Thursday, December 22, 2011

Does it Make You Happy?

I was recently awed by the Garden Conservancy's description of one of their new associate personal gardens which integrates art and garden. I was feeling rather inadequate as I thought of how this person managed to incorporate works of accomplished artists, architects and garden designers into his abode and even, as Claire Sawyer describes, his lifestyle. Then I was reminded of my sister's work with garden sculpture. She scavenges junk yards for things she can weld together to make garden sculpture, and she is good at it. She is no Isamu Noguchi, but neither are about seven billion other people. In this era of easy (at least visual) access to the works of the very best, it is easy to forget the joy and satisfaction of the vernacular, especially the vernacular with which you can enjoy a personal connection. I am pleased that the Garden Conservancy is helping to preserve the home of this literati who has apparently managed to lead a rarefied life and direct the creation of an inspiring garden, but the lesson of the garden should not be that this accomplishment is beyond you and me. It should be that the creative process is a source of joy and gratification not measured by fame and fortune but by your own sense of satisfaction with the effort. Now, as I think about it, my regret is that I haven't yet acquired one of my sister's pieces for my own garden.

Julie Platt in Grand Valley, Pennsylvania created the sculptures you see below. While sunflowers are a popular theme with her she has done a number of other plants and creatures that I failed to photograph. And if you are a fan of "Big Bugs" she has her own version shown at the bottom created as a special commission.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Grudging Respect

Three toothed cinquefoil with its white flowers and sometimes straggly growth

Three toothed cinquefoil the following year showing a nicer form and an attractive fall color (click on the picture for a better view)

I often advise gardeners to be ruthless with unsatisfactory plants in the garden. This fall I am following my own advice by ripping out big swaths of plants in one of my gardens that was just not achieving the affect I wanted. I am looking forward to the opportunity to create a new look in the area. Sometimes, for some reason, plants find a way into my garden for which I have preconceived disdain. Three toothed cinquefoil (Potentialla tridentata, and now maybe Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) is a current example. I had often observed it growing in other gardens and noticed it was usually chlorotic, at least in part. I put it in my rock garden where it is relatively aggressive. I have had to pull it away from neighboring plants on several occasions. I got the plant as a table favor which was a bad sign. I planted it thinking that as the garden filled I would remove it for something more desirable. But now as I look at it with its red fall color I see it has formed a nice mound of foliage that looks pretty good. It is like one of my favorite movie lines, "Good night Westley. Good work, Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning." (Princess Bride)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Venerable Plants

My approximately 130 year old farm house includes a Norway spruce that must be close to one hundred. Many old farm houses throughout rural Ohio and Indiana sport venerable old Scots pine, Austrian pine or Norway spruce.

Among the many emotions that we have for our gardens, one that is often present but rarely consciously developed is veneration. We don't usually think about making a plant venerable (bonsai being a conspicuous exception), although there are actually many opportunities. Certainly we can't make a tree ancient, although if we are lucky enough to have old trees we can make their survival a priority. We can also recognize that some plants have growth habits the predispose them for precocious venerability. I recently visited the Morton Arboretum in Chicago and photographed a sixty year old hawthorn. Sixty does not seem like a venerable age for a tree, but hawthorns reach maturity faster than others. Neglected hawthorns can look unsightly. It would be tempting when moving onto a neglected property to remove the overgrown hawthorns, but they may be worth the effort to save and prune for future veneration that may only take ten or twenty additional years. That is a fast track for a venerable tree. 
This sixty year old cockspur hawthorn (Crategus crusgalli inermis) has precocious venerability.

An even faster track can be had with other plants. I once grew an amaryllis for a decade or so. It methodically filled the pot and provided a grove of flower stalks in the spring. Its maturity and relative longevity gave me great satisfaction. It was venerable. Far more impressive examples of venerable potted plants other than bonsai can be seen at the Philadelphia flower show. The display of potted plants is my favorite part of the show. 
A potted plant like this amaryllis can be venerated, in this case after about ten years of cultivation during which it spread to fill a series of ever larger pots.

