end of it.   I haven’t been to China, but it certainly struck me as having a very Chinese air about it. An odd choice, n’est-ce pas?, to put at the entrance to a garden that self-describes as un des rares jardins à la française (one of the rare French gardens) in France today.


As if anticipating the visitor’s puzzlement, the second in of a series of plaques dotted around the property explains.


But I doubt many visitors spend any time meditating in the pagoda because to the left is an amazing sight – the 100-metre long Allée des Charmes.  Avenue of the Hornbeams.

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A spiralling, living buttress.

It takes six gardeners eight days to trim the ‘avenue’.  And since Hornbeam is a fast grower – about 80 cm per year – between the end of May and the end of September, keeping the buttresses in shape requires four, and in some years, even five trims.  The gardeners get a bit of a break with the ‘cylinders’.  They are yew and only need to be trimmed twice a year.

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View of the Hornbeam Avenue from the French Parterre.

Given all the trimming that goes on here, you’d think that as you walk around the property you’d be subjected to a cacophony of trimmers and leaf-blowers and all those other wretched machines that are the only unwelcome sign of spring where I live.  But this is not just a showpiece garden.  This is a jardin passionnément aimé where mere efficiency is not allowed to troubler our tranquillity.  All the trimming is done using manual clippers and the leaves are raked up with – rakes.  There is only one thing that causes the gardeners to lay down their clippers.  Une trop forte chaleur.  A sudden, intense hot spell. Leaves that had previously been in the shadows would be burned by the too sudden exposure to the sun.

From the Hornbeam Avenue the path continues past a few more clipped yews…


Up close the cylindrical yews  are even more remarkable.

… and a quartet of potted topiary trees that stand as if on guard in front of an arch…


…that leads into the Chambre de Verdure.    The idea of creating a space that offers both intimacy and a sense – illusion? – of our control over nature, as well as views of an endless, untamed nature beyond comes from Leon Battista Alberti, who wrote the definitive guide to Renaissance architecture and garden design.  I’m not a fan of the teatro verde as they are called in Italy, but there must have been something about these half-enclosed, half open spaces that appealed to the zeitgeist because they started appearing in all the great gardens of the time.  Many, especially in the Renaissance gardens around Florence, have been carefully recreated.  My favourites are in the gardens of Villa Gamberaia (The Perfect Renaissance Garden, Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, 2013) and Villa Reale (A ‘Real’ Villa, Dec. 8, 2013).   Whether you like them or not, it is surprising to see one here.  When Gilles Sermadiras de Pouzols de Lile, started restoring the gardens of Eyrignac in the mid 1960’s after decades of neglect, his goal was to recreate a garden ‘à la française dans l’esprit du 18e‘.  Which begs the question – what is an Italian Renaissance teatro verde with views inspired by one of Italy’s greatest architects doing in an 18th century style French garden?  Well, like the Chinese pagoda, there is a simple, very reasonable explanation.  In the 17th century when construction of the Manoir began – on the ruins of an ancient castle – there were no gardens. It wasn’t until a century later when work on the gardens began.  Under the direction of an Italian landscape architect.


The planter, discovered when the hillside was terraced, sits in the middle of a rose des vents. What effect, I wonder, does calling a thing a ‘rose of the winds’ instead of a ‘compass’ have on one’s sense of that thing?


From one of the windows in the Green Room a glimpse of the English-inspired park.

Next to the Chambre de Verdure, another surprise.  A large, very un-French expanse of lawn with not a bit of topiary or hint of symmetry in sight.  We’re at a kind of memorial to the 19th century fad in garden design that originated in England and swept across Europe – like a tidal wave, in the words of the inimitable Edith Wharton – and transformed or, depending on your point of view, destroyed gardens throughout France and Italy, leaving ‘natural’, romantic, park-like creations in its wake. Many property owners who had succumbed to the new fad quickly discovered – no doubt to their dismay – that growing conditions in their gardens were not at all amenable to the English Landscape Style.  Unlike in England, summers in the Périgord are intensely hot, and notwithstanding the showers I’d encountered at Marqueyssac, it rarely rains, so the limestone soils tend to be extremely dry.  However, in homage to the ultimately impractical style, not only has a small piece of park been kept, but in a part of the world – Italy included – where grass is meant to be seen, not touched, or stomped on, or disturbed in any way – visitors are given, in this one instance only, permission to walk across it.


As I overheard a French tourist remark, it felt very strange to be walking on the grass.  Even stranger for a Canadian was the fact that it felt strange.


Making my way – gingerly – across the lawn towards the Manor and central courtyard.


At the end of the lawn, Neogothic Arches, a final nod to the English Romantic style.


Entering the courtyard.

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The Manoir has been home to generations of the same family since the 17th century.


