Over on the Sunset website I found a fabulous display of paths, a garden feature we just don’t see enough of, imho. The collection is titled “41 Gorgeous Garden Paths” and indeed, 40 of them ARE gorgeous, like the one above. The only exception is this next one, which looks ridiculous and would be crazy-making to maintain.
I’ve been a busy bee this weekend making pavers for a path through my new new front-yard garden that’s all garden, no lawn. I’m making super-cheap leaf-embossed concrete pavers – photos coming soon.
So readers, do YOU have a garden path and is it both beautiful and functional? And back to Sunset’s collection of paths – is there one you’d kill for?
Do gardeners want to put down deep roots, plant trees, and watch them ever so slowly become massive and still presences in the landscapes of their personalities?
No, the people who do that are not gardeners.
Do gardeners strive to take a slice of earth stuck in this noisy contemporary moment and make it timeless, to express some eternal mystery in the relationship between humanity and nature?
Only in theory.
In my observation, the more passionate a gardener is about the series of acts called gardening, the more perverse and restless he or she is, too. Oh my, did that plant just die? Let me cry a crocodile tear and stick in a replacement, something exciting and weird I’ve never tried before! Did the garden just get flooded out? Did I downsize my way out of a place I’ve shaped for 20 years? Did I just get fired, foreclosed on, divorced, widowed, thrown off the land I’ve been squatting on by the city?
Yeah, it’s terrible.
And now let’s start anew! A new plan! More plants! New plants! Better design this time! A new kind of soil! Experiments galore!
Gardeners see the yard the same way billionaires see marriage. Life is a banquet, and if the current situation has become unsettling, there is always another lovely blonde out there to offer a fresh start.
I was thinking of the weirdness of our attitude towards change just this week because my neighbor stopped by to discuss the new fence she and I are getting on our property line. The old wooden fence has been falling down for years, thanks to a post or two that wandered in our light, sandy soil. She can’t take it any more. And indeed, it looks crazy from my side, but certifiable from hers.
But a new fence on our property line means dealing with the denizens of my side of the fence, particularly a ridiculously healthy ‘New Dawn’ rose; the accompanying large-flowered clematises, which are doing surprisingly well for large-flowered clematises, a fussy group of characters, I find; a pair of hardy kiwis that haven’t yet flowered; an ‘Alchymist’ rose that isn’t nearly as much of a feature as ‘New Dawn,’ but is growing pleasingly into an ‘Adelaide Dunbar’ lilac. Plus the lilac, lots of lilies, an unhappy blue mist shrub or two, many undistinguished perennials and one that I happen to love–telekia–a meadowy weed with huge, coarse chartreuse leaves and yellow daisylike flowers at shoulder height.
My neighbor’s yard guy Ralph, who has been engaged to put up the fence, refuses to go near the issue until I saw down ‘New Dawn.’ Ralph is not foolish.
So my neighbor said to me with that saintly combination of good manners and puzzlement that characterizes most of my neighbors’ interactions with me, “Are you sure you want to do this? I feel so bad for your beautiful garden.”
Oh, I’m sure. And besides, why would anyone pity ‘New Dawn’? Yes, I’m sorry that ‘New Dawn’ won’t get to produce her thousand flesh-colored, hybrid tea-like perfect blooms this year.
But ‘New Dawn’ is a meat eater that has evolved to ensnare gardeners with its hooked thorns, wait until they expire, and then use their corpses for fertilizer. I once got a New Dawn thorn caught in my ear and would have decomposed there if my son Milo hadn’t bravely wrestled the cane off and out of me. So, it’s not as if I expect to be consumed with sorrow, sawing this thing down to stump. Instead, it will feel like an act of revenge. Besides, ‘New Dawn’ will surely exact its own revenge in the numerous bloody injuries it inflicts on me as I conduct this operation. And any plant this healthy is sure to regrow alarmingly from its scaffold anyway. I think that if I really wanted to kill it, some kind of accelerant would be required.
When I was 20 years old, I got to hear Martin Scorcese speak at UCLA. He took questions from the audience, one of which was along the lines of, “Why aren’t your movies nicer?”
He said a great thing: “If you don’t like violence, you don’t like the movies.”
Well, if you don’t like death and destruction, a least a little, you don’t like gardening.
Yes, what’s happening on the fence now is pretty. But it is not nearly as interesting as taking my accumulated wisdom and sharklike character and starting anew there.
Please welcome Debra Prinzing, author of The 50 Mile Bouquet, a documentary-style book that takes a fascinating and in-depth look at local, not global, flower-growing. We’re giving another copy away, but you’re going to have to work for it–Debra asks you to post a photo of one of your own bouquets online and put a link to it in the comments.
The idea for The 50 Mile Bouquet – chronicling the “slow flower” movement – originated in 2006. After corresponding with each other about the things we were each doing in our complementary spheres of garden writing and photography, Seattle photographer David Perry and I arranged a one-day road trip to the Skagit Valley in Washington State, to scout each other’s garden sources. One of the highlights was a visit to the amazing heirloom rose garden of David’s friend, Waverly Jaegel. That day we discovered (and continue to nurture) our mutual fascination with the stories of the floral industry’s unsung heroes: the flower farmers.
This book was years in the works, first as a concept, then as a self-funded creative collaboration. Along the way, the two of us delighted in each new encounter with a passionate grower or inventive floral designer – all of them believers in the importance of locally-grown and seasonal ingredients as their form of creative expression.
Our winding 50 Mile Bouquet “road trip” has been one of discovery and unforgettable beauty. The 144-page book was designed by the talented James Forkner of Studio Bolo and published on April 1, 2012, by Paul Kelly of St. Lynn’s Press.
I’ve been a journalist for nearly 30 years, first as a fashion writer; then a business writer; and finally, by 1997, when I turned to something much more personal: my love affair with the garden and good design.
Writers are sponges, and we are driven by an insatiable, need-to-know curiosity. In pursuit of our stories, we can’t help but absorb knowledge about myriad topics, taught to us by generous subjects whose own passion is infectious. That’s exactly what happened to me while gathering the narrative of local flowers from so many talented individuals.
