Monthly Archives: September 2010
Ministry of Controversy

What exactly does the new research about Roundup tell us?

Fullscreen capture 9192010 31140 PM Headlines across the gardening world and elsewhere are telling us that Roundup is "linked to human birth defects".  Well, that's alarming, but I've signed on to Jon Stewart's sanity campaign, not the "Keep Fear Alive" movement led by Stephen Colbert's character, so I thought I'd at least read the article.

And even in that shortened version, it turns out that birth defects have been found when  whole communities are sprayed with Roundup from airplanes, fer crissakes. 

So if what you're doing with Roundup is occasionally squirting it on the leaves of poison ivy (that's me – I confess!) or even if you're using it to kill invasive plants or to install a meadow, Roundup may still be the best solution to the problem.  Integrated Pest Management means – yes – sometimes using synthetics.

By the way, I heard John Greenlee speak to the Landscape Architects the other day and he seems to agree that fear of Roundup is overblown.  To him, it's the genetically modified Roundup-Ready crops that are alarming, not the Roundup itself.

Oh, about the rally.  It's a short subway ride away, so how could I resist?

Posted by on September 19, 2010 at 11:41 am.   This post has 29 responses.
Unusually Clever People

So what kind of advice do I like?

Since I'm complaining about overly elaborate advice in the vegetable garden of the kind offered by market growers and other "experts," you may well ask what kind of advice I do like.

  1. Actual science.  See Gillman, Jeff and Chalker-Scott, Linda for this kind of thing.
  2. No-tech common sense.  Poking around on Martha Stewart's website this week, I found a really nice example. The usual advice for planting beans and other warm-loving crops is "when the soil has warmed up."  How do you know?  Martha says, "if you can walk in a garden comfortably barefoot."  Now, that's a useful measure!

Posted by on September 17, 2010 at 11:31 am.   This post has 16 responses.
Eat This,   Everybody's a Critic

Do Pros Understand Amateurs?

Check out this fantastic New York Times Magazine piece by Pete Wells about the nonsense professional chefs dish out to home cooks–namely, the idea that all the prep work must be accomplished before cooking can begin. The concept even has a French name, mise en place.  The problem is, what home cook has time for that?  Not to chop the peppers while the onions are frying, but to chop them ahead of time?  Only one who is unemployed and has a staff, that's who. 

This piece interested me because it reminded me of all the nonsense advice pros try to push off onto amateur gardeners, too, particularly in the vegetable garden.  The advice that drives me most crazy revolves around soil preparation: till every spring and add some carefully calibrated mix of bagged soil amendments.  Wrong.  In any vegetable plot small enough to be mulched by wheelbarrow, mulch is the easy answer to all questions: fertility, soil conditioning, weed control, water conservation. 

How about you?  Is there any advice designed for commercial applications–but not domestic life–that makes you crazy?  I'm asking the landscape professionals, too.  What's the worst advice you've ever heard a peer give an amateur?

Posted by on September 17, 2010 at 9:19 am.   This post has 29 responses.
Eat This

Putting my ear to the crucifers’ clock

Kale and collards looking extremely glamorous

Twenty years of growing vegetables have convinced me that gardening, like comedy, is all in the timing.

Other than being planted in sun and good soil, what vegetables mainly want is to be timed correctly. 

And this is something that can only be learned through trial and error.  Books and the back of seed packages can give you the roughest idea of whether a crop likes it cool or likes it hot.  But any "expert" who names a crop and a planting date for a general audience is by definition a fraud.  The moment to plant depends entirely on your zip code, whether you've sited your garden on a high and dry spot or a low wet one, and the weather in any given year.

I'm constantly fiddling with the timing of different things and probably will be until I'm dead.  I've been frustrated in recent years with my crucifers: broccoli and cabbages mainly, with a certain degree of grumpiness about my kale, too–oh, and also the sort-season members of the family, turnips and broccoli raab. 

Now, these all are relatively foolproof crops, so what am I complaining about?  Give them enough room and rich soil, many of them turn into huge, handsome plants.  And they like cool weather, which is important when you garden in Zone 4, as I do.

The problem with the more fast-maturing brassicas like turnips and broccoli raab is their sensitivity to day length. Planted before the summer solstice in my part of the world, these tend to get woody and go to seed rather than forming something nice for dinner.  The answer here is plant them as fall crops.

The problem with the long-maturing brassicas, broccoli and cabbages, is that they often mature just when they shouldn't–right smack in the heat of summer, right when the cabbage worms are most active. Then they get eaten and covered with the caterpillars' green feces. Not pretty.  The broccoli goes from floret to flower instantly in hot weather, and what looks gorgeous on Tuesday is borderline inedible on Thursday.  The cabbages reach the right size when my basement is still too warm for sauerkraut-making, and they soon lose their compact shape, get nibbled by rabbits, and develop that stench of death that is unique to rotting crucifer. 

Sometimes even the Brussels sprouts, which need a long season, come in too early and the little sprouts start opening and getting sloppy.

If you can just carry the big crucifers over the heat of the summer, they are wonderful in that they will stand at attention for a long, long time in the garden in fall, and let you harvest them slowly.  I've chopped down Brussels sprouts with a pick on a Christmas day.

But for years, I never considered altering the timing of the big brassicas, because I never felt variety was particularly important with them, and I just would buy whatever seedlings my local nursery had and stick them in the ground on Memorial Day.

