Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stonecrop Gardens and the Pinnacle Posse

What brought us out to Stonecrop Gardens on Saturday morning? It was the garden's annual spring sale of all things alpine: charming and diminutive plants, hypertufa troughs, and tufa rock for sale. And of course, all this was decorated by the obsessive niche group who love this kind of gardening.

Kim, John and his friend Neil met me at the Foundry for breakfast in the little riverfront town of Cold Spring before heading out on route 301 to the garden. You'd pass the entrance unless you were intent on finding it. 

Stonecrop is garden/home of Frank Cabot, founder of the Garden Conservancy. To grossly understate Cabot's many contributions to horticulture, he his perhaps most known for his work to protect America's stellar private gardens. Stonecrop Gardens is the model for what the Conservancy's goal is. Through the Conservancy, special gardens have been made accessible to the public through the Open Days program. Wherever you live in the United States, thanks to Frank, there is a private garden open near you.

Well, thankfully, Stonecrop is near me. I've been to the garden one and a half times before (do your self a favor and call ahead to check garden hours!), but never to attend the alpine plant sale they host there annually. Since being introduced to the underworld of alpines and their devotees (the Pinnacle Posse?), this was the first time I've seen so many of these little plants in person. My eyes were as big as the biggest Gentian I saw, but nowhere near as blue.
I was so overwhelmed by the names! So many genus I'd never heard of before, or had any clue what they would do once I planted them in my troughs.  All I could do was allow my curiosity and reactions to guide my choices. How was I supposed to know which ones would naturally grow beside one another? In what kind of location? Crevasse? Scree? Do I treat a trough like a garden and attempt to achieve a long season of bloom, or stick to the spring explosion? Oy. You can see what was running through my head. John has been into this for some time now, and is much more knowledgeable than me; he encouraged me to just choose what I am attracted to. Great advice. I am psyched with what I chose, and I can't wait to get them situated! Kim got some plants that looked really nice together; can't wait to see how she arranges them. I am really excited to dig into these exciting new plants!

The troughs were amazing. Check it out:
This is a really interesting twist on planting rockery plants: plant them in rocks!
What about the textures that the Stonecrop trough builders were able to achieve?
This was my favorite; I just don't know how they did it!  Doesn't it look like coral?
Tufa rock, already planted.  This can be placed right into your trough as is. Insta-garden!
A little planting vignette:
These pieces of tufa are very porous and are basically more air than rock. Alpine plants grow exceptionally well in this media as their specialized roots find their way into these air pockets and adhere. How else is a teeny plant supposed to stay put on a windswept slope towering high above sea levels? 
So after I put my little ones in the car, I went back out into the garden. The last time I was here it was late summer and raining. Today it was 80˚F, pure blue skies, and I'm armed with a bottle of water and my camera on this sunny spring day . . .

I walked up to a trough-making demo, and stopped to ask some questions. Steve, the superintendent of the garden, was packing Stonecrop's hypertufa mix into molds. He let me in on some of his experiences making troughs over the past 20 years.

Steve dyes his mix because the sun bleaches the troughs so quickly, that they end up looking like what they are: cement. 

He uses a foam core to pack the mix around. His method is easier than what I've done, but is best suited for smaller troughs. The stick he uses to pack the mix eliminates any air pockets that may lead to cracking. 
I love speaking with fellow gardeners: there are so many ways to do the same thing, each method more ingenious than the next. Thanks for taking the time, Steve! 

Steve suggested I follow the path to the ledge garden by the pond. This was good advice.

Consider this good advice for anyone who is in and around the Hudson Valley. Go visit this garden gem! Not just a garden for alpines, Stonecrop encompasses a conservatory, alpine houses, perennial garden, woodland garden, and many charming elements are there to be experienced! Cheers!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

PLEASE, people . . . it's 2009, part 3

Problems need solutions.

So now that Earth Day is over, Arbor Day has passed, what can you do to keep the momentum going? 

To illustrate, a sidenote: this past Earth Day I listened to Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx speak with, among others, Robert Redford in an interview on WNYC.  Of all the things they spoke about, Redford said something that totally resonated with me.  To paraphrase, 'green' is a word that has lost its meaning. We are bombarded by it and now it has lost its power.  What 'green' now means for Redford, and for me, is the future. 'Green' is a state of being, of living, of responsibility that will guide our actions from now on.  Living responsibly is the tao, the new way, that we are beginning to live, and will continue to live.

A simple, yet powerful message.

What is the tao of the garden? The new way is one that is thoughtful, responsible, harmless, and harmonious.  It means taking into consideration that all life forms that a gardener deals with has a purpose (cue The Byrds' "Turn, turn, turn").  

When taking a deeper look into our environment, we see that it is a beautiful choreography of life and function.  To destroy that complexity with force and chemical is to deeply disrespect what exists around us.  Rather, we should join the dance, and lead what occurs in in our gardens like a strong partner. Many ways abound to kindly and gently achieve the gardens and landscapes of our dreams without bitch-slapping Mother Nature.  