So I would like to share 10 important lessons I learned from the flower farmers and floral designers featured in the pages of The 50 Mile Bouquet:
1. Live in the Season. Like the chef whose menu planning is informed by the farmer’s seasonal ingredients, inspired floral design occurs in a similar way. Rather than feeling restricted, something quite magical occurs when we understand seasonal floral choices. We learn to live in the moment, using observation of nature and an intimacy with our own garden to discover what each month of the calendar offers us: Intriguing branches, twigs, stems, blades, buds, berries and blooms — all for our sensory enjoyment.
2. Define LOCAL on your own terms. This word is a moving target, and you have to determine for yourself what local means in your community. We used “50-miles” to emphasize the enjoyment of flowers that travel the shortest possible journey between the field and vase. You won’t know unless you ask the florist or supermarket flower department to tell you. There was a big scam going on here in Seattle last year when our own natural food market started selling mixed bouquets with a sticker that read: “Locally hand-tied in the Pacific Northwest.” A number of us in the community complained that this was just a form of green-washing to imply the flowers had been locally grown (which they weren’t). All that label really meant was that someone in a local, PNW warehouse was bunching up imported blooms and putting a twist-tie around them. That is NOT local, people!
In 2008, Congress passed H.R. 2419, which amended the “Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act.” In the amendment, “Locally” and “Regionally” are grouped together and defined as:
“. . . the locality or region in which the final product is marketed, so that the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product; or the State in which the product is produced.”
It is also possible to enjoy a one-block bouquet, especially if you harvest from your own neighborhood. I encourage you to come up with your personal guideline for sourcing locally.
3. Understand what sustainability means in the flower trade. Like “local,” the term “sustainable” has oh-so-many meanings. Do your homework. When we started trying to wrap our arms around this subject, Jennie Love, a flower farmer and eco-florist in Philadelphia who owns Love ‘n Fresh Flowers, shared her personal definition of sustainably grown blooms, and we included it in our book’s introduction:
“I am a small flower farmer in Pennsylvania who grows organically, but is not certified as ‘organic’ due to the debilitating high costs of going through the (USDA) certification process. So I use the words ‘sustainably grown’ to describe my flowers (due to government regulations, if you’re not a Certified Organic operation, you cannot use the word ‘organic’ in promoting what you produce). What ‘sustainably grown’ means to me is this in a nutshell: being careful to not take more from the land and the community than I am putting back into them.
“In my daily farming practices, I am using cover crops, compost, all-natural fertilizers, good watering practices, limited tilling of the land, lots of native plants so the local insect population has food sources, nurturing old antique/heirloom flowers that might not necessarily be money makers but are going to disappear from our world if growers like me don’t keep using them, and generally being very thoughtful about how everything I do in the field is going to impact not just that field but the forest that surrounds the field, the underwater streams that run from the field to the rivers, and the flora and fauna in that field and elsewhere in 5-10 years. And I never use synthetic chemicals to fight bugs or weeds.
“In my business practices, I work hard at engaging and educating my immediate community – literally my neighbors – and the city in which I live. I try to always be transparent about what I am doing and what my goals are when people ask about my business. I have recently hired my first employee and I am paying well above minimum wage (more than I can afford, really) and providing flexible work hours that fit into his schedule so his quality of life improves because he is working for me. I make a point to donate lots of flowers to different non-profits and to nursing homes. . . .
“Most importantly, to me at least, is that I have a rule: my flowers never go further than 75 miles from where they grew. I want my flowers and my business to enrich the lives of those who live around me in as many ways as possible. To me, that’s giving back more than I take from this world. ” That’s the best definition of sustainable flower farming we’ve heard – and we were thrilled that Jennie shared it with us.
4. Be a floral designer even if you don’t have a garden. Not everyone has the passion to plant and care for a cutting garden, let alone the square-footage in which to do so. Act like a inquisitive floral designer and develop your sources. That means patronizing the farmers’ market and U-Pick Farm Stand, as well as conducting your own wild-foraging techniques (see point Number 5, below). Friends and neighbors with prolific gardens or overgrown shrubs are also great sources of floral ingredients.
5. One person’s weed is another person’s bouquet. Inspired designers see the inherent charm in plants that many of us would otherwise ignore. Case in point: fruiting raspberry or blackberry vines. If, like me, you live next to a vacant lot overrun with Himalayan blackberries, you may soon discover how cool those clusters of not-yet-ripe green berries look in an arrangement with other seasonal ingredients. David Perry recently showed up at one of our book-signings with a bucket of all sorts of humble blooms and branches, causing the audience to ooh and aah over what he described as “blue collar floral ingredients.” In his eyes, prosaic Photinia x fraseri foliage, when harvested at its early-season red stage, is a gorgeous design element in the vase. He also showed off the emerging flower heads from his rhubarb patch, which are nothing short of dazzling.
6. Keep those clippers on hand. One designer explained it this way: “While some women have lipstick in their purses, I have a pair of Felcos.” She views her personal harvesting efforts as a public service! “If branches are hanging onto the sidewalk, I do my part to clip them back,” she pointed out. The foragers we met gain permission first before ever cutting on public or private property. Wild drifts of Queen Anne’s lace, growing in a ditch alongside of the highway, though, seems to be fair game.
7. Living plants are floral ingredients, too. If you’re in need of design inspiration, take a trip to the garden center or nursery. We discovered that many designers use this approach. Max Gill, who creates beautiful, local arrangements for Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, pointed out: ” . . . it is as important to go to a nursery to buy a 5-gallon plant as it is to head to the flower market.”
Susie Nadler, the talented designer whose flower shop, The Cutting Garden, is housed at Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, feels the same way. Many of the nursery’s potted echeverias and aeoniums, as well as a selection of titillating tillandsias, make their way into Susie’s bouquets with dahlias and other cut-flower ingredients. “The idea that you can have a living plant in your bouquet – one that will live on beyond the wedding day – is appealing to a bride,” she said.