Then I had a chat with CR Lawn, the founder of Fedco seeds, about my broccoli-timing problem, who told me he doesn't have that problem because he direct-seeds his broccoli.  And as he thins the plants, he slows some of them down and staggers the harvest by transplanting them elsewhere.

Direct seeding!  A smack-the-forehead kind of revelation.  Incredibly enough, it had never occurred to me before that these huge plants would mature in my short season from seeds.  All I can say in my own defense, is that I don't love broccoli on my plate and mainly plant it for other members of the household who do.

So I tried direct seeding this year. I bought a package of broccoli mix from Fedco cleverly designed to mature at different moments and seeded it all June 1.  Worked like a charm.  And I've had broccoli appearing steadily for the last month, rather than a truckload appearing all at once when I'm too busy to deal with it all, as usually happens.

I also direct-seeded cabbages–red cabbages and a really attractive pink-tinged green Italian variety.  They're big enough now to make sauerkraut and cole slaw, but not as big as they should be, given that the light is now waning and fall is barreling down upon us.  Next year, I'll seed them two weeks earlier–May 15.

This year, after having for years treated kale as a fall crop, but never satisfied with its size on harvest, I also seeded it June 1.  The plants are twice as big as they usually are, and lasting perfectly well in the garden, patiently waiting for me to make caldo gallego–my favorite cold-weather soup of chicken stock, beans, potatoes, kale, and ham–without getting yellow, eaten, or rotten in the least.  A triumph.

Next year, a vow: all crucifers, even the slow-developing Brussels sprouts, go in as seeds.

Posted by on September 17, 2010 at 5:12 am.   This post has 8 responses.
Guest Rants,   Unusually Clever People

Garden-Oriented Events Not Popular? I Beg to Differ.

Here's today's second guest post from Ginny Stibolt.


A recent NY Times article
(covered here on The Rant)
reported on how public gardens are expanding their offerings and canceling
their traditional flower events. I'd like to offer additional ideas for
organizing events that can attract a large numbers of gardeners. My observations
are based on my participation in 11 garden fests and other garden-oriented or
environmental get-togethers this past year here in Florida. Some took place in
public gardens, but others took over downtown streets or city parks. They drew
from several hundred to more than 20,000 attendees.

There are plenty of ideas that could be applied anywhere.

Some general organization ideas:
· Events organized by multiple regional organizations— garden
clubs, master gardeners, and agriculture agents—seemed to gain more attention and
satisfy a larger audience. Also, events run with the participation of the city
or town and local businesses seemed to have more to offer.
· Two-day events drew more interest. This means that there
is more time to have a variety of speakers and to have more sub-events within
the festival.
· Making it easy for people to buy plants and get them to
their cars is important. Some of these events had youth group members towing
wagons or garden carts around the grounds.


Some of the best ideas to make the event work better or
garner more interest:
· As a fundraiser, the scarecrow contest at Fairchild
Tropical Gardens was fun. Organizations, adults, or children paid a fee to
enter their scarecrows into the competition. Then the attendees paid a dollar
to vote for their favorite. The money raised last year was used to buy fish for
their lakes to attract more water birds (I love the irony).
· Many festivals had entertainment including musical groups,
story telling, and strolling entertainers; others went further and created
scavenger hunts and other educational activities. One thing to avoid is loud sound
· Scheduled guided walks through the gardens, along trails
worked well at appropriate venues.
· Attendees seemed to pay closer attention to all the booths
(commercial, non-profit, and informational) when they were all mixed together
rather than segregated by category.
· Good ideas for service booths include tool sharpening,
plant diagnostics, and plant IDs. At some festivals there were scheduled
presentations at "Ask the Expert" booths; in others it was freeform.
· Expert speakers often draw a lot of attendees. Unless it's
a really large event, it's probably a good idea not to have too many speakers
at the same time.
· Food vendors should offer a wide variety of foods and
· Themed events work best if totally unrelated vendors are
not allowed. If it's a flower festival, having teens shoot baskets to raise
money for Haiti or private school recruiting booths might be too far off topic.
· At the St. Petersburg festival, the city offered 500 free
butterfly plants each day, which were gone in half an hour, and 2000 native
trees for $3 each.
· A number of events had birds and animals to see up close.
Some also had butterfly experience tents and/or releases. At the Jacksonville
Arboretum, a gopher tortoise made an appearance behind my booth.
· A wide variety of plant vendors with plants from seedlings
to well-established seemed to offer the right mix, but fests need to screen for
invasive exotics.


In sum, Garden Fests are fun! If you have a great idea that
your local event has implemented, leave a comment. Maybe those public gardens
will be able to add more gardening-oriented events back into their mix.

I've also created an online garden fest photo album
with more details on the various festivals. 

Posted by on September 16, 2010 at 11:00 am.   This post has 9 responses.
Guest Rants,   Shut Up and Dig

The Top 5 Lies People Like Telling About Gardening with Less

If you didn’t get a chance to guest rant, remember that we
continue to offer guest rants on Thursday. Here’s one by Lisa Ueda. Lisa offers
home gardening tips at The Frugal Garden.

Gooseneck Loosestrife

The bubble really has burst. The economy isn’t recovering
any faster, and Obama continues to be blamed for what he has or hasn’t done.
While we’re learning to live without, gardeners are looking for different ways
to garden on a budget. To save everyone years of misery, I’m compelled to
uncover the top five lies people like telling about gardening with less. (4 of them are lies anyway.)

