Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book: “Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden” by Reginald Arkell

“Old Herbaceous” is a small novel that was originally published in 1950 by an author, Reginald Arkell, who grew up in the Cotswolds in England. (Molly decided she wanted to pose with my book again. Not sure why I can’t get Izzy to do it. She’s a little ADD and can’t sit still long enough, I guess. It may look like Molly is trying to read the book, but I know better. She’s actually trying to eat it.)

Molly “reading” Reginald Arkell’s “Old Herbaceous.”

“Old Herbaceous” is the nostalgic reminiscence of Herbert Pinnegar, an outsider who had a slight limp due to one leg being shorter than the other. He found his life’s calling after entering a flower in the local flower show and winning a ribbon. He was given a job at a grand English manor garden by a young widow, Mrs. Charteris. The story follows Herbert’s life from a young kid cleaning pots to working his way up to head gardener. He lives a small, quiet life and through the years he earns the respect of others as a gardener and flower show judge.

Much of the story is about the relationship of landowner and head gardener, and head gardener and worker. Herbert spends six decades lovingly tending his mistress’ garden — forcing early strawberries in the greenhouse, surprising his mistress by finding seeds/growing a beautiful blue morning glory she saw on a trip and fell in love with, and arguing with her over what should be planted where and when. We see a garden at its height during the Victorian and Edwardian ages and its slow decline as owner and gardener get older and the manor house and garden are sold after World War II. After the estate is sold, it looks like our cantankerous head gardener will lose his job and be forced to move out. This is a devastating prospect for Herbert, who “couldn’t face life without his garden.” I think any gardener understands that feeling. Lucky for our hero, he is able to stay in his cottage for the remainder of his days, even after the property is sold. His mistress saw to it in the sale of the estate that he would always have a home there.

Herbert never married. The one and only girl he tried to win over he wooed by trying to teach her how to be a proper gardener. I think it was probably the lesson on “The Use of Manures and Fertilizers in the Garden” that finally made her realize he wasn’t the one for her.

It was Herbert’s love of gardening that sustained him through good times and bad. Things happened around him, people came and went, but there was always work to do in the garden. Even though it wasn’t his own garden, he took pride in his work and thought of it as his own — which was the root of many of the arguments Herbert had with Mrs. Charteris, who saw herself as mistress of her own garden. As the author tells us: “There is something about a garden that brings out a fiercely possessive streak in the best of us. All our triumphs, to be really satisfying, must stem from our own individual efforts; and we look with a cold eye upon innovations for which we are not personally responsible. Even a suggestion, however tactfully introduced, is not always taken in good part. ‘Alone I did it,’ is the motto of all really keen gardeners; a sentiment which found its modern equivalent in the Army’s laconic warning, ‘Keep out! This means you!’ We gardeners should not be blamed for this defensive attitude, which is based on the intense interest we take in our work. Without it, gardening would become an undertaking so laborious, so frustrating, so maddening, that there would soon be no gardens at all. As with all truly creative pursuits, the appeal is to the mind and to the heart, rather than to the pocket; and unless we convince ourselves, beyond any doubt, that the credit is ours, and ours alone, we are like a singer listening to the applause for a song that someone else sang.” I can relate to this because I, too, suffer from the need to say, “Alone I did it.”

Herbert was difficult and Mrs. Charteris had her stubborn streak, however, they understood each other and it always worked out ok in the end. After all, no matter what happens, “…you can’t be angry, not for long, in a garden.”

One bittersweet final thought from “Old Herbaceous:” “You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you — just as though you had never been…But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there.”

Philadelphia Flower Show Fever

I look forward to the Philadelphia Flower Show every year. It brings a splash of color to what is usually a drab winter, heralding the beginning of spring. It’s one of those things that my mom and I like to do together. We like to discuss the exhibits and what we like or don’t like about them. I always go equipped with a small notebook and pen to jot down new plant names or ideas. Surprisingly, I am not one of those people who bring a camera, though. Those are the people that get on my nerves! They’re standing there trying to get the best shot while everyone’s waiting for them to move out of the way. That is the big disadvantage of the flower show — it can be very, very crowded. So crowded sometimes that it’s hard to see the exhibits. I am a member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society, have been for years, but I’ve found the member’s previews are no longer the best time to go. Just too many people anymore.

