Monthly Archives: February 2007
Everybody's a Critic

You’ve seen the glamour shots; now read the book!

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden
Expanded Edition
By Tracy DiSabato-Aust
Timber Press, 2006

Like an old friend who hasn’t visited in a while, this essential gardening guide is making a welcome reappearance. For anyone who cares about plants, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is one of the few sensible and truthful explanations of how most perennials work in real gardens. First published in 1998, the book has been expanded and revised, adding more pages in every section and a gardening journal for a new 2006 edition.

So, that said, is it worth it? Do we really need the reprise?

I’m saying yes for two reasons: 1.) this new edition will bring the book to the attention of gardeners who haven’t seen it; and 2) the additional photography throughout all the sections greatly enhances the quality of the information. Now you can really see what she’s talking about. This is a much more attractive and comprehensively illustrated publication.

Text-wise, there is very little that is different or new here. In fact, though I’ve not done a word-by-word comparison, it looks as though the text is pretty much the same as in the previous edition. It begins with an explanation of the basic principles of design, planting, and maintenance for spring, summer, and fall-blooming perennials. Then, an A-Z plant directory explores the needs of specific plants. The emphasis is on the importance of pruning, cutting back, trimming, and, of course, deadheading. In fact, DiSabato-Aust has been called the “queen of deadheading.” She’s studied the behavior patterns of every plant she writes about and she knows when constructive intervention will do the most good.

You will not read rhapsodies over the loveliness of certain cultivars, or vague promises of unending bloom times. What you will read are matter-of-fact comments such as these:

“We have become a society of over mulchers, feeling compelled to go out every spring and mulch, whether it’s needed or not.”

“Sorry to say it, but this is a rather ‘doggy’ perennial … Really not worth all the trouble!”
(on Tanacetum coccineum/painted daisy)

“To my dismay, the first perennials that a beginning gardener wants in his or her border, often because of the gorgeous pictures seen in English perennial books, are high maintenance “traditional” perennials, such as Pacific Giant hybrid delphiniums.”

I believe this last quote expresses one of the basic reasons I would never be without this book. As much as I admire the prose and passion of such writers as the late Christopher Lloyd, I pay little attention to his specific advice on plants; he created a type of garden that is on a different planet (let alone zone) than mine. When I need to know what will work in the pedestrian confines of my zone 5 garden, DiSabato-Aust’s book has the closest thing to an answer I’m likely to find.

Though when it comes to celebrating the sheer romance of gardening and the beauty of plants, you can’t beat the Brits.

Posted by on February 12, 2007 at 4:51 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Who's Ranting About Us

A GardenRant Meet-Up

After a year of scheming via email and only one phone call, I finally met GardenRant’s illustriousAmysusan300 instigator, Ms. Amy Stewart.  In D.C. to promote Flower Confidential, Amy wowed ’em wherever she went – the flower-craving crowds at the U.S. Botanic Gardens and Four Seasons Garden Club, book-buyers at Olsson’s, and Diane Rehm’s listeners.  No, I didn’t stalk her to all her events, but judging from the two I did attend, she’s quite the crowd-pleaser.  And totally cute, as you can see here.  Also model thin, as you can also see.

But anybody with a shred of motherly instinct would fret over this unlucky Californian forced to travel the frozen north in February with that lightweight spring wrap of hers.  So to the good people at Algonquin – no more winter book releases!

Here’s a companion post that includes Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener Magazine.

Posted by on February 10, 2007 at 5:24 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Who's Ranting About Us

Amy Takes the Times On a Tour


Don’t miss the terrific piece about Ranter Amy Stewart in the New York Times today. 

The author of the delicious and delightful new book Flower Confidential, Amy spends a morning with Charles McGrath in New York City’s flower district, and shows him the weird combination of natural beauty and gritty industry that is the flower business.