1. You shouldn’t spend money on plants.
If you fall prey to this lie, you’re dooming yourself to an
endless procession of ditch lilies, irises, and cast offs prevalent in most
plant swaps, or the ratty half dead things on discount at Wal-Mart. You might
score big time, but you also might just get stuck with the exact same stuff you’d
love to get rid of. You can judge me for the Japanese maple I dropped $50 on
that didn’t make it thru its first winter. Only the top graft died off. Where
it suckers at the base, I think it’s cute and looks more charming than a bunch
of boring freebies.

2. You should compost everything, and you’re not a dedicated
gardener if you don’t.

Compost is good; compost with dog poo is bad. If you’re
a militant composter and this is your M.O., that’s great, fine, you’re right,
they’re wrong. Just don’t include it on your list of facebook likes.

3. You should only garden with native or “heirloom” plants.
They can be cheaper, but why the heck should you be stuck
with someone else’s garden vision? Hybrids can be more disease resistant, or
may tout a unique fragrance or leaf form. Just do your homework first. See if
you can find it in a friend’s garden to get an idea of how it will do in your
own. Hybrid does not equal evil so say goodbye to your grandma’s flowers if
they really don’t work for you.

4. Never, ever, EVER garden with invasives.
Well, OK, you may regret the day you
plunked that “slightly aggressive” plant your friend palmed off on you into
your own garden. Just say no, or make sure your barricade method can withstand its
insinuating ways. I plan on digging out my Gooseneck Loosestrife until the day
I die, or sell my house.

5. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.
So what if the boring bed you inherited with your house does
so well—if it’s boring why settle? Dig it up, lug that stuff to your nearest
swap, see if you can score any great finds and start over. Pretend you’re
purging your closet. If you just really hate it, get rid of it; it won’t look
any better next year.

Stay tuned today for one more from Ginny Stibolt.


Posted by on September 16, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 22 responses.
But is it Art?

Getting Serious About Photography at the San Francisco Botanical Garden


Everybody's got a fancy camera.  But we still take shitty pictures of the garden.

I'm not talking about those beguiling close-ups of the dew on a rose that we can all grab with our macro lenses.  And I'm not talking about decent, straightforward, representational photos of beautiful places. I'm talking about photos that communicate the idea of a garden the way we really see them. How many times have your own photographs failed to do justice to what your eyes could see?

Photographer Saxon Holt has taken on a new role at the San Francisco Botanical Garden as their Photography Program Director.  He's put together a series of lectures and workshops that will grow and change over time in response to the needs and ideas of the people involved. "I want a program that is not about me," he says, "not about how I see beauty, but about how WE see beauty; and what we can do to share it with others."

The series starts with a lecture by Saxon and Lucy Tolmach, director of horticulture at Filoli Gardens. That's happening on September 23, and then there's a Master Photography Workshop on September 25 that's limited to just twelve students.

Then, on Monday mornings through October, there will be a series of morning photo shoots–attend one or attend them all, but either way, it sounds like a pretty nice way to spend a Monday morning in October.

What do you want to know about garden photography?  What would your dream photography workshop consist of?  Let Saxon know and maybe you'll see it on the schedule next year.

And congrats to Saxon and John Greenlee, and Timber Press on winning the GWA award for The American Meadow Garden!

Posted by on September 15, 2010 at 5:01 am.   This post has 15 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Confessions of a sizeist

Roses can be depended upon to get high for me.

It is getting harder and harder for me to find the plants
that I need. It’s nobody’s fault, really. I have access to excellent garden
centers, and they carry the hot new introductions as well as the
usual suspects. I can also call upon a galaxy of mail-order sources.  It’s not their problem that—clearly—other gardeners don’t require as many tall perennials as I do.

I am surrounded by high, narrow buildings, and more than my
fair share of good-sized trees. In this context, climbers and tall plants seem
to work best. I also have a couple of enclosures that were put there by the
previous owner, and they demand plants that can quickly put on a foot and a
half and then keep going.

These colocasia have gotten nice and tall and I've allowed the coleus with them to grow strangely vertical as well.

But when I look at catalogs and nurseries I am always seeing
“New! Dwarf x,” and “Improved! Shorter y.” I rely on oriental lilies,
colocasia, buddleia, clematis, and everything else that climbs, as well as a
small group of perennials (tall ferns, various rudbeckia, boltonia, heliopsis,
a few others) for height. Self seeders like the tall verbena bonariensis or the
various species nicotianas are also workable. With the narrow spaces I have to
offer, up is the best direction to go.

Of course, once you’ve become a sizeist, it’s kind of a
vicious circle. Shorter plants don’t thrive too well in the shadow of their
lankier neighbors, so everything has to get big fast or perish.

So these new, squat little echinaceas or any of their dumpy
brethren don’t do a thing for me. (And I’ll never buy mini-hostas.) I like the
undisciplined look. Lanky, weedy, gangly, leggy. It’s all good by me. Breeders, are you listening?

(I am joined in this peeve by Angela Treadwell-Palmer of
Plants Nouveau, who ranted about this recently in her enewsletter, The
Weeding Gnome

Posted by on September 14, 2010 at 5:10 am.   This post has 9 responses.
Guest Rants

Thank you guest ranters—and guest commenters!