It is impossible to see everything at the flower show. Maybe if you had an entire free day you could do it — although you’d probably suffer from what I like to call “visual overload” and fry your brain. I really wish you could go back another day to see what you weren’t able to see the first time. I would love to attend some of the lectures, yet I never seem to have the time. I always make time for the main exhibits and smaller exhibits, like the front porch and window box displays. I also make time to see the work by the very talented Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators. Then of course there’s the huge amount of vendors, which I’m always too exhausted to really spend much time perusing. I like to check out the vendor list online ahead of time so I know if there are any specific ones I want to visit. This year I know I want to stop at La Contessa’s booth. She has lovely handmade jewelry. Some of it is too big and bulky for my taste, but the smaller pieces are gorgeous and one of these days I’m going to buy something. Last year it was so crowded I could barely get in the booth to see what was there. For a preview, check out her website: Another favorite vendor was Common Folk Herb Farm, with their wonderful handmade loose tea blends, however they stopped coming the past couple of years:

For many years my favorite exhibits were by Styer’s. The brain behind these exhibits up until 2008 was Michael Petrie. Mr. Petrie is truly an out-of-the-box thinker. His exhibits have that “wow” factor and tend to stick in your memory. I had the pleasure of hearing him give a short talk on his approach to gardening at Longwood Gardens. The all day “symposium” was called “Ideas for Impact” and featured four great speakers. What struck me about Michael Petrie was his rules-busting approach: don’t do what you think you’re supposed to do, what is typical or expected of a garden, or what you read in books — instead, do what you want. Who cares if other people don’t like it, it’s only important that you like it. Your garden should speak TO you and ABOUT you. Really look at things and look at them differently. Imagine what they could be, not what they are at first glance. Be creative and have fun. His exhibits do just that. Some memorable Styer’s exhibits:

• In 2007 he did a prehistoric garden, complete with dinosaurs and a smoke-filled bog.

• In 1998 he used colorfully painted gardening tools to create whimsical sculptures.

• In 1997 the exhibit incorporated tires, of all things, to create planters and sculptures.

• One of my absolute favorite exhibits was in 1995 when he used various sized pots and pieces of pots to create a magical display.

No, my memory is not as good as that. I didn’t remember the years, although I do remember the exhibits. I cheated and looked at Mr. Petrie’s website: In 2008 Michael Petrie formed his own company called Handmade Gardens. He still displays at the flower show and his work is still remarkable. However, I hate to say it, his best work was when he was with Styer’s. Boy, I hope he never reads this. Yeh, like that would happen. No one reads this! Not even my mom!

This year’s Philadelphia Flower Show theme is Hawaii. It runs March 4-11. I’m looking forward to seeing what the exhibitors do with that. I’m expecting a lot of tropical plants, which will be fun to see. Check out the flower show website for more information: For a sneak peak, ABC will be airing their usual flower show preview this Saturday at 7pm.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Winter? What Winter?

This has been the warmest winter that I can ever remember. It hasn’t seemed to have gotten below 40 degrees most days and barely a coating of snow a couple of times. It has the bulbs a bit confused and has my Hellebore blooming earlier than usual.

Helleborus Bridal Queen.

 This is the kind of thing you expect to see in February...

Not an unusual sight in winter – the red berries of Castle Spire Holly.

This is NOT what you expect to see in February...

Yellow crocus.

And buds forming on daffodils...

Notice the two buds.

As of yesterday, I actually have a daffodil clump in the front yard that is blooming. I’ve never seen such a thing in winter! Does this mean winter is over? Or will we get hit with a snow storm in March? It HAS happened before. Last weekend it was in the upper 50s and I was outside finishing clearing out my Kitchen Garden that I hadn’t finished in the fall. Doing yard work in February?!?! Crazy, but true. It’s all ready for seeds (protected by row covers) come next month.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Windowsill Plants

Some of my windowsill plants are blooming, so I thought it was a good time to post about them. We have a bay window in our family room that is the perfect spot for a few plants. Not too many, though, since there has to be room for my two cats, too!

Plants in the bay window.

My favorite plant in this grouping is of course the orchid. It is a Phalaenopsis KV Beauty “Golden Treasure” (Salu Peoker x Chih Shang’s Stripes). The only reason I know that is I actually saved the tag! I bought this orchid a year or two ago at the annual Longwood Gardens Orchid Show and Sale. (Definitely worth a visit each year.)

Phalaenopsis KV Beauty “Golden Treasure” orchid.

I have always been intimidated by orchids and was told the Phalaenopsis is the easiest to grow. It has done really well in this windowsill. So well that it’s outgrowing its pot.

Yep, those are roots growing out of the pot. Probably not a good sign.

Another plant that is flowering right now is this one with tiny orange blossoms. I obviously didn’t save the tag for this one because I can’t remember the name. A friend had given this to me when I had an emergency appendectomy two years ago (surprise! I’m your appendix and I need to come out NOW!) I really need to cut this back so it’s not so spindly, but it is flowering so nicely right now so I’ll have to wait on that.

Colorful orange blooms brighten up the house in winter.

I love terrariums, yet I don’t have a true terrarium with all of its tiny, perfect little specimens. I tried planting one in this small terrarium, but the only plant that survived was this coleus, which is now taking over.

Terrarium with coleus.

I love bell jars. This first one I had gotten at Terrain at Styers. It used to house my African violet, however, the violet did so well in it that it outgrew it. I temporarily stuck a sweet little sedum in it and it seems to actually like it. I think sedums usually do well with more air and not such a humid environment, so I think I’ll have to find something else for this bell jar soon.


