Sunday, February 24, 2013

Another Surprise in the Greenhouse

Every now and then I’m surprised by something that I didn’t see before in the greenhouse. In January it was my Meyer Lemon plant that finally, after at least five years of owning it, produced a lemon. Today it was a Cyclamen that I’ve had for about three years that I thought I had killed this past year. There it was in all its blooming glory and I hadn’t even realized it. How ‘bout that. I love nice surprises like that.


Saturday, February 23, 2013

It’s Going to be Brilliant!


The Philadelphia Flower Show starts next weekend and you better believe I’ll be checking it out, as usual. It’s called “Brilliant!” because the theme this year is England. (Brian’s mom is from England, so she’s pretty excited about it.) It’s always interesting to see what the exhibitors do with the theme. Some of the major exhibitors I’ll be looking forward to checking out will be Michael Petrie’s Handmade Gardens (the man responsible for Styer’s innovative displays several years ago), Stoney Bank Nurseries, and Robertson’s Fowers who always do a great job. I also look forward to seeing what the Philadelphia Society of Botanical Illustrators has on display this year.

My mom and I always go to the show together and are pretty exhausted by the time we reach the vendor area, so I like to make a short list of vendors I plan to hit. On this year’s list: Jerry Fritz’s Linden Hill Gardens (for unusual plants - I hope to visit this garden at some point this year), Triple Oaks Nursery and Herb Garden (another place I have yet to go to, but want to check out this year), Twig Terrariums (terrarium supplies and miniatures to decorate them), La Contessa (nature-inspired jewelry), and ArizonaEast (cactus and succulents).

I am gosh-darn lucky to live so close to where the largest indoor flower show in the world is held. It’s one of the many things I love about Philadelphia. Every year I end up wishing I could play hooky from work one day just to go back and see everything I didn’t get a chance to see the first time, attend some of the lectures, and visit more of the vendors. I’m sure I will feel that way again. One of these years I should just take that day off from work! (Shhh, don’t tell my boss.)

Favorite Plants: Epimedium Rubrum

The first time I saw Epimedium (Barrenwort) was at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. I loved the graceful, overlapping leaves and the tiny, delicate flowers that looked like they belonged in a fairy garden. You had to get really close to truly appreciate the beautiful flowers. They were growing in a shady area and I knew I had to find some for the area by my greenhouse.

I am ashamed to admit that I have killed many, many plants in the area by the greenhouse. It is one of those tricky areas to grow anything – dry shade. I have added compost almost every year we’ve lived here to help improve the soil. Despite that, I have probably planted and killed at least ten different types of plants in this area. Epimedium is supposed to be drought tolerant and likes part shade to shade, so I thought I could give it a try. I found Epimedium Rubrum at a local nursery and gave it a shot, not feeling very confident about it. I am happy to report that after a year (or maybe two) it is still doing well.

This photo was taken last year in April...

 The dainty flowers of Epimedium Rubrum.

Can you see why this is a favorite plant? I absolutely adore the shape and colors of the tiny buds and flowers. Now that I have seen how well my two plants have done in this area, I am considering adding more.

In fall, the leaves turn a rust color, which lasts through the winter. To me, a plant is even more valuable when it has multi-season interest like this. I took this rainy photo today...

The fall color of Epimedium Rubrum.

I had looked for more Epimedium last year at my local nurseries and Rubrum seemed to be the only variety I could find. Not that I’m complaining because it’s fabulous. However, I’d like to see some others offered.