8. Use anything as a vase. Container gardeners have elevated this philosophy to a high art form, and now it’s the floral world’s turn to re-imagine the bud vase into something more interesting. From vintage pottery and Mason jars to tarnished trophy cups and teapots, I’ve filled all sorts of vessels with my bouquets. And for the budget-minded, there is an ever-ready supply of generic glass florist vases on the Goodwill and Salvation Army thrift store shelves, all for a song. Keep a stash on hand for when you send visitors home with their own backyard bouquets.
9. Skip the chemicals. Green foam, or florist’s Oasis, is the dirty little secret of conventional floral design. Time and time again, eco-conscious floral designers identify the foam brick as the most harmful aspect of their trade. The material is formaldehyde-based and therefore is harmful to touch (and breathe when it breaks down into fine particles in the air). Motivated to find an alternative, designers who care about the environment have sought alternate ways to stabilize their stems. Green floral arranging techniques include using loosely-formed chicken wire; old-fashioned or new-styled flower frogs; or a framework of branches inserted into the vase before the flower stems are added. Hey, even those 1980s glass marbles will work!
10. Channel your inner floral designer. You don’t have to earn a certificate from the London School of Floral Design to create a seasonal, local and sustainable bouquet. I contend that gardeners are especially qualified to arrange flowers. After all, we know a lot about our plants, their bloom cycle, their natural form and character – and their seasonality. We also know what colors and textures we like when combined in the landscape. A vase is just a little piece of the garden, gathered and arranged to please the eye.
So give it a try and design a bouquet. We’ll award a free copy of The 50 Mile Bouquet to one Garden Rant winner, based on photos you post here by Sunday night.
Do you remember last year when we reviewed some Fiskars tools and gave a few away? Remember those PowerGear Loppers? I wrote about them here, and Gen wrote about them at North Coast Gardening. Now that I’ve had a pair for a year or so, I can tell you that they are quite sturdy and very useful–they’re big enough to be able to whack back anything in my garden, but they’re also surprisingly light and easy to carry around. Good stuff.
Well, Fiskars just wants you to have more tools. So they asked us if we’d give another pair away. Uh–yeah! Sure, why not?
Here’s the video we did last year if you want to know exactly how these things work. To win, just post a comment with any pruning-related tale, or any sob story about why you so desperately need to upgrade your pruning tools.
Thanks to everyone who posted a comment to win a copy of Debra Prinzing and David Perry’s fine new book The 50-Mile Bouquet. If you didn’t win, you’re in luck, because we have a guest post coming up from Debra Prinzing soon, and you’ll have another chance to win.
There’s a new product in the works, and the makers have asked students at the University of St. Thomas (“one of the most highly renowned business schools in the globe,” they tell me) to research “the best way to get into our consumers minds and figure out what their priorities are.” Toward that end, they’re asking us to take a quick survey about the product – a spray-on mulch colerant called Hippie Mulch. Yes, I did ask if this was a joke and was told they’re “EXTREMELY SERIOUS” about this, and they really want our feedback about it, so let’s give ‘em some.
First, the product itself is one that many of us disapprove of on aesthetic grounds, and I’m in that camp myself. The Hippie Mulch website describes faded mulch as a problem that must be fixed, either by adding more mulch or using a colorant, but of course I disagree. From that mistaken assumption, they derive the whole tree-saving pitch – “One jar can save up to 8 trees” – because without their product, we’d be buying more mulch, and “New mulch involves cutting down trees, and burning diesel fuel during the grinding and transportation process. We felt that a hippie would probably choose to save a few trees, and avoid the additional exhaust from the diesel fuel.”
But actual gardeners know that mulch is about much more than aesthetics – we want the stuff to break down and improve the soil. Replacing mulch every year is the one big thing I do for my garden, besides water. I asked the Hippie Mulch team about this and was told that “Many horticulturists are proud of their gardens and keeping them looking “fresh” (in addition to healthy) is of the utmost importance.” Right.
Next, what’s in the stuff? Don’t look to the website for that answer, beyond the marketing language that it’s a “a unique blend of environmentally friendly additives and binders allow the color to penetrate the wood surface, lock on to the fibers, and adhere for long lasting beauty”.
Wouldn’t a good hippie want to see the ingredient list? This hippie sure would.
Yes, I happen to have been a ’60s hippie in good standing myself and have actual memories of using some of the language used on the Hippie Mulch website – “blow my mind,” “chill time,” “Peace, man.” Oh, yes, I did! And how about the colors this stuff comes in: beatnik brown, dig-it dark brown, bellbottom black, groovy gold, ringo red, and rush red.
Okay, I’ll admit it – the language is really annoying.
Again if you’re wondering if this is a late April Fool’s joke, I was told that that question is “slightly offensive” and that “The company we are working with has paid St. Thomas U. and the Small Business Institute for our consulting work and this is the equivalent of a Thesis for our major. We have poured countless hours into serving our client and the only thing we get out of this (other than real world experience) is a final college credit. Thus far, every single blog that we have reached out to has taken this seriously, as I believe you should too.”
As a commenter astutely pointed out a couple weeks back, my relationship with tulips has nothing to do with low-maintenance or saving money. I’m not sure any of my gardening is centered around those priorities. Indeed, I hope it never will be. It’s not that I want to bankrupt myself through improvident gardening; it’s just that I didn’t get into this to save money, and the more time I spend on it the more fun I have.
However, there are times when even I take pause at the ridiculous demands of my plant addiction. Take today. Buffalo has been issued with a storm warning that calls for a possible 5–8 inches of snow—with the temps going right back to normal by Wednesday. Normally, I’d treat this with amused, incredulous disdain. Even though that’s more snow in a day than we’ve had this whole mild winter, it’s going to last about 30 seconds. It could cause some tree damage, but I wouldn’t think my normal run of perennials and shrubs would suffer unduly.
Except. I have magazine peeps coming to take “beauty shots” of my successfully completed pots of tulips, and I’m speculating that big pots of tulips clobbered by 5–8 possible inches might not be so beautiful. Even if they weren’t coming, I might have done this. Months of waiting, and I’m going to let the pay-off be ruined by a freak storm? I don’t think so. So now I have six pots in the house and six more in the garage. Welcome inside, bulbs. Can I get you some coffee? Anything?
