Saturday, April 24, 2010

Witch's Garden Anyone?

Little in bloom so far
Sometimes, it is just the simple things in life that make you exhilarated to be alive. Last year there were several articles written about me and the garden. One article focused on the garden of a Philadelphia Flower Show judge and the other article focused on my garden being environmentally green. Out of these two came interest for a major spread in NJ Monthly Magazine. Because of the lead time required for proofing, layout, and most importantly plant photography my garden was photographed after Mother’s day last year for an article that has already been received by subscribers and will be in the newsstands in May.

The article entitled “Another World” relates some of my garden philosophy and practices and Laura Moss did a phenomenal job on photography. I hope my garden lasts as long as the fabled soap opera with the same name that ran for 35 years! The double spread photograph of my garden walkway that you often see on my blog was taken at a time in the afternoon that can only be described as “enchanted”. It is a treat to see the garden so beautifully described and photographed, but what exhilarated me was a phone call that I got from a lady named Elaine.

Woodland Garden with Viburnums in bloom

Elaine does not have a computer and will not probably ever read this blog. She is infirmed and limited by age and sickness, but not by will or good old fashioned values. She did some homework and found out where I lived and my phone number and called to see if I opened the garden to the public. I was cautious at first, but soon realized that she is someone who would have enjoyed visiting the garden. She explained that she had gotten the magazine and was so thrilled to see it and realized that I lived in a neighboring community. I explained to her that it was photographed last year and the level of flowering depicted in the images has not yet taken place. I offered her an opportunity to visit me when we can enjoy it together later in May when she will hopefully see it as pictured.

To my surprise, today in the mail I received the pages from Elaine’s magazine that she removed as best as possible to send to me with a lovely note. I had informed her that I do not subscribe to the magazine and it is still not on sale. Even though the proof reader from the magazine had promised me a copy, it has still not arrived. I called to thank her and we started on another nice conversation that concluded with me reminding her that when she can arrange a visit she is more than welcomed in May.

The original witch's garden! I am told

Yes, this exhilarated me! It was an act of kindness from one stranger to another. It also exhilarated me because in contrast, it vindicates a comment, by someone else, that it looked like a “witch’s garden” because of its shaggy and overgrown natural state. The lady went as far as to say that maybe the reason I could not get work was because of the way my garden looked. I knew the validity of these derogatory comments were worthless, given the source, but it still hurt and caused my otherwise rhinoceros hide a sting when it came from the mouth of a supposed friend. Don’t get me wrong, I make mistakes just like everyone and don’t take all the positive comments as gospel either. I found the webpage version of the article: and explained to them that certain matters accredited to me were incorrect. So what else can I tell you? It is unfortunate that I could not state in those beautiful pages that this talented man is still unemployed. So keep gardening, the results will maintain your spirits going in tough times and give your life a lift. In the process you may even meet a nice person or two to share that passion.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wisteria or Wistaria?

A neighbor's Wistarias conquering a 35 foot holly

Wistaria or Wisteria? As I attended the University of Pennsylvania with its Wistar Institute, a modern-day think-tank I should know, but did not know until then. The plant was named Wistaria for famous Penn Scientist Caspar Wistar in honor of his many contributions to science. Somewhere along its early introduction to the public through engravings in the publication The Horticulturist, 1853-74, whose writers included pre Landscape Architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, the engraver misspelled the name Wisteria. The name took hold and today both spellings are accepted, but Wistaria was the original.

When I first planted my garden one of the first plants I put in was a Wistaria. I had picked up the seed pod while on a walk in West Philadelphia with a friend where we both were attending graduate school in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. A long time has passed since that walk and nurturing that plant initially in a pot, secondarily in my friend’s garden and finally planting it in my own garden in a super special location with the hope that something grown from seed and tended with love for oh so many years would produce a bounty for the garden.

Corner view of the Sierra Madre Giant Wistaria

My own experience with Wistarias dates back to my days in California where the town of Sierra Madre had a plant that in growing had crushed and caused the demolition of three homes. Growing more that 24 inches in a 24 hour period and located on the slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains of Southern California this community celebrated the magic of this enormous plant that covered an acre and whose fragrance would permeate the entire community with history and myth.

Underneath the Giant Wistaria

On March 14 of this year the community, again joined in celebrating this unusual specimen with attendance of more than 10,000 visitors. These days, it measures in at over 250 tons of mass with 1.5 million blossoms. It is 116 years old and was planted in 1894 by Alice Brugman after she purchased it in a 1-gallon pot for 75 cents from a Monrovia nursery. The First Wistaria Festival occurred in 1918.