The windows of the chapel opposite the Manoir are relatively new. They were made for the baptism of the youngest family member, Patrick, born in 1998.


Deliberately modern, the glass panels are meant to evoke enchantment and gaiety. The colours echo those found in the garden throughout the seasons – green, an obvious choice; brown for the Hornbeam in fall; blue and white for the flowers.


Steps on either side of the fountain, lead from the courtyard to the French Parterre.

In the guide I had been given, visitors are urged to go to the top of the steps for a glimpse of the French parterre and especially, to take note of the ‘perspective’ in the foreground.  I had no idea what they were talking about and since the steps had obviously been off-limits for some time, I could only see the top bits of the mysterious perspective and nothing at all of the parterre.


Somewhere up there is something I’m supposed to keep in mind. For now I’ll just have to trust that the promised explications will be forthcoming un peu plus loin. A little further along.


In the meantime I followed the path along an enormous pool which, like the Italian vivaio of the Renaissance gardens, was once a vivier, stocked with fish for the family table.

Eyrignac is old Occitan dialect for ‘là où l’eau coule.’ (the place where the water flows). In a region where water is a scarce resource, the property is blessed with seven sources (springs), one of which feeds this reflecting pool.


The Italian vases surrounding the Miroir d’eau, the cypresses and the geometrically trimmed wall of yew on the right are more reminders of the strong Italian influence in the garden’s design.

Then I came to the part I was supposed to keep in my mind’s eye.  I read the plaque several times, glancing back and forth at the yew pyramids, trying to see the false perspective.


Maybe the false perspective is more apparent from the other end.  Maybe you need more distance to see the effect. Or maybe I just don’t have a good enough sense of what a true perspective looks like.


La Terrasse Enchantée.  A trompe l’oeil effect that had me so fooled I couldn’t even see it.


Beyond the French Parterre, the Avenue of Hornbeams.


From the French Parterre you retrace your steps, past the Italianate reflecting pond. Through the doorways in the yew wall, glimpses of the next garden.


At the western limits of the garden a Japanese Torii, echoing the Chinese pagoda on the east border, marks the entrance to the Jardin Blanc.


The White Garden, with its wide open views of the countryside beyond, is like a kindred spirit of the Renaissance garden of Villa Gamberaia on the outskirts of Florence.

The White Garden marks the edge of the established gardens.  Although a great deal of work has already been done – trees felled, brush removed and land levelled – this is where you really begin to grasp the enormous challenge and unimaginable labour that was required to create these gardens.  As I’ve said before, maybe you do have to be a bit crazy to be a gardener.


In a few years who knows what this barren field will look like?


Close by, in the Lower Court, a menagerie is taking shape.


A peacock in the making and in the background a rabbit, a tad further along.


One of those custodi (guard dogs) I’d seen all over Tuscany?


The pépinière. Nursery.

By now, unless you’re one of those annoyingly super fit people, you’ve probably reached the point where you really do think you cannot take one more step.  And then, beyond the nursery, off in the far west corner of the property you see the most marvellous sight.  It’s mind over matter.  And maybe the promise to self of a nice glass of something cool and white on the café terrace.


A row of weeping cedars separates the cutting garden from the vegetable garden.


Le Jardin Fleuriste. Cutting Garden. Just gorgeous.


Next to the cutting garden, the potager. Vegetable garden.

Patrick Sermadiras, the current owner, came by to watch us oohing and aahing over the plants.  Like his father, he had been born on the property and had dedicated his life to maintaining and building on what his father had begun.  I overheard him tell the leader of the group I had caught up with that he hoped his son Patrick would continue in their footsteps.


Patrick Sermadiras, the current owners, observes us as we ogle his gardens. I am sure he sees more than we do, but for us visitors it is more than enough.

As I watched him watch us, it seemed to me that our obvious enjoyment and appreciation brought him a great deal of pleasure.  And, I would say, pride.  The good kind of pride, the kind that comes from having created something that helps others forget, even if only for a while, their problems and those of today’s troubled world; that lifts our spirits and renews our faith in mankind’s potential for good.   So, un grand merci, Patrick, for opening your gardens for all of us to enjoy.






An Ode to Green

Green energy, green building codes, green political parties – it’s almost got to the point where you have to use air quotes if you want to talk about what goes on between blue and yellow on the colour spectrum.  Except for one day, March 17, when green in all its bilious shades – such a difficult colour to wear – makes an annual, world-wide comeback.  A day when glasses overflow with green foamy liquids and prestigious architectural wonders – the London Eye, Sydney Opera House, Leaning Tower of Pisa – are lit up in shades redolent of guacamole, peas and limes.  Not even the Pyramids or the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro are spared.  And perhaps the most lurid sight of all – the green river running through Chicago.  (The officials insist the dye is non-toxic, but you have to wonder where all that green water goes.  Does the dye just disintegrate?)   If you’re not keen on any of the above but would still like to pay tribute to the green saint, here’s an idea that will not leave you feeling green long after the festivities are over – a visit to a garden that is a veritable ode to green.  It’s in the Dordogne region of south western France.


