June 24, 2011

That's What Friends Are For

When last I wrote of Paul Miskovsky, Betty and I were pulling plastic for a greenhouse in Falmouth – in the middle of January, with a wind chill down around zero degrees Kelvin.  We recovered and went on to live a more or less normal life.  This past week, I was again helping out Paul with a ‘little’ garden project.

The venue for this garden is the Newport Flower Show in Newport, Rhode Island.  The Boston Flower & Garden Show (or, for that matter, the old New England Spring Flower Show) draws throngs of winter-weary visitors with the promise of a day’s worth of ersatz spring in the middle of March.  In late June, by contrast, everything that can possibly be in bloom is in bloom.  Why pay $25 to see flowers when they’re all around you?

One reason is that Newport is, well, Newport.  The Vanderbilts and Astors may have decamped for other climes in some diaspora of the wealthy, but their mansions still line Bellevue Avenue, and it is the Newport Preservation Society that maintains that tangible legacy of the Gilded Age.  All proceeds from the show go toward the ongoing restoration and maintenance of those mansions’ grounds.

Another reason is that the Preservation Society puts on a heck of a good show.  I know a little bit about how flower shows are run, and Newport does a first-class job (except for the photography display, which is decidedly sub-par).  If entertainment value is the ultimate pricing arbiter, Newport definitely delivers.  

10 a.m. Wednesday.  That's
Paul in the green shirt.
At the aforementioned Boston flower shows, garden vignettes are the big draw (that first whiff of spring).  At Newport, they’re a relatively recent addition and the gardens I remember from previous years tended to be heavy on cut stone and topiary and light on, well, ‘wow’ factor.  Enter Paul Miskovsky.  Paul is an ├╝ber-landscaper, a guy who can take a kettle hole on Cape Cod and turn it into a horticultural fantasy land.  Add David Haskell.  Dave’s late father, Alan Haskell, was widely considered to be one of New England’s great horticulturalists.  David is filling those large shoes quite admirably.  Neither one had ever exhibited at Newport.  This year, they did a joint entry.

The stone wall goes up...
... and gets a lavender garden
There are three problems with doing a landscape garden at Newport.  The first is time pressure.  Trucks were allowed on the grounds mid-day Tuesday.  The exhibits had to be ready for judging Friday morning.  The Boston Flower & Garden Show provides a full four days for garden ‘builds’.  Two and a half days isn’t a lot of time.  The second problem is footprint.  The Miskovsky/Haskell exhibit was allocated a 20’x40’ space.  By the time I got to the build site on Wednesday morning, the dimension had already been ‘cheated’ out to 25’x50 feet.  So, an 800 square foot vignette had been summarily enlarged to 1250 square feet, yet it still had to be built in the same time frame.  The first photo shows what I saw when I arrived at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (except that the rocks were still in skids).  To see these photos in greater detail, just double-click on them.

Which illustrates the third problem with Newport… the garden vignettes are all outdoors.  Which means working at night is problematic.  And, if it rains, things can really get messed up.

Thursday, 2 p.m., just before
the deluge...
Thursday, 4 p.m.  The garden wasn't
finished, but I was.
Paul is a friend and working on his projects is very educational.  Let me be very clear that no money changes hands in this, although I do get to eat as much pizza as I want.  On Wednesday, we unloaded rocks, built a handsome rock wall around the perimeter of a massive purple beech, laid plywood to define the shape of the garden, mulched it all to a depth of two inches, positioned four lemon trees around the corners of the garden and then added bluestone to form the ‘patio’ of the exhibit.  That was a full day’s work for eight people.  I went home with a very sore back.

On Thursday, a crew of about 15 was on hand to build the garden.  There were Master Gardeners eager to learn from two top-notch professionals, two knowledgeable crews blessed with terrific upper body strength... and me.  We installed a wonderfully scented circle of lavender and cleome around the base of the beech and unloaded a 26-foot-long box truck filled to the brim with plant material.  We spread yet more mulch.  We built a kickboard.

Then, the heavens opened up (that third drawback to Newport).  I’m not talking about a little rain.  I’m talking Weather Channel red with spots of purple surrounded by yellow and deep, deep green.

Paul Miskovsky's and David Haskell's
completed garden.
We, of course, kept building.  Plants were moved in and re-arranged.  I lifted, carried, arranged furniture and shoveled mulch.  At 4 p.m., though, I was soaked to the skin.  The exhibit was mostly built, but I was down for the count.  I left with profound apologies and the offer of a dry towel from Paul.