Visitors on a Rainy Day

I spotted some visitors in the back yard on this rainy Saturday morning. I’m no ornithologist – but to me these look like just your average, run-of-the-mill blackbirds or crows. I see a flock in the back yard every year, but I’m thinking I don’t usually see them until late March or early April. The one time that they came, I was in the back yard prepping the garden for spring. I was crouched down looking at what I was doing and all of sudden I heard all of this fluttering. I looked up and I was surrounded by all of these black birds and they didn’t seem to care that I was there. It was like a scene from one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movies, “The Birds.” I wonder if seeing them now is a sign that another early spring is on its way.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Back Yard: Then and Now

I was looking through photos of when we first moved into this house in 2005 and it made me think that it would be kind of neat to post photos of what the back yard looked like then and what it looks like now. I was going to call it “Before and After,” but “after” implies that the yard is finished, and it’s definitely not. It is a work in progress – probably always will be, at least in MY mind. I do feel at least a little proud of myself after looking at what I started with and what I have now. That’s saying a lot since I’m always my own worst critic.

The Herb Garden THEN

When we first bought the house I knew this was the perfect place to plant herbs – right by the back door for easy access.

The Herb Garden NOW

Mint, chives, thyme, germander, sage, rosemary, thai basil, lemon balm, with a few daffodils and hostas mixed in. 


In Front of the Shed THEN

The area in front of the shed was an overgrown mess of wisteria vines and weed trees.  

In Front of the Shed NOW

It has taken awhile to get the soil improved and get things to actually grow here, but it is finally taking shape. 

The Flower Garden THEN

Yes, there was a flower garden here already, however, it was mainly just hydrangeas, roses, and some annuals. I took out most of the roses since they are too finicky for my taste.

The Flower Garden NOW

I kept the hydrangeas, the two butterfly bushes, and a couple of roses, then gradually added other plants over the past few years. These photos were taken at various times of the year.

The Left Side of the Back Yard (aka The Overgrown Area) THEN

I always referred to this as the overgrown area. There used to be a big, old tree here that kept it very shady, but in December 2007 the tree split and part of it fell on the house so we had the rest removed. After the tree was gone, it just got more and more overgrown with honeysuckle, ivy and poison ivy. Every year I tried to dig out the mess and failed miserably. As soon as I would get part of it dug out it would grow back. I finally gave in and hired a landscaper to clear it out.

The Left Side of the Back Yard (aka The Overgrown Area) NOW

I just started tackling this last year, so there is still a lot of work to be done. We had thought that we might eventually put a patio in this area, so I left room for that.

The Vegetable Garden THEN

When we first moved in they had these small raised vegetable beds in the very back of the yard. They fell apart a couple of years later. 

The Vegetable Garden NOW

This was my big project in 2010-2011 – the project that did my elbow in! This is what I often refer to as my “Kitchen Garden.”

I have a couple of other areas to work on this year, if my elbow can manage it. If you wonder about the front yard – well, I have only done minor work in the front yard so far. I always go nuts with the porch plants, but have yet to do much with the yard there. I know I will eventually, though – as soon as I run out of ideas in the back yard!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Book: “The Brother Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

This is the second book I’ve read by Andrea Wulf and it was another interesting read. I read “The Founding Gardeners” first, although she wrote “The Brother Gardeners” before that one. This is a heavily researched book, as are all of Andrea Wulf’s books. I know I won’t do it justice in my fumbled, simplified description of it, but it will at least give a general idea of what it is about.

“The Brothers Gardeners” by Andrea Wulf

“The Brother Gardeners” are six plant collectors who changed the world of horticulture. Without these men, the gardens of America and England would not be what they are today.

John Bartram was a colonial farmer and plant collector who sent seed boxes to subscribers in England, contributing to England’s love of American plants. He would scour the American countryside for seeds to send overseas. He was also responsible for obtaining seeds from England, helping contribute to America’s love of English plants.

Peter Collinson lived in London and was Bartram’s biggest fan, despite the fact that their relationship could be rocky at times. In their decades of correspondence, they exchanged seeds, plants, and ideas. Collinson helped get Bartram his English subscribers. Many of England’s gardens became showcases of American trees and plants, thanks to Collinson and Bartram. England’s gardens were no longer clipped boxwood topiary and hedges, now they were informal landscapes designed to mimic America’s natural landscapes.