Saint-Cirq Lapopie.

La Dordogne is a region of castles and prehistoric caves and charming medieval villages with colourful, bustling markets, that doesn’t (yet) have the crowds – and prices – of Provence.


Village entrance.

British travellers tend to be much more familiar with the region than North Americans. Maybe something to do with the Hundred Years’ War.  Or perhaps the resemblance to the villages that once dotted rural areas of their native country.



Saint-Cirq Lapopie is so dripping with charm I wasn’t surprised to learn that it is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.  But when I also saw it described as le Village Préféré des Français I was confused.  What is the difference between a beautiful village and a favourite village?  Is one more prestigious than the other?  On my way to the gardens of Italy and France I’ve visited quite a few villages.  At the entrance to some of them are plaques bearing the ‘Plus Beaux Villages‘ logo (in Italy – I Borghi Più Belli).  Some of them were indeed beautiful.  Others left me wondering what I was missing, and still others struck me as the quintessence of charm and yet there wasn’t a plaque in sight.


Like a movie set. Only real people leading real lives actually live in these buildings.

I decided to dig around a bit, see what was up with the two designations.  Maybe I would learn something that would help me avoid the not so beautiful beaux villages.   What I discovered offered an interesting insight into marketing in today’s tourism industry, but as a surefire guide as to which places, as Michelin puts it, ‘mérite le détour, the exercise was not as enlightening as I’d hoped.


It turns out that Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an independent association.  The goal of the member villages is ‘to make the exceptional quality of their heritage known and recognized and to invite you to encounter their history, their land, their culture and their inhabitants.’   It was established in the early 1980’s as a way of revitalizing villages that were dying and/or had been largely bypassed by national tourism campaigns.  Interestingly, a village is considered ‘dead’ when most of the houses are either in ruins and thus uninhabitable or have been restored as holiday homes for foreigners or French citizens.  The overall improvement of life in rural France and the return of meaningful economic activity are high on the association’s agenda.  Turning villages into open-air museums or museum-villages is a no-no. I was reminded of what the mayor of Chédigny had said about the risks of making your village too beautiful and thereby attracting too many tourists. (‘The Village That Tore Up Its Sidewalks’, Aug. 10, 2014)   Since it was established in the early 1980’s, the association has been a huge success.  After joining, some villages have seen their revenue from tourism increase by as much as 50%.  As of 2015 155 villages (out of a total of 32, 000 in all France) had joined and the plan is to cap membership at 200.  All of which is of course wonderful.  Admirable.  But – there always seems to be a but – it is the nitty gritty of how membership is gained that explains the – let’s call them ‘anomalies’.


A very grand church for a very tiny village. The tightly clipped boxwood and yew in the church garden are a foretaste of the garden I would soon be visiting.

There are no contests, no Michelin-style inspectors who go around the country looking for up and coming beautiful villages. In a nutshell, if you want to join, you apply and provided you meet a few criteria, you’re probably in.  And the criteria?  The population of your village, which must be in a rural location, cannot surpass 2,000 and you must have at least two national heritage sites within your walls and finally, the majority of the villagers must support the application.  Which means that an ambitious and dedicated mayor and a few equally ambitious and dedicated villagers can make all the difference as to whether a village seeks – or in some cases declines – membership.  Which explains the ‘anomalies’.


There is a Dordogne River, but the river that flows by Saint-Cirq is the Lot.

And France’s Favourite Village?   That one is an actual contest, held once a year by the French TV station, France 2.  Twenty-two villages are entered in the competition, one from each region of mainland France and viewers vote for their favourite.  In 2012 the winner was Saint-Cirq Lapopie.  The financial boost to the local economy was undoubtedly huge. Like the Plus Beaux Villages the stakes are high; even getting in the top five can bring enormous benefits.  But I was glad things had quietened down by the time I visited in 2014.  I wouldn’t have wanted to have been anywhere near the tiny village when the tourists – over 400,000, most of them French – started arriving that year.


If you’re OK with heights – and no railings – climb up the cliff on the outskirts of the village for another view of the Lot River.


You could happily spend your entire holiday visiting the villages of Dordogne, preferably on market day, as well as a few caves – don’t miss Lascaux! – and there would still be lots left over for a return trip.  But for this horticultural salute to St. Patrick, we’re off to visit one of the Dordogne’s great, green gardens.  It’s about 80 km north of Saint-Cirq Lapopie – but on the narrow, twisting roads and with lots of stops for photos, it takes at least an hour and a half.  The garden is on a ridge overlooking another remarkable village – Roque Gageac.


