I was happy to hear Allan Armitage a few weeks ago at Louisville’s wonderful Waterfront Botanical Gardens.
Dr. A will take us on a journey, one that starts with the “D” word – downsizing – and continues as he selects plants for his new garden which started with nothing. We will listen as he discusses his choices of small trees, shrubs, vines, bulbs, annuals and a variety of perennials to fill his small garden. Sit back, smile and enjoy the trip.
The author, speaker, teacher, researcher, traveler, pitchman, and showman wears many hats and knows how to rev up an audience.
The prelude: Allan’s path to a gardening career
In 2015 Allan Armitage wrote an autobiography called It’s Not Just About the Hat. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you this book is about his family, friends and colleagues as well as his lifelong curiosity, drive, persistence, passion and willingness to risk failure. He has written 16 books.
Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on Their Identification, Culture, and Garden, now in its 4thedition, was cited by the American Horticultural Society on their 75th anniversary (in 1997) as one of their top 75 gardening books.
I hadn’t seen Allan since I retired from Jelitto Perennial Seeds in 2017 and stopped going to trade shows where he was, and still is, a regal presence, walking the aisles of cavernous convention center show floors, greeting many friends. Armitage is a player. He is to the North American perennial plant realm what former colleague Mike Dirr is to woody plants. That is to say: a kingpin in horticulture.
Team Armitage and Dirr, both distinguished retired horticulture professors at the University of Georgia, brought their students to Western North Carolina in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to visit my Holbrook Farm and Nursery.
Both are gifted and animated speakers. You need to stay on your toes with these guys. They shuffle around like boxers in the ring.
The students fed off their knowledge and enthusiasm. So have countless other passionate gardeners who have heard them speak or had the good fortune to travel with them to gardens around the world.
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
Legends in the Garden
Before he got around to garden downsizing, Allan mentioned a few more books. There was a pile on hand to sign.
Legends in the Garden, co-written by Linda Copeland, included profiles of the names behind several dozen plants. (My baby, Heuchera ‘Molly Bush,’ is included.) He told the story behind the widely planted Hydrangea arborescens ‘Anna Belle.’ “She’s a town instead of a person.” Who knew! “The town is Anna, Illinois, and we have Professor Joseph C. McDaniel to thank for the story.”
McDaniel, a mentor to Mike Dirr, first saw the plant in Urbana and spoke to a gentleman who said his grandmother had noticed the original plant and its “spectacular flowers” while riding on horseback on a wooded trail in nearby Union County in 1910. Harriet Kirkpatrick returned to the site, dug a piece, and planted it in her garden in Anna. Dr. Michael Dirr, a colleague of Armitage’s at the University of Georgia. said this was one of the finest American plant introductions in the 20th century.
We’re ten minutes into the talk and Allan is getting warmed up
His older brother Hasie threw young Allan into the family’s barberry hedge in suburban Montreal—a painful initiation to plants and gardening.” There was not much in the way of a garden…but we did have hollyhocks.”
Allan sold fruit trees during college, The everlasting takeaway: “Go out and make people happy.”
A summer as a gravedigger, on plots planted like floral clocks, left a lasting impression. “Neurons must have cranked in my brain. I realized that there may be something to this plant stuff after all.” The stars were beginning to align.
Traveling on a tramp steamer in 1968 to Ireland, after his undergraduate studies, was followed by a six-month journey across England and Europe, scraping by with money earned while commercial painting in London, tending bar in Geneva, and playing “Little Joe” card tricks in Germany.
After knuckling down, an impressive teaching career followed.
Finally with the clock winding down and the audience engaged…
Allan begins to address downsizing, a topic dreaded by an audience made up principally of those with gardens and creaky joints. “I have never met an old gardener,” Allan says. “We are a wee bit crazy.”
Heads nod in agreement.
Allan and his wife Susan decided to downsize in 2009. Their kids were grown, and Allan’s 2013 retirement was drawing near. They bought a small 900 square foot fixer upper. Allan did not want to be beholden to a large garden in his dotage.
There are some aspects of his new garden that are not a good fit—deer and squirrels, especially.
“I’m a full-service gardener. I try to steer the annoying critters toward the neighbors,” he says. There is a spray bottle of Liquid Fence within easy reach. No more pressure or backpack sprayers. He spritzes foliage with the deterrent a couple of times a month. Not the entire garden, but enough to remind the offending marauders that the getting might be better next door. Allan’s not going to let the squirrels take the first bite out of his ripe tomatoes, either. He douses them with cayenne pepper. “It doesn’t look good, but it is a pretty darn good control.” You can easily wash the cayenne pepper off before eating.
The Making of a Garden: from Chaos to Contentment
I knew Allan would get around to the plants he loves in his downsized (not so small), 6,000 sq ft garden. By the way, in case you need help, Allan has a phone app—yours for the amazing, low, low price: “A zillion plants…$4.99.” Hundreds, anyway. (I found the app very useful. Sections on Deer Browsing [Deerlicious] and Solution Gardening are worth the app price alone.) There is also Dr. A’s YouTube channel.
Dr. A. inherited scruffy turf, a pecan tree and a crepe myrtle at his new home.
“Plants can make a yard into a garden…Prisoners exercise in the yard,” Allan said.
Japanese maples, orange tea olives, Spiraea ‘Candy Corn,’ the fragrant rose ‘Brindebella,’ the annual rex begonia vine (Cissus discolor), naked ladies, the stinky voodoo lily (Amorphophallus konjac), Baptisia ‘Gold Finch,’ Phlox ‘Delta Snow,’ larkspurs, and poppies followed.
And whatever else catches Allan’s fancy in the golden years to come.
Allan thanks the audience and receives an enthusiastic ovation.
The man with a hat and a passion poses for photos and sits down to autograph books.