Posted by on February 9, 2007 at 6:44 am.   This post has 2 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

The Call of the Wild

I spent all the next year in frenzied anticipation of their return.  However, spring came and no lady’s slippers.  The house next door had been built in the intervening summer.  And though their bed appeared undisturbed, who knows what bad things had happened to them in the form of runoff or disgust?  The sexiest of flowers in appearance, pink lady’s slippers are great ascetics in temperament, so uninterested in all things bodily that they can only be pollinated by particularly willful bumblebees…so rarefied in their concerns that they don’t even bother feeding their young, producing bare-refrigerator seedpods and instead employing a particular symbiotic fungus to nurse their seedlings along for years.   No fungus, no babies.  I never saw them again anywhere in those woods.

Which only confirmed my already scorching opinion about the Jersey civilization I was growing up in: One touch, and anything authentic or beautiful vanished.

The irony is, if I owned an acre in suburban New Jersey, as my parents and their neighbors did, I’d treat it far more ruthlessly than they did.  I’d fence the perimeter for privacy and mow down most of the oak and beech trees.  I’d put in a huge grey pool and a terrace and a big vegetable garden and greenhouse and large flower-beds full of acid-colored perennials that would match the acid-colored clothes I’d buy at Bloomingdale’s and the flaming red tones I’d ask a Hackensack colorist to squeeze into my hair.  (God, I’m scaring myself, this all sounds so enjoyable!)  And I’d civilize the stream-side, and in the process, almost certainly drive away the wild plants that so delighted me as a kid, the skunk cabbages, the jack-in-the-pulpits, the jewel-weeds, and the little yellow trout-lilies with their delicious spotted leaves.  So I suppose I should be glad that my parents didn’t garden.

The only thrill I’ve ever had as adult that was comparable to the thrill of stumbling upon those lady’s slippers occurred about ten years ago, at 5 am on a Monday morning as I was barreling from upstate New York to Boston for work.  I stopped at a Stewart’s shop in New Lebanon for a pee and a cup of coffee before heading onto the Mass Turnpike.  For some reason, I didn’t get right back into my car, but took my coffee and wandered out back.  It was barely dawn, the sky still pinkish and grey.  There growing down the grassy sides of a ditch were thousands and thousands of wild bloodroots in bloom, with their flowers still shut-up for the night like tiny clams, but glowing white, white, white in the weird light, impossibly delicate above the plant’s single scalloped leaf, the absolute picture of the wild and fresh.  Sanguinaria canadensis. They took my breath away.

These are available, too, at a reasonable price for the singles, but $25 or so for the absurdly beautiful doubles.  They, too, look like a sure bet to kick the bucket in my yard, but I’m tempted anyway.

Posted by on February 9, 2007 at 3:56 am.   This post has 6 responses.
Shut Up and Dig

What’s all this about Allotments?

was an outcry at the social and economic problems caused by enclosures, and
allotments – patches of land for growing crops and rearing animals on a small
scale – began to be offered as compensation to commoners for their loss of
common land. This move began to be enshrined in law starting with the
Small Holdings and Allotment Act of 1908.

But allotments really came
into their own during the first and second world wars, when food shortages
prompted the government to urge people to use every scrap of spare land for
growing food, sparking the still famous Dig for Victory campaign.

From the fifties to the present day, the number of allotments in the UK has
been in decline, despite their becoming fashionable in recent years as the
organic movement has championed the joys of growing your own hyper-local
food: there are now about 300,000 allotments left from a peak of about 1.4
million in the 1940s.

If you’re interested in delving deeper
into the history of allotments in Britain, there’s more information
, or you can get yourself a copy of The Allotment Chronicles by Steve

how big is an allotment plot? It varies, but most are, put roughly, the size
of a tennis court or smaller. In an arcane nod to their past that may mystify
non-British readers, most allotments are still measured in the ancient units
of the pole, perch or rod.  A standard plot is 10 sq  poles/perches/rods (confusingly they’re all the same measurement), although a lot of sites now offer half plots of five square poles
– that’s the size of my plot.

And who’s the land owned by? The
majority of sites are owned by town and district councils – in other words,
local government – and have some protection against being sold off or
converted to other uses. The rest are privately owned by organisations such
as the Church of England, rail companies or individuals. Each plot holder,
or allotmenteer as they’re also known (I rather like the latter because it
almost sounds like I am climbing mountains, not turning the soil) signs a
yearly agreement that they’ll take good care of their patch, and stumps up
anything from £5 to £150 a year in rental. My five poles sets me back about
six pounds a year – which is just about what you’d pay for a Chinese takeaway
for one these days.