From a distance it looks as if some of the village homes are built right into the mountain.

The region is named for the wide river that flows by the village – the Dordogne River.  For centuries the region had been known as le Périgord, but after the Revolution, when all of France was divided into ‘manageable’ régions and départements, the powers that be in Paris renamed if for the river.  Confusingly, maybe only for tourists, the French often seem to prefer the ancient name.


The illusion persists even when you’re close up.


Further down the river, the suburbs.

By the time I arrived at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueysssac, dark clouds had moved in from east.  Now and then I could hear the unmistakable rumblings of thunder.


Far below, the village of Roque Gageac.

The skies to the west still looked fine.  Maybe the weather would hold and I’d have time to tour the whole garden.  It was much smaller than most – less than one kilometre from one end of the ridge to the other.  But there’d be no retracing steps.  No dawdling.  No lingering over views.   Oh dear.


First view. Beyond the terrace, the 17th century castle.

In French the gardens are suspendus.  In English they hang.  Although the English term seems rather graceless compared to the French, both words mean essentially the same thing, a hodgepodge of unappealing attributes  – dangling, drooping, flapping, flopping, floppy, loose, pendent, suspended, swinging, unattached, unsupported.  The secondary meanings are equally unattractive – undecided, unresolved, up in the air. Nomenclature notwithstanding, like the original Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which by all accounts did not flap or droop, the ‘Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac’ are a marvel and an intriguing testament to mankind’s desire to tame – dominate? – nature.


Close to the castle, the ‘Folie de Buis‘, a boxwood labyrinth.

It all started at the end of the 17th century when the first of a long line of Marqueyssac’s  – the property has been owned by the same family since then – decided to create a series of terraces around the castle.  But as often happens, it took the arrival of one individual who was not only passioné about gardening, but following an extended trip to Italy, also passionato about all things Italian (funny how that happens), to bring the gardens to a whole new level.  After he inherited the property in 1861, Julien de Cerval set about transforming what had been a rather simple potager into a garden like those he had seen in Italy.


An unusually curvaceous labyrinth.

He started planting cypresses, Maritime Pines and buis. Boxwood.  Lots of boxwood.  Tens of thousands of them.  From a strictly horticultural point of view it was the perfect choice for the exposed ridge.  Box is extremely drought resistant and adapted avec obstination to the limestone soil.  By the late 1990’s, when the garden was first opened to the public, there were over 150,000 boxwood plants in the manicured jardins around the castle and in the ‘untamed’, forested area – le parc – at the far end of the ridge.  All of which are trimmed twice a year.  By hand.  Using manual clippers.  Because electric trimmers grind the leaves and turn them yellow.


The sound of the clippers is an inherent part of the garden visit. The real thing is surprisingly pleasant, unlike the electronic version on the website which will drive you crazy.


The Allée des Rosmarins, a recent creation.  In the distance, one of many feudal castles perched on the surrounding hills.

From the Rosemary Path you can take one of three paths to the Belvedère at the far end of the ridge.  Given the dark clouds, I decided to take the Promenade des Falaises, the Cliff Walk, on my way out – minus the Via Ferrrata; I wasn’t about to have my first try at rock climbing in the Dordogne – and the Grande Allée on my way back.  If it rained I figured the forest would provide at least a bit of shelter.


It was hard to enjoy the view from the Belvedere with that rapidly approaching wall of rain.

I headed for the forest.


The thing is, one gets to do whatever one wants in one’s own garden.

In May the garden was a uniform palette of green, so I was surprised to learn that the entire forest floor had been planted with wild cyclamen, the fall-blooming kind I had come across in the forested mountains overlooking the Amalfi coast.  The Latin name, Cyclamen hederifolium, refers to the ivy (edera in Italian) shaped leaves. Curiously, the common name in French is Cyclamen de Naples.  Perhaps an early French tourist saw them for the first time in the same mountains as I had.


Cyclamen de Naples in a mountain forest along the Amalfi Coast in October.


According to the guide, since 2006 the gardens have been enrichis with sculptures.


The Asile du Poète struck me as a place more likely to curdle any creative juices rather than get them flowing.

The Grande Allée dates from the 18th century when a military officer wanted a run where he could exercise his horses.


Up until now I had only seen boxwood growing in full sun. I had no idea it could thrive in the shade.

Back at the gardens I was tempted to check out the labyrinth.


But then I heard the anxious voices of tourists struggling to find the way out, which dampened my interest significantly.  As it was, the skies opened a few minutes after I took the photo below and I was not damp, but drenched by the time I reached my car.


Next:  Since we’re on the topic – one more take on the green theme