May 23, 2011

No Focus Group Has Approved These Flowers

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating article about an ‘annual arms race’ between Lowe’s and Home Depot to produce the most appealing plants for shoppers and the lengths to which each chain goes to in order to maximize market share.  One paragraph from that story jumped off the page to me:  it said both Lowe’s and Home Depot utilize focus groups to winnow hundreds of promising new cultivars down to the handful that will show up in the stores’ garden centers.

Let me play that one back:  the cultivars you see in the Big Box stores are the product of focus groups.

Metrolina Greenhouses, which provides
annuals to Lowe's and Home Depot
A focus group, for the uninitiated, is a panel of consumers created by a research firm to assess reactions to new products or concepts.  ‘Ordinary’ people are put in a room and asked to view and rate commercials, prospective product names or packaging design; or taste soups, barbeque sauce or colas; or… say which flower appeals to them more.  Do you find this flower offensive?  Which color is more soothing?

I suppose that’s why I don’t shop for flowers at Big Box stores.  I don’t want my choices limited by what a focus group determined was the most ‘cheerful’ daisy or the ‘friendliest’ shade of impatiens.  In fact, I don’t want either those impatiens or daisies in my garden.

Andrew's Greenhouse is not quite as
large, and focus groups don't
appear to be involved.
The catalyst for bringing up an article that appeared on April 27 is that Betty and I went shopping for flowers on Saturday.  We ventured 170 miles round trip (with gas at $3.89 per gallon) in order to purchase some $200 of annuals (and a few perennials) from Andrew’s Greenhouse in South Amherst, Massachusetts.  Why?  Because we wanted plants that would cause people to sit up and take notice.  We wanted plants that would ‘pop’ in containers.  We wanted plants with sizzle. 

It took two hours of meticulous comparison to find the annuals we wanted (or, to be completely truthful, that Betty wanted because she is the one who designs the containers into which these plant will go).  We grouped cultivars looking for memorable color arcs and juxtaposing flower and leaf sizes and shapes.  We endlessly examined individual plants seeking the one with the most buds and the best conformance. 

Part of our haul from Andrew's. 
 It will take abouttwo weeks to put together
 the first dozen or so containers.
Andrew’s, of course, does not sell every annual offered by every seed company or propagator.  I would judge the number of offerings at about 500.  But every cultivar is described in glorious detail in Andrew’s catalog and the plants in the retail greenhouse were grown on the premises, ensuring a disease-free purchase.  (You may recall that the ‘late blight’ that wiped out most of the northeast’s tomato crop in 2009 was traced to seedlings shipped to Big Box stores from southern greenhouses.)

Yesterday evening, Betty began the process of assembling those purchases into containers.  (Each container may be reconfigured half a dozen times and even a ‘final’ container is subject to editing.)  The beauty of what we purchased became evident as she worked when the unusual bumped up against more common annuals to create a garden in a pot that will grow more interesting as the plants grow together.  Not everyone would care for our choices.  Anyone with the same group of plants would do the containers differently, that is the beauty of individuality.  A beauty that I would believe is harder to imagination when all the plants have won the focus groups’ award of “least likely to offend”.

May 8, 2011

Among the Azaleas

The New York Botanical Garden does not do anything by half measures. It has a sufficient number of deep-pocketed supporters to fund simultaneous construction projects that most gardens would contemplate once in a decade.

Saturday morning, Betty and I had the pleasure to be among the first to see the culmination of the NYBG’s most recent undertaking: the creation of an 11-acre azalea garden. Four years in the making, its 3,000 azaleas and rhododendron are just the tip of a statistical iceberg that includes 70,000 new plants (40,000 bulbs, 28,000 woodland perennials, 3500 trees and shrubs) put together by a roster of horticultural ‘names’ working with a $5 million budget.

