A Colonial Christmas Tryon Palace

Tryon Palace

Located in New Bern, North Carolina, near the intercoastal waterway, you can experience North Carolina’s colonial past in a beautiful historic building that dates back to 1770. John Hawks, a London architect,  was brought here by Royal Governor William Tryon to build an impressive brick Georgian style structure to house his family and to become the first permanent state capitol of North Carolina.

Doing a demo on outdoor Christmas arrangements at North Carolina History Center at Tryon Palace

An invitation to speak at Tryon Palace in North Carolina, gave me an opportunity to see how this colonial palace decorated for the Yuletide season. Similar to Williamsburg style with “della robbia” type of decorations – lots of fruits, pods, and other natural decorations are used. See my post on a Illuminating Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg for more colonial style decorations. Tryon Palace has never been on my radar before but now I can’t believe that I have never heard of it!

Beautiful entry into the Palace; I love the Palm leaf fans that are spray painted

The use of fabric really was stunning and unusual- a treatment that I would love to duplicate. Beautiful fabric swags are  gathered in at the top of the ceiling in the Council Chamber (top photo); The room is used for dancing on Candlelight evenings. The first sessions of the assembly for the State of North Carolina were held here after the revolution and housed the state governors until 1784. After fire destroyed the building in 1789, the building and grounds were rebuilt and restored to its present glory.

Double iron -work gates are decorated with matching wreaths

Classic Williamsburg fruit motifs are used above doorways
Fresh green garlands were used as well as faux and a mix of the two

“Seasons of Giving: A Candlelight Christmas Celebration” was the theme this year with the Candlelight tradition at Tryon Palace in its 38th year. Decorations were inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, historic characters in period clothing were present, and holiday vignettes spanning across three centuries were shown. For a schedule, go to Tryon Palace’s website.

Definitely Tryon Palace warrants a visit just to see the fabulous gardens, that look good even in December.  For another reason to visit, when I stopped by on a hot, hot, day this summer, the docents were conducting ‘Outlander Tours’. The site where Governor Martin held Claire hostage, the Palace is a destination for ‘Outlander’ fans.

Tryon Palace conducted Outlander tours of the Palace
Encompassing more than 16 acres of gardens and landscapes, the Palace gardens were designed by noted landscape architect Morley Jeffers Williams in the 1950s and represent the formal garden style of 18th-century Britain.

For Christmas decorating, 29 volunteers, among the other staff of Tryon Palace, help out. Moving objects, creating faux food displays, coordinating holiday tours, and assisting with adhering to “period correctness” are all part and parcel of the many details of creating a special Christmas experience. Hadley Cheris, Gardens and Greenhouse Manager, is the point person for all this activity, and is energetic and knowledgeable about the creation of the historic decorations.

Volunteers at work at Tryon Palace

For more posts on decorating period houses, go to Hampton Mansion.  The importance of using age appropriate materials – like fruits, pods, and fresh greens – that were available during the historic period is important to keep the antique context of the house.

Dried pods and flowers appropriate for period decorating
Dried flowers for sale in Williamsburg

The 29 volunteers contributed over 250 hours of work over a week and a half period. Decorating begins November 13 and is completed on November 22  at Tryon Palace. Included in the decorating are three historic homes, the exteriors of 13 buildings, and seven large entryways/gates.

Fruit fan with pineapples
Entry steps to Tryon Palace
Closeup of the rosettes on swag
Closeup of an arrangement
I love the fabric draping of the staircase

Candlelight tours are popular as well as circus acts, history vignettes, Jonkonnu troupe (African-American holiday celebration), music performances, and candlelit grounds are all part of the Tryon Palace experience. For more information, go to Tryon Palace.

Filoli Knot Gardens

Filoli miniature knot garden
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance; the mini knot gardens are set to the side of the larger ones

On my recent trip to California with the Garden Blogger’s Fling, we visited Filoli, an estate garden that wowed us with all of its formal gardens and big expanses. Composed of 16 acres of formal gardens in a 654 acre estate, Filoli is a California State Historic Landmark Site.

Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli
Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli

I loved wandering the gardens that hot, hot day(over 100!) and looked for every bit of shade that I could find.  But when I saw this miniature knot garden standing next to the larger knot gardens, it stopped me in my tracks and I took my time to look at it and marvel. I have always loved the precision and beauty, and the geometry of knot gardens. And I love miniatures, so this little garden was a combination of my passions!

The miniature knot garden at Filoli
The miniature knot garden at Filoli

Designing Knots

I have designed a  total of one knot garden in my landscape design career and would love to do another. The primary hurdle to knot gardens is the high degree of maintenance, which entails constant shaping and trimming, and that doesn’t fit into modern lifestyles anymore. All that clipping, fussing, and weeding is not most people’s idea of fun. But a miniature one; Much more doable! I was instantly smitten and ready to try one at home for myself.

Installing a knot garden for a client
Installing a knot garden for a client

Plants for Knots 

So, what plants did they use at Filoli for the minis?:  Myrtus communis ssp tarentina ‘Compacta’ or Dwarf Myrtle,  Teucrium chamadrys or Germander, Leptospermum scoparium , and Buxus microphylla var. japonica or Morris Midget Boxwood.

The gift shop sold small plants of three of these varieties if you wanted to start your own little knot garden.

Sign in the gift shop at Filoli
Sign in the gift shop at Filoli

For the larger knots, the plants used were Lavender, Wooly Horehound, Germander, Crimson Pygmy Barberry, Tuscan Blue Rosemary, Grey Santolina, and Dwarf Myrtle.

Large knot gardens at Filoli
Large knot gardens at Filoli


Knot Gardens were thought to originate from ancient Arabian gardens, but are more commonly associated with European gardens of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan England, where the nobility enjoyed the colors and patterns from their castle windows.

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...
English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bristol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main purpose was to display royal coats of arms. Also popular were designs of plants or animals, or stitches of embroidery. An open knot, like at Filoli, would be filled with colored gravel and soil, and a closed knot, would be filled with flowers.

One garden that I worked on similar to a knot that we filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
One garden that I worked on similar to an open knot, that I filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware

Filoli Knot Gardens are Unique

What makes Filoli’s knots unusual is the three-dimensional look of over and under-lapping strands that are shaped very carefully to give an intricate and wave-like appearance. Filoli’s large knot gardens were designed and donated by the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club in 1976. Each knot is 36 feet square, and plants were placed on one-foot centers using string lines to get everything precisely square. The knot gardens are located in the panel gardens, and are bordered to the north and south by hedges of Hibiscus syriacus and Copper Beech, Fagus sylvatica. The plant material in the knot garden was chosen for attributes of contrasting colors, fineness of the foliage, and their similar rates of growth.

The miniatures were the idea of Mrs Duncan Low, also a member of the garden club, in 1991. Workers made two 36″ square boxes of wood that were engraved on the sides with brick lines to resemble the brick walls of the garden. The tiny plants were planted one inch on center and are weekly pruned with bonsai sheers.

Care of the Knots at Filoli

The larger knots are renovated every five years, with the lavender and santolina being totally replaced as these plants don’t perform well under intense pruning and sheering. They are watered by irrigation once a week in the warmer months and fertilized annually in late fall because of the extreme root competition. The knots are also hedged hard in late summer after blooming, and an application of redwood sawdust is applied annually.

Creating a miniature knot garden is maybe a future winter project for me. I have located a source of plants, and I just need to create that wooden box!

I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center
I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center