Perhaps the fastest avenue to a venerable status is had by monocarpic plants. I have written about my Cardiocrinum cordatum at least a couple of times. Perhaps I am trying to discover just why I find it so interesting. Since it has to grow for several years before it flowers and dies (leaving offshoots behind), I think of a flowering Cardiocrinum cordatum to be quite venerable when it manages to finally build up the energy to flower. 
A plant that has to accumulate energy over several years in order to finally flower and die induces a sort of veneration when it finally puts up that flower stalk, especially if a gardener has been growing the plant all those years waiting for the big moment. 

There are many ways in which to imbue a plant with venerability, but I will give only one more example. When my mother died I assumed responsibility for her rather substantial Clivia. I have shifted it up a couple of times but really should divide it. I resist the temptation. Somehow as long as it is growing altogether in the same pot it has the venerability of an inherited plant, passed down from one generation to the next. If it was divided it would lose some of its special association as my mother's plant, although I often hear of people who are very proud of plants they propagated from their parents or grandparents gardens. A similar example involves plants with historic associations.  I recently saw a little sapling that seemed to be highly venerated because it was somehow genetically connected with an alleged original Johnny Appleseed tree. As you might guess I didn't share the feeling of veneration in this case, but far be it from me to diminish their pleasure in the association of their tree with the history of Johnny Appleseed. 
An inherited plant like this Clivia comes with a special emotional status. 

Incorporating gardening into my lifestyle gives me a multitude of pleasures. Consciously thinking about aspects of the garden that please me helps to reinforce and focus my satisfaction. Certainly holding something of mine up for veneration is a source of pleasure, and if I can help to develop that object's venerability, all the better. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


In July I had the opportunity to visit once again the renowned public garden in Philadelphia called Chanticleer. The temperatures were in the 100's, but the gardens still managed to wow me. Here are a few pictures and why they are of gardens that impressed me. 

The above picture is of the ever changing garden in the old tennis court. I am particularly impressed by the composition of this very informal planting. It is easy to execute a formal design by laying things out in their rigid geometric configurations. A design such as the one above takes an entirely different talent. Not only is it a challenge to conceive but also to install, maintain and sustain season long interest.

 While not a design or gardening feat this little setting speaks to Chanticleer's awareness of the spaces in their garden that are most comfortable for visitors to linger. This bamboo grove is shady and enveloping, just the place to linger. The chairs are perfect and the addition of the planter wonderfully reinforces the sense that this is living space.

Artificial waterfalls are a dime a dozen. I get tired of seeing them, but seldom do I get to see this careful composition not so much of the falls as of the water line and the pond edge beyond.

I was walking along the path next to the creek and noticed this pleasant albeit unremarkable vegetation. As I looked carefully I realized that what I mistook for a mix of natural growth and a few introduced species in this out-of-the-way spot was actually a complete construct. This attention to details amazed me. While the planting was not particularly glorious right now, I am sure throughout the season it has its high points. I was amazed at how naturally the composition went together, how much attention was paid to this otherwise innocuous location, and how successfully the diversity of cultivated plants were merged into a successful community of horticulturally interesting plants.

Chanticleer has a lot of money, and this image demonstrates that fact, in part. They tore a house down, for example, to construct the ruins garden featured in this photograph. Unlike other wealthy gardens, however, Chanticleer is more about gardening than conspicuous consumption. Sure the pool must have been hugely expensive but isn't it glorious, and the pool isn't (to my mind) the feature of this photograph. It is the wall hanging of succulents, and that is gardening skill, not a display of money.

Friday, August 5, 2011


I am marveling at my winter squash:  C. pepo 'Sweet Dumpling' and C. maxima 'Uchiki Kuri'

I always get excited when plants in my garden do something dramatic, and right now my winter squash are growing wildly large. I marvel every day at their growth. They remind me of the enormous perennial, Giant Japanese Butterbur (Petasites japonicus 'Giganteus', although they aren't quite that huge.