The allotment ethos has always been
simple: that by growing fruit and vegetables (and in some cases by raising
livestock such as chickens, goats or rabbits) on local land, plot holders
could improve their quality of life, save money, enjoy the fresh air and have
access to fresh produce. That ethos remains today, although the emphasis is
now on the health benefits of homegrown veg, enjoying the outdoors
and bypassing the sterility of the neon-lit supermarket shelves laden
with vacuum packed, regimented dull produce.

Allotments are
now trendy. They’re sloughing off their image in popular British culture as
the domain of dour men wearing flat caps and growing ranks of leeks and
cabbages: Arthur Fowler from the TV soap EastEnders was their poster
Now you’re just as likely to see young professionals bringing along their
small children to grow globe artichokes, peppers and asparagus, or retirees
trying out beekeeping or small-scale self-sufficiency.

you’re interested in finding out more about the allotment phenomenon, try
exploring the websites of the National Society for Allotment and Leisure
the Allotments 4 All site, and
the Allotments Regeneration Initiative.

perhaps the best way of getting a taste of life on the plot is by tuning into
some of the great blogs written by allotment holders: some of my favourites
are Pumpkin Soup,
My Tiny Plot, Spadework, and Allotment Lady
there are lots of links to more great allotment blogs on my blogroll.

Jane Perrone is the author of The Allotment Keeper’s Handbook and
blogs about her organic allotment and garden at Horticultural.

Posted by on February 8, 2007 at 3:04 am.   This post has 4 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Perennial of the year? Whose year?

• 2006 Dianthus Firewitch (“Feuerhexe”)
• 2005 Helleborus hybridus
• 2004 Athyrium niponicum “Pictum”
• 2003 Leucanthemum “Becky”
• 2002 Phlox paniculata “David”
• 2001 Calamagrostis x acutiflora “Karl Foerster”
• 2000 Scabiosa columbaria “Butterfly Blue”
• 1999 Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii “Goldsturm”
• 1998 Echinacea purpurea “Magnus”
• 1997 Salvia “May Night”

This is how the magic is made: a committee of the Perennial Plant Association selects a short list. That list is then sent in the form of a ballot to its 1,800 members.

Criteria? The plant must be suitable for a wide range of climates; it must be low-maintenance; it must be pest- and disease-resistant; it must be readily available; it must grow in multiple seasons; and it must be easily propagated.

And within these criteria lies the problem, at least as far as I’m concerned. Most low-maintenance, readily available plants that grow and flower over a long season aren’t all that exciting. Note, for example, that only two of the plants listed above have a fragrance (well, a pleasant one anyway), and I’m willing to bet that the fragrance is weaker than most of the other cultivars within the genus.

I’m not the only one who wonders about these selections: in 2000, Boston Globe writer Steve Hatch quotes an anonymous garden critic saying on a listserv:
“I thought the main point of their selection was not that it was unusual, but that it was mostly hardy, easy to grow, floriferous, did well in most climates, not persnickety—an outstanding plant in those respects. From that standpoint I can understand most of their choices. Perhaps there should be a separate award for the ‘new, unusual, exciting’ discoveries?”

In other words, it’s highly unlikely that vistors to your garden will stop and say “Wow, what’s that?!” in stunned tones when they spot your stand of coneflowers.

So they’re boring—but reliable, and that’s something, right? Not so fast. Take Miss 2000, Scabiosa “Butterfly Blue.” In all but perfect conditions, this plant is extremely short-lived and not nearly as floriferous as advertised. Scabiosa has fostered outraged execrations on many a garden forum.

Most of the plants on this list do perform as advertised, however (though only two thrive in shade, which is a big problem for me). They are reliable, long-blooming, available, all that—stalwart backbones of many a perennial garden. But as I view this list, I know in my heart that—except for hellebores, which I adore—I won’t be buying or even craving any of them.

