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.

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