Thanks_md_wht  Well, we thought we were outspoken, but over the past two
weeks, we have been put to shame by guest posts against flagpoles, Girl Scout
cookies, city hall, IGCs, plant hybridizers, daffodils, and—most
provocatively—garden whimsy (70-plus comments on that one).

The posts have been great, but it is really the comments
that make the conversation, so thank you all so much for joining in. Just to
reiterate, we used every post that was submitted in time, as long as it was not irrelevant to gardening, obscene, or
spam/advertising. (Just so you know, we did not receive any obscene,
irrelevant, or spam posts.) There was little or no editing.

Now to return to the regular staff of four ranters. Guest
rants will continue on Thursdays when we have them.

Posted by on September 14, 2010 at 4:55 am.   This post has 3 responses.
Guest Rants,   Taking Your Gardening Dollar

To hell with cookies

A guest rant from Sandra Knauf.

Knauf - Garden Rant - Down With Cookies_edited-1

I was a real jerk last February 13th. Maybe it was
inevitable—after weeks doing financial aid paperwork for our daughter’s college
applications and our taxes, I’d had no time to even think about doing anything
fun, like gardening. But I was not planning to be mean when I saw the Girl
Scouts on the steps of our neighborhood library. In fact, I was cheery as I
chirped to my teen daughters Zora and Lily, “We should buy your dad a box of
Mint Thin Girl Scout cookies for Valentine’s Day!” 

Once I got to the table, though, suddenly the desire to
support this American ritual was colored by something else. These cookies were
bad for you and the temptation, the pressure, to buy them was everywhere. A
friend had just said something the week before—how families who sell these
cookies almost always over-indulge, both parents and children gaining empty
calories and reinforcing the sugar habit. These damn cookies, I thought, out
there for weeks, tempting all to buy, buy, BUY!

That’s when I made the first snarky remark. “Same price as
last year, but smaller boxes.”  Everyone politely ignored that rudeness,
but then, looking at the back of the box, I added, “Artificial ingredients,
hydrogenated oil. Yuk.”

Truly, I do not usually behave like this. I think there was
a full moon too. My daughters  cringed, the father of the girls glared
like he could kill me. I ignored them. And then I bought a box!

As we walked away, Lily said, “Mom, you were such an
asshole.” The evil spell lifted. OMG, I was! A huge one!  We got in the car. “Maybe I should go
apologize.” “Don’t you dare go back!” both daughters cried, fearing more

Although Lily pointed out the cookies also used palm oil
(palm oil!), my conscience ached for days. How could I diss the Girl Scouts? They
do good work! They set good examples! The amazing women who have been in Girl
Scouts include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gloria Steinem, and Martha Stewart. Girls
are taught useful skills; self-esteem is bolstered. This group is respectful of
different religions and beliefs. They fully accept people with different sexual
orientations . . . what was wrong with me?!?

After thinking it over I realized the roots of my ill will went
deep. I’d been channeling all those kids—mine included—coming to our doors over
the years, selling things we didn’t need or want. Paraffin candles, candy,
cookies, stuffed animals made in China, discount cards for buying junk food at
fast food franchises. This is what we, in America, make our kids peddle. For
their schools.

But then I remembered a school fundraiser from my elementary
school days.  It was small town Missouri in the mid 1970s and I was going
door to door, at exactly this time of year selling . . .  seeds! I
remember it clearly, the long list of seeds to choose from: vegetables,
flowers, and herbs in beautiful packages with colorful art. And you know what?
When I came to the door many were even damn glad to see me! I remember little
old ladies (who probably weren’t much older than I am now) saying, “I’ve been
wondering when you’d be by. I want to get the garden going.”

Imagine—trading four dollar boxes of cookies made with palm
oil, hydrogenated oil, and artificial flavorings, for something that we can
USE. That’s healthy in every way. Imagine Girl Scouts selling organic non-GMO
seeds, unusual seeds, maybe seeds in partnerships with other Girl Scouts around
the world, seeds that can grow beautiful bouquets of flowers, vegetables to
eat. Seeds that can urge people to get off their couches, drop those cookies,
grab a shovel and create something fabulous! Fundraising that can be positive
for everyone and every living thing.

I can see it now, and it can happen! After all, these girls
can do anything—they’re Girl Scouts.

Posted by on September 13, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 31 responses.
Guest Rants,   Shut Up and Dig

I am the Girl Who Could Not Grow a Zucchini.

Here is a guest rant from Rebecca/The Potato Queen

I am a sloppy amateur gardener. 

My vegetable garden is a mad tangle of poorly supported pole
beans battling for supremacy against cucumbers in the same condition and
tomatoes that long ago overgrew their cages.  A visitor viewing my vegetable
garden sees not tidy rows of orderly produce, but a jungle of poorly thinned,
weed-infested vines and stems, apparently trying to strangle each other.

My flower beds are currently overrun with weeds.  When
I DO remember to weed, I leave behind me piles of little green corpses I forget
to pick up later.  I may be losing two new little shrubs I planted this
spring due to ignorant placement and lax watering during this oppressive
summer.  There’s a giant branch in the middle of the backyard from last week’s
storms: it will probably still be lying there this weekend.


Where others see this:

 I see this:


When I first began to garden in my little townhouse, I
envied the professionally landscaped yards of some of my neighbors. Everything
was just so, the right plants for the environment, perfectly balanced
arrangements, like something from a magazine.