Check out the site:

My own Wistaria as it stood for ten years

The reality is that I knew that some plants grown from seed often never produce the best results. The best fruits, flowers, etc are often grafted on to the parent wood and there fruiting or flowering branches produce magical effects. This is how you get those deranged creations that for the sake of satisfying our ability to gloat we have a tree that produces, pear, peaches, and plums or something like that.

Knowing full well that this plant might grow into a dud I still pursued the process of pruning it into the standard upright fountain form. You kind of create an effect as though the plant represented water flowing out of basins and you prune the bejesus out of it shaping it like a Christmas tree into multiple tiers. For those reading a translation or not knowing American slang bejesus means an extreme action.

For years, I have pruned this plant lovingly into this shape. Some years, seeing less than encouraging results I have pruned it more severely. A few years ago it actually produced a wonderful cascade of lavender flowers and since then I keep pruning with minor if no flowering results. I suspect that it is my fault for the location that I chose. Sunnier long ago, it has become rather shady and although I have seen Wistarias bloom in the shade they often are exposed to sun at some point; mine isn’t.

Preliminary lopping has revealed a window to a neighbor's woodland

So as they say it is time to fish or cut bait. Yet another wonderful idiomatic phrase that implies a time for action. I am going to remove the Wistaria. After years of care without results most professional gardeners would have taken it out long ago. I could dig it up and transplant it elsewhere into a sunny spot but my garden is full. I could give it to a budding gardener neighbor who has room, but this is a serious plant that if not properly controlled might just take a house down or invade a tree. So not even to the compost pile will it go for fear that the tendrils will root and I will have a far more serious problem. So with pain I will say goodbye to this old friend, but I have said good bye to plant and worse, people friends before. Now the challenge is what to put in its place.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Welcome back Green!

Easter Sunday at the Fellowship Lawn with kids hunting for eggs

I grew up in a very green place, but somehow those memories were lost on me. It took a trip there ten years ago to renew my awareness of Cuba to get a real sense of the place where I was born. My early life in Florida seemed green enough, but that too was over forty years ago. My family then moved to Chicago where I remember no green whatsoever just buildings and a big lake. Eventually my family moved to California and to Los Angeles. The trip my mother and I took to rejoin my father was on a Greyhound along route 66. Certainly I saw the green slowly disappear as we headed west. Yet, I thought that California was green enough. This was was the place where I first tended my own garden. But in fact it took a trip to the Mid-Atlantic region when I was checking out a return to graduate school that I rediscovered GREEN!

By East Coast standard California is brown. There a few days during the winter, after the January rains when the hills go green. Later on the California poppies bloom and turn entire hillsides orange, but when those fade the green there is anemic. Most plants that do well in California are a blue green that is adapted so little water is lost in transpiration and to reflects sun light. There are other greens but even in heavily irrigated gardens the green is mild, shy not bold. It is not the lush, verdant and velvety green that I see appearing all around me. Here Green is King. Trees change from brown trunks and branches to emerald cover practically overnight. Shrubs that were beige twigs seem to grown giant green butterflies on their branches. Daylilies that were little sprouts one day grow a foot in a week and change the character of gardens from that of brown mulch into a sea of green.

Of course, there are other colors here at the same time while the green is sneaking up on us. It is yellow, white, pink, purple and so many other colors, but green is behind everything and it is setting up the base color for what will be the entire growing season up until fall when it gives way to Autumn colors. A block from my house is a parking lot like no other. It is owned by the Diener Brick Company whose offices are across the street from this beautifully manicured garden. Every year the garden is replanted with bulbs and spruced up with new plants to make sure that we all share in the bounty of spring. If there is an Easter Bunny he certainly hides eggs in this marvelous garden bejeweled in all the colors of spring. It is a rare thing to see, and I am so glad that they do it.