To carry the theme of the other posts in this PLEASE, people . . . series, we'll look at the three main topics that gardeners preoccupy themselves with: unwanted plants, troublesome pests, and encouraging growth.

The cutesy "weeds are plants with bad press" is not enough to make you love them. Here's how to get rid of them:
  • Get out there and pull them out.  So many observations and quiet moments are had when engaged in the seemingly mindless task of weeding.  With the right tools, it doesn't take much effort, and being regular about the task reduces weeds, and keeps you up-to-the-minute of the many moments in your garden.
  • Mulch. There is great benefit to using good quality mulch.  First, it keeps weed seeds in the soil from germinating, and it prevents surface weed seeds from penetrating the soil. Secondly, it will break down and add loads of nutrients and  beneficial microbial life to your soil. Third, mulch retains soil moisture, thus reducing your watering needs.
  • Cover the ground. If wisely chosen, plants will help you! Covering the ground with either traditional ground covering plants, or by a densely planted garden means no exposed soil. No exposed soil leaves very little space for a weed seed to germinate, let alone survive.
  • Reduce compaction, apply compost, and overseed; mow high. This is for the lawn-lovers. Some weeds thrive in compacted soil (um, isn't the lawn for running, playing, and all kinds of compacting activities?), so the natural alternative is to reduce that compaction. Aerating the soil allows for air, and water to penetrate, thus creating favorable conditions for the turf grass species to thrive in.  Spreading compost over the aerated lawn puts those nutrients directly in contact with the soil and roots, virtually injecting that turf with nutrients and microlife. Overseeding is the same concept as covering the ground: leave no space for weed seeds to get light and moisture.  Follow that with a high mowing height (3-4") and now you're shading out any possible chance for weed seeds to thrive.
With over 1 million insect species in the world, it is a losing battle for you. What you should realize is that 99% of the insects you see in your garden are BENEFICIAL.  They are your friends.  Kinda like the people at the bank: you don't really care to know them, but they help you out, you know they work for you, and generally, you are glad that they are there. I happen to love my bankers. And I love insects.  Get to know them, encourage their existence, and they will silently reward you, I promise. Pests can also mean disease, and there is a better way around that too.
  • Identify your "pest". Chances are, what you are seeing is a beneficial insect that is eating the things that you didn't even know were causing you grief. Why mindlessly destroy a benevolent creature? You may not kill an insect unless you know if it is doing you and your crop harm. A great book to get your hands on: Photographic Atlas of Entomology, James L. Castner, and Garden Insects of North America, Whitney Cranshaw. If it IS a pest like aphids, whitefly, imported cabbage looper, or leaf hoppers, there are beneficial insects that prefer to dine on these nuisances. Introduce these insects, and watch the problem go away. Anecdote: last spring I was monitoring my crop of fava beans. The previous year's crop was bunk as the plants were COVERED in black nasty aphids. But this year, I noticed the aphids were back, but there was something else . . . lady beetle larvae were deee-vouring the aphids.  I even saw some adults in on the smörgosbord! Sweet!  So, I did NOTHING!  I simply monitored the populations of aphids:lady beetles and satisfactorily allowed them to do their work.  Not an extra ounce of work from me for a problem that resolved itself.  Nice.
  • Attract beneficial insects. I've written of this topic before. Being sure to plants flowers that are full of nectar will ensure that a bevy of beneficials will be stopping by your watering hole.  Umbel flowers are known to be some of the best: fennel, dill, angelica, Ammi majus, etc. Providing a shallow source of water is also helpful to keep your bennies happy. 
  • When they just have to die, use non-toxic remedies. My favorite? 1:1 rubbing alcohol and water! Mix in a spray bottle, and you have a serious dehydrating solution for soft-bodied insects. You can see the aphids shrivel before your eyes. Very satisfying. I'm obviously no Buddhist.
These are definitely a problem for many, but most issues can be solved by the culture you provide. Same as with insects, properly i.d. your plant diseases.  Bring samples to a trustworthy garden center, or call up your local county cooperative extension office and have them help. Here are a few common phyto-ailments:
  • Powdery mildew is the result of poor culture, and one of the most common foliar diseases.  PM will only infect plants susceptible to it. The spores of this fungi overwinter on infected leaves left from the previous season -- a good reason for fall clean-up! If you have it, it probably infected your plants during a time of high humidity, excess shade, and poor air circulation. Either way, mix baking soda and water in a spray bottle and treat infected leaves out of midday sun. You may also selectively prune shrubs, roses, even perennials to create a more open network of branches, canes, or stem. This will encourage air to move freely around theses plants. Better yet, research which plants are most susceptible, and avoid them.  If you already have some of these plants in your landscape, consider their location and move them as necessary. And, if you can't move your ancient heirloom lilac, then be vigilant about cleanup, foliar spray with compost tea to prevent an infection, and monitor and treat any signs if you see them.
  • For other common diseases, check this out.
Every gardener wants to ensure that their plant investments will make floriferous and fruitful returns. For far too long, that insurance was blue and made of salt.  The tao of fertilizing uses only compost, compost tea, minerals, sea nutrients, and deep consideration.  Seriously, the combination of these nutrient sources will greatly, naturally, and vigorously affect the growth of your plants. 
  • Compost. The rocksteady way for you to build better soil.  Build better soil, release more nutrients for your plants. Apply 1/4"-1/2" of compost in early spring as soil microbes are warming up to the idea of eating again. It has been said that you can never add to much compost to your soil. Because the nutrients are not yet fully available from the microbes that live in the compost, this organic material acts as a slow release fertilizer. Its bulk aids in moisture retention in the soil, and acts as a soil conditioner. Too much is just enough.
  • Compost tea works in perfect conjunction with compost. A highly concentrated, biologically-active soil amendment, compost tea puts an exponential amount of beneficial soil microbes right where they need to be: in the soil. These microbes get to work immediately releasing nutrients essential for accelerated growth and disease resistance (not to be confused with treatment) in a form that is immediately available to plant roots. Bi-weekly to monthly applications of well-brewed compost tea will give you vigorous results that will sincerely, and happily, shock you. Think Red Bull for your soil.
  • Minerals make up almost 50% of soil composition. Pretty essential part of soil fertility, no? By adding natural sources of minerals to your soil, you are ensuring a constant stream of slow-release nutrients that will last for years. Rock phosphates, and many other alternative soil amendments will give your soil a deep and powerful fertility.
  • Sea plants and kelp are not naturally available in all climates and environments, but sea plants offer a powerhouse of micronutrients that are pretty hard to beat.
So this 2009, you now know there are so many ways to make amends with our previous sins. Please, people, let's choose the new way.  Even if you don't jump on this train now, check out the schedule and know that whenever you are ready, it will be waiting for you in the station with a reserved seat of good conscience.