Friend of Rant and Chicago radio personality Mike Nowak now has a TV show on Comcast 102, Dig In Chicago, which will debut tomorrow. We love Mike because he blasts away the twee in gardening, is a real journalist willing to take on all kinds of political and environmental issues surrounding gardening, manages to be both extremely local and universal in the information he dishes out, and also because he is funny!
He will be joined on this endeavor by one Jennifer Brennan, whose bio informs me that she is ABC-TV Channel 7′s horticulture correspondent. I don’t mean to succumb to envy, but why have I never lived in a market where the TV networks employ horticulture correspondents?
This just in: as part of Algonquin’s monthly round of $1.99 ebook deals, you can get Lucinda Fleeson’s WAKING UP IN EDEN for $1.99 in any of a number of ebook formats. This deal is only good through April 22–sorry, I’m late getting the word out about this one–but it’s another great literary botanical read. Fleeson quit her day job to move to Hawaii and work at the National Tropical Botanical Garden, where she discovered an imperiled native plant population.
So check that out–the link above will take you to any ebook retailer you like. Remember that even if you don’t have a Kindle, Nook, Sony ereader, etc., you can still read an ebook on your computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone by using any of the apps that these retailers offer.
Please welcome photographer David Perry who, along with author Debra Prinzing, has been at work on this book about sustainable cut flowers, The 50 Mile Bouquet, for–well. A loooooong time. Honestly, I can think of few authors who have been as committed to their subject as these two have been. They knew from the get-go that they just HAD to do this book and they started doing it, long before they had a publisher, a deadline, a contract–any of the usual sorts of things that get most of us motivated.
Anyway, it’s a lovely book, and the two of them have really become part of this community of flower farmers who are into local, organic, fresh, seasonal–all the things we love about flowers. In this guest post, David writes about his own crazy publication date experience, but I have a feeling that for these two, the pub date is only the beginning, not the end, of their journey through the world of home-grown, sustainable flowers.
But now, here’s David on his pub date adventures–and read on for a chance to win a copy of the book.
I like to goof around and tempt fate as much as the next guy, but I swear it was not my idea to have our book’s release date coincide with April Fool’s Day. Still, when those pesky, publishing world dice were rolled, when that auspicious pair of numbers, “four and one,” came up, it did seem to me that there might just be a silver lining shimmering there within the odd mystery of it, somehow.
When you think about it, Debra and I had been rolling the dice, gambling with our time and our own money, trying to get this emerging story told from the get go. For more than four years we stubbornly kept on, even when certain, ‘in-the-know’ gatekeepers who shall remain unnamed, kept telling us, over and over, that we were crazy. So really, why would either of us have started expecting ‘conventional’ or ‘normal’ at this stage of the game?
I decided to embrace it.
After delivering a signed, thank-you copy of The 50 Mile Bouquet to my dear friend, flower farmer, Jan Roozen at the Ballard Farmer’s Market (Jan is featured in the book on pages 52-53), I made my way to one of Seattle’s favorite landmarks, the Fremont Troll.
It’s important to understand that though the beloved Fremont Troll has been living boldly under the Aurora Bridge since Halloween of 1990, he lives within our hearts and our imaginations, as well. So who better, really, to call upon? Who better to entreat for help in celebrating the April Fools tie-in to our official book-release date?
I had been entertaining thoughts of trying one of those elaborate, good ju-ju incantations to get the troll’s attention, and had been going over the particular steps, again and again in my head. But as soon as I arrived and looked around, I abandoned that notion as just a little too ‘crazy’. Too many other eager supplicants who had made their own perilous pilgrimages from neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Ravenna, and White Center. And then there was that strange couple from Madrid who kept making out while she fondled the troll’s enormous nostril for the benefit of their friend’s camera. Add to all that the realization that I simply could not remember whether one is to properly swing the chicken clock-wise, or counter-clockwise over one’s head and you begin to understand why I decided it would be best to just sit quiet and wait for a sign.
Thankfully, I wasn’t the only poor soul who didn’t understand the finer points of karmic hen twirling, for in the hour that I stood there waiting, nary a chicken was to be seen hurtling about in euphoric circles, and this on April Fool’s Day, no less.
Still, there was a pair of teenage kids who arrived with two, camera-wielding mom-types in tow, and despite their lack of a proper chicken, I simply could not ignore just how much fun they all seemed to be having taking each other’s pictures with the troll and laughing. They immediately seemed like my kind of people. However, I was a little concerned that they might not see me as ‘their kind of people’, so I approached them slowly and cautiously, holding a flawless, new copy of The 50 Mile Bouquet at arm’s length in front of me, looking directly into their eyes and speaking in calm, reassuring tones while introducing myself by name.
“Hello…” I began, timidly, trying not to spook them.
To my great relief, they did not run away. Better yet, they did not even look afraid.
When I explained that I hoped they’d help me celebrate the auspicious, first day of April, which was also our new book’s birthday, by enacting, perchance, one small, slightly rewritten scene from that recently released, Hunger Games movie, with young, Sammy volunteering herself in tribute, then reading aloud selected passages from The 50 Mile Bouquet, including excerpts of the Floral Gospel According to Jan Roozen, which pronounces the abomination of putting daffodils in the same vase with tulips, unless there is a baggie involved. She would do all this, I explained, while she sat upon Joey’s back, as he knelt in front of the giant troll.
Well, duh, you didn’t have to explain it to these folks twice. They too could see, almost immediately, that we were all birds of a similar feather. The kids looked to the adults with eager nodding faces and puppy-dog eyes, and the mom and the auntie looked back at me and smiled. We apparently had a deal.
By now you may be wondering where I’m going with this.
I relate this story to you because, as one of the proud parents of a newly published book, I feel a duty to relay some of what I have learned during its long gestation.
You really can’t ignore any realm of existence any more as you navigate that winding road toward a book’s birth, even down to appeasing immense trolls and inviting complete strangers to help you entreat the powers that be, and celebrate the great mystery that is getting a book published.