Seven years in the making, the garden is as thoughtful as it is gorgeous. While the azaleas are the stars, it’s the ground covers that are going to steal the show when the azalea blooms fade. There are dozens of cultivars of epimedium, hosta, grass, iris and other shade-tolerant plants that both frame the azaleas and provide a background palette of color and texture. A few were familiar names; many more were new specimens we’ve not previously encountered and will seek out for our own garden.

The garden comprises six distinct areas: a low-lying woodland dell; a rocky knoll that evokes a North Carolina bald; a summit meadow featuring bulbs, grasses and perennials; an elevated overlook that allows visitors to see the sweep of the azaleas below; an azalea bank with bands of different color azalea; and a wooded old-growth grove into which deciduous native azalea have been incorporated. There is nearly 50 feet of elevation in the garden; the change is steep enough that one area incorporates stairs.

Traversing these sites and encircling the garden are a mile of paths and overlooks; many of the pathways with low stone walls as borders. The gravel paths bend and circle in such a way that, when we retraced our way along the inner trails, we felt we were walking a different garden.

When you have access to the breadth of financial and horticultural resources that the NYBG can tap, the fear is always that ‘the money has to show’ and, as a corollary, fealty must be paid to those who supplied the funding. There are a few areas of NYBG where naming rights trump visual sensibilities. The new azalea garden is not one of them. It is glorious place.

Granted, we saw it at its most tranquil. We were in the azalea garden before 10 a.m. and, for a few minutes, had it entirely to ourselves. By noon (when we left), the character of the garden had changed significantly as crowds descended on it. When you go, make it early. For whatever reason, New Yorkers aren’t early garden goers.

May 6, 2011

Fences, Liquid and Otherwise

Imagine for a moment that the third grade from your local elementary school stopped by to visit your garden – not just one class, but the entire third grade. Now, imagine that they all simultaneously upchucked in your garden. Tossed their cookies. All 200 of them. Got that imagine firmly in your head?

You now have an idea of what it is like to be around a fresh application of ‘Liquid Fence’. My apology for the graphic nature of the preceding paragraph, but the Internet does not yet have (at least not to my knowledge, anyway) a smell-sharing component and, if Steve Jobs is working on such an app, he would best put Liquid Fence on the ‘we-don’t-want-that-out-there’ list.

I write all this because, at seven o’clock this morning, Betty applied Liquid Fence to our garden. It took two gallons of spray to do everything. Early May is when the garden truly comes alive with hundreds of hosta and all manner of other tender shoots breaking the surface. These ‘tender shoots’, in turn, represent Sunday brunch at the Four Seasons for the local deer and rabbit population.

Bambi can eat a couple of thousand
dollars worth of plants in an hour.
After a few hours, the Liquid Fence dries and, to us humans, the smell becomes almost undetectable. To deer and rabbits, it remains not only detectable but extremely unpleasant. In my observation, even two weeks after application, deer walk up to a tasty plant and then walk away. (There are multiple brands out there that contain the same basic ingredients – putrescent egg solids and garlic. We have also used Bobbex with similar results.)

Liquid Fence and its ilk are not cheap. We buy gallon-sized jugs of concentrate that yield 16 gallons of sprayable product. That gallon jug bears a price tag of $126. At retail, those two gallons of spray cost $16.

But $16 is roughly the cost of one very nice hosta or two attractive perennials. In our yard, one deer could, in an hour’s time, munch through several thousand dollars worth of plants. In the case of our neighbors, each year the deer come through their yard and ‘lollipop’ a pair of very expensive evergreens grown in containers. Each spring, their landscaper replaces those evergreens at a cost of, say, $300 for the pair. The Liquid Fence starts looking cheap after a while.

This is a deer clearing a five-foot
fence.  As you can see, it did
so with room to spare.
At this time of year, because plants are growing rapidly, we will spray every two to three weeks. Come July, we’ll slow down to an application every month. We’ll spray once in November then let snow cover do the work over the course of the winter. That November application will fairly well empty out the gallon of concentrate.