* A note on insect and disease pests: a stressed plant is a weakened plant. A plant in this predicament actually gives off plant-pheromones equivalent to distress signals.  These signals are picked up on by hungry insects who descend and attack. Diseases will only take hold on a plant whose defenses are inadequate to ward off their objectionable overtures. Take care to keep your plants well-placed, well-hydrated, and well-nourished to keep them free of preventable problems!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

PLEASE, people . . . it's 2009, part 2

So, I covered red mulch.  Let's not revisit that.  I used more CAPS writing that piece than I have ever used in my life.

As we approach this Earth Day, I am proud to observe that as a nation, we are raising up our heads and knocking the sand out of our ears. We are experiencing the long-awaited luxury of a fresh start with this new year, this new spring, and this new direction. So much has been collectively happening: new vegetable gardens, demanding responsibly forested lumber, changing incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescents, saying no to plastic bags at the grocery store . . . but what are we doing to address the necessary changes to our lawn and garden protocol? I'm talking about the smaller environment that we live in everyday, the very environment that we the people have most control over: our own backyards.

The issue of paramount importance is the triumvirate of chemical pest control, broad spectrum herbicides, and chemical fertilizers. During the past eight long years, we heard Alfred E. Neuman speak of the 'axis of evil' . . .  if only he was attacking these horticultural chemicals, then maybe it would have garnered him a touch of credibility. Alas, we know that story. 

Like I referred to in the previous article, major "green industry" companies like Miracle-Gro, Scotts, Monstanto, Ortho, etc. have provided products touted to give you an emerald lawn, to block your lot from trespassing weeds, and to kill every manner of arthropod that dares crawl. Anything but "green", the origin, production, marketing, and gross misuse of these chemicals is a topic that the home gardener must seriously consider.  

It is no secret that herbicides and nitrogen-based fertilizers are by-products of the military-industrial complex.  Since the 1940's, the residential consumer has been encouraged to use these chemical products around their homes. Our great nation used 2, 4,-D, known to the world as Agent Orange, to defoliate the canopy and eliminate the ground layer of vegetation in Vietnam. 

Here come the CAPS:
20 MILLION GALLONS OF DANGEROUS CHEMICALS RAINED DOWN FROM MILITARY AIRCRAFT CAUSING NIGHTMARISH BIRTH DEFECTS THAT ARE STILL BEING REPORTED. I could not bring myself to post images of the children who live with the hideous misfortune of their genetic modification. The power and capacity for destruction of these man-made chemicals is chilling. Let this truth resonate as you pause when reaching for that jug of RoundUp. However safely it can be used, just remember where it came from. 

According to the EPA, 95% of the pesticides used on residential lawns are probable carcinogens. If you use pesticides, are you seriously still scratching your head as to why you buried your dog recently? Your children and pets roll all over that green grass, innocent to what serious harm you may ignorantly be putting them in. The fact is this: we are willingly and unwittingly exposing ourselves, our families, and our pets to some really serious chemicals that, for decades, we have taken for granted and blindly accepted as safe. 