The flower show opened to the public on Friday at noon, a photo of the finished garden is at left.  Betty and I visited Paul's and David's garden Friday evening, where we found it being admired by a large crowd.  Perhaps more telling, the exhibit was crowded inside.  People were seated on the couches, engaged in animated conversations while the other exhibits with their formal gardens and metal chairs were deserted. 

Working with Paul and David is an education, even if it will take a few weeks for my back to fully recover.

June 8, 2011

4000 hits, yet I still have no idea who you are!

(Note: there have been more than 750 pageviews of this post since it first appeared on June 8, but still no takers for the free polo shirt offer.  What are you waiting for?)

This morning, the counter on my blog showed that 4000 people have visited it since July 2010 (the blog is older, but Google didn't provide a counter before last July).  Last month, the number of visits was 500, for an annual run rate of 6000.  I know that, by the standard of many websites, that's extremely small potatoes.  But to me, it's nothing short of amazing.

This Principal Undergardener polo
shirt can be yours.  act now!
My problem is that I have no idea of who visits the site.  No one leaves comments and I seldom encounter someone who notes that they saw something on this blog.  Google supplies some cursory information, such as the country of origin (U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, in that order), and some of the search queries that got people here.  But who are you?

High quality and in your choice
of four colors.
I'd like to know, and I'm offering a prize - three prizes, actually, to find out.  If you're reading this, email me at n_h_sanders (at) yahoo.com.  I'll send a 'Principal Undergardener' polo shirt to the first person who responds in three categories:  1) someone who knows me, 2) someone who lives in the U.S. but who doesn't know me, and 3) someone from outside of the U.S. who doesn't know me.

You can have a shirt in light or dark green, or light or dark blue.  we can work out the details of size and color.  Shipping is on me.

June 6, 2011

A tale of two arboreta… and a botanic garden

Betty and I had the opportunity over the Memorial Day weekend to visit three very different horticultural collections.  Here are some thoughts.
Two years ago, we heard Claire Sawyers, the Director of the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, speak about landscape design and her book, ‘The Authentic Garden’.  Hearing her enthusiasm and wanting to see how it was implemented, we put a visit to the Scott Arboretum on our ‘wish list’ of places to explore.  Last week, Betty had to be at a convention in Washington, D.C.  I offered to tag along and, rather than doing the sensible thing of flying the 450 miles from Boston, we elected to drive, in part to fulfill that desire to see the arboretum, which is outside Philadelphia.

The Scott Arboretum and the inner
campus of Swarthmore College
are one and the same.
A 'pocket garden' within the
Scott Arboretum
In researching the visit, I kept running into an obstacle… where exactly on the campus was the arboretum?  The Scott Arboretum’s headquarters were clearly identified as was parking for it, but we couldn’t find it on a campus map.  We put it down to an idiosyncratic web site.  When we arrived at Swarthmore on a blazingly hot afternoon, we walked into the headquarters, asked for a map, and discovered to our amazement that the arboretum encompasses the whole of the ‘inner’ campus – 300 acres.  It is both the individual gardens – two dozen of them – and the incorporation of that ‘whole’ into the fabric of the campus.  It is that integration that is the genius of the design.

Some of the Scott Arboretum gardens are extensive and free-standing (the rose garden, for example).  Others are pocket gardens that occupy a specific space in front of a building or between two structures.  No two are alike or serve the same purpose.  Rather, each is specific to its site – shade, a narrow space, a need to collect water, etc. 

The Rose Garden within the Scott
Arboretum is one of the few
'free-standing' gardens
The arboretum was formed in 1929; Ms. Sawyers has been its director and guiding light since 1990.  The Swarthmore website lists no budget but shows an arboretum staff of 23, though that includes motor pool assistants and interns.  It is clear that a large group of volunteers (called the ‘Scott Associates’) is also involved.  I mention those numbers because the arboretum is maintained exquisitely, marked intelligently and is in a constant state of renewal. 

I was captivated by the arboretum and, even on an afternoon when the temperature and humidity were both above 90 and I had driven more than six hours, I was reluctant to leave.  It was an afternoon of having my notion of what constitutes an ‘arboretum’ challenged and re-defined.  Ms. Sawyers has done a magnificent job.

* * * * *

Friday morning, we continued south and made the two-hour drive down to Washington, D.C. On our way into the city, stopped at the National Arboretum. 