A year into my first efforts, that envy disappeared. Since
then my favorite landscape has always been my own. I’ve had many failures with
flowers and edibles, but after that first year, the successes began to
outnumber the failures. And because I planted it, every bloom and leaf is
special to me. The most special: the ones given to me by friends and especially
by my dad.

Six years later when I left that little townhouse for a
little blue house with my now-husband, I left behind a proud legacy of flowers
where once there was nothing but English ivy and honeysuckle.  The new
owners knew nothing of that transformation, and tore out most of my lovingly
tended shrubs and flowers.  But some remain, including my dad’s beautiful
white peonies.  (In evil moments, I consider digging them up under cover
of darkness and bringing them home.)

The new house offered a much bigger canvas: a quarter acre
of weedy, patchy yard, some random plantings apparently made to dress up the
yard for sale, and a oddball planting of ten miniature arborvitae-like trees
spanning the front yard along the curb. Six years earlier, I would have
probably left all as-is.  Instead, I saw a big playground in which I could
continue to dig and grow (and yes, kill–sigh) on an even larger scale.

The secret?  It’s not that I’ve become a master
gardener.  While my successes do outnumber my failures these days, I still
have a lot of failures (zucchini, anyone?).  I still am lazy and often
don’t follow the rules, resulting in mess and death in the garden. 

The secret is I have ceased to fear failure. No matter how
many failures I continue to have, I believe that anything is possible. 
I’m looking at you, zucchini.

Posted by on September 12, 2010 at 10:00 am.   This post has 25 responses.
Guest Rants


Here's a guest rant from Farmer Jade.

Eliz's photo of a Duchamp multiple at Ravello.

I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot in my heart
for those crazy people who compost their own poop. They seem to be everywhere,
nowadays, at least in the "alternative gardener" circles I run in in
Portland, Oregon. It's like the new cult in town. They even have their own
Bible, called the Humanure
. I call them the "humanure-farians", with
apologies to Rastafarians. Terrible, aren't I?

The term reminds me of a stinky outhouse but I have a soft
spot for these people. Not enough that I wouldn't think a neighbor was weird if
they were doing it. But I understand where they are coming from, and I can
respect the decision. After all, we're all crazy about our plants—that's why
we're gardeners. They're just willing to cross a line than many of us are too
squeamish about crossing.

And who knows, they're probably right. It is wasteful to
throw all those nutrients down the drain. But it violates so many of our
taboos, I can't help but finding it a wee bit distasteful, even if it will save
the world.

We all do crazy things in our garden. I have a good
friend who even considered installing a urinal in his garden—in order to collect
urine to spread around the yard. After all, urea is often the top ingredient in
most commercial fertilizers, so it's pretty hypocritical to criticize the
practice. But I haven't gotten to the point where I want to a urinal to be the
sculptural centerpiece of my garden. Although a toilet could make a great

When this topic comes up, my friend often tells me about
ancient Japan. There is a long practice of using "night soil" in
farms in Japan. Apparently, the farmers kept well-maintained facilities all
along the ancient highways in Japan. Can you imagine that happening here in the
U.S.—in each McDonald's?

My wife thinks this whole topic is gross. I'm with her on
humanure, but maybe there is a gender difference in attitudes towards "liquid
gold"? Men seem to like the practice, and engage in it whenever nobody is
looking, whether they are gardeners or not. 

So I have a suggestion for the Humanure-farians: work on
your marketing. Here are some ideas to get you started: Bring back some old terms, like nightsoil. Now that's a
decent term, something you can stick your hand into!

Get some fancy advertisements—maybe if you can get someone
famous to do it, the lemmings will follow in their wake?

Call it something else. How about Moreganic gardening?
Everyone likes organic.

Jade Rubick is the founder of, a social networking site for gardeners. He
writes a blog called 
Farmer Jade,
where he writes about topics ranging from 
converting a
lawn to garden
 to pruning and
trellising tomatoes
. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Posted by on September 12, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 38 responses.
Guest Rants,   It's the Plants, Darling

1,001 Whatsitsname Plants

Here is a guest post from Raffi, who runs the Gardenology plant encyclopedia.

Puya alpestris

I love going to botanical gardens at home and in my travels,
always hoping to discover new plant gems that I might potentially add to my
garden.  No garden center can match the diversity of plants that most
botanical gardens have, nor can they usually have full grown specimens available
to show what the plant would look like in your garden.  So when I see a
new plant that knocks my socks off, and leaves me wondering why they're not
grown all over the place, it kills me when the plant is not labelled, and I
have no idea what it's called!

Dombeya wallichii

Not surprisingly, some of the most impressive plants I've
ever discovered I first saw in botanic gardens. Most of these plants I
have rarely or in some cases never seen anywhere else.  When I first
discovered the incredible shade of blue flowers on the Puya alpestris, or the
seemingly 20 foot tall tree covered in big puffs of Dombeya wallichii, my first
question was of course, what is this plant!?!?  Unfortunately, too often
in botanic gardens, the answer is not to be found.  You look around for a
label, and frustratingly find labels for some of the surrounding plants, but
not the one you're dying to learn more about.

Botanical gardens are great places to learn about plants and
discover new ones.  I just wish they'd make sure that every single plant
was very clearly labeled, so that we'd never be left wondering just what the
name of the plant is that we are looking at in amazement…

Posted by on September 11, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 24 responses.
Designs, Tricks, and Schemes,   Guest Rants

Oh Say Can You See

Here's more on garden objects from guest ranter Benjamin Yogt/The Deep Middle


Your house is your home. You can, of course, do whatever you
want to the inside or outside. Unfortunately, in regards to the outside, the
rest of us have to look at it and wonder what you were thinking.