Your neighbor may never take down those idiotic signs: do you see the image? Who are the pests, us? How f***ed up is it that you can't walk in the space between the street and your house for 24 hours?? How are you supposed to get in?

So, you've given up on the herbicides. Great.  You've even stopped spraying your lawn for "pests". Good. But give up on fertilizing?  No way.

Yes way.

This is what happens when you apply the "blue stuff": The macronutrients in the bag are made up of soluble salts.  If you live in the Northeast, you know that salt eats cars.  You know the funny feeling your lips get after eating movie theater popcorn? All things being equal, salts destroy the balance of life in the soil beneath your feet.  You want to protect and encourage that soil biology with every action you take.  If the soil biology are at healthy levels, it does 100% of your "fertilizing" for you. The billions of microbes that exist under your feet are obviously out for themselves, but also work with amazing synergy to protect the source of food that keeps the soil foodweb alive: plant roots and its exudates.  

This co-dependent symbiosis a beautiful life system that endlessly fascinates me. But it's ruined when an overzealous home gardener sprinkles fertilizer down, then throws a few more handfuls for good measure. No one reads directions, and when they do, they are out there on a regular basis with this stuff. Excuse me, but it's bullshit to have to fertilize your plants every two weeks. The result? Lots of green, succulent growth forced from a shallow-rooted plant.  A weak plant attracts insect damage.  Insect damage attracts your attention and you reach for the pesticide. The pesticide, well, we covered that. What makes man think that they know better than nature?  I have no problem trying to encourage the best potential a plant has, but I am saying there is a better way, through culture. Hence, horticulture.

Why are we letting ourselves live like this? Look, we can only change ourselves. Hopefully the ripples of our positive changes will reach the edges of the pond we live in and touch the shores of someone else's.  Check out the city of Seattle's page on natural yard care. It will give you the basics to get started, and links for further info.  

Look for the 3rd installment of my 2009 wake-up call where I will outline alternative actions for all of the above nasties.

Now is the time--like it never has been time before.

Friday, April 17, 2009

PLEASE, people . . . it's 2009.

Now is the time.  The mad dash.  The gardening season has officially begun.

So you know what that means.  All of residential America goes through the motions of maintaining their gardens and landscapes.  

In droves they arrive like flocks of sheep in the parking lots of big box stores and garden centers. Inside, shelves mesmerize with the dizzying repetition of bottles, bags, and labels. KILL, DIE, PREVENT, TREAT. They leave, armed with their weapons to ensure that the bugs, weeds, crabgrass, powdery mildew, black spot, etc. LOSE (because this is war, you know). Their cars are filled with rolls of weed barrier, 3 cubic foot bags of mulch, bales of peat moss, and other mindless methods. 

Why? Because Miracle-Gro says so, because Scotts told you to, and because some ill-advised employee parrots misinformation. Spread nasty crap all over your plants and recreational areas, and then blanket bare soil with red mulch. Why?  Because that's what you are supposed to do. 

America: where red mulch reigns, and the smell of poison floats on a breeze.

It makes me physically ill. Really, really ill.

Let's address the red mulch first.  I do not care WHO you are, WHERE you live, or WHAT you like: RED MULCH IS UNACCEPTABLE.  Remember when everyone thought that the mullet was a cool hairstyle? An easy, carefree way to have it all when it comes to your hair? Yeah, some people still think that way, as is exemplified at any county fair. RED MULCH is like the mullet of landscapes: ugly, passé, and quite possibly the best way to announce to all who pass that you have HORRIBLE taste.  PLEASE STOP. IT HURTS MY EYES. 

Oh, yeah. I'm being blunt. There is just no other way.  If I didn't garden in New York, where the soil is brown, and instead cultivated plants in Alabama, where the soil is red, then MAYBE the ubiquitous red mulch might be acceptable. I'm talking purely aesthetics here, I'm not even GOING into the function of mulches or why mulching allies your plants, soil, and resources.

RED MULCH IS NOT NICE, IT IS NOT FUN, AND IT MAKES YOUR GARDEN LOOK LIKE A GAS STATION. Do you want your garden to look like a gas station? Do you? I am sorry to say, but some of you out there just cannot be trusted to respond with a resounding 'No'.  

The horticultural standards of this nation are obviously in its adolescent years. Our amazing landscapes are painfully punctuated by the acne pustules of red mulch mounds. It is disgraceful, and we can do better. YES, WE CAN. While there are so many garden faux pas to address, this is the one that needs to be fought the hardest.  

So PLEASE, before you run to your local purveyor of fine garden accoutrements, and definitely before you load red cedar mulch into your vehicle, consider this equation: 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

NYBG Orchid Show: a modern makeover

It started with Dale Chihuly's glittering glass sculptures in the Enid A. Haupt glasshouse. This past summer, Henry Moore's heavy metal punctuated turf and framed views. This winter, it was Burle Marx, Brazilian landscape modernist designer, who brought the latest wave of haute art to the epicenter of haute horticulture.

