Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Garden in October

October is one of my favorite times in the garden.   The weather is pleasant and I find myself less manic than in spring.  I enjoy the garden more now.  As the plants prepare for dormancy, there is simply less for me to do.  I’ll defer decisions about what to plant for dark winter evenings when green thoughts are necessary for my sanity.  Now I move through the garden with a calm repose.   The boxwood, yews, and espaliered firethorn get once last clip before the winter; sprawling summer annuals are cut back; and I make a few strategic transplants.  Otherwise, I walk and look at the angled, autumnal light as it falls over the plants.

The garden is in its second year. Despite the fact that certain parts of the garden have an adolescent awkwardness, the garden is beginning to look a bit more established.  As the garden settles into itself, I have a strange sensation that I’ve never felt before: the feeling of dominion. 

 “Dominion” is sort of an archaic, unfashionable sentiment, isn’t it?  It reeks of colonialism and the idea of man controlling—even dominating—nature for profit.  Not only is it a politically incorrect sentiment, but it is silly as well when applied to a tiny perennial border on a tenth of an acre lot.  This is not Downtown Abbey, after all.  But it is precisely what I feel.  Two years of breaking the earth, planting, watering, re-planting, and endless gardening have resulted in the creation of a place that is anything but natural.  I’m not simply a proud owner; I am the gardener who reigns over this plot.  It is my dominion—not just a place, but an expression of identity and self.

That a garden can be an expression of identity is an interesting idea to me.  The pre-modern man believed identity is a product of birth.  You are who your father was, where you live, and what your social station is.  In many ways, it is good that we’ve liberated identity from birthright.  But modern man has perhaps too much power to dictate identity.   We live in a post-authentic age.  I have to remind myself that each time I participate in social media.  Social media creates a seductive mirage, a watery image of our selves.  Identity is not created by what you tweet, but what you do.  What you create.  What you love.  

A slant of light shifts through the trees and illuminates a tall grass in my border.  The October light is soft yet intense.  The grass seems to glow from within, vibrating in incandescent ecstasy.  I raise my hand to shield my eyes, but stop and instead stare into it.  The intensity of the light makes my eyes water.  Standing on the path, I try to absorb the moment.  But just as quickly as it began, the sun slips again on the horizon and the moment is over.  The grass turns a dull gray in the dusk.

It is enough though.  I may have dominion over this plot, but the life that animates it is from beyond.  I am grateful for a handful of luminous, radiant moments. They remind me who I am. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fabulous Succulent Pots

I had a period where I hated yuccas.  Probably had something to do with their overuse in the 1980s.  Many suburban yards in my neighborhood had one forlorn yucca abandoned in a bed.   Of course, my horticultural tastes constantly change, so now I adore yuccas and other succulents.  What’s not to love?  They are the perfect focal point: their architectural splendor, rich colors, and then there’s the light.  The way a slant of sun spills over each blade creating such magnificent chiaroscuro.

Many of the better agaves, yuccas, and other succulents are Zone 8 and warmer, but those in Zone 7 and above can enjoy them in pots.  What business does a desert plant have in a mid-Atlantic, temperate Piedmont garden?   Well, I am embracing my inner-Victorian: why deny myself the pleasure of a bit of horticultural fetishism?  Go ahead , try it: throw yourself into the crowd of mail-ordering, zone-pushing horticultural compulsives whose lust for exotic species leads them down dark (and expensive) paths.  It’s worth it.  And if my endorsement doesn’t persuade you, perhaps these fabulous succulent pots designed by the U.S. Botanical garden will.

What's not to love about this overloaded succulent pot? I could stare at this for an hour--I think I did actually . . .

Or contrast the intricacy of the previous pot with the simplicity of this arrangement:

Can anyone identify this species?  Some kind of Euphorbia? Really wonderful, especially with the yellow fall color behind it

I can't imagine a place where this pot would not look good:

Euphorbia tirucalli is always visually spectacular:

And sometimes the pot can speak for itself . . .

