September 30, 2010

The Siren Call of the Garden Center Special

As September turns to October, garden center owners fixate on their remaining stock of unsold trees, shrubs and perennials. They face the unappealing possibility that they might actually have to pay someone to replant those maples and azaleas lest their roots freeze over the course of the approaching winter.

The more appealing alternative, of course, is to get me to buy them.

And so, at this time of year, the offers come. First in a trickle and then a flood. Take 30% off. Buy one and get a second one at half price. HUGE markdowns. The really clever garden centers send me colorful, floral-themed plastic cards with my name pre-printed on them together with the massive discount to which I am entitled if I act immediately.

Then, they make it really irresistible: they throw in pizza or maybe ice cream.

I once succumbed to an invitation to Weston Nurseries' end-of-season sale because they parked an ice cream truck in the middle of their container display area. While I unwrapped a Dove Bar, someone loaded a viburnum in the trunk of my car. Another time, I ate a piece of delicious grilled corn and somehow purchased an amelanchier. One memorable year I enjoyed a slice of an open-oven grilled pizza and found myself the owner of a Japanese maple (acer japonica expensivus) so special that it requires its own trust fund.

None of this is the fault of garden center owners. By the end of September, gardeners’ thoughts have gravitated to the post-season, yet autumn is the near-ideal time to plant trees and shrubs. In reality, they’re doing me a favor.

My problem, of course, is that I’ve run out of room for new stuff. But because the prices are so good we go looking anyway… and invariably bring something home.

Weston's most excruciatingly wonderful invention is the ‘pallet sale’ annd it is that organization's contribution to the pantheon of marketing. It is a masterstroke of inventory management:  Take a pallet. Fill it with roughly a dozen trees or shrubs and top it off with half a dozen perennials (which if still on the premises will become compost with the first hard frost). Mark the price at roughly a third of full retail.

That’s how we acquired our fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus). This was, of course, back when we had room for new specimen plants. Betty really wanted that fringe tree but had chafed at the price for a decent-sized one. So, we bought the pallet (and got its contents home in a Saab convertible in only four trips) and suddenly, we had not only a great looking fringe tree, but also a pair of boxwoods, two rhododendron, three azalea, a climbing rose and enough summer flowering perennials to feed an army of birds. That was seven or eight years ago.

We bought the pallet because of the fringe tree. We didn’t really ‘need’ the other plants. But there’s always room for another attractive rhododendron, even though today I am hard-pressed to remember which of the twenty rhodies on the property are the two that came off that particular pallet (confession: we have succumbed to pallet sales more than once). The other plants found appropriate sites.

Except for the boxwoods. For years the boxwoods from that pallet sat at the edge of our woods, completely aloof from the rest of the landscape. What can you possibly do with just two boxwood shrubs? For most of that time, had we known of a home for unwanted Buxus sempervirens, we would have sent this pair packing.

But something unexpected happened: they thrived on neglect, probably muttering to one another how unappreciated they were by their owners. Today, they make a magnificent statement, twin pillars that are prominently visible from the window from which this is written.

The moral of the story is that serendipity ought to play a role in every landscape and those autumn sales can be the catalyst for a horticultural adventure. Carpe diem.

Buxus sempervirens at the edge of the
woods.  That's a young heptacodium
(seven sons tree) growing between them. 

September 24, 2010

A day at a perennial plant symposium, with a scolding

I spent Wednesday at an all-day symposium on perennials. Two hundred of us sat in the beautiful carriage house amid the stunning gardens of the Elm Bank estate in Wellesley, listening to a series of speakers talk about every kind of perennial under the sun or in the shade.
They were an energetic lot. Kerry Mendez, who travels widely from her base in Ballston Spa, NY, kept up an hour-long tutorial just on the plants growing in her own quarter-acre garden. She was an encyclopedia of plant knowledge, never talking down to her audience and conveying an enthusiasm that was infectious.

Brent Heath, of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs in the Tidewater region of Virginia, led a low-key but wonderfully colorful journey through a year’s worth of bulbs. Laura Deeter, a professor at Ohio State, gave a stand-up comedy routine that was cleverly disguised as a talk on perennials maintenance. And Adrian Bloom, the consummate head of the UK’s Blooms Nurseries, gave a dazzling tutorial on garden design built around color and texture.

Roy Diblik, of Wisconsin’s Northwind Perennial Farm, gave a subversive talk that was as much about ecology as it was about planting perennials. A gifted speaker with a droll sense of humor, he started with a photo of a non-descript lakeside park. In the foreground was a pathetic patch of daylilies amid a sea of mulch. Any other speaker might have tossed off such a slide with a quick, ‘this is what not to do’ and then gone on to more pleasant gardens. But Diblik stayed on that photo for a good ten minutes, describing everything that was wrong with the mindset that produced such a landscape. In the process he also wove in his own life story. By the time he was finished, Diblik had offered a view of garden design that was clear, concise and firmly rooted in science. He got my vote as the best speaker of the day.