Here are some facts from its website:  The National Arboretum covers some 446 acres, has an annual budget of $12.2 million, a staff of 76 augmented by 140 volunteers and interns, and supported by the American Nursery and Landscape Association, Friends of the National Arboretum, Garden Club of America, Herb Society of America, National Bonsai Foundation, National Capital Area Garden Clubs, Inc., National Capital Orchid Society, National Garden Clubs, Inc., Society of American Florists, and Woman's National Farm & Garden Association.

A container garden at the gift shop;
one of the few areas that showed
continuing care or upkeep.
The arboretum occupies a superb site, an area of high ground in the northeast part of the city.  There are areas of forests and valleys; rolling hills punctuated with beautiful vistas of the city.  The site, chosen in 1927, provides a green oasis in a large metropolitan area.

That, unfortunately, is the extent of the nice things I can say about the National Arboretum.  Here is the rest of it: the gardens are uninspired, outdated and very poorly maintained.  Weeds overrun beds and plant identification is spotty at best.  The grounds crew mows around trees, but no one is pruning or shaping those trees and so they are formless blobs.  The azalea gardens, neglected for decades, were about to be ripped out until a public outcry prevented their destruction.  However, despite the outcry, the neglect continues.  In fact, I saw only one major re-building project underway at the arboretum: a renovation of the administration building. 

This is a horticultural site with a serious case of misplaced priorities.  Compare the size of the staff with that of the similarly sized Scott Arboretum and the magnitude of the lost opportunity becomes clear. 

* * * * *

We originally set aside Saturday morning to see several sites along the Mall, including the U.S. Botanic Garden adjacent to the Capitol.  As with our other destinations, I had downloaded a map and other visitor information.  The basic map showed a Conservatory and a fountain and, based on those two elements, I envisioned a site that might encompass about an acre.  I had also met Holly Shimizu at an awards function and was impressed by her energy and enthusiasm.

Bartholdi Park with the USBG
Conservatory in the background.
Every square foot is intensely planted.
Double-click on the image to
see the intensity of the site.
Let me make this clear: even if I had done a better job of researching my visit, I wasn’t prepared for what I found.  I was expecting something tourist-oriented and filled with platitudes.  I was expecting a garden that dealt with the familiar.  In short, I was expecting the lowest common denominator of urban parks.

What I found was a garden and a conservatory that rank with the best I have ever seen:  stunning design and execution, and curated better than any garden I have ever visited – and that includes Kew and NYBG. 

These vertical container gardens
are a visual delight.
The site, including Bartholdi Park, encompasses about six acres – the conservatory and fountain were significantly larger than anything I could have envisioned – and every square foot is used. 

I lived in the Washington area for eight years in the 1990s and have no recollection of the Bartholdi fountain, which means it was likely surrounded by grass and so disappeared into the streetscape.  No longer.  It is intensely planted in a series of gardens that, taken individually, could be replicated by a homeowner.  It is stuffed full of ideas ready to be copied.

Double-click on the sign.
The National Garden, built with $11 million of ‘private donations’, lies to the west of the Conservatory and incorporates a series of regional gardens, a butterfly garden and a rose garden.  It was here, I think, that I began to grasp the idea that the garden was intended to educate as much as please.  I was walking along a path when I spotted one of about a dozen green signs marked on, by hand, with white chalk.  The sign was next to a rather badly abused palmetto.  But the sign (reproduced at right) gave me an explanation of why this palmetto was important.  Someone had taken the time to walk the garden and choose a few things worth explaining.  I have no doubt but that were I to go back this week, those signs would adorn a different set of plants.

When there's something special
to see, like an unusual plant in
bloom, there is special signage.
In the Conservatory, those signs are joined by ‘look here’ markers indicating something interesting in bloom or otherwise out of the ordinary.  There’s also a cell phone tour for those who want in-depth information about specific plants.  In short, it’s an extraordinary place.

The USBG web site shows a staff of 66, though there is no breakdown of how many of those are horticulturalists and how many are administrative people.  It is under the joint auspices of the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capital.  No budget is given.

