Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Favorite Classes

My garden knowledge comes from taking classes, from reading, and from doing. The first garden book I ever bought was The American Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia of Gardening. It’s a big, expensive book, but it’s a seriously good place to start. The first classes I ever took were at The Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, PA. I really love taking classes to learn new things and they have some great classes, especially for beginners. I was a sponge soaking in new information every year. I took classes in cottage gardening, shade gardening, perennials, container plants, rose care, pruning, dividing, lawn care, soil, composting, dry flower wreath-making, botanical drawing, botanical watercolor, and more. I took at least one class a year there, sometimes more, for many years. The Morris Arboretum has been an essential part of my learning and growth as a gardener.

Wreath I made in a dried flower wreath-making class at The Morris Arboretum.

While most of those classes were for growing my garden skills, I particularly enjoyed the botanical drawing and watercolor classes I took there. I have always loved botanical illustration and drool over antique prints and illustrations by The Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators at the Philadelphia Flower Show each year. One of the classes I took at the MA was on collecting antique botanical prints, taught by Denise DeLaurentis. Denise co-authored a simply GORGEOUS book named “The Art of the Garden: Collecting Antique Botanical Prints.” While I personally do not own any antique botanical prints, I found this book a delight to read and gawk at. This book has tons of beautifully reproduced full color illustrations by such notable artists as Basil Besler (1561-1629), female artist Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-1758), Pierre Joseph Redouté (1759-1841), the unique and stylistic work of Johann Christoph Volckamer (1644-1720), and more. It’s a feast for the eyes for anyone who loves plant illustration. I have grandiose dreams of one day being a world-renowned botanical illustrator, however, I am far, far, far away from that now. Here are some of my meager attempts at botanical drawing from my classes at the MA. The Calla Lily was the first drawing that I did in my classes.

Calla Lily drawing.
Lily drawing.
Drawing of a miniature rose.

There is something very calming and meditative about sitting in front of a flower, staring at it for a couple of hours, engrossed in all of it’s splendid details. As a graphic designer, I spend all of my time working on a computer. So to draw again is so much fun for me. I always loved to draw. When I was a kid I wanted to be a “horse illustrator.” Not sure there’s much call for that. Not that there’s much call for botanical illustrators anymore either.

A couple of years ago I discovered that Longwood Gardens had lots of interesting classes. Wow! Suddenly I had too many fun classes to choose from. So far I’ve taken classes in vegetable gardening, carnivorous plants (one of my favorite classes EVER!), garden lighting (a real eye-opener), propagation, botanical drawing in colored pencils, and I attended a one day symposium on “Ideas for Impact” (truly enlightening).

The carnivorous plants class was truly fascinating. For example, I learned that the Thread Leaf Sundew is lined with tiny droplets which act like glue. Insects get stuck and the threads will turn towards the bug, suffocate it and digest it right on the plant. It literally sucks out the insides and leaves the exoskeleton. Gruesome, eh? But sooooooo cool to think a plant can do that. The Pitcher Plant catches rainwater to drown it’s poor victims. It produces a nectar to lure them in. The inside of the Pitcher Plant is lined with tiny hairs that point down, so when the insect falls in it can’t climb back up. The famous Venus Flytrap has three spikes inside to sense when there’s an insect. It will close on the creature and suck it’s insides out, again leaving just the exoskeleton. The flytrap can only open and close a few times and then it will die. So don’t be messin’ with it trying to make it close or you’ll kill it. (That means you, Leisel! Stop pokin’ my flytraps when you come to visit.) We got to plant our own container of carnivorous plants and a couple of bog plants. I have already posted pictures of this before, but here it is again as a reminder.  The plants have done so well that they are actually too crowded in their pot now and need to be divided among two pots.

My pot of carnivorous and bog plants.

I have the new class catalogs for both The Morris Arboretum and Longwood Gardens and will need to decide what to take this year. Decisions, decisions. Will it be a class on tropical plants? Maybe succulents or intro to botany. Actually I think the orchid repotting class might be best. My poor, lone orchid will thank me for it later.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Greenhouse

We fell in love with our current house the very first time we saw it. It couldn’t be more perfect for us: a sweet Victorian with built-in bookcases in one of the rooms for my vast collection of books, a working fireplace to keep my constantly-cold-self warm and cozy during the winter, a screened-in back porch for sippin’ a cool beverage during the hot summers, good gardening space in the back yard, a shed/workshop for Brian’s beer home-brewing equipment and for his woodworking tools (Norm Abram he ain’t, but he tries), and a lean-to greenhouse. As soon as I saw that greenhouse I knew I was head-over-heels in love and there was no turning back.