Of course, as I write this, all my delicate and unusual plants, not readily available, not easily grown everywhere, and certainly not low-maintenance, are bearing the brunt of a week-long minus-zero windchill. In the spring I’ll probably wish I’d planted all ten of those winners, in massive quantities.

Oh, almost forgot: here’s 2007’s winner: Nepeta “Walker’s Low. “

And I just forgot about it again.

Posted by on February 7, 2007 at 4:35 am.   This post has 14 responses.
Taking Your Gardening Dollar

More Ranting, More Roads

The Valentine’s Day leg of the Flower Confidential book tour is underway.  Please do stop by and say hello. I might just have a rose for you if you do.  Full details here.

  • Wed, Feb 7, 7 pm: West End Neighborhood Library, Washington, DC
  • Thurs, Feb 8, 1:30 pm:  US Botanic Garden, Washington, DC
  • Thurs, Feb 8, 7 pm:  Olsson’s, Arlington, VA
  • Sat, Feb 10, 4 pm:  Books & Books, Coral Gables, FL
  • Mon, Feb 12, 7 pm: Powell’s City of Books, Portland, OR
  • Tues, Feb 13, 7 pm:  Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, WA
  • Wed, Feb 14, 12:15 pm:  Northwest Flower & Garden Show, Seattle, WA
  • Wed, Feb 14, 7:30 pm:  Elliot Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA

Posted by on February 6, 2007 at 11:01 am.   This post has 2 responses.
Grab Bag

Dogs and their Gardens

A reader asked this question of Washington Post Green Scene writer Joel Lerner:Bigdog_1

We have two large dogs that have torn up the lawn in our back yard.  It is fairly shady.  Can you suggest something that can withstand these conditions?

And here’s Lerner’s tough-love answer:

Turf won’t thrive in shade, especially with the extra impact caused by compaction from two large dogs running the yard.  This will keep grass from growing thick and healthy.  I do not consider any low-growing plants dog-proof.  Separate them with an ornamental fence pets can’t jump.  Pet areas can be covered with shredded bark mulch.

More definitive gardening advice from a newspaper that knows how to cover the subject.  The Post, don’t forget, brought us the beloved garden writer Henry Mitchell.

When I bought my house the front yard was tightly enclosed in chain link, with muddy dog runs just inside the fencing.  You know the look – more doggie toilet than garden.  So I removed the gate and got to work training ivy through the links of the fence to hide its hideousness.  The aesthetic problems were thus solved but with no gate, the occasional running-free-like-the-wind dog digs up my plants and craps in my borders, despite my regular complaints about these demolition missions.  So far, I’ve found no solution but at least I have an outlet – ranting on the subject.

What really interests me is how our dog-owning readers reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable passions.  By dividing your property into doggieland and garden, as Lerner suggests?  Maybe limiting your plant choices to large shrubs and trees only?  From observing the properties of dog-owners in my town, including a few who’ve asked me for gardening advice, I’ve gotta say the dog+gardening thing looks like a bad marriage.  But that’s coming from a cat-owner – indoor cats, at that.

Posted by on February 6, 2007 at 4:56 am.   This post has 18 responses.
Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Overpriced crap for gardeners

On one of my favorite wine discussion sites, Wine Therapy, a very funny poster does a regular feature called “Boatloads of Cheap Crap.” If I check nothing else on this site, I check his posts because he invariably lists all kinds of fantastic wine bargains (not crap at all), many from obscure grapes and producers.

In the gardening world, it’s not so easy to find such a resource. Oh sure, you can get plants and bulbs for almost nothing through exchanges, cuttings, and inexpensive retailers. It’s the other stuff I’m talking about. The hardware. The $40 “cache” pots. The $300 sconces for the front stoop. The $2000 outdoor teak armoires. For the love of god, the $200 “rain chain.” I don’t even know what that does.

The good news is that very few of us actually need any of this, um, stuff. But some of it we do need. I suppose I can choke down $40 for a pair of pruners, but I’d love to be told that the big box cheapies work just as well.