My best friend, Janelle Garguilo, a compelling graphic and interior designer, had the brilliant plan of going to the Bronx Zoo with my mother and my nephew.  Me? I invited myself.  But today was a wintry slap in the face: it was just too cold to watch the lions freezing on the cement savannah.  Instead, we detoured across the rugged safari of Southern Boulevard to the Enid A. Haupt conservatory for a warmer stroll through the last week of the NYBG Orchid Show: Brazilian Modern

As a lover of art, I find it so progressive that the New York Botanical Garden, that dusty New York institution, has taken these "risks" to allure visitors with a quality blend of plants and art. It only makes sense, and I wish they had done it sooner. 

The marriage of art and horticulture has a long history.  To really know a garden is to look at it as you would any expression of art. Truth be told, so many horticulturists and landscape designers I've met were previously trained as artists, and that experience is integral to their successful designs: Lynden Miller as a painter, and Jeff Mendoza as a sculptor, just to name some of NYC's contemporary finest. 

As the last reserve of orchids are removed and restrung, a few highlights before this experience fades:

How's this for a hanging basket?  Wow! 
I really love seeing horticulture pushed to an extreme like this!  The monotone Phalenopsis dangle just as they should, and the bright green pitchers of the Nepenthes that are tucked in add some serious interest. And what about that unknown aroid spreading it's HUGE leaves like it would below the canopy of a tropical rainforest? I'm woozy.  
This gives the container-planting philopsophy of "thrillers, fillers, and spillers" whole new perspective!

My nephew, Nick, . . .
 . . . was pretty impressed by the wall of pure white Phalenopsis.
I have to admit, so was I.  The is something to be said about seeing plants en masse -- it is candy that only your eyes can devour and taste.

I am always inspired by the color combinations that Fran and Marc mastermind.  Again, true artistry must exist for a successful planting display. My eyes always zero in on the subtleties of the tones and ranges of colors that are combined. 
Don't think you need a degree to put together a great combo. All you need is a personal aesthetic that will guide your visceral responses as you create a floral or textural vignette. Play time! To start playing with great color combos, all you need is to observe the palette and pull those colors out.  

Look here: the inflorescences of the bromeliad in the lower right are long gone, but the bright green ovaries and the orange stems and pedicels are a natural nod to the Pollock-splashes on the leaves of the Croton (a member of the Euphorbiaceae, my favorite!). It just feels right!
People may live in flats, but flowers? 
When I saw these plant apartments, I thought, hmmm, with eyebrow raised.  
Didn't love it, but liked it. Definitely a different way of adding height, using undervalued vertical space, and simply causing surprise.

Leave it to me to be shocked and moved by anything other than an orchid at an orchid show:
Look at this color! I practically warmed by hands by it!  As fire-red as your imagination can allow, I was so in love with the origami lobster claw cascade. This is one hot Tillandsia!
The clean lines, sharp architecture, and Art Deco repetition of Tillandsia dyeriana is just my style. It just might be my newest obsession.  Although, bromeliads have always been high up on my list.

So, parabéns, NYBG!  Another successful blend of art and plants.  Who's next? I dare you to give me Gaudi!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Winter blue is now spring green!

I think I am in denial.

Is it really spring?  

It took Herculean survival skills for this gardener to get through our Northeast winter.  I just might be over it for good; I say it every year: I want warmer weather for longer, I don't want my car to engage me in a snowy striptease every time I need to go someplace, and I definitely could do with out the tundra.  

But all that winter weariness wanders away as soon as my body and mind connect with the evolution of spring.  Regardless of the freak warm weather we get these days, I love the moments of disbelief that, there I stand, raking spring garden beds, in a t-shirt!  Feeling that warm sun on my skin makes me drunk and sleepy on it's vitamins; I lay on the grass hoping to feel it grow. What else can make me feel that kind of great?  I challenge you to tell me.  (I'm really glad I'm not a rabbit, or this kind of elation might manifest very differently.) 

Duncan Brine, fellow Pawlingian (read: those from Pawling) and mastermind behind his concept 'Garden Large' (check the Open Days, and GO!), wisely quotes on his webpage, 
"Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I'm convinced of the opposite."
 -Bertrand Russel, philosopher, mathematician, and author (1872-1970)

What a time!  Spring!  The heightened awareness I have during this time is uncanny. Witnessing the progressive resurrection of those I tenderly laid to rest makes my heart swell and my head just a little dizzy with love.  

Doesn't everyone feel this way? 

(Hmmm . . . ) 

Well, then shouldn't everyone feel this way?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Compost: the second coming

People may argue why our present day is called Anno Domini (Did He come, did you miss it? Is He coming, do you look busy?). Whatever calendar you hang, you can't argue that it is spring and it really has arrived.  So for me, that means compost--not Christ.

Compost saves! 
Save garden cuttings, weeds, grass clippings, autumn leaves, veg and fruit peelings and other appropriate kitchen scraps ('forbidden fruit' is allowed), and compost will happen. Compost will save you from buying costly soil amendments that won't do the job as effectively.  Making compost saves all the natural resources from a garden and recycles them right back to the very plants that produced them. Pretty tight, huh?