The greenhouse seen from inside the family room.
The small greenhouse is attached to the family room and there is no outside access, making it a bit difficult when you’re moving plants out in the spring and moving them in for the winter. I’m not complaining, though — I’m just glad to have a greenhouse! I use it for starting seeds in the spring and for storing my weather sensitive plants in the winter.

When you first walk into the greenhouse you are on a small landing. Right now the landing is home to the strawberry pot that I had in the Kitchen Garden over the summer. It contains herbs and succulents. There are a couple of other pots there, along with a bowl of shells from Oregon.

The landing.
Potted plants and hanging plants from the front porch are in the greenhouse now, too, including the fern and two dragon-wing begonias that are still blooming.

Fern and begonias.

Various plants in the greenhouse, including aloe and a very fragrant curry plant.
The greenhouse is home to my banana tree in the winter, however, I’m thinking this may be able to survive outside. I’m a little too scared to try it, though. I love the giant leaves and wouldn’t want to kill Bert. (Yeh, so what? I named my banana tree. Gotta problem with that?)

Banana plant.
My peace lily seems to like it in there and is still blooming.

Peace lily and another plant that I can’t remember.
I have a fan to keep the air circulating when it’s too cold to open the windows (there are two small windows that open).

Plants galore.
In a couple of months the wooden bench below will be home to my seedlings. I just need to make some room for them. Hmmm...room...right...there’s still room in there somewhere, I’m sure. 

More plants.
My poor greenhouse could use some attention. There are some seals that are broken and a few cracked panes. It’s far from perfect. However, it still does what it needs to do. I’ll need to try to try to figure out how to make repairs or find someone else who can do it. I am truly one of the luckiest gardeners to have this great space. It has me quite spoiled, though. I can’t see living without a greenhouse now! Neither can Bert.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Garden-Related Book: “Founding Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

What do you do when it’s too cold to garden? You read about gardens. Yes, not only am I a garden geek, I’m also a book geek – and a bit of a history geek, as well. I blame my interest in history on two people: My mom for giving me an appreciation of American history and my art history teacher in college for giving me an appreciation of European history.

My mom grew up in Virginia and whenever we’d go there for a visit she would make sure to take us to somewhere historic. From president’s homes like Monticello (Jefferson’s home) and Mount Vernon (Washington’s home) to the many battlefields, we got a fine education in American history. So given that background, I think it’s pretty obvious why I was excited when I heard about Andrea Wulf’s new book, “Founding Gardeners,” which I recently finished reading. It’s about Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison as farmers and gardeners – showing how their passion for gardening helped shape American history. Before I read the book I had gone to a lecture given by the author at Winterthur in Delaware. The lecture had me hooked and the book was simply fascinating at least to this garden/history geek! I’m sure I’ll do a very poor job of explaining what the lecture and this book were all about, but I’ll give it a shot. 

I think it’s an interesting perspective to have an author who was born in India, raised in Germany, and moved to England write a book about America’s founding fathers and their gardens. Ms. Wulf had no idea that America had such a rich garden history until she was doing research about botanist/horticulturalist/explorer John Bartram for her book “The Brother Gardeners.” (Surprisingly, I have not read that one yet.) While following in the footsteps of Bartram, Andrea found herself in Virginia and decided to pop in and see Thomas Jefferson’s home Monticello. In her words, she was “flabbergasted.”  Jefferson had crafted his grounds as carefully as he had planned his house transitioning the wild forests into his orchards, vegetable garden and decorative gardens. Her real epiphany came when she saw his huge vegetable garden (1,000 feet long) that was carved into the hillside. She realized that here was a truly innovative gardener who successfully changed the landscape so that it was a perfect union of wild and rugged, ornamental and useful.

When America was still under British rule, we weren’t planting native plants in our gardens. Instead we were obsessed with European plants, while Europe was the one obsessed with plants from The New World. Most of Philadelphian John Bartram’s clients were Europeans. So it was pioneering thinking when Washington, who was busy fighting the war with Britain, wrote his property manager and told him to rip out the gardens and start over with native American plants. As you approach the bowling green at Mount Vernon, it’s trees and shrubs that are native to this country that you first see. The great American hero wanted a great American garden. It symbolized his patriotism and his dedication to the future of this country. These days we hear a lot about gardening with native plants, however, when Washington decided to start his garden over with native plants and trees it was a pretty novel idea.

The American Revolution instilled a want of independence on many levels. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison felt that agriculture was the key to our survival as an independent country. We needed to be self-sufficient and our gardens and farms would help us stand on our own two feet. These men shared the idea that working the land was the most honorable pursuit, whereas industrialized cities could lead to corruption. An agrarian society would make America strong and independent. As Jefferson said in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” book: “Cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.”

All four men were avid readers of any new book on agriculture and farming they could lay their hands on. They read the latest from Europe and tried to find ways to implement their ideas in America. They experimented with new crops, crop rotation, different types of fertilizers, and produced tools to make their plantations more efficient. They collected and exchanged seeds to find out what did well and what didn’t. They shared idea with other farmers, thinking of themselves as just farmers as well. 