These days it’s not enough to simply be good, to merely create the essential elements for a book, to catch a glimpse or a dream that needs to be told. It’s not enough to refine your pitch to the point that you can explain your premise in five sentences or less, while still maintaining some of its poetry, or to hone and organize your sources, or to gather those many, essential story threads from life’s four winds and then weave them all together into an enlarging and compelling narrative.
It’s not enough to shoot more than forty thousand photographs from which you’ll only be able to include a hundred and seventy six, or to make your peace with the fact that several of those included won’t necessarily be your ‘best’ images on a particular subject, or even your favorites, but trusting, instead that they will be what is best for a particular page or spread, or story-informing spot.
It’s not enough any more that the pictures in a book simply be beautiful. They need now to also to be great communicators, team players and nuanced elicitors of emotion.
When you see all of these things come together, when you witness the diverse players on a story’s birthing team, from the brave publisher to the wise editor, to the visionary designer and its original creators, all managing to avoid those numerous pitfalls that inevitably rise up, emerging somehow, whole on the other side with their completed tale, you then behold what we readers, we loyal, page-turning, goofball lovers of story refer to as a “book.”
And these books, my friends, they are not easily born.
I invite you, finally, to meet ours, to gaze upon its faces, to immerse yourself within the stories of America’s emerging local, seasonal and sustainable flower movement. Allow us introduce you to wondrous designers and courageous flower farmers. Meet ardent, soulful gardeners. Look into their eyes, gaze upon their creations and be amazed as we have been amazed.
Welcome flower lovers. You’ll find that you’re among friends here.So! People! To win a copy, post a comment about the thing that is blooming (or leafing, or branching, or rooting, or climbing or living or dying) in your garden RIGHT NOW that is most worthy of putting in a vase today. Have at it!
These days most of my blog reading is off-topic to gardening (sites like Apartment Therapy and Houzz) but I do listen togardening podcasts and wish there were more good ones, like Margaret Roach’s – she’s the author of the excellent blog A Way to Garden and former garden writer/editor for newspapers and Martha Stewart. So when she spoke in Baltimore recently to the Maryland Horticultural Society, I was there, and nabbed a dinner invitation, too.
More later about that memoir, but here’s what I learned from her thoroughly entertaining talk and gorgeous photos.
The title of Margaret’s talk was “At Home in the 365-Day Garden” and this first scene reminds us that with the right plants, there’s lots to see even in winter, something she knows a bit about there in Upstate New York, Zone 5. Her comment on this photo was “This is a beautiful day in the garden.”
In the spring, when the photo below was taken, sure, there are flowers but what makes this garden beautiful to me is all the structure – those evergreen bones, the pond, and fieldstone patio.
Again in this next shot we see another 365-day-a-year feature that I love – the house itself, painted olive with orange trim. (Margaret said she “has a high tolerance for color”.) And of course the narrow turfgrass paths through really deep borders crammed with shrubs and perennials.
Because my new garden is mostly shade, I’m hungry for scenes like the next one of shade-loving plants that are stunning all season long, thanks to their foliage. The Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’ grass even looks good in the winter; the hand-out cited it as a “durable, unfussy plants with a long season of interest.” Conifers fit that bill, too.
This autumn scene below demonstrates another garden principle I used in my former garden, large and woodland-edged – the layering of plants from tall trees down to understory trees and large shrubs (like the brilliant Spicebush here), to shorter shrubs and perennials and then to groundcover. Copying but improving on how it works in nature. Then adding an interesting focal point – the plant-filled birdbath.
Readers of Margaret’s blog know that her garden is well populated by frogs, like this one she introduced as “my ex-husband”. This and other wildlife photos reminded me that my point-and-shoot camera is crap when it comes to close-ups and it’s high time I did something about that. The message I was supposed to get from this photo is that developing a relationship with wildlife in the garden is a big part of enjoying it year-round.
More good pointers include:
In designing the garden, use the views from indoors as guides for siting major plants, especially the ones that look good in the winter.
There’s much to be appreciated in plants NOT at their peak – whether the “life force” in newly emerging hosta leaves or the senescence of perennials in late fall.
“Portable color”, like the red of her Adirondack chairs, is an easy way to add what designers are always calling “pop”.
It’s important to have “true powerhouse plants” like Viburnums, ornamental grasses and crabapples.
Ditto “imperfect but irresistible types” with short peaks that you can’t live without. For her that includes lilacs and Martagon lilies.
Then ya gotta have some “late-show stars” like Lespedeza thumbergii and Ilex verticillata.
“You have to grow it to know it.” Ain’t that the truth, and possibly why her blog (and first gardening book) are named A Way to Garden. Just one way, not the only way.
Ordinarily, I’d be writing about my tulips now. But there are so many noteworthy news stories at the moment for gardeners that a series of links seemed more pressing.
Good news for the plastic life! Yale students have found a fungi from the Amazon that can break down polyurethane–even without oxygen, as at the bottom of a landfill. Of course, this probably wouldn’t surprise mycoloist Paul Stamets, whose super-fun book Mycelium Running enumerates many things mushrooms can clean up, including oil spills and the residues of chemical warfare.
Another less friendly fungus, thought to be from Europe, seems to beresponsible for the white-nosed syndrome that is killing so many bats.
One faint sign that the federal government does actually work to protect the interests of ordinary citizens: The F.D.A. just ruled that antibiotics can no longer be fed to livestock without a prescription from a vet. And one sign that it doesn’t: The E.P.A has refused to ban pesticide 2,4-D.
I really don’t understand why anybody still uses pesticides, when the science increasingly suggests that they are less effective at controlling pests than organic management, which allows for “evenness,” or a balance of populations of different creatures that keeps any one problem from getting out of hand.
But what I understand and don’t is apropos of nothing. Just to leave you agog over your coffee, I’ve included this link to an International Herald Tribune blog post about a tribe on North Sentinel Island that still has had almost no contact with the modern world. The island belongs to India, which now guards its isolation.
Reporter Mark MacDonald ends the post with a series of questions:
What’s your view? Would the Sentinelese relinquishing their way of life be outweighed by the benefits they’d gain from antibiotics, air conditioning, heart surgery, chainsaws, motorboats? Would their lives be elevated by an exposure to Shakespeare, Chartres and Messi, Caravaggio, coq au vin and “Casablanca”? Or should they be left entirely alone, unobserved and unstudied — to prosper, or to die out, or merely to live on their island as they always have?