I read an article about summer squash in my favorite garden magazine (Gardens Illustrated) and had to have some. In large part it was the images of the various colors and forms of the winter squash that made them so interesting, but now that I am actually growing them the vitality and sheer size of the plants are giving me a thrill. The fruits are going to be a bonus. The gardener featured in the article echoed my feelings when she said, " continues to amaze me how something so beautiful and bountiful can emerge from a single little seed."

These are not your typical Acorn and Butternut varieties. I was lucky to have found several of the more unusual selections mentioned in the article in the seed catalog Seeds of Change. It was already June, but I figured I still had the requisite ninety to one hundred growing days to get them to maturity. I bought two varieties, Uchiki Kuri and Sweet Dumpling. I noticed last night (4 August) fruits were already forming on Sweet Dumpling.

An important part of the joy of gardening is the excitement over the new and unexpected. To get that excitement I usually have to take some risks by delving into the unpredictable and unfamiliar. I may not always have the tidiest home garden, but I don't lack for joy.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

(Carex platyphylla)Sometimes plants have to find their own spots. Even though the parents of these silver sedge seedlings were planted very nearby, the offspring seem to find this spot preferable.

(Carex platyphylla) This silver sedge specimen sat in a sort of stasis for years before emerging this year as a thriving and vigorous plant.

(Melanthium virginicum) After a year of sulking my bunchflower finally did its thing.

One reason I would probably be a lousy landscaper is I don't find "installed" gardens very interesting. Now if a customer wanted me to install a garden and then massage, tweek, adjust, and edit it for several years I would thrive on that challenge. Many of my favorite plants did not reveal their suitabililty for my garden until after I put up with less than satisfactory performance for a while. On the other hand some plants generated great enthusiasm the first year or two only to eventually reveal themselves to be unsuitable.

I have written about this idea before, but what prompted this most recent revisit to the topic is two plants that are doing very well this year and that performed poorly previously.

The first example is Carex platyphylla, known commonly as silver sedge, broadleaf sedge, or broadleaf silver sedge. I "installed" about fifteen of these about seven or eight years ago. Some died, and the rest just limped along. Occasionally a little seedling would appear. Last year something must have clicked with them, because suddenly this year seedlings are growing together and individual plants are bright and vigorous. What is different? I have no idea, but I feel validated for having the patience to let these plants hang around in the garden until now.

The other example is more common. In fact, I suspected it might happen. Some plants just sulk the first year, and that is exactly what my Melanthium virginicum did. Commonly known as bunch flower, I became interested in this plant when I happened upon a big native stand of it while bicyling. It is a rare plant in Ohio where it is listed as "threatened". I later saw it listed in the Seneca Hill nursery catalog (responsibly seed grown I am sure) and couldn't resist the purchase. The first year they looked like they were going to die, and one did. The following year the survivor is glorious. That one year sulk is not uncommon, but a commercial landscaper would never have the opportunity to work with a plant like that. The customer would complain.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gwinn, A Lifestyle Garden

I recently spoke in Cleveland at the annual meeting of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers on the history of Country Place Era homes in the Cleveland area. The preparations for the talk reminded me of what an amazing creation William Mather's former home (Gwinn) was, and what a loss it seems to be now that it is no longer available to be seen and presumably is being gradually dismanteled.

My appreciation of Gwinn was enormously increased by Robin Karson's 1995 book The Muses of Gwinn in which she describes its fascinating history. Constructed in 1907, it survived longer than most all homes of its type. The gardens were considerably contracted as the property passed through generations of heirs, but the house and garden continued to inspire into the 21st century. Now this is what I call a lifestyle garden.

I had a chance to visit the garden at least three times before it was sold and will post the following pictures as a sort of memorial.

The house is set so close to Lake Erie that from the front it feels like it is part of the lake.
Although the lake front is lined with houses, viewers from Gwinn get the feeling they are the only ones on the water.
It is another world on the other side of the house where a comfortable sense of enclosure within the garden contrasts starkly with both the lake side and the world outside the garden walls.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Plants Grown for "Interest"

Three years ago in 2008 my Cardiocrinum cordatum bloomed.