Compost is coming!
Many methods abound for creating compost. Hot vs. cold piles, C:N ratios and the science of layering your "greens" and "browns". Do you pile or do you bin? Do you turn or do you spin? It shouldn't be overwhelming, but it definitely can be. Just remember that whatever method fits your time, energy, and compost needs, if you do it, it will come.

No compost, no peace--know compost know peace!
Compost is the great unifier. Compost comprises so many positive elements that together create a one-pot meal satisfying many a garden hunger. From building better soil structure, balancing pH, and increasing soil-moisture to inoculating soil with vital bacteria, fungi, and beneficial nematodes, compost redeems all previous garden sins. 

As an educator, I encourage gardeners to familiarize themselves with the organisms that make compost (and great soil) what it is. Reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels is a great start for any gardener curious about what happens beneath their feet. Billions of beneficial fungi and bacteria break down organic matter above and below the soil level. Increasing these populations in the soil has tremendously positive effects. These beneficial organisms "guard" roots, fight pathogens, release plant-available nutrients, and can help extend a plant's root zone increasing the ability of said plant to retrieve water and nutrients up to 3 meters away! There is so much more to it, of course.  The specifics are fascinating, and the soil food web is really a phenomenal underworld.

We all have one: a favorite meal, drink, or snack, that is just sooooo tasty, you ingest in disbelief that it is so good for you. Mine is carrot-beet-orange-apple-celery-ginger juice straight from my juicer. Yum. That is just what compost is to your garden: guilt-free goodness for the garden's soul. 

So to get your soil out of garden hell, spread a 1/4-1/2" layer of compost on your beds in early spring. A smart plan is to get in on the ground before bulbs are really going.  Personally, I prefer to compost the gardens when the soil is warming up and those winterized organisms are now awake and ready to work. It's a great idea to gently scratch, or as Fergus says 'tickle' it into the garden soil to incorporate it. If you know you'll be planting spring annuals you'll be turning enough soil then. Some people prefer to get the composting done in the fall if they have the time. There is merit to this practice as well: decomposition will continue to take place until the deep freeze sets in. Through the winter and spring the soil will freeze and heave, and together with seasonal snow and rain, the compost will work it's way into the soil where its got to be. 

Whatever works, I say, just as long as it gets done.   

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sympathy is for suckers.

I am pissed.  And the last thing I want is a pat on the back or a pathetic, compassionate gaze.

I need to vent, and on top of it all, you are not even my captive audience. You've got that convenient little 'X' above this window to escape my rant.  But as for me, this is my life.

My roses are DEAD. Rosa 'Night Owl' and  R. Long Tall Sally'  are laying on my walk as still as the corpses they are.


So this is what happened.  After searching for my misplaced pruners, I started in on getting my climbers in shape. They are really the only roses I bother with. They are up and out of my way, and do double duty in covering up a wall, a fence, whatever. I love pruning these roses: I love the way the canes will look after I've finished, like the tail of a Stegosaurus with spiky side shoots.

So, *snip* there goes a brown branch back to that essential outward facing bud.  But it looked all wrong.  It was brown inside where it should have been green, especially just above a decent-looking bud. Hmmmm. So I get in a little closer and notice that the whole plant is wobbling at the soil level.

"What the F---?!"

The WHOLE THING comes right out of the ground and THIS is what the "root system" looked like, gnaw marks included:

Can you BELIEVE that?  Ooh, I am so angry.  

So then I go over to 'Long Tall Sally' and give her a wiggle. Out she comes. Again with the profanity. 

Instantly I know. Bloody bastard vermin. See, last year we had a mouse issue. But that was fine because all they wanted to do was hang out in the laundry room, shit on our clean towels, and drag dryer lint around. But we smartened up, crushed a couple skulls, and Keith (being dramatic) left one or two of them in the traps as a "warning" to others. Sweet, ain't he? During the spring, summer, and fall, I guess they had time to plot their revenge. So they thought it might be all mousey-cute to sharpen their teeth on my rose roots? What kind of vindictive rodents ARE they? 

I just hate this. Not the mice, not the lost roses, but this:  for years, I would be the back patter and give the compassionate eye contact in response to garden annihilation. People who work slavishly only to have their results ruined by rabbits, woodchucks, deer, etc.  See, I didn't have any of that. I lived in a shiny garden bubble. But now?  I am one of YOU.  

Now, to reminisce after the loss . . . 