Brian was observant enough to notice that my African violet needed a new home and he bought me a larger bell jar for Christmas. It’s a really beautiful one from Williamsburg. Interesting note: My African violet is quite old and never bloomed until I moved it into a bell jar. Now it blooms quite often. Although, it’s not blooming right now.

African violet in a gorgeous bell jar.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Book: “Wicked Plants” by Amy Stewart

The full title of this book is “Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities.” Intrigued? I sure was. I first saw this book in the gift shop at Longwood Gardens. I just had to pick it up and look at it. If the title isn’t enough to suck you in, the delicately beautiful copper etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs and the quirky drawings of Jonathon Rosen will win you over. Look, even my cat, Molly, looks intrigued. Or maybe she’s frightened...

“Wicked Plants” book. Cat sold separately. Actually, Molly isn’t for sale.
This encyclopedia-ish book describes various “wicked” plants, from the naughty to the downright sinister, combined with stories of unfortunate victims who fell prey to these diabolical plants. Poisonous, painful, intoxicating, invasive, illegal and deadly – they’re all here. If you are reading to find out exactly what plant killed Lincoln’s mother, prepare yourself to read most of it before finding out. No, I won’t give it away. No worries, though, this roughly 5” x 7” 233-page book reads quickly. I’m afraid it isn’t exactly good bedtime reading, though. I found myself only able to read two or three of the small “chapters” each night due to some of the gruesome descriptions of what ingesting or touching these plants can do to an unwitting victim. You could possibly develop a phobia of tropical places where some of these treacherous plants may lurk. Heck, you might not want to even brush up against a plant next time you take a hike in the woods. Better yet, this book may in fact make you afraid to plant anything in your yard ever again. Not even the innocent-looking lily of the valley is free from inflicting some nasty effects, such as headaches, nausea, cardiac problems, and even heart failure – if you eat it, that is.

I did find some solace in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who found out about Poison Sumac the hard way. Pioneering landscape designer extraordinaire Frederick Law Olmstead happened upon a patch and his face got so swollen he couldn’t open his eyes. He had eyesight problems for a few years after that, but it didn’t deter him from designing some world-famous parks, estates, and university campuses. In my case, when I was a teenager I fell into Poison Sumac while playing flashlight tag with some friends. My younger sister and I ducked into some bushes for cover and we found ourselves tumbling down a hillside of Sumac. Lucky for me, I landed on top of my sister. Unlucky for her, she got the worst of the Sumac while I only had it on my arms. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s very similar to Poison Ivy and just as itchy and uncomfortable.

A plant of particularly invasive and destructive nature is the Killer Algae. This algae was first noticed in an aquarium in Germany. Usually algae can’t live in colder temperatures, but this one was thriving. The algae ended up at the Jacques Cousteau Oceanographic Museum in Monaco where it supposedly was accidentally released when a worker was cleaning out an aquarium and dumped the waste into the ocean. That’s all it took. This algae now covers thirty thousand acres under the ocean, choking out all other aquatic life. Amy Stewart tells us that the Killer Algae is the “world’s largest – and most dangerous – single-cell organism.” It gets its name “Killer Algae” because it contains a toxin that poisons fish. In fact, this is what keeps fish from eating the plant and contributes to its widespread growth. It is one of the ultimate self-preserving organisms because not only is it toxic, it also can reproduce through propagation. If one small bit of the plant gets chopped off it can take root and form a new plant. It’s like the Terminator of the plant world: “That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” Or at least until the fish and aquatic plants are dead.

In the category of intoxicating, is Ergot. Ergot isn’t exactly a plant, though, it’s a parasitic fungus that attaches itself to grasses like rye and wheat. It can be accidentally harvested along with the cereal and bread crops. It can infect anyone who eats it, causing seizures, nausea, gangrene and more – even death. Ergotism is rare today, however, “hysteria, hallucinations, and a feeling that something is crawling on the skin are all signs of ergot poisoning,” says Ms. Stewart. The drug LSD comes from an acid found in Ergot. It is thought that this fungus could be the cause of the bizarre behavior of the young girls of the Salem witch trials.

“Wicked Plants” was an interesting read, that happened to also make my skin crawl from time to time – or maybe I have Ergot poisoning. It’s amazing what the wrong plant can do to a person. Maybe it’s not that old chemical spill or mass hysteria that’s making those school girls in upstate New York have Tourette-like symptoms, maybe it’s actually some sort of accidental plant poisoning. You never know… just throwing it out there.

There’s another book by Amy Stewart with more of Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ etchings called “Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects.” Even though this doesn’t sound like relaxing bedtime reading, I may have to check it out anyway. It will most likely make me squeamish and have me checking for bed bugs every night.

Ok, I can’t resist one last picture of Molly posing with the book...

Even Molly agrees, this book is seriously “wicked.”
Not as wicked as her claws, though. Check out those talons!