Those are the questions. I suspect that gardeners might answer them slightly differently than air-conditioning-addicted shut-ins, who emerge only to take out the motorboat and chainsaw on the weekend and disturb the peace.
What’s your vote? Are the Sentinelese happy? Are they miserable? Are the islanders predisposed to happiness happy and the ones predisposed to misery miserable? Are they any different from us at all?
Williams-Sonoma got a little buzz last week when it announced a new line of DIY, homesteading, gardening, chicken-keeping stuff. The line is calledAgrarian, and while it wasn’t quite live when the press hit last week, it’s all up there now. Let’s have a look, shall we?
I went straight to the chicken coops, of course. A base model costs $400; the optional (but necessary) run brings the price up to $850. With shipping and taxes, you’re looking at a thousand bucks. Delivery includes “white glove service,” meaning that the thing will actually be assembled and put into place by their delivery people. (I would be very, very surprised if this applied to orders placed in Humboldt County.)
If you search around, you’ll see that this is not too different from any other mail-order chicken coop in terms of style or price. My complaint about most prefab chicken coops is that they are a bit too small for how pet chickens will actually live. Chickens do a lot of squabbling and shuffling of the hierarchy; I find that if you’re going to confine them, it’s good to give them more room than absolutely necessary so they can retreat to separate corners to avoid getting pecked if they need to. Also, I worry that these little pre-fab things might be too flimsy. A predator might flip them over or tunnel under. And how well will they hold up in the weather, year after year? If you’re going to spend a thousand bucks on a coop, you want it to last as long as, say, a fence or a deck would. It should be that sturdy.
So I don’t know. The coop is cute, the price is not actually that outrageous, but without actually kicking the tires I couldn’t say whether I’d consider it a good long-term investment. Might be easier to give a handyman a thousand bucks and say, “Chicken coop. Go.”
Plants. There are plants. Although I think some of these prices must be typos. Fifty bucks for a raspberry bush? Just one? Sure, it comes in a big pot, so I’m assuming it’s a big healthy mature thing, but come on. What do bareroot berries cost? A few bucks apiece?
Herbs in four-inch pots are $13. We all know that’s about 3-4 times more than they’d be at the garden center.
A single lettuce plant is $16.95. Really, I can’t even bring myself to mock them for this. I feel like it has to be a mistake. I mean, I would have mocked them for pricing it at $6.95, given that a vigorous jumbo six-pack of the same lettuce costs less at the garden center (not to mention a packet of seeds)–but $16.95? I’m just worried about them at this point.
10 packets of heirloom vegetable seeds go for $18. Okay, fair enough, assuming it’s all stuff you want to grow. They come from Beekman 1802, and the idea is that you go to the website, log in, and chat with other people growing the same seeds. Which–well, yeah. Maybe that could be cool.
Tools: We’re looking at a copper hand trowel for $60 and a spading fork for $300. Isn’t copper kind of a soft metal? I know they’re blending it with other metals, but still. Copper for garden tools? Really? I’m not persuaded. I’ve been using those tools that Clarington Forge sent me a while back and I gotta say–at a third of the price, they are all the tool you’ll ever need. Ever.
There’s more–stuff for canning and preserving, beekeeping, making cheese and kombucha and whatever–and some raised beds that are actually fairly comparable in price to similar raised bed kits sold online, but pricey nonetheless ($150 for a little 3 x 3 raised bed? To, what, grow some squash in? The squash will grow whether or not there’s a little piece of wood surrounding it, that’s all I’m saying.)
Oh, and they’re also selling compost ($7 for a 10-lb bag)–and fertilizer, and other things that I’d much rather pick up locally than order through a catalog.
So anyway, that’s my rundown, folks. Nice stuff, but not so nice that I’m lusting after it, with prices ranging from “comparable to other similar high-end stuff” to “are you sure that’s not a typo, honey?”
I guess I’m glad to see anybody selling garden stuff to the masses, at any price–but will I be ordering anything from them? Probably not.
Landscape architect Thomas Rainer (whose blog Grounded Design I’ve raved about) recently spoke to a rapt audience at the National Arboretum’s Native Plant Symposium, addressing the big question – how to create a native-plant garden that looks like a garden. You know, cared for and pretty.
So first he clarified that he’s no typical landscape architect but a true plant nerd. (Does he garden after dark? Check. Stay awake at night thinking of plants for his garden? Check. Et cetera.) He’s also not a native-plant purist, but native plants DO resonate with him spiritually, answering his longing for nature, what we’ve lost and are rapidly losing.
Thomas went on to complain that Americans treat nature like Victorians treated women – as either virgins or whores. Just Google “Yard of the Month” to see the nature-free yards that are held as the ideal, visions of which drew groans from the nature-loving audience. But with so much of our land now developed, nature is no longer something that happens elsewhere. We need to make room for it in our very own yards.
So, what’s the existing “design aesthetic” for native plants? Thomas believes that in reaction to that “Yard of the Month” style we love to hate, native gardens overly embrace the wild look in their attempts to imitate nature. While he loves naturalistic design as much as the next guy, he thinks the resulting gardens look weak and sloppy.
And sadly, our enthusiasm for wildness makes us our own worst enemies. Most observers, including our neighbors, just don’t think the wild aesthetic is appropriate. Gardens designed to replicate habitats are so often on too small a scale to look good, causing viewers in the general public to see them and ask, “Where’s the garden?”
Getting feedback like that and attempting to remedy the situation, the NY Botanic Garden is totally re-doing their habitat garden with the help of Oehme van Sweden, the famous firm that employed Thomas before the recession (he’s now with another well respected firm.) To avoid design failures like this, he uses what he calls the mother-in-law test – would his mother-in-law like this, recognize it as a garden? If so, then it’ll probably be accepted by the public.
So here’s what Thomas recommends to native-plant lovers who care about design and want to win converts to native-plant gardening. Create contemporary, abstract designs that interpret nature artfully. Rather than using plants on a small scale, “Turn up the volume!” Distill and amplify the plants’ features.