And, speaking of Home Depot, I must say that it can be an invaluable resource in this area. There are very few retailers who sell gardening equipment and accoutrements for under-inflated prices. (Pots can be utterly ridiculous. Why would a lightweight pot made out of some weird synthetic amalgram pretending to be ceramic cost ten times as much as a ceramic one?) The big boxes seem to have a much more affordable selection than the nurseries and the pots are often just as attractive. In addition, I often turn to the supermarket, which, at odd times, has great deals on oversized pots—the ones I generally use for all my container gardening. And since I fully intend that any pot I buy will be engulfed in flowers and foliage, what it looks like is not that big a deal—though I can’t buy plastic any more.

Many of the items I see in catalogs do exercise a certain lure. Oooh, look at the scrollwork on this window box, made exclusively for XXXX and a steal at $189! Or how about this exquisite terrarium? It’s 20% off, and only $191! To be fair, I am sure that most of this, er, stuff, would last a good long while. And to continue being fair, the local nurseries, however reasonable their plants may be, gouge almost as much as the catalogs for this sort of thing.

When I look at the retail scene for garden accessories, I have to conclude that we’re getting reamed. Where are the boatloads of really cool cheap gardening crap?

Posted by on February 5, 2007 at 4:47 am.   This post has 13 responses.
Grab Bag

What Blogging Mistakes are YOU Making?

If, like me, you have too much time on my hands, you’ve probably already found Jakob Nielsen, who’s written quite a bit about site and blog design and ways to write effectively for the Internet.  Check out his Top 10 Blogging Mistakes and let’s discuss among ourselves, okay?  Me, I learned that both my post titles and links should be clearer – my bad.

But at the risk of stirring the pot (me?) let me add another special Mistake for Gardenblogs:  Not telling your readers where you are.  In gardening it’s all about Location – or as Michele would say, the Terroir – and I’m one frustrated blog-reader when I can’t figure out where the hell the writer is located.  So why make it so hard – or impossible – for readers to figure out where you are?

Posted by on February 4, 2007 at 5:11 am.   This post has 17 responses.
Everybody's a Critic

Barefoot Gardeners and the Magazines they Read

FinegardeningIf you’re a reader of gardening mags or have burning thoughts about footware or the lack thereof, click on over to my place, where I suddenly got the urge to post about the latest edition of Fine Gardening.

Posted by on February 3, 2007 at 3:06 am.   This post has 2 responses.
Grab Bag

Can We Make Ugly Pretty Again?

Of course, these whims never seem like whims at the time to all the elected and appointed officials and developers and construction-company bosses who make them reality.  Ever-widening suburbs, roads, dams–in their given moment, they all seem crucial to the proper functioning of society, because what else would you do with all the people otherwise?  How else would you house them or move them from place to place or power their many useful appliances?  Even the most radical destruction of the formerly beauteous American landscape was once backed by some crisply practical argument.   

The problem is that what’s essential to one generation is an abomination to the next, and yet the detritus of all these previous reshapings lingers on and on…while the meadows and forests and pastures and rivers they replaced are nowhere to be seen.

Examples of ugliness lingering long after all the usefulness has leached out of it are everywhere around me.  Every sad Northeastern mill town despoiling a riverbank is another example–once the center of some thriving industry such as button-on shirt collars, but sadly obsolete since 1906, when the advent of the electric washing machine allowed men to change their shirts as often as their collars. 

Or, for example, those close-in suburbs built right after World War II, with their ticky-tacky little houses and yards.  This week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the plight of these increasingly poor inner-ring towns and had the temerity to call the housing stock in one "obsolete."  Well, houses don’t get obsolete, not in 50 years at least.  They just go out of style, sad reminders of a more modest way of life that no longer fits the maximalist dreams of the modern suburbanite.

Clearly, the most short-sighted thing of all that we’ve perpetrated on our landscape is the absolute mess of highways and streets and parking lots we’ve built to accomodate the car. It’s already so obvious that driving-everywhere-to-everything is an idea whose time is passing that even our reality-resistant president is now mouthing phrases like "addiction to oil" and "global climate change."  But that doesn’t mean that American civilization won’t look like a highway rest-stop for many years to come.