Phillip Miller wrote the very first dictionary for the average gardener, “The Gardener’s Dictionary.” It was written in plain English, not Latin, and was geared towards the “ignorant,” providing matter-of-fact advice that anyone could understand. He also transformed the Chelsea Physic Garden into a world-renowned garden of horticultural gems. Over the years, botany and gardening would grow from being an elitist hobby to the hobby of almost every citizen of England, all because of men like Miller, Collinson and Bartram.

Carl Linnaeus was a botanist and taxonomist from Sweden who became famous for his sexual classification of plants when he published “Systema Naturae.” It classified plants by observation of its reproductive organs – by how many stamens or pistils the plant had – instead of by medical or edible properties. Later he published his monumental book “Species Plantarum,” a “survey of all plants known to man.” He sent pupils all over to gather specimens to include in his book. Before this book, one plant could be known by many different names, and it also could be a very long name. He simplified things by giving every plant a two-word name. Linnaeus’ ideas didn’t catch on right away, but once they did they revolutionized the classification and naming of plants. Even today, the “Species Plantarum” is “the universally acknowledged starting point of modern plant names — those with the abbreviation ‘L’ after their name indicate that Linnaeus invented or validated them, while those without the ‘L’ were given after his death (but according to his method).” Linnaeus knew he was making history. He “declared himself the messiah of botany. His science, he claimed, was ‘the light that will lead the people who wander in darkness.’” He was overly confident and self-righteous, but he was right.

Daniel Solander was Carl Linnaeus’ pet-pupil, slated to take over after his retirement and to marry his daughter. However, after arriving in England he had plans of his own. He became a plant explorer and expert on classifying plants using the Linnaeus method.

Joseph Banks, along with Daniel Solander, became two of the most well-known plant explorers when they brought back many unknown plants and seeds from their expedition on Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavour. Banks encouraged trading with other countries and turned Kew Gardens into a showcase of exotic plants from all over the world. He dedicated his life to the study of botany and became “the first Patron of Botany.” He believed collecting plants was essential to the country’s economy. One expedition Banks supervised was not successful, the Bounty, captained by William Bligh. Yes, this is the Bounty famous for its mutiny. During Banks’ lifetime, he “received seeds and living plants from more than 120 plant-collectors in addition to those he garnered from the twenty-one especially commissioned plant-hunters whom he had dispatched across the globe at either his own, the King’s or the country’s expense.” When he first published “Hortus Kewensis,” a catalogue of all the plant species at Kew, there was 5,600 species. But two decades later there were more than 11,000. 7,000 of those were specimens he had brought back from the Endeavour expedition. As Andrea Wulf says, “Banks had steered — stoically and with perserverance — the country in a direction that would shape Britain’s empire, economy and society for the next century. Plants not only changed the English landscape but the very fabric of the nation, contributing to the country’s global dominance and imperial strength.”

These men were essential in turning England into a nation of gardeners and beautiful gardens. Due to their influence, even Londoners had gardens in the back of their houses. Having a garden on your property made it more valuable and was a good selling point. Many of the plants these men collected became staples in the English garden and many continue to be even today. The nation’s fascination with gardening carried over into fashion, with ladies wearing dresses embroidered with flowers and wearing “mobile gardens” in their wigs. A funny little story: “In the midst of the flower frenzy, Banks gave his wife a piece of dried moss to wear as a brooch. While he thought it a gorgeous botanical specimen, his wife found it boring and unsightly. When she refused to pin it to her blouse, Banks called her a ‘Fool that She Likes Diamonds better, & Cannot be persuaded to wear it as a botanists wife Certainly ought to do.’”

Reading about the trials, tribulations and adventures of these men was fascinating. I particularly liked reading about John Bartram since I have visited his historic home and garden many times and go to the annual greens sale they have there every December. I was also engrossed by the story of Joseph Banks. If anyone has any doubt of what power or influence one man can have, all they need to do is read this book and see how these few individuals helped shape nations through botany and their love of plants.