Start by choosing an analogous plant community for the site (one with the same characteristics as your yard). Google “DNR natural communities” and your state name for ideas. Pick the most important three or four plants from that group. One inspiring plant community for the Mid-Atlantic might be the Dolly Sods Park in West Virginia (below), where a dominant plant would be the Little Bluestem grass.
Then create a short list of the patterns you see those plants making in their natural setting. And voila – using abstraction and the dominant species with the volume on high, you have a garden that’s simpler, bolder, more architectural – a garden. “It sells itself!”
An added benefit is that large masses are easier to maintain than small groups of many different plants.
A great example of this style of native-plant design is Gary Smith’s design for Peirce’s Woods at Longwood Gardens, which uses thousands of tiarellas, maidenhair ferns and Christmas ferns to glorious effect. It’s not an imitation of an Eastern forest but a bold interpretation of one.
In a follow-up email I asked Thomas how this type of design could work in a small garden:
With small urban spaces with no clear reference (or adjacency) to a native plant community, you’re free to “import” almost any native plant community to stylize and adapt. The important thing is that the garden evokes a moment in nature, something it wouldn’t do using a traditional horticultural approach.
As to how, massing might be appropriate, but not always. In a small site, you might get legibility and spirit through repetition of species, color, or texture, not massing. The important aspect is that you’ve edited the community of inspiration down to the visual essence species. This is what creates the link to the larger site. As an example, I think Tom Stuart-Smith’s Laurent Perrier garden in the Chelsea Flower Show is perfect. It’s not a native garden, but it accomplishes exactly what I’m advocating for. In size, it’s not much bigger than a townhouse backyard. But he picked a palette of plants that FEELS like a fairy-tale woodland. A clearing in the woods. The umbel-laden forbs nodding under a grove of birches is a perfect example of distilling a palette down to a few plants with maximum emotional impact.
I’ll have more from Thomas coming this afternoon in another post – his “Myths about Native Plants”.
1. That native plants are drought-tolerant, requiring less supplemental watering, a notion Thomas calls total ‘hogwash”. Au contraire. In our region (the Mid-Atlantic), the most poplar native plants are actually from the wetter habitats, so they’re decidedly NOT drought-tolerant, for good reason. (An example of this would be planting Itea along highways. Native-plant advocate Rick Darke calls this type of placement “native plant abuse”).
2. That natives are weedy or messy. Well, they don’t have to be. Read that design link above, or just notice how gorgeous Prairie Dropseed and Baptisia look at Chanticleer Garden (below).
3. They natives MUST be naturalistically arranged. The ultra-modern and anything-but-naturalistic array of horsetail in Andrea Cochran’s design pictured here is an example to ponder.
4. That they shouldn’t be planted in large masses. But why not? There’s great drama in monocultures, and masses DO happen in nature. (Thomas showed us some photos taken in the wild as proof.)
5. That native plants are not as vigorous as exotics, that they’re wimpy – a myth that exists concurrently with its opposite, number 1. And this one is sadly true IF the natives are planted in the wrong spots, when the soil has been changed by development, for example. On the East Coast poor performance frequently results when woodland ephemerals are chosen for sunny, developed sites, where plants like Hibiscus and switchgrass should be used.
Proof that native plants perform well when they’re sited correctly are found in the wild, where native plants are seen thriving in even such brutal sites as granite rock out-croppings. And at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center they’re finding that native grasses are outperforming succulents on green roofs.
That’s all from Thomas. Now I can’t resist offering a fresh example of the misinformation about native plants that pervades the media today, even from people perceived as experts. This newspaper article by a writer for a botanical garden contains the following quote with no qualifiers. It perfectly illustrates the origins of Myth No. 1.
Native plants require less work, less money, less chemicals and less water to maintain because they have adapted to the region’s soil and climate.
These were taken out of the garage in March and have flower buds about 4-5 inches up. I think all the pots are either Prinses Irene/Passionale, or Black Hero/Orange Princess.
If you want to treat hybrid tulips as annuals—and I know that’s not for everyone—this is the easiest way to do it. No digging them out of the ground, or worrying about how to fit them in with perennials. No worrying about animals, especially voles, etc. When these finish up, the pots can be filled with summer-blooming annuals, and in the fall different tulip combos can go in. I’m sure this is exactly how the folks who are marketing flowers as fashion would play it, though no one does market tulips this way, to my knowledge.
Species are much more interesting as plants, though they have caveats too. They perennialize, pretty much, and have fascinating shapes and color variations. The only problem is that you need to plant a lot of them. I always think I have, then find that I have misunderstood bloom times and still left that one spot empty.
I took a walk down the street yesterday and saw hybrid tulips that were clearly into their 3rd or 4th years. The stems were kind of coiled along the ground, with petals splayed out where they lay. Pitiful. But I can’t give up on tulips.
Rant readers, please welcome Ken Druse, one of the few garden writers whose work I find truly exciting. Druse is the author of 17 books about ornamental gardening, including The Natural Shade Garden, Planthropology, and a supremely useful book just released in paperback, Making More Plants: The Science, Art, and Joy of Propagation. What these books have in common is a refreshing sense of style that encompasses both their glossily beautiful photographs and Druse’s playful and provocative prose. Even if you are, like me, a die-hard backyard farmer who looks upon her less successful efforts in the ornamental garden with something like disdain, you will find yourself at once intrigued and inspired. Ken’s newest book, the just-published Natural Companions: The Garden Lover’s Guide to Plant Combinationsis illustrated byEllen Hoverkamp‘s dramatic scanner photographs of plants grouped by theme–and by a moment in time and space.
Q: Your books are much more idea-driven than many gardening books. Tell me how you decide what to write about.
A: Very often, the people I meet think that I’m an expert, and I suppose that after all this time, I am something of an expert. But I’m really more of a journalist. I tend to choose my subjects because I want to know something or have a problem. For example, my garden in New Jersey needed more plants, but I didn’t know that much about propagation. So I consulted the experts and tried every technique they suggested three different ways until I found the best one for Making More Plants.