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Best Daffodil Plant List Ever

Gardeners and Designers, save this List! Naturalizing Daffodils Organized by Bloom Time
Daffodils blooms may be months away, but fall is the time to order and plant your spring bulbs.  I've always said that bulbs are by far the best bang for the buck of any plant you can buy.  For a few hundred bucks, you can create a spring spectacle with flowering bulbs.  Bulbs are a wonderful asset for the gardener and designer.  Designing with bulbs can be as complex or simple as you like. I've experimented quite a bit with different bulbs, from species tulips to woodland ephemerals, but my staple—the most reliable and rewarding spring bulbs—continues to be naturalizing daffodils.
All Narcissus are good perennial plants, but there are a handful of daffodil varieties that actually naturalize.  Naturalizing plants actually reproduce new bulbs underground, thickening over time and producing more flowers.  Since these bulbs reproduce rather easily, they have another advantage: they are the cheapest daffodils on the market.  You can’t beat that.
In my designs, I like to mix at least three varieties of daffodils—an early, mid, and late-blooming Narcissus—in order to extend the bloom time over two months.  But I’ve always had the problem of determining when daffodils bloom.  Bulb catalogues are notoriously vague about this information (mostly because it varies so much depending upon where in the country you are).  They often organize their catalogues by Divisions, making it almost impossible to determine what blooms when.  There are so many hundreds of varieties of Narcissus, it becomes incredibly difficult to choose.
But thanks to Van Engelen company out of Connecticut for providing this wonderful resource of naturalizing Narcissus—the most affordable and reliable Narcissus on the market—and organizing them by bloom sequence.  This list includes bulbs from multiple Divisions, including the ever popular Large Cupped and Small Cupped daffodils.  But what I’m increasingly drawn to are the smaller, heirloom Cyclamineus, Jonquilla, Poeticus, and species daffodils.  These smaller bulbs have tremendous potential for combining with other perennials in the garden, creating outstanding spring combinations.  Designers and gardeners, you’ll definitely want to save this list as a resource:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Fall/Winter Talks & Speeches

I have the pleasure of talking with different groups about landscape architecture, garden design, and sustainable design.   This fall and winter, I have a number of talks and lectures lined up throughout the mid-Atlantic.  Most of these talks are open to the public.  Click the links below to find out more information or register.  And see who else is speaking at some of these events—there are some great rosters here. 

September 30, 12:30-1:30: Adkins Arboretum, Tent Symposium Queen Annes County, MD 12610 Eveland Road, near Ridgely, MD

October 20, 9:15-10:15am: Green Springs GardenGarden Design Symposium: Nature’s Inspirations
4603 Green Spring Road Alexandria, Virginia 22312

November 17, 1:00pm: Piedmont Blue-Ridge Horticultural Society.
Learning Center, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley at Glen Burnie in Winchester, VA. 801 Amherst St, Winchester, VA 22601

February 6, 2013: Annapolis Horticultural Society, “Native Plants in the Cottage Garden.”  St. Anne's Parish Hall, 199 Duke of Gloucester Street, Annapolis, MD 2140.  Open to the public.

February 13, 2013: Lewis Ginter Botantical Garden, Winter Symposium
Massey Conference Center, 1800 Lakeside Avenue, Richmond, VA 23228

Friday, October 5, 2012

My Turn to the Dark Side

How an Annual Snob became an Annual Obsessive

I’ll admit it: I was an annual snob. I really wanted a T-shirt that said, “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals.” For me, annuals meant overused bedding plants: red begonias plopped in front of the Wendy’s sign; straggly petunias past their prime in a hanging basket; or squatty little orange marigolds that never blended with anything else. Plus, annuals are simply impractical. Why spend money on an annual you’d have to throw away in the fall when you could plant a perennial?

Plus, there was something just downright tacky to me about annuals. They are loud, over-the-top, and always stick out in a crowd—kind of like that redneck cousin who drinks too much at family reunions. Perennials, on the other hand, were more refined. I spent the better part of a decade mentoring under the late perennial genius Wolfgang Oehme. I understood the medium. Perennials are a thinking man’s plant. I loved the cerebral challenge of arranging perennials. They constantly change. Arranging a border requires the mental acumen of a chess master. Leave the annuals to the fast-food chains and gas stations; perennials were my game.