*  *  *  *  *

The USBG packs an enormous
amount of horticulture into a
small footprint.  Double-click
on the chart to see full size.
Inevitably, two questions have to be asked.  The first is, why is the U.S. Botanic Garden a stunning success while the National Arboretum is no better than a county park?  Part of the answer is geography: the U.S. Botanic Garden sits at the foot of the Capitol.  It ‘has’ to be a showcase (yet, for many decades it was apparently a mess).  Because of its visibility, it gets attention.  Part of the answer likely has to do with Ms. Shimizu.  She is an articulate horticulturalist and probably a fund raiser par excellence.  The National Arboretum is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, maybe, that’s the root problem.  But the National Arboretum also lists a ‘Who’s Who’ of affiliate organizations that, at least in theory, ought to be able to deliver both horticultural excellence and access to external funding.  That, in turn, takes me back to Swarthmore’s Scott Arboretum, which achieves order-of-magnitude better results on a comparably sized facility with less than a third of the staff. 

The overarching question is whether Washington D.C. needs both the U.S. Botanic Garden and the National Arboretum.  Betty and I debated this question on the drive home.  Her opinion is an energetic ‘yes’.  Mine is much more qualified and, after a week’s reflection, comes down on the side of ‘no’. 

There are multiple arboreta and botanical gardens within an hour’s drive of Washington. They look better and are not investing their resources in renovating headquarters buildings.  They are focused on education and their collections.  In Northeast Washington, I saw nothing that inspired and certainly no evidence of leadership or of mission.  When you’re that far off the mark, perhaps it’s time to pack it in.

June 1, 2011

June Is Bustin’ Out All Over

I’m a huge fan of Fourth of July fireworks.  I love the way that they start with a few ‘teaser’ rockets, then simmer down to an occasional burst that makes the audience appreciate the beauty of an individual, colorful display.  Then, there is the ‘peppering’ of loud, staccato shells with their bright, white flashes.  It’s all a dance leading up to that grand finale when the Grucci family throws everything they’ve got into the sky all at once, and all you can do is stand there, slack-jawed in wonder.
In the 'Inner Sidewalk' bed, there are three colors of iris,
Amsonia, giant Allium, peonies, dianthus and salvia -- all
in bloom simultaneously
I feel that way about my garden this morning.  We went away for a few days at the end of May.  It has been a cool, damp spring and, while the narcissus made April a showy month, our ornamental plum had flowered on schedule in early May and the forest pansy redbud had put on its best bloom ever, it had been largely a ‘green’ spring.

The 'Outer Sidewalk'
Bed is just as colorful.
Sunday morning, though, I walked outside to find that five days of hot weather had pushed everything that could possibly bloom to do so simultaneously.  Two dozen rhododendron are weighed down with football-sized clusters of flowers.  Three Weigela – a ‘Wine and Roses’,  ‘Pink Princess’ and ‘My Monet’ – that have never bloomed in the same month much less the same week are all masses of flowers.  An adjoining Deutzia and Potentilla are both snow white with blossoms.  Out by the street, a ‘Carolina Moonlight’ Baptisia is in its full glory and a carpet of bright pink Delosperma threatens to engulf the sidewalk.  Even a Scotch Broom that is prone to skipping years has a beautiful, polychrome display.

Looking across the xeric bed, where
nepeta is in full bloom, a Potentilla
and Deutzia both are laden with
white flowers.
But it is the perennials that are the real attention grabbers.  In just one small garden, white peonies, three colors of Siberian and bearded iris, two of Amsonia, giant lavender Allium, plus geraniums, dianthus and salvia all jostle to be the showiest plant. 

In a perennial border, Cerastium, better known by its colloquial name, ground hugging ‘Snow-in-Summer’ is a mass of white flowers and silver leaves while above it bloom multiple cultivars of Columbine, a Daphne Atlantica, and still more iris, geranium and salvia.

'Carolina Moonlight' Baptisia in the xeric bed (front) and
an overpoweringly fragrant 'Miss Kim' lilac (rear).
This is June in the New England garden.  The wonderful part is this isn’t the end of it.  It isn’t even the beginning of the end of it.  Like that fireworks concert, the peonies and rhodies will pass, but the giant poppies and meadowrue already have flower heads fully formed and hundreds of astilbe have sent up spikes that will bloom pink and white before month’s end.

And those are just the perennials.  The exotic annuals in our newly potted-up container gardens are still getting their roots firmly established.  Once that feat is accomplished, we’ll have a summer’s worth of luscious color from that source.

Next month, I’ll still seek out a fireworks display to enjoy under what I hope will be a canopy of stars.  But this month, I’ve got one going on in my own garden.  To my way of thinking, life doesn’t get any better than that.