Adrian Bloom delivering his talk to the Perennial Plant Association seminar
The opening speaker, though, was a complete puzzler. Kirk Brown is a garden writer and business manager of a garden design firm in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He spent his first fifteen minutes describing a Swiftian-type ‘modest proposal’ that we pave over part of the Pacific Ocean using the oil from the BP spill and garbage floating in the Pacific gyre. I expected that grim opening to morph into a discussion of sustainable gardening principles and the role of perennials. Instead, he spent the next fifteen minutes discussing species extinction.

By now, half an hour into an hour-long presentation, I was wondering why the Perennial Plant Association, which co-sponsored the day along with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, had signed on such a downbeat speaker. Based on the audience’s nervous laughter, I wasn’t alone in my confusion. The second half of the presentation was given over to a plea for recycling and a tirade against plastic bags. At 10 a.m. I felt as though I had just sat through a first-period, ninth-grade ecology class. Amazingly, the words ‘perennial’, ‘flower’ or even ‘plant’ never crossed the speaker’s lips.

During lunch, I asked the executive director of the PPA why Brown was on the schedule. “He drew a standing ovation at our Portland symposium,” was the reply.

Well, maybe in Portland. And there is a place for a talk like the one Brown delivered. But in my view that place wasn’t at this symposium. Two hundred people – the preponderance of them serious home gardeners and the balance industry professionals - paid $95 each to hear about perennials and get garden design ideas. They didn’t sign up (or pay) for a scolding.

Roy Diblik, on the other hand, delivered a talk that was rife with an ecological undercurrent, but it was also informative about ways to garden with environmental stewardship in mind. Kerry Mendez, too, spoke at length on how she achieves terrific results with the absolute minimum of chemicals. They did it right. In my opinion, scheduling Kirk Brown, the PPA got it wrong.

September 13, 2010

Horticulture amid the art, or maybe vice-versa

Jill Nooney
(2013 update:  Bedrock Garden will be open five Saturdays this year, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  The dates are May 18, June 15, July 20, August 17, and September 21)

Once, many years ago, I proved once and for all how little I understood modern art, by asking a Duane Hanson sculpture what time the gallery closed. Admittedly, it was an honest mistake that could have happened to anyone. And so perhaps I could also be forgiven this past Saturday when I asked Jill Nooney at Bedrock Gardens (that's her at left) if a large tree by her barn was a work of art or just a tree infested with the worst case of autumn webworms I’ve ever seen.

“It’s webworms,” she explained. “They’re horrible this year.” Then she reconsidered and shrugged. “Or, maybe it could be Christo in the ash tree. I never thought of it that way.”

Welcome to Lee, New Hampshire and Bedrock Gardens. It is, without a doubt, one of the most unusual gardens I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. To begin with, it’s open to the public just four days a year (other days by appointment). If most public gardens entreat you to visit, Bedrock Gardens, which is private, seems to go out of its way to make itself tough to get into without an appointment.

Under development since 1987, the garden encompasses 30 acres (see the nearby aerial view and map; click on them or any of the other photos for a full-screen view). It is the vision of two individuals, Jill Nooney and Bob Munger. Ms. Nooney, a graduate of the Radcliffe Program in Landscape Design, is a horticulturalist and landscape designer. Mr. Munger is a retired physician and self-described natural-born tinkerer.

They are both artists and Bedrock Gardens is as much about the whimsical metal sculptures they’ve created as the garden in which the art is displayed. The preceding sentence is not intended to take anything away from either the sculpture or their garden – both are unique and quite beautiful. Both are full of a playfulness that is too often missing when bright minds are constrained by matters of finance, zoning boards or trustees.

I’ll start with the garden. To me, the dominant feature is the GrassAcre (at left), which is half a dozen different specimens of miscanthus tightly planted to form a living, abstract painting. The aerial photo, probably a year or two old, doesn’t do it justice but then neither do any of my attempts to capture it, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. There is a spiral garden and beautiful parterre formal garden with pool. Perhaps my favorite is a sleeping room set in the woods with a series of step-down pools that positively sing. You approach this area through what appears at first to be an arch that, only when you’re within a few feet of it reveals itself as a set of three giant tumblers.

The horticulture ranges from the ‘kind-of-interesting’ to the ‘wow’. A Caryopteris divaricata 'Snow Fairy' stumped the experts in my group (it’s a distant cousin from the Himalayas). There were at least three specimens of heptacodium (seven son tree) on the premises, all in bloom. An espaliered fence made of apple trees was a show-stopper. The garden also gives you ample opportunities to pause, rest and observe. There are numerous pergolas and shelters that offer inviting places to sit and contemplate.