R. 'Long Tall Sally' was a share from my friend and former classmate, Peggy of Westchester Environmental Tree Service who gave me this rose when we were back in school at the NYBG. I nearly killed it, resuscitated it, then planted it safely in my garden. Tall as its name suggests, its canes climbed high, and its flowers were a very pretty pale peachy pinky yellow.
The 'Night Owl' was a cultivar I was SUPER excited about.  I even had a really funky clematis planted in anticipation for the color combo.  This is a very fragrant and deep dark plum-wine colored rose with shocking yellow stamens--ooh, I am getting delirious thinking about it.  Also a climber, this one promised to re-bloom and re-bloom, if only those BLEEP/noun BLEEPING/verb  BLEEPers/noun (Mad Libs, anyone?) didn't play God with my garden.  Maybe God was playing with me? I'll throw one back His way that's even better: your R. 'Night Owl' looks like the color of R. 'Dr. Huey', the crutch of all grafted roses! Ha! Wouldn't want that mistake in MY garden.  Oh, listen to me. I'm not bitter.

So enough. It's over, it's done. I hate mice, rats, voles, whatever resists my will to do garden-goodness. Lesson for this gardener: I will never look with pity upon anyone with a garden story of rodent victimization.  It's too painful to experience it, forget being patronized. 

Instead of the insufficient back pat, maybe I should just hand out mousetraps to lighten the mood.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tony Avent: the Howard Stern of horticulture?

This past week I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tony is a renowned and dedicated plantsman who, like many of us plant geeks, is fueled and fascinated by the odd, the dangerous, the bizarre, and the gorgeous. Relentless and unapologetic in the garden, Tony waves his hand at hardiness zones, adventurously daring to plant, and grow, the unthinkable. With 18,000 plants and counting in his collection, Tony's botanic garden in Raleigh is the 4th largest in the nation, and is neighbored by some of the best gardens in the country: JC Raulston Arboretum, Duke Gardens, and the UNC garden at Chapel Hill. Tony's sweet tea timbre only enhances the enthusiasm he has for the plants he loves. And his humor? Who hasn't seen the provocative and hysterical covers of his famous mail-order catalogs? Well, for those of you who haven't, take a look at the latest:

Oh, and there's more!!! Instead of wasting time on YouTube and Facebook, scroll through the hate mail that Tony receives regarding his catalog, and that he unashamedly shares. Now that's a guy with character. 

So how did this happen? My friend Darrin Duling organized two lectures at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich, CT where this event was graciously hosted. We heard Tony advocate his most notable plants suited for Connecticut gardens on Tuesday evening, and vicariously journeyed with him on his plant explorations on Wednesday, where Tony explained the process of how plants go from the wild into your hands.

Oh it sounds just lovely doesn't it? Let me break the still water with this:

We horticulturists are dirty, there's no other way to say it. We gladly live in a world dominated by loose and promiscuous pollen, where flowers seduce insects making them drunk on their juices, and where plants engage in acts of bondage then slowly swallow their partners, where ovaries swell with the seed of another, and . . . 

Anaïs Nin or Nature?  Maybe a little of both. Either way, Tony Avent is one of us. Just as Howard Stern is a pundit on pornography, Tony turns up the heat describing new plants and hybrids in such a way that plant sex has never sounded so good, so natural, so right.

I think after spending a few hours with Tony, the crisply coiffed chatelaine's of Connecticut have been deflowered of the gentility of gardening.  While they may never admit that they furtively look at plants online, or that they might keep a few catalogs in their nightstand drawer, the facade has been breached!

What could be better than hearing Tony burst about 'late night rendezvous under the cover of darkness', and the morning-after shock of a night of 'wild plant sex'? If you're into hardcore plant sex as much as I am, you'll know that Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' was soooo worth it (and she's disease-free)!  

It wasn't all hanky-panky, though.  Tony brought to light some poignant perspectives on plants, gardening, and the world as we know it.

Let's begin at the end. Tony let out a few great closing remarks that I thought were important to share:

"If you are not killing plants, you are not growing as a gardener."- Tony, quoting  J.C. Raulston. Tony says he won't give up on growing a plant unless he has killed it at least three times. The lesson here is don't be discouraged by your garden failures. The epiphanies learned in a garden cannot be taught in a book.  So go, kill your plants; find out what works to keep them alive and thriving. 

"Plants don't always grow best where they are found in the wild". This next example is a bit of a shocker. Sarracenia sp./pitcher plant. Typically pigeon-holed as a "bog" plant, Tony has somehow realized that they flourish in his mixed borders, even under his peach trees. WHAT? Yeah. Peach trees. Basically, just because a plant is found growing happily in a ditch (or a bog), doesn't mean that it won't reward you for moving it and providing it with a few different variables. Don't think (I don't commonly suggest this): just DO. Throw the plant tag away, and experiment! If you lose the plant, refer to the above quote.

"You do not learn duplicating what you already know." Priceless. This is permission to be creative, try the absurd, challenge the book-logic, and GROW: as a gardener, as a person, as a creative force. For further clarification, refer to the above two quotes.

"Gardens are about anticipation." This I relate to 100%. Every day now I go outside and silently beg my Crocus 'Jeanne d'Arc' to hurry up. Classical music calls them 'movements', and the garden equivalent is something I call 'moments'. A garden is a relentless crescendo of moments that is planned and planted for in anticipation of the unfolding drama in the season to come.