A home is not a school, neither is it a post office,
industrial park, nor the White House. Therefore—and this is just a
suggestion—one should not have a flagpole in front of it.


Ok, maybe, just maybe if you live on a couple acres and want
the compound effect, you can get away with a flagpole. But on a suburban ¼ acre
lot, or an urban lot that’s even smaller? Come on.

Last night I had a nightmare where one of my many flagpole
neighbors bugled revelry at 5am. The whole neighborhood marched out of their
homes, kids and dogs in tow, and stood at attention for morning inspection.

Look, nothing against being proud of your country, or any
professional or college sports team (except the Yankees, Lakers, Ohio State…).
I suppose besides a pole that’s as tall as the house, the plantings around the
base are what really push me over the edge.

Oh, look, mums! Orange ones! Daylilies! Orange ones! You
know what would look good around that 20 foot pole? Rocks. Antlers on rocks.
Maybe a bald eagle statue. Oh, and spotlights.

I had another dream, a good dream, where Jennifer Aniston
was admiring my neighbor’s flagpole and calling me over. If you want, insert
any proper noun for Jennifer Aniston: Robin Williams. Lady Gaga. Bert and
Ernie. Your favorite garden blogger (ahem).


If you have flagpoles in your neighborhood, I hope you will
recite the pledge below as you drive by them, gritting your teeth and
“accepting” freedom of expression, bearing the cross that all of us with taste
must endure.

I pledge allegiance to the crap you put in your lawn, one
neighborhood, under siege, in design chaos, with no sane covenants at all.

Posted by on September 10, 2010 at 10:28 am.   This post has 47 responses.
Unusually Clever People

What the World Needs Now: Thoughtful, Interesting Garden Events That Don’t All Happen in Spring.

I was very excited about The Late Show Gardens, a new sort of garden show invented right here in northern California and deliberately scheduled for fall, which is exactly the right time for a garden show, in my view.  It's held outdoors, during prime planting season for serious gardeners in our climate, and it incorporates interesting art, thought-provoking seminars, and other such wonders.  (To keep the thing alive, they're looking for sponsors for 2011. If you're in a position to help sponsor the event, go check that out.)


And now comes Pacific Horticulture's Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies VIII: Style & Whimsy in the Sustainable Garden, scheduled for Sept 23-26 in Pasadena, CA. Each day includes seminars in the morning at a botanical garden, followed by an al fresco lunch and bus tours of gardens that demonstrate the principles the speakers are discussing.

You can sign up for individual workshops for as little as $30, or get on board for the whole deal for a few hundred bucks.  Various sorts of professionals can get continuing education credits.

I'll put more of the schedule below just to give you a taste of what this symposium is all about.  If you're in southern California, do go check it out. 

and if not–are you seeing more of these kinds of events where you live?  Do you think they better meet the needs of gardeners than those spring garden shows in convention centers?  Discuss.

September 23 will be a day for optional activities
(for a separate fee), including tours, workshops and other events. That
evening there will be a panel discussion (free for symposium attendees)
on "The Science Behind a Sustainable Plant Palette," which will be
co-sponsored by the Greater Los Angeles District of the Association of
Professional Landscape Designers (APLD).

September 24-26
will each begin at the L. A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden with
three dynamic speakers, followed by an al fresco lunch. After this,
attendees will board buses to three different gardens where there will
be a tour and on-site talk by the garden owner(s) and/or designer.

may sign up for one, two or three lecture/tour days (there will be a
discount for attending all 3 days). The symposium will also include
plant vendors and book signings.

Posted by on September 10, 2010 at 8:43 am.   This post has 5 responses.

Me and My Pet Maggots

The nice people at my publisher, Algonquin Books, did an adorable thing in which they adopted some pet snails, named Snooki and The Situation, and kept them in a little aquarium in the office so they could enjoy a little snail wildlife while they went about their publisher duties.  They were inspired to do this by a charming little memoir they've published called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.  (More about that book soon–they've promised we can give one away.)

So next year my new book, Wicked Bugs, will come out, and naturally I expect no less of them.  They will be expected to set up a tank and explore the unexpected charms of some unlikely, often unloved, and somewhat slimy little creature, and to blog about it and otherwise make a fuss over it.

I speak, of course, of maggots.

I've recently made an ambitious and rather idiotic foray into citrus trees (more about that someday soon, too), and in the process of potting up one of my new trees, I discovered these creatures crawling in the potting soil the trees came in.


So far I have not been able to identify them, although you are welcome to try.  Maggots are nothing but baby flies, and while they might not be adorable to you and I, I'm sure their mothers find them charming. They are also hard to identify by species until they get a little larger, which makes it hard to know whether this is a serious citrus pest or just an interesting little footnote in the magnificent story of the life of the soil. (And they may not be baby diptera at all–they could be the larvae of any number of insects besides flies.)

But to be on the safe side, I've repotted the plants in clean, bagged potting soil.  I've also taken the advice of several entomologist friends and saved a few of the maggots so that I can hatch them out and see what I've got. Shouldn't take long, I'm told.

So here they are:  my pet maggots, sitting on my desk in a jar covered in cheesecloth so they can breathe but not escape:



So what do you say, Algonquin?  Pet maggots in the office? Is it gonna happen?