Most of those seating opportunities appear to have been wrested from tractors, which brings me to the art part of the garden. The co-owners are both artists with an eye for seeing what fits with something else. There are, literally, hundreds of sculptures large and small scattered throughout the garden. They are almost entirely the detritus of an earlier industrial era, bolted and welded into shapes that please the eye. Most require close inspection to reveal their mechanical origins, sometimes bringing a smile of recognition. Most are for sale. The shelters, too, are industrial architecture rescued and re-purposed for a new century.

Ms. Nooney and Mr. Munger would like to turn their site into a public garden. They’ve given themselves a decade to make that happen but, as their website makes clear, they’re not altogether certain how to proceed.

It is a unique place and a beautiful garden. Unfortunately, it is also out of the way (twenty miles east of Manchester and eighty miles north of Boston) and open far too infrequently. Their next open day will like to be in May 2011. If you’re ever in the vicinity, you might want to consider calling to ask for an appointment.

(Postscript:  Jill Nooney has posted four open days for 2011, all Saturdays.   They are May 14, June 11, July 9, and September 10.  It might be well worth checking the garden's website to see if additional open dates will be offered.)

September 8, 2010

The Early Autumn Container Garden

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a container garden planted in May will, by the end of summer, be a sad-looking vestige of its spring glory. Sometimes, though, a lot of pruning and reasonable choice of plant material can yield a container that holds its own right into the autumn.

As noted in previous posts, Betty created something like fifty container gardens this spring. Some of them are necessarily ephemeral: lobelia is going to disappear with the summer heat no matter how much water and shade it is given. Salvia is going to get leggy. Also, some plants are thugs and will take over a container, relentlessly pushing out less aggressive specimens.

But some containers come through the season looking terrific. These photos, taken today (September 8), are of gardens that went through a torrid July and August yet survived looking, if not exactly like grown-up versions of their May incarnations, at least attractive. They were kept well watered and were pinched back regularly.  Double-click on any of them to get a full-page photo.

There are a pair of cast-iron urns by the front door that greet visitors. The dominant plant in the containers is a coleus ‘Pele’, a slow grower that never bolted. The terrific grass is a pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ that is still of a manageable size after nearly four months. The fragrant nemesia ‘Sunsation’ is somewhat the worse for wear but the strawberry vine that cascades down the side of the urn has looked great all summer. As a tip to container gardeners, Betty offers the advice that there should be an insulating layer between the metal of the urn and the soil inside it.

Many containers were moved over the course of the season, most often to fill in holes in various flower beds. One such is visible directly in front of the urn. There, a strobilanthes ‘Persian Shield’ provides a dramatic burst of purple and black, augmenting a heliotrope ‘Fragrant Delight’. At the base is a nice fringe of Dusty Miller (Senecio cineraria). As an aside, on the steps to the right is a light green and very fuzzy plecanthrus. Early in the season, it became home to a large frog which created a pleasant (to a frog) damp hidey-hole in the plant’s root mass. We’ve left it alone all season. The frog is still happily ensconced and doesn’t mind being periodically doused.

If I kept better track of tags, I could more fully identify the plants in the other containers pictured. One of the highlights of the garden is the grouping of five containers (at right) that soften a corner of our home. There’s an arborvitae ‘Berckmans Golden’ in a tall terra cotta pot. A smaller, identically shaped container holds a coleus ‘Kingswood Torch’ and a ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea). Three more pots offer a variety of accent plants ranging from succulents to a trailing, nicely scented petunia. The vine behind the containers is a clematis ‘Virgin’s Bower’ that blooms in September.

September 1, 2010

Yep, that's our garden

The Wall Street Journal is a wonderful newspaper.  I've been a subscriber for the better part of four decades.  In that time, I've watched it evolve from the best business newspaper around to an incredibly good general interest paper.  If it carried today's TV listings, Arlo and Janis, and the Thursday supermarket flyers, I could readily dispense with at least one of the other papers that land at the end of my driveway.
Gardening articles are a relatively recent addition to the Journal's repertoire but the paper has taken on the subject with a seriousness and dedication that is admirable.  I've seen garden-specific articles from at least three reporters; none of the reporting is of the 'me too' variety.
A few weeks back, I dropped Ann Marie Chaker a congratulatory note on an article she had written about xeric landscapes.  The next day, I had not only a reply, but Ms. Chaker said she had scrolled through this blog and noted the June 14 entry on our 'utility easement'.  She said she was getting ready to write on what she called 'hell strips' and would my wife be available for a few minutes to talk about ours?
That 'few minutes' turned into a 45-minute-long conversation that begat a second call of almost equal duration (plus a brief one to verify quotes), plus a visit by a photographer. The result appears this morning; here is a link to the first page and the second page of the article.
What is most gratifying about the article isn't that Ms. Chaker gets everything 'right' (although she does).  Instead, it is that Betty is just one source among more than a dozen quoted in the article.  I cannot imagine the total number of hours spent on the article.  Dedication to good journalism doesn't get any better.
So, my hat is off to the Journal and to Ann Marie Chaker.  A job amazingly well done.