Sunday Opinion: The Plants

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My enchantment with plants dates back so long I can hardly remember how it started.  To the best of my recollection, a brief residence in North Carolina after I graduated from college got me interested in orchids.  Who knows what prompted that.  A plant at the grocery store checkout counter-it could have been.  Within just a few months, I was spending more on orchids than groceries.  My rental house in Chapel Hill had orchids in pots and on boards hanging from the trees.  The mild climate made it easy to cultivate them outdoors.  The slipper orchids-loved them.  Who knows why or how, but I became intensely interested in plants.  All of a sudden, I was noticing them everywhere.  In parking lots, and in residential yards.  In buildings.  In wild places, left to their own devices.  What was growing behind the garage, or at the ocean shore.  The plants-loved each and every one of them.

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The moment that I became aware of plants was not a momentous day.  Just an ordinary moment.  But in the years since, I can see that the life of the plants has altered and greatly influenced the course of my life.  Wildflowers.  trees.  tree peonies.  rock garden plants.  herbaceous perennials hardy in my zone.  the annuals that live but one season.  Ferns.  Dahlias.  Woody shrubs.  herbs.  evergreens.  succulents.  vegetables. bulbs, espaliers. moss and lichens.  Tropical plants.  The plant kingdom-the organizing metaphor, the language upon which a landscape or garden design is built.  Why am I thinking about this?  Our spring fair opened yesterday.  10 growers brought their spring plants to exhibit and sell.  We moved our fair inside-the cold, blustery, and snowy weather was so terrible.  As much as I hated to host a spring fair when fair spring weather was not in the forecast, I was ready for a spring celebration.  Lots of other people were ready for spring too-notwithstanding the current cold and gray.

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As reluctant as I was to move the growers with their plants inside our shop, they were pleased.  And the many hundreds of people who came today were happy for a venue indoors too.  Our warehouse style garage was packed with people all day long-looking at the plants.  I was astonished to hear the general consensus from all of the growers in attendance. We like being indoors, in close quarters.  The feeling-community-like.  I personally observed gardeners in that garage for hours-looking over the plants.  They were dry, warm, and comfortable.  They had lots of company.  Why should I be surprised?  It is the plants- around which no end of different people express their delight and connection with the natural world.  There was a lot of talk.  A lot of looking.  A lot of exchange.  I feel certain, after a Saturday that was jam packed from start to finish, this spring fair was above all, about the plants.

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I had lots of confirmation today that there is an instinct in people to make something grow.  Better than that-a love for making something grow.   People who had never met before, were deep in conversation, and making notes. Over the plants.  The peonies from Wiegands and the hellebores from Arrowhead Alpines-sold out.  The wildflowers from Starr Foster-all but gone.  I was so worried about the weather for our fair.  Tonight I realize that the gardening people and the plants made the weather a side story.  The main attraction?  Making something grow.

gardener-to-be.jpgAnd then of course, passing that on.

Greening Up

 

I can understand why the idea of a conservatory or greenhouse space is so incredibly attractive.  I live in a climate that is inhospitable, even foul almost half the year-if you like growing plants, that is.  This room in the shop had no windows, but thanks to a used Lord and Burnham greenhouse from which I salvaged the roof, I have a green space.  It smells like warm dirt, moisture laden air, and plants-intoxicating.  Even when nothing is blooming, it still smells like life.  The climbing fig that covers two of the four walls is probably 10 years old now.  I had to have it, after seeing the hundred year old vines in the conservatory at Dunbarton Oaks.  I thought the shop had to have water and plants someplace every day-it’s why we do what we do.         

Though the weather is stubbornly refusing to give up winter and warm up, this room is warm and inviting.  The first of our favorite spring green plants have come in.  A single resident Wollemi pine lives happily in this space year round, even though we do not heat the space between January 15 and March 1.  I am not a huge fan of tropical plants in the house.  They always have that air of resignation about them; how theystruggle  to survive in poor light, and hot dry house heat.  This room offers good light, and protection from the elements.       

Elements?  No snow is allowed here.  No wind, no hail, no temperatures below 30, no ice.  The space is not at the mercy of too much rain, or too little.  We rarely have bugs in the winter-it is too chilly.  Most everything goes outdoors once the weather is nice.  We do have the occasional toad-how they find this room, I have no idea.  It is a space we look after, and it rewards us with a place of refuge from winter.  It is also a nursery-for plants that need hardening off.  These topiary lemon cypress just arrived from California.  Though they happily tolerate less than perfect conditions, they need to become acclimatized to the cold.  

These ivy topiary are lovely.  Though they require some work to maintain their beautiful form, they are otherwise little care.  A summer outdoors recuperating from being inside all winter they will appreciate.  They are a complete vision of a garden, in and of themselves.     

The bulb pots are coming on strong, having been moved to this space. We keep it at 55-60 degrees during the day, and 40-45 at night.  The room is helping to create an atmosphere of spring.  I have only participated in the design of 2 conservatories in my whole career.  They are expensive, they require loads of proper engineering, and they can be the devil to get working properly.    

But today I see why gardeners build them.  We have rosemary cones and single ball topiaries, lemon cypress in differing forms, and a collection of ferns.  Fresh green plants-oxygen for the heart and soul.  I asked Buck where we could have one.  We can’t, he said. Too expensive, too problematic, too big a heat bill.  It would be much easier to move to the shop greenhouse for the winter.     

The lemon cypress are not hardy in my zone, but they are easy to keep over.  They grow like weeds.  That lime green color is accompanied by a faint scent of lemon.  A collection of 6 inch pots-like a party.  I have no interest in a greenhouse space in July.  But October through March-wouldn’t it be lovely?   


In the lower left of this picture, a pair of 3 gallon sanseveria.  This black leaved lime-edged variety is quite stunning.  They would be so striking in a simple container in a very shady place, fringed with lime selaginella.  I can feel a fever coming on.  The greenhouse space is providing some welcome heat.