Thomas Jefferson was an experimenter, a planner, and an obsessive note-taker. His vegetable garden is the best example of that. He would plant many different varieties of the same vegetables and record what did well and what did not. His home, Monticello, was also a constantly changing “experiment” he was always designing, building, then tearing down and starting over. He was a man of many ideas. It’s as if the real world couldn’t keep up with his brain as soon as he got an idea and implemented it he had another new idea. He believed in the “sublime beauty” of America and his house takes full advantage of that as it sits on a hilltop overlooking the mountains and valleys around Charlottesville, VA. He carefully planned the road that took visitors to his home so that they would transition from the wilderness, to tamed forests, to a working farm, to decorative gardens.

While Washington and Jefferson were visionary in gardening and farming, they weren’t usually the ones doing the “real” work. They rode around their plantations on horseback overseeing the work of others. They relied on their plantation managers to execute their ideas and their slaves to do the manual labor. In contrast, John Adams was a much more hands-on gardener. He was happiest while working the earth. In fact, he had a true obsession with manure. Yep, manure. He read about manure, conversed about it, experimented with it, and was constantly trying to find the formula for the best manure because he believed it was key to good soil. He had a much smaller plantation than the others, however, he felt his garden was essential to his happiness. 

Madison’s home at Montpelier was a model farm where he applied the many things he learned from reading gardening and farming books. Madison was also one of the country’s first environmentalists. As Americans moved westward, the wilderness and forests were seen as obstacles that had to be removed. Madison promoted the idea that our forests and lands were precious and should be preserved and treated with respect. After being elected as the first president of the Agricultural Society of Albermarle County in Virginia, he gave a memorable speech that earned him the reputation as one of the most respected farmers in America at that time. He spoke of soil conservation and chemistry, plant physiology, over-timbering, preserving nature, and more. His theories came from the many books that he had read, however, he was the first one to bring all of these ideas together. His approach was revolutionary.

All four men were thankful when they retired because it allowed them to do what they wanted to do most – be in the garden. They saw themselves as gardeners and farmers more than politicians or revolutionary heroes. However, they knew their homes and gardens would be part of their legacy and they wanted America to know they were patriots in every possible way.

There is much more fascinating history in “Founding Gardeners,” I only touched on a few key things. I can’t say enough how much I loved this book. I found it truly fascinating how it looked at history through the founding father’s gardens such a new and interesting perspective. Almost a quarter of the book is “notes” with bibliographies and such, so it’s clear a lot of research went into it. I also really enjoyed Andrea Wolf’s writing style. She helped bring to life these men and their gardens. Not only were they revolutionary heroes, they were pioneering gardeners and farmers who made a lasting impact on America’s agricultural history.

Below are links to the homes and gardens of the four founding fathers featured in “Founding Gardeners.” All homes are well worth the visit:
George Washington’s Mount Vernon (VA) http://www.mountvernon.org/
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (VA) http://www.monticello.org/
John Adams’s Old House at Peace (MA) field http://www.nps.gov/adam/index.htm
James Madison’s Montpelier (VA) http://www.montpelier.org/

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Warm Winter Day

Well, you wouldn’t believe it was January if you were outside today. It was a gold-medal day: High of 56 degrees and a warm winter sun shining down. I I raked leaves and Brian and I put together my garden bench (that took 9 months to get here – I could’ve birthed a baby in that time). All with just a light-weight hoodie on. Crazy! Overall, this has been a warm winter so far. We’ve only had a few really cold days. Not that I’m complaining, being the warm-weather person that I am. I prefer NOT to have to wear long underwear! In fact, it’s been so warm, the daffodils seem to think it’s springtime already. I have several that are showing they’re green shoots already.  I wonder what they’ll do when winter REALLY gets here....

Daffodil shoots in January?!?!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Problem Areas to Tackle in 2012

It has been much too long since my last post. The holidays got the best of me. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about the garden, though. Winter is a good time for planning – for assessing and reassessing different areas of the yard. All too often my blog focuses on the things that are doing well in my garden. Unfortunately, it doesn’t all look that good. There are some areas I haven’t tackled yet and others that I can’t seem to grow anything in.

I’ll start with my largest “problem area.” This area is in the back yard next to the screened-in back porch. It literally takes up 1/4 - 1/2 of the back yard. It is an overgrown mess of ivy, honeysuckle, hostas, grasses, various weeds, and my least favorite weed of all poison ivy. (I have two other areas in my yard where poison ivy grows and I think I found them all the hard way. Now I know enough to spot it before I jump into it with pruners in hand.) This is where that gorgeous, old tree used to be (see my earlier post called “Mourning the Loss of a Tree.”) Once the tree was gone, the invasive vines took over. I get in here and hack at this mess a few times a year. However, with the amount of poison ivy I discovered in it earlier in the year, I admit I didn’t readily jump in there too often this year. This mess extends from the porch to the back property line, roughly 20' wide x 60' long. There’s a fence (the neighbor’s fence who lives to the left of our house) that you can barely see due to the tentacles of greenery.