Natural Companions came about slightly differently. I’d wanted to work with artist Ellen Hoverkamp for some time. Her fine art work doesn’t illustrate a botanical concept or tell a story, though it’s extremely pretty in way it uses plants for color and shape. But I wanted to use her photographs to tell stories.
I also wanted to make a gardening book that was beautiful and affordable, something people would want to pick up physically in an electronic age. The publisher had realistic expecations for the book, given the market, but it has been popular enough that they had to order a second printing before the official publication date. Now, my publisher is looking at gardening books again, which is good.
Q: Thank you from all the writers here at Garden Rant! What else are you hoping to accomplish with your work?
A: Well, I worry about nature deprivation. I have cousins who taught their kids that nature will kill you, that every spider is potentially lethal. I see fewer and fewer people outside. And despite the green movement, we still have Scotts as the anti-Christ, putting poison on birdseed.
Horticulture has become a profession, mow, blow, and go. At least when Dad used to mow the lawn in the past, he’d get a little bit of oxygen. When we were kids, the rule was, you had to come in when the street lights came on, though we never came in even then. Now, no one is outside. If you can get a kid outside before they are three to plant a seed or a tree, that could change everything.
With every single book, I’m trying to get people to recognize that plants are alive, to realize how incredible they are, how sensational. I’m trying to promote nature through beauty.
Michele’s Friday post will be up soon. In the meantime, are you (those in my zone-ish) enjoying your first species tulips of the season? This is humulis “Persian Pearl,” I love the sharply defined silver and purple, kind of like the panels on a pre-1800s ballgown. There are some equally fancy hellebores in the background.
When, in the course of social media events, it becomes necessary for a group of bloggers to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with a bunch of well-intentioned but sometimes irritating marketing people, and to assume among the powers of the blogosphere, the separate and equal station to which the laws of journalism and freedom of expression entitle them…
What I am trying to say is that, from time to time, one needs to reassess the state of one's union. I've been talking to several garden bloggers lately who feel that the marketing efforts aimed in our direction have gotten to be a bit much, and a bit weird.
I get the impression that marketing people go off to a seminar every couple of years to find out how to deal with us. The reason I think this is that all at once, every couple of years, the kinds of pitches and press releases and other such things coming at us here at GardenRant World Headquarters change in a very noticeable way. The only logical explanation is that they all went to a class. Sorry–a webinar.
I think this year's class was called, "Treat Bloggers Like Your Very Own Unpaid Staff."
Here's what we're seeing:
Scripted video appearances.
I was recently asked to participate in a marketing initiative (I believe they called it a "social media flash mob") that would involve me making a video of myself reading from a script that the marketing person sent to me.
Demands that we write very specific things on our blogs when we review or give away a book or product.
MANY marketing people have lately supplied me with the specific language they'd like me to use when I describe their product on my blog. They provide me with links and the text that should be attached to those links (for their SEO strategy), they tell me what date they'd like my review to appear, etc. etc.
The answer is no.
If you want to send me a product to review, send it. If I decide to review it, I will. If I decide not to review it, I won't. (and usually it's because the product is garbage, but in such a bland and banal way that I can't even get worked up enough to write the bad review it deserves.)
Now, I do understand that if a company is donating a book, a plant, a product for a giveaway, they expect something in return. GardenRant turns into Giveaway Central in the spring, and we're happy to give our readers free stuff, and we just don't give away anything we don't like.
But here's the thing, Marketing People: If we like it, it's way better if we say that in our own words. Copying and pasting someone else's PR-speak into our blog post just makes everybody look lame. Yes, it's a little risky to just trust us to say what we really think, but that's what makes your day exciting.
Unsolicited Shipments of Inappropriate Plants, Followed by 40-Minute Online Surveys.
Ship me plants. That is fine. There is nothing I'd love better than more free plants. In general, what we all want is more free plants. This is a no-brainer. But lately, I've been getting plants so boring, so generic, so ubiquitous, so unsuited to my climate or my gardening style, that I don't even bother asking around to see if any of my friends would like them. Because I know they won't. Because it would be an insult to their taste for me to even offer them.
I'm sure the marketing people don't want to just pack up plants and ship them into a black hole. They want feedback. But the ratio of interesting plants to length of time spent answering online surveys is way, way, out of whack. Something is broken about this system.
Offers to write free guest posts, and/or exchange text links.
This is more like spam, and hardly even belongs on this list. But we do get bazillions of them, and we wish they would stop.
Lots more junket invitations.
We here at GardenRant never used to get invited on junkets. What self-respecting company would want the likes of us poking around their corporate headquarters, anyway? I think what's changed is that marketing people now subscribe to databases like this one that list the contact information for influential bloggers. (We didn't sign up for this, by the way–we just got added.) So a busy PR person might just run a report and send out an email blast to everyone who fits the criteria. As a result, offers of plane tickets come whizzing our way. We have been invited to attend (are you ready for this?) a golf weekend with a turf company, a baseball spring training event with power tool company, and a "garden writers' seminar" at the corporate headquarters of a global agribiz company that shall remain nameless.
(okay, it was Bayer. The guy actually called me, and I replied cheerfully that I'm pretty much opposed to everything his company stands for and that he probably doesn't really want to let me on the grounds. With equal cheer and goodwill, he apologized for bothering me and thanked me for my time. Nice guy, really.)
Then there's the P. Allen Smith Garden2Blog event, which caused a bit of a dust-up last year as bloggers either did or did not reveal that they were on an expense-paid trip as they blogged, tweeted, and Facebooked their way across the P. Allen empire. (Here's a nice post that gives you a sense of what that event is like.)
So, look. I'm not opposed to junkets. People in food, travel, beauty, high-tech, and booze journalism go on all kinds of junkets. Sure, these things do need to be properly disclosed, and some publications ban them entirely, and it probably is hard to stay objective once somebody's flown you to their chateau in France.
But I am not anti-junket, I'm just saying that there are definitey more of them, so many more that even we churlish, argumentative GardenRanters are getting invited along.
This is not to say that every encounter we have with a marketing person is an irritating one–far from it. These are just the things that have been happening lately that got us talking.