Here it is this spring (2011), two of the three surviving offshoots from the monocarpic bulb that died after flowering. Maybe this will be the year it blooms again, but I would guess I'll have to wait another year or two.

Several years ago Tom Yates at Lantern Court at Holden Arboretum gave me a start of Cardiocrinum cordatum. It has become one of my most enjoyable plants. I believe I have written about it before, but it is worthy of multiple mentions. First of all it is not the famous giant lily Cardiocrinum giganteum which is just a bit too tender for us here in north central Ohio, but just by being in the same genus should attract attention. Secondly Cardiocrinum cordatum emerges from the ground in the spring with bright red veined leaves (see above) such as might be depicted on plates, they are so colorful. The red quickly fades and the plant goes about growing for the summer unless it is a flowering year. They are monocarpic. That is they bloom once and die. In several years of growing them mine flowered once. After finishing I dug it up and replanted the offshoots of the dieing central bulb. Three survived, two of which are pictured above growing in 2011.

I have also attached an image of the flowering year; it was so exciting. So I guess I grow Cardiocrinum cordatum mostly as a sort of curiousity, but that term does not do the plant justice. It give me more pleasure than most of my plants because I am drawn to it to see what it is doing now. For me gardening is mostly about growing plants, and this one is definitely fun to grow.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Blight of a Tidy Garden

Here is my planting of Lamium maculatum doing very well without having the "ugly" autumn leaves raked out from around it in spite of looking like the planting of geranium below each spring.

Here is a geranium planting with the leaves left in place all winter and not removed in the spring "clean-up". Notice how the new growth is doing just fine emerging through the leaves, and think about how it will enjoy that nice mulch of leaves around its roots this summer after the autumn leaves have disappeared beneath the geranium's new growth.

Fastidious tidiness is a habit that can lead to dysfunctional garden cultural practices. The example that drives me particularly crazy is the habit of raking out all the autumn leaves from perennial plantings in the spring. It's almost never necessary, it damages the emerging perennial, it robs the perennial of a valuable mulch, and I never cease to be amazed at how many people insist on doing it!!!!!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Hardy Clumping Bamboo

Fargesia rufa in September four years after planting.

I was getting rather skeptical that any of the clumping bamboos were actually hardy here in zone 5. Its not that I made a massive survey of them, but the cost of four or five failures over the years stung enough to make me wary. When my own organization (Kingwood Center) offered Fargesia rufa tradmarked with the name Green Panda,I had to try again. That was in 2006. The plant has survived in my garden for five winters, so I guess I have to call it hardy, although we have not had the minus fifteen or minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit we get periodically. It is difficult both mentally and financially to keep trying new and different things in the garden. Not only are the new plants more expensive than most, but their failure rate is much higher as well. Whadareyagunnado.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

German Goat's Beards

I enjoyed the sparse nature of this small garden in Breege with its imposingly large goat's beard.

A university public garden in Greifswald had this giant clump of Aruncus dioicus on its campus.

The largest stand of goat's beard I recall was at this former estate which is now a park in Putbus. How old is this?

I took two trips to Germany twenty-eight years apart, and curiously one of the common impressions I had from both trips was of seeing a lot of enormous clumps of Aruncus dioicus (goat's beard). I see the plant with some degree of regularity in the U.S. but not like in Germany. I wish I corresponded with a German gardener who I could ask, "Hey, what is it with the Aruncus dioicus?" My impression is that it is very popular, often an integral part of garden designs and is often preserved for what must be decades judging by the size of some of the clumps I have seen. I like the plant; I have been growing it at my house for years, but I don't think I will live long enough to build a stand of goat's beard like a couple of those pictured above.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

More of the Karl Foerster Garden




impressive stands


There seems to be interest in my posting more images of Karl Foerster's garden that I visited last summer in Potsdam, Germany. I decided to think about why I liked the garden so much and to post images that represented some of those reasons. I hit upon organization, impressive stands, color, venerability, and rhythm as a few that could be readily illustrated. The five images are posted above.