(Note: The following photos were all taken in October and November of 2011.)

Overgrown mess next to the screened-in back porch.
Here is the same area as seen from the back end of the yard looking towards the screened-in back porch.

The same overgrown mess as seen from near the back of the yard looking towards the house.
It also extends to the very back of the property. I had cleared out this area at least twice in the past couple of years, but it always comes back. I keep having to dig out the woodpile.

The overgrown area is not as wide at the very back since I cleared out some of it
when I created the Kitchen Garden.
Obviously, the most difficult part about tackling this area is to get all the roots so that it doesn’t all come back. As I mentioned, I’ve already experienced a bit of that. I have come to the conclusion that I think I need help with this project. I may have to get a landscaper to clear it out. I hate to admit that since I am the kind of gardener who takes pride in doing things on my own. I already had some help clearing out the area where my Kitchen Garden is. There used to be an overgrown hedge where the so-called fence (aka The Invisible Fence or The Fence Farce) should be. Our neighbor’s friend cleared out most of that, however, I spent a lot of time digging out stubborn roots that he hadn’t gotten out. Unfortunately, from spending many weekends doing that, I developed chronic tendinitis and an inflamed nerve in my left elbow. Yep, good times. So I think I learned my lesson. There are times when a scrawny-armed girl needs a little muscular assistance. What will I do with this large area of land once it is cleared? Good question. And one I’ve been thinking about for quite awhile. It’s a nice sunny spot. We talked about wanting a patio for grilling and lounging, perhaps with a fire pit. However, that’s a big project and we’ll probably have to wait a bit on that. For now I may just plant some grass and put in some garden beds. But my plan is to have more bones and structure on this side of the yard – some evergreens, conifers. things that won’t require a lot of maintenance and that will screen the neighbors.

Another problem area that I have been trying to improve for the past five years is an L-shaped area next to the lean-to greenhouse. This spot does not get a whole lot of sun, as you can tell from the lack of grass. It also suffers from poor drainage and poor soil. I have been working on improving the soil over the years and finally have gotten a few things to grow – some Winter Gem Boxwood, a spirea, a hellebore, Castle Spire Holly, an anemone, an Aureola Hakonechloa grass, a VERY slow growing hydrangea, some daffodils that don’t really bloom much, and some hostas (the hostas were already there – I’m not sure you’ll ever see me willingly planting a hosta). I won’t go into the long list of things that I’ve attempted to plant here over the years that died. It would fill a mini graveyard.

L-shaped problem area next to the greenhouse.
The hostas seem to party it up in this space. Maybe I should swallow my gardener pride and plant a few more. Pretend you don’t see the mold on the siding of the house. I really need to do something about that. As I mentioned, this area doesn’t get a lot of sun, so hence the mildew and mold.

Happy hostas with a happy Hakonechloa grass next to them.
Here’s the Winter Gem Holly on the right, spirea on the left, and I think that wiry looking shrub is a type of Viburnum or maybe a Pagoda Dogwood. There’s a couple of thin looking ferns in there, too, along with some Rubrum Epimedium (barrenwort). The Epimedium has actually done pretty well in this low light area.

Sad looking, isn’t it?
Another difficult area has been the side yard that is in front of the shed/workshop. When we first moved in this was a mess of overgrown weed-trees and ivy. I have spent a lot of time digging out roots and amending the poor soil over the past five or six years. On the left I have some dwarf English Boxwood (ah, the smell takes me back to my grandfather’s house in Virginia), a rhododendron that has never bloomed, and a ground cover perennial that blooms little blue flowers in the fall. Directly in front of the shed are two Knockout Roses and a Clematis on the trellis. I had some catmint in front of the roses, but something seems to have eaten it all. On the right there’s what I think is a Sassafras tree and still some ivy, along with an ornamental oregano (Oreganum Herrenhausen),  a grass, some daylillies, Chelone Hot Lips (the pink flowers are seen blooming here), a Wine & Roses Weigela, and some Joe Pye Weed (the last two are cut out of this photo on the right). So at least I finally have some things that are growing here. Gives me hope for some of the problem areas mentioned above.

The side yard, in front of the shed/workshop.
One of my goals for the new year is to work on these problem areas and make them less of a problem! We will see how that goes. In the meantime, I’m busy planning for my 2012 vegetable garden and plotting what new plants I can find and where I can fit them.