Detail of Diener's Garden

Beside green the great triumph of Spring is the return of fragrance. What would be the worth of living in places that flood during the early season if that liquid did not find its way into the lush leaves and flowers and the perfumes that taunt us for this marvelous time of year. Hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, violets and viburnums all are rich in fragrant nectar that is everywhere exhilarating some and giving hay fever to others. My favorite is the Lilac whose short lived blossoms I tried to coax back when I lived in California. There, only in a few colder hillside areas where privy to their fragrant wonder, but few really had the opulence fragrance that is everywhere in our gardens. I have two plants. An American lilac near my front door to bathe it when I come out in the morning and a Persian lilac to drown out the main garden in its pungent perfume. They both fade quickly although their green remains and for a week to ten days the scent is like a paradise garden. Welcome back green!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Springtime Garden Lists

A sunny spring day in the messy garden

We are a very ordered society. We make lists for groceries, for tasks to be done in the office, for chores around the house and, well, for just about for anything. It is no surprise that our publications do the same. Either they are trapping us with our own machinations or just do it because they are made by people who themselves make lists. So what's the point? Spring is here and everyone has a list of things to do or to avoid in the garden. Bart Ziegler wrote a list of Advice for Novice Gardeners for the Wall Street Journal. I think his list is rather good, but certainly don't agree with it all. So here, rather than write my own list I shall examine another's list and gardener's lessons.

1. Yes it will get bigger.
This is great. People have no idea what to expect when they buy a plant. Rarely do they think that trees were once just a one gallon plant. Some people do research, most go to Home Depot or some other non-nursery see something they like and stick it by their front door. Then one day you drive by and see this massive plant encroaching on a house that they planted and could not bring themselves to remove. Get the idea.

2. If one is good, six may not be better.
I am not sure about his take on this one. His example and every other writer using this example is always the same. The reference is to pony packs of Zucchini that take over the world. Yes, this is true, but so what. If you have a farm you would plant more than six and if you had a family of twelve they would get their green vegetables (whether they liked them or not). The point here is that you should know what you are planting and the consequences. Don't be fooled by the pictures in those plant tags that are half an inch square and don't give you much to go on.

3. If the label says "can be aggressive," you've been warned.
I think this one is self explanatory...

4. Roses are red–and brown and spotted and buggy.
Sorry, here I disagree. I have over 50 rose plants and yes there are some brown spots here and there a few bugs also, but not a reason to avoid planting roses. Some of the new Knockout roses that Mr. Ziegler recommends are okay, but how shall I say this, they are not really representative of classic fragrant roses. They look more like machine made paper flowers stuck on plastic plants, by the thousands. My point again, know what you are planting. There are problem roses that require a lot of work and chemicals. There are areas of the country that are prone to bugs that have yet no assembled in mine. I don't use chemicals on anything! I once made a Pilgrimage to White Flower Farm in Connecticut only to discover their rose garden infested with thousands of Japanese Beatles that were devouring the plants. They certainly did not put this on their catalogue! Know what you are planting.

5. Keep it simple.
Nothing to complain here. Learn before you leap. Use more plants of the same variety rather than buy one of everything variety and plop everywhere. This will not look like much.

6. Start small.
His point is that gardens require time. Don't plant 200 plants and have time to take care of 2. We all love the idea of gardening and don't appreciate that there was a time when people had gardeners who worked in the garden for a living. Today we may want a wonderful look but fail to recognize what it takes in financial or actual labor. Worst yet the people who mow and blow for a living don't know much about gardens.

7. Befriend an expert.
Being a friend of many I know what this means: free advice which gardeners unlike most other professions often give. Remember if this is their profession treat them as such and offer to pay them.

8. Admit mistakes and move on.
See number 1. A poor choice is a poor choice. Plants are growing and living things, but all things die. Don't be afraid to remove a plant if it is the wrong plant for the wrong place. Compost it! You may feel better about it.

9. Don't be afraid to cull.
Here I could not agree more with Mr. Ziegler. You spend years filling your yard and then it gets full. What next? Divide and give to other gardeners. I said it before: Gardeners are generous by nature, but it part is because they over planted!

10. Relax—it's just a garden.
What can I tell you? Relax, it is just life. Some people live life finding fault and complaining about everything that happens to them. Others take life the way it comes, taking the lumps with the glory. Gardens offer similar approaches. You can have a 50 acre garden and a staff of 100 and be miserable that one rose has got black spot. Enjoy gardening even if all you have is in a pot!

I have been reading books by gardeners about their gardeners and have learned and laughed out loud at their stories. Two of my favorites are Green Thoughts by Eleanor Perenyi, 1981 and Onward and Upward in the Garden by Katherine White, 1958. These two books tell garden stories of plants, catalogues, and gardening. They are wonderful time capsules of gardening done differently than today by very devoted gardeners. Check them out. You will be entertained and educated. I am sure Mr. Ziegler has book in him that has not yet come out. I suspect we all do.