A theme through both lectures was plant origin. Whether a natural hybrid, a selection from an intensive breeding program, a chance seedling, or a cutting from a foreign plant, the question that Tony invariably knows the answer to is: who's your Daddy? Origin in terms of "how did this this plant get into my car", Tony uncovered some interesting criteria a plant must meet to survive in the nursery industry. 

Overall, I was privileged to listen to Tony's adventures, and to be introduced to some of his favorite plants. I was fascinated by his extensive knowledge of breeding and plant parentage, and his experience in this industry that spans many, many years. 

Please visit the Plant Delights Nursery page to read up on Tony's many plant collecting excursions, and articles.  Also, while you're there, sign up for the email updates. Oh! And of course, lose yourself in the pages, pictures, and descriptions of the odd, the bizarre, the dangerous, and the gorgeous.

Darrin, thanks so much for giving me the head's up about Tony coming into town. And to Tony, I genuinely look forward to seeing your garden soon.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Heale House: welcome for the winter-weary

Before I arrived in England, Sarah told me that we would visit a little-known garden gem on our way to Dixter: Heale House.

"Of course," I said.  I am always up for anything, especially when a (now) local is suggesting it.

After passing the sublime megaliths of Stonehenge, morosely cordoned off by the macadam of the A344 and the A303, we drove on to Heale House.  Located off one of the many quaint and charming roads of Wiltshire, only a little sign indicated we'd arrived.

Heale House has been around for a while: due to some major military blunder in 1651, King Charles II crept clandestinely across the countryside in an effort to escape to France.  He arrived at Heale House, and while hoping to evade recognition, the lady of the House distinguished who he was and made arrangements for his protected stay.  Not too shabby of a hideout.

In early spring now, there are millions, no BILLIONS of little stowaways haunting the grounds of Heale House.  Small and forgotten until they demand your attention, the season of snowdrops and winter aconite bring them all out in full and glowing spectacle.

Galanthus. Commonly known as snowdrops, the lovelies of this genus are the very earliest of spring geophytes to brave their will against a reluctant winter. Cheery hope, these little flowers are.  Forget the groundhog: if I was hibernating for months, I would want to poke my head up and take a look around as well. His shadow is neither prophesy nor gospel; it's nature.  Get over it, PA. Although, through some stroke of coincidence, there is a correlation between America's Groundhog's Day  and Candlemas day, both celebrated on February 2nd. An old folk name for Galanthus is Candlemas bells, signifying the peak of the bloom season. (I am still eye-rolling the groundhog.)
Now THAT is telltale spring. Call me a plant snob; I am more willing to accept Galanthus as a harbinger of spring, however long the season actually takes to arrive.

Others like me, well, more obsessed than me, take Galanthus very seriously. Within the 19 species that represent the genus, there are innumerable natural hybrids and named cultivars. The real challenge is telling them apart or tracing parentage.  Regardless, each species, hybrid and cultivar are exceedingly charming in their own ways, even though they may all look just like pretty and dainty white flowers. Maybe that's all we really need to know.  Here are two varieties that stuck out to Sarah to and me:
Galanthus 'Dionysus' 

The second little beauty of the late winter landscape is Eranthis hyemalis winter aconite.  A minor bulb with a discerning fashion sense, its cup of sunshine is collared by a very distinctive ring of green bracts.

Now just imagine standing in this pool of light . . . I asked Sarah how long it would take to establish a self-sown population like this.  Apparently, Eranthis take many years to flower from seed, so I could only imagine how many years this stand has been slowly increasing in size.

It certainly was my pleasure to see it now, however long ago the first bulbs were sunk into the soil.  It was  so charming to see the drifts of white and yellow intermingling along the paths and hilsides . . .

Besides this spring display, there were many more features about this garden that had no other choice than to stand out. 

These raspberry-veined Hellebrous stopped us both in our tracks.  There are so many color variations in the new hybrids, but sometimes, just one will be enough to make you look twice. The fact that the open flower is somewhat upwardly angled is also a bonus.

The river Avon has been divided into 3 channels coursing through this property.

Oh, what a parade of the Victorian age to have a peacock loitering on the stoop.  By the way, those are not sheets that blew off the line; those are used to protect tender plants from any damaging environmental conditions of late winter/early spring.

As we made our way out, I literally drew in a deep breath  as I saw this Cedrus libani/Lebanon cedar. How majestic is this tree?  Pruned to keep this shape, its umbrella canopy swallows that VW Rabbit.  Then again, from firsthand experience, anything is bigger than a VW Rabbit.  I do love those Euro headlamps!

A perennial garden designed by on of England's well-known designers, a charming (everything in England is so charming; it's kind of annoying!) vegetable, fruit, and herb garden, and an authentic Japanese tea house also grace this estate.

Thanks, Sarah, for taking me to Heale House to see that amazing display of minor bulbs. It was a perfect start to what may have been the longest (definitely memorable) day of my life!