Posted by on September 10, 2010 at 4:45 am.   This post has 13 responses.
But is it Art?

Couldn’t resist

Oh, I suppose it is possible to go too far with this stuff. Though an element of awe creeps in when the idea is taken to its limits. Our guest ranter inspired me to once again post my very favorite gnome image (above, from the Motherland—Dunster, GB), as well as this entry from one of my Facebook friends, Pam. Thanks, Pam! (She saw this in Portland, Maine.) Maybe we should have a contest.


Posted by on September 9, 2010 at 7:36 pm.   This post has 18 responses.
Guest Rants,   Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Whimsy must die

And here's a guest rant by Susan Hampshire/Ink and Penstemons

When whimsy goes horribly wrong

If you visit an average suburban American garden you're likely to find lots of stuff: gazing balls, pinwheels, critters made of cast-concrete—maybe even some plants. If the gardeners are well-heeled, you may also spot a cast stone Buddha or an oversized ceramic urn turned into a fountain, er, I mean “water feature.” These gardens are easy to spot at a distance since their owners usually advertise with those metal signs on sticks that say "peace" or "grow." 

At the local nursery, you’ll notice that this garden bric-a-brac is always out in front, all shiny and sparkly surrounded by bright floral displays. By themselves, these items come off as twee or gaudy, but in the middle of the bright border of annuals at the store, they take on a decorous patina. If it's a small object, it's got "whimsy;" if it's large or expensive then it earns the august title of "focal point." And every garden needs an accent, right? So even though you went in to replace the Echinacea that died over the winter, somehow, you've walked out with a psychedelic metal whirlygig, a glass Dale Chihuly knock-off hecho en Mèxico, and several glazed terracotta mushrooms to stick in your border…somewhere.

It's all a bit precious, isn't it?

What is it about garden ornaments that make people go all bourgeois? If you are going to fork out a few hundred dollars for a “focal point,” why get the same thing that every other person has in their garden? Why not commission a local artist to create something unique for your space? Or, get creative—try to make something yourself! Custom-made garden ornaments may cost more, but one thoughtful, well chosen object in your garden will do much more as a point of interest than dozens of cement bunnies scattered around in your groundcover. And whatever happened to using plants as decoration? If you’re looking for a beautiful object that will add scent and color and sound to your garden all year long and will never be déclassé, you can’t go wrong with a well-placed plant. 

People don’t create a garden as a stage for their burgeoning gnome collection. People want to make gardens because they love plants. But plants are finicky creatures, as any experienced gardener can attest, and sometimes it's hard to get plants to go along with our grand vision. So we use objects as space-fillers for when our plantsmanship is lacking, and that’s okay. When it isn’t okay is when the plants suddenly become secondary. In a garden, plants should always be trump; the objects should be nothing more than a foil to what’s growing.

So, the next time you go to the garden center, take a deep breath and quickly walk past all the garish and flashy baubles and immediately go find some gorgeous plant and take it home and put it in a beautiful pot. The gnomes will have to fend for themselves.

Posted by on September 9, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 75 responses.
Guest Rants,   Real Gardens

When a Garden Needs a Lawyer

Here's a guest rant from Michelle Clay/The Clueless Gardeners


In July, against their wishes, the city of Bartlett,
Illinois mowed down Donald and Benia Zouras’s garden.  And Don and Benia have to pay for it.

I’ve sifted through their record of what happened,
and I’ve read the relevant parts of their town’s laws.  The research has left me confused.  The fact that I’m not a lawyer doesn’t

Some background: Don and Benia have worked for years to make
their suburban yard into a wildlife habitat.  Their yard was one of three that I profiled back in March
here at Garden Rant as risky but noble gardening causes.   At the time, Don seemed confident
that his two brushes with disapproving neighbors and heavy-handed local laws
were the end of his troubles. 

The Zouras’s made an effort through signs to let their
neighbors know what was up with the yard. 
But despite having their website posted on a sign by the sidewalk, they
received almost no feedback until after the mowing took place.  Anonymous neighbors then called his
yard an eyesore, an overgrown mess. 
“At least with a forclosed home someone is mowing the lawn.” said one
person.”  Said another, “You need
to realize there is other houses around you and it just doesn't blend in; it's
simply ugly and unorganized. Keep that stuff in your backyard.”

These comments were, thankfully, outnumbered by sympathetic

To be clear, it wasn’t their entire yard that got mowed; it
was the strip between sidewalk and road where the utilities are buried.  But here is the odd part: the town
cited a part of the law that applies to creating obstructions (visual or
otherwise) to pedestrian or vehicular traffic.  The Zouras’s hell-strip garden may not have been the
aesthetic ideal of suburbia, but they live on a straight road, away from
intersections.  Their plants could
hardly be blocking the view of drivers. 
Furthermore, judging by the photos, the plants did not flop significantly
into the sidewalk.  Was the
bureaucrat who cited that part of the law just inept?  Or was that particular snippet of the town code drawn out of
a hat as an excuse to enforce the aesthetics of some neighbor who had his
panties in a bunch?

The letter
they received from the town also mentions that it is unlawful to plant anything
“in any public street or parkway” without approval of the Public Works
Director.   This, I think, is
the only part of the town’s complaint that holds water.   The Zouras’s did not apply for a
permit to plant where the street’s power lines are buried, and therefore the
town trumps.  Never mind that Don
attempted to get some clarity from town on the letter’s strange wording, and
was answered with one-line variants of “we already sent you a letter that says
you violated the town’s code.”