The alternative is a deer fence. From a standing start, a deer can easily clear a three- or four-foot fence and nearby is a photo of one jumping over a five-foot fence. So, things called ‘deer fences’ are netting that rises eight to ten feet. They must encircle a property to be effective, which means your driveway now will have gates. The cost? A website called ‘Deerbusters’ offers a kit consisting of stakes and 100 feet of seven-and-a-half-foot fencing for $259. On that basis, deer-proofing our two acres would cost right around $3100. You can buy a lot of Liquid Fence for that kind of money.

May 1, 2011

Spring Rituals

I laid the soaker hoses for our hosta garden this morning. It seemed the perfect day to do such a chore because in the past week almost the hostas have all emerged from their winter slumber. But burying soaker hoses wasn’t the ‘spring ritual’ I had in mind. Rather, the annual ritual is trying to match hosta plant markers with the shoots coming out of the ground.

Our hosta walk in season.
Fact: No one has walked in the hosta garden since late October when our final task of the season in that part of the property was to firmly push the steel and aluminum markers into the soil next to the remnants of the plants. We were conscientious in our efforts because we have a lot of different hostas in our garden – close to a hundred named varieties. Each plant has a marker and each marker has one of those labels with the variety printed out on clear plastic tape. (I know what you’re thinking: I need a hobby. Well, this is my hobby.)

Exactly why we go to the trouble of making labels is unclear, except that now, when we visit a nursery, we can resist buying a hosta ‘Lakeside Cupcake’ because we already have one. We know we have one because we made a label for one last year. Except unless we think what we have back at home is ‘Lakeside Cupid’s Cup’ or ‘Lakeside Cup Up’. Which means we may well go home with the hosta anyway because it’s so darn cute.

This is what our tags are
supposed to look like.
Fact: Back in October, every hosta marker was in exactly the right spot. Fact: For much of this past winter, the hosta garden was under two or more feet of snow. So, please explain to me why, this morning, there were dozens of plant markers lying loose in the hosta beds?

Betty says the rational explanation is that the ground freezes and thaws and pushes the markers out of the ground. I could buy that theory if the markers were adjacent to the plants to which they belong. I happen to know for a fact, though, that hosta ‘Mohegan’ is a giant brute of a plant that hugs the foundation of the house (and may yet push the house out of the way in order to accommodate its version of Manifest Destiny). Why, then, is the marker for hosta ‘Mohegan’ in among the ones for the cute little miniatures twenty feet away? And why is there a pile of five markers?

Personally, I blame the squirrels and the raccoons. (“Hey, neat plant marker. I think I’ll pull it out and put it in this pile.”) More likely, knowing the raccoons in our neighborhood, the markers are used in lieu of poker chips. (“I see your ‘Francee’ and raise you a ‘Kabitan’ and a ‘Whirlwind’.) That might explain the piles of them – raccoons abandoning poker night when they’re called home for dinner and to do their homework. Their homework being their endless but fruitless efforts to break into our composter.

We have not created a 'Golden
Tiara' tag in probably ten
years.  Yet one turned up in
the hosta walk this morning.
There are also hosta markers that have either lost that clear plastic label over the course of the winter or – and this is the scary part – returned to our garden from some parallel universe. Once upon a time (when we had only twenty or so named hostas), we were content to identify our cultivars with a black pen on a metal tag. I would swear, though, on a thousand-page Hostas A-Z reference tome that every single marker has been ‘upgraded’ to clear plastic tape during the past two years.

Why, then, do I have two warped and mangled handwritten tags for hosta ‘Golden Tiara’? Betty ejected all of the ‘Golden Tiaras’ from the formal hosta garden four or five years ago because they multiply like rabbits and she hasn’t bothered to make a tag for one in the better part of a decade. Where did these tags come from?

Once again, Betty’s rational explanation is frost heaves. The tags were buried in the soil. The ground froze and thawed and, one day, belched up a ‘Golden Tiara’ tag or two. I like the parallel universe theory a lot better.

My task now is to dig out our diagrams of the hosta beds and match loose tags with last known locations of plants. Now that’s what I call a spring ritual.