But something’s happening to me now. No, I have not stopped adoring perennials, but I am increasingly captivated by annuals, tropicals, and bulbs. It first started when I was tasked with designing a raised median in downtown D.C. The client wanted a seven-foot wide median to be a beacon of color. It had to be beautiful in every season; stand out among the busy downtown environment; and never have a down moment. Gulp. I quickly sped through my shortlist of long-lived perennials. Nope. Long blooming shrubs? Nope. It would have to be annuals.

Median with boughs and stems in winter

We ultimately decided to combine annuals and bulbs with sculptural shrubs such as columnar hollies and cloud-like hedges of boxwoods. Designing four seasons of spectacle—including the dead of winter—proved to be a one of my toughest horticultural challenges. At first, I was reluctant to use bedding annuals at all. We specified an elaborate mix of rare tropicals, designer annuals, and shrubs with colored foliage. I was rather pleased with the cutting-edge selections I made until I found out that the contractor could not find most of the plants. Not to cover a median that stretched three blocks. Last second substitutions meant dealing with what local annual nurseries had available: lots of pansies, lots of mums, lots of vinca. I remember being horrified with the first season rotation was almost nothing but yellow pansies and blue mums.

But the bedding annuals looked good, particularly at 45 miles per hour. From then on, we figured out how to use a base of bedding annuals and interplant more interesting combinations of tropicals, bulbs, and even shrubs used as annuals. The bedding plants provided the impact, and the accents provided the designer look.

Janet Draper's fabulous Ripley Garden
Of course, through my horticultural journeys, several great plantsmen have tempted me with the dark and seductive world of annuals. Janet Draper’s Ripley garden at the Smithsonian Institute always featured fabulous exotic selections like the purple-spiked silvery leaves of Solanum quitoense or the inspired combination of Golden Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea), the deadly Firestick Plant (Euphorbia tirucalli), and Yucca ‘Hinvargas’. And there is Dan Benarcik’s mind-blowing combinations of tropicals and annuals at Chanticleer. And of course, Nancy Ondra’s blog was another inspiration. Every time I see one of her combinations of annuals and perennials, I immediately go out and drop $20 on some mail order seed catalogue. Finally, there’s the Long Border at Great Dixter. I’m obsessed by what Fergus Garrett is able to do in that strip. So much horticultural expertise goes into such a concentrated space. Is it over the top and gaudy? Perhaps, yes. A hot blooming mess? Definitely. But it is one of the most brilliant stretches of planting anywhere on the planet, and I am forever haunted by what they are able to do.

My final turning point to the dark path of annual obsession was my own experiment doing a perennial border. After smothering a large area of lawn for six months, I was so tired of looking at mulch and cardboard that my wife and I filled the area with a bunch of aggressive “filler” perennials. That did the trick. It was an instant garden, but the border immediately became one big hazy blob of green. And that’s what I call it now. It’s not the border, but the big-hazy-blob-of-green (BHBOG). Last year, I tried to cut the garden with some “structural” perennials—perennials with more distinctive silhouettes—but they had a hard time establishing in the BHBOG. The BHBOG is hungry and it eats everything you plant in it.

So I’ve had it. Next spring, I’m ruthlessly hacking into the BHBOG. No more mild-mannered perennials. I want over-the-top, shocking color. Ridiculous color. Burn your retinas color. I don’t care what it takes, but I’m throwing every cheap trick for color and foliage I know. Bulbs? Yes! Bazillions of them. Tropicals? Yes! If the leaf is less than six feet long, I won’t consider it. Self-seeding annuals? Yes! I’m buying seeds by the pound, not the packet. Spiky plants? Yes! Agaves,yuccas, acorus . . . it’s all going in. More is more. Yes is more. Everything will be considered as long as it’s effective. If it doesn’t scream color or texture, it’s gone.

And that’s how it happened. An annual snob turned into a foaming-at-the-mouth annual obsessive. “Horticultural exuberance is the new civil disobedience,” I heard Dan Benarcik say recently. Yes. Yes, it is. Now I want a T-shirt with THAT on it.

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