Oddly, there was another part of the law which the town didn’t
use against the Zouras’s yard, but could have: the Nuisance Laws.   These laws state that “Any such
weeds as jimson, burdock, ragweed, thistle. . .” (perhaps the authors of this
law were unaware that Pitcher’s thistle, Cirsium pitcher, is listed as a
federally threatened plant)  “. .
.cockleburr, or other weeds of like kind. . .”  (Mead’s milkweed, Asclepias meadi, is likewise
endangered)  “. . .found growing in
any lot or tract of land. . .” 
(even parkland?)  “. . . in
the village are hereby declared to be a nuisance, and it shall be unlawful to
permit any such weeds to grow or remain. . .”   (This is a joke, right?  I can understand making weed illegal, but weeds?)

This bit is somewhat of a tangent, but I can‘t resist
repeating it here: “It shall be unlawful for anyone to permit weeds, grass or
plants, other than trees, bushes, flowers or other ornamental plants to grow to
a height exceeding eight inches. . .” 

Just let that one sink in a bit.  A Bartlett resident could be fined for growing
tomatoes.  Or for owning an ugly
shade tree.  Perhaps the town didn’t
cite this section of the law because the law is too ridiculous to hold up in

For the safety of workers, and to protect the underground
cables and pipes from damage, it is reasonable for a town to demand permits for
what gardeners plant on their utility strips.  But would the town have turned a blind eye on Don’s yard for
a few more years if the neighbors had found it to be visually appealing?  Did the town go clumsily looking for an
excuse to mow his yard in order to appease the offended sensibilities of a few
suburban conformists?

If there's a lawyer in the house, I would love to hear an opinion.

Photo used with permission from Don Zouras.

Posted by on September 8, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 57 responses.
Guest Rants,   It's the Plants, Darling

What’s in a name?

A guest rant by Dee/Red Dirt Rambling

A young tree of L. indica
Lagerstroemia indica 

Writing about gardening isn’t rocket science or even brain
surgery, but it isn’t easy either. 
It’s not enough anymore to correctly identify a plant by its botanical,
cultivar and common name. In the last decade, plant hybridizers and propagators
began to patent their new creations with gusto and then trademark them. To say
this causes garden writers and editors a lot of headaches is an understatement.

In journalism school, I was taught to write clearly and
concisely about my subject. I’m essentially providing information to the reader,
but when writing about my great passion, I also want to capture the romance of
fauna, flower and vegetable while encouraging other gardeners.

In the past, if I wrote about a modern rose, it was fairly
simple. I identified it botanically and by class and then listed the cultivar
in single quotes.  Now, with plant
patents and trademarks, it takes more than a correct botanical i.d., and don’t
get me started on the taxonomists—coleus recently changed to the nearly
unpronounceable Solenostemon scutellarioides which perplexed everyone.  I must also determine if the plant’s name
is a cultivar or a trademark (or if they are one and the same). If a cultivar,
it should be surrounded by single quotation marks. If a trademark, hybridizers
would like an ® or a ™ behind the name depending on where it is within the
process. Add to this that editors and writers can’t agree whether the trademark
symbol should even be listed, and you’ll begin to understand the complexity.

It’s been my experience editors usually want cultivar names listed,
and with some of the newer plants, these are becoming more difficult to find
because hybridizers want us to promote their trademark.

According to one magazine’s guidelines, the crapemyrtle
Tightwad Red®, would be Lagerstroemia indica 'Whit V' Tightwad Red®
(crapemyrtle). If I include all of this information in the article every time I
list the plant, even while shortening Lagerstroemia to L., it makes for some clumsy

To be fair, I wondered why patenting and trademarks became de
rigueur, so I called Dr. Carl Whitcomb, who is a
crapemyrtle breeder, and asked him.

 “A plant
doesn’t leave the farm until it is distinctly different from one in the trade,
and it takes numerous tests and trials to make sure you’re satisfied this plant
is unique and will make enough royalties to justify the expense,” he said.

In the twenty-six years of his business, Dr. Whitcomb grew over
half a million plants and yet, as of now, he’s patented only eight. He feels
patents and trademarks protect his property rights. If a company wants to grow L.
indica ‘Whit II’ Dynamite® for example, it signs a license agreement and pays a
royalty fee for each plant sold. Plant patents only last twenty years. So, Dr.
Whitcomb also trademarks a name he hopes will resonate with the public. The
trademark application requires a unique cultivar name, and Dr. Whitcomb chooses
one which is less desirable. As long as he continues to renew the trademark,
even when the patent expires, he hopes Dynamite® becomes the standard, and companies
will continue to sell the plant as such.

After my talk with Dr. Whitcomb, I understand his reasoning.
However, it doesn’t make my job any easier, and sometimes, I think the use of so
many names puzzles the public especially when writers make mistakes. How many
times have you seen trademark names incorrectly identified with single quotes?

By the way, Dr. Whitcomb wants you know that the common name
for L. indica should be written as one word, not as crepe myrtle or crape
myrtle because it isn’t a myrtle tree, and the USDA database agrees with

Yet, if you search the common name, you’ll find it written
as two words almost everywhere.

See what I mean? 

Posted by on September 7, 2010 at 5:00 am.   This post has 20 responses.