We’re a fidgety people and we’ve created a landscape that suits us.  A landscape of things taken up and abandoned because they were never lastingly right.  A uniquely American landscape of cracking asphalt, shuttered factories, and disposable housing that is wasteful of ground, of people, of nature, of beauty, of hope.  It’s an immense national shame, a scorching example of the childish immaturity of our culture, that we’re willing to screw with the eternal for the pleasure of an hour or a day. 

Yet, according to my reading at least, all is not lost.  It only seems as if the meadow once paved is forever buried in its concrete and asphalt casket.  The casket can be pried open, and faster than we think.  Even the God-forsaken burbs could conceivably flower again.

What evidence do I have?  First, Detroit.  Second, Chernobyl.

Detroit–the epicenter of the car-based ugliness of modern life, but also arguably an early warning sign about our car-based culture, since the city itself began collapsing along ago.  Yet, according to The New York Times, now that most of the prosperity and industry has fled, nature is taking over Detroit. Large parts of it are becoming prairie once again.  Enterprising people have been assembling farms in the middle of it.  [If you click on the link, you’ll notice that this story is from December of 2003.  It’s been cheering me up for three solid years.]

More recently, a story in New Scientist took a look at the surprisingly jaunty aftermath of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.  After 20 years of human abandonment, nature is back in force.  The town of Pripyat near Chernobyl is already crumbling, roots and shoots staking their claim to the structures and hastening the water damage along.  Big predators like wolves and wild boars are reappearing in the area.  This New Scientist story is titled "Imagine Earth Without People," and Chernobyl is just a bit of evidence of the recovery that would occur, faster than you might think, if our noxious influence were eliminated. 

Of course, if we humans wise up a bit, we might not have to disappear in order to improve the landscape.  A little more willingness to admit our mistakes and fix them, a little more respect for nature, and we might even be able to assist with the re-beautification.

Posted by on February 2, 2007 at 6:56 am.   This post has 6 responses.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, the Sexiest Woman in Gardening

Let’s just retire the title now because really, there’s no contest.  And I’m declaring Tracy’s sexiness aTracy_1 Good Thing because it helps her (and gardening) get attention, which means more people will discover her excellent books. On top of which, it might change public perceptions of female gardeners, which traditionally has been Miss Marple meets Mr. Greenjeans.  Come on, you know it’s true.  Now there’s nothing wrong with looking like Miss Marple – so don’t beat me up, okay? – but that’s not an image that turns people on, and turning people into gardeners is all about TURNING THEM ON. 

This (large) picture of America’s best-selling garden writer was recently sent to my email inbox via the Wayside Nursery Newsletter, with this explanation:

We had the pleasure of working with celebrated designer and author of The
Well-Designed Mixed Garden,
Tracy DiSabato-Aust, in
arranging our new catalog according to color groups to lend insight into the
powerful role color plays in the garden.  From striking monochromatic color schemes to a playful arrangement of contrast and complement, DiSabato-Aust’s advice to gardeners remains the same:

"Passion and excitement should accompany your experiments with color."

See their bold and colorful use of the words "passion" and "excitement" coming out of her mouth? Even nurseries know that sex sells.  But let’s see if I’m reading it correctly.  It looks like Wayside hired Tracy to color-scheme their catalogue, right?  I think that’s right but she’s doing more than that; she’s showing customers some exciting color schemes they’ve probably never considered and the tough, well adapted plants they can use to pull them off, and very possibly wowing them with the results and turning them into gardeners, or simply more passionate gardeners than they already are.

Now thisTracy2 isn’t a full-on book review but a quick perusal of my gardening library reveals both The Well-Tended Perennial Garden and The Well-Tended Mixed Garden, and I’ve been  recommending them for years.  And though I couldn’t care less what a garden writer looks like, I remember a certain now-ex-husband who picked up Tracy’s second book because of this photo on the back cover.  Man, if he could see the newer, even sexier Tracy it might even induce him to pick up a shovel and help out.  Okay, I admit that would never happen, but I tell you she got his attention and that’s no small accomplishment.

Posted by on February 1, 2007 at 4:30 am.   This post has 12 responses.