Archives for May 2010

Sunday Opinion: The Four Alarm Garden

I am swamped with design work, landscape installation projects, planting the flowers,  particular issues with different clients needing time and thought when time is in short supply, plant material and soil arriving, the store busy, the fabrication of custom pots, pergolas and sculpture via Branch-lots of work. Lots and lots of work, all jammed into that brief season we call spring.  This is not to mention dealing with the day to day life of three related but different businesses.  Some days I feel like I am manning the gardening desk at the Library of Congress. Other days seem like I am a garden traffic controller with too many projects needing to land all at the same time.  I got to work at 6 am today, took pictures of that great foggy weather we had early, posted the pictures, got the corgis squared away,  picked up a truckload of plants, helped offload another van load of eighty flats.  I have a big job to install tomorrow. When they figure out how to beam plants from one location to another, I will be the first to sign up.  Now I am writing and drinking a little morning coffee-its 10:30.  Most of the time, I would not have it any other way.  The spring rush around challenges me, and keeps me sleeping soundly at night. 

Warm days bring gardeners and non gardeners alike out of hiding. High temperatures last week near 80 that will persist through this week is too hot for me, but I do not get to choose.  That bed that needs revamping, the front door asking for larger, more welcoming pots, a spring event, a new addition, a rear yard landscape renovation, what tree for this spot, people with new homes needing a master plan, what flowers to plant-the phone rings regularly.  I am in a business that mostly makes people happy. Great outdoor spaces at home are welcoming, relaxing, interesting, companionable, interactive, personal-I could go on about how I feel the landscape and garden industry in this country helps make people’s lives better.

Designing and planting require some involved parties, and some time. Time to cook something up, time to let it grow.  No matter whether you plant an oak tree or grow alyssum from seed, there is a process involved that demands time.  Pots planted May 16th for a May 23rd party will, oh yes, look juvenile. If juvenile but beautifully planted works for you, then a summer garden planting for a spring event will look great.  Ready for company.  The expectation of a mature summer planting the end of May is asking for something no gardening person can provide.  I do not have the ability shift a planting into 5th gear, or engineer time travel.  I am a gardener; I know how to design and make things grow.  This is as close as I get to sitting on the right hand side of Mother nature.

It is my opinion that emergencies are limited to sick or endangered living things.  I will sound an alarm if a planting is threatened by too much water, or too little. Any living creature deserves my immediate attention if they need my protection.  This has to do with a belief in the sanctity of life.  There is nothing tough about figuring out what constitutes an emergency.  When a design and installation of a landscape or garden is important, it is not an emergency.  Things that are important, you take the time for.  People unwilling to put time to their garden-I suspect it is not all that important to them.  There are those requests for gardens, or pot plantings, that are not so much about making something grow.  They are much more about a moment.  Garden books have helped to foster this nonsence moment notion.  A photograph that depicts a garden on the one day a year when everything is perfect-that is the stuff that movie sets achieve.  The day the delphiniums are all in their glory does not take into account what comes the preceding months-as in replacing, staking, feeding, and so on-and even less about what they look like the five months after they are done blooming.  That one day of glory might not be repeated again for years.    The four alarm garden invariably has that look of having too much of everything put to it except time and thought.  They are fueled by an effort to create a crowning moment by artificial means.  To my eye, they are gardens noted for the fact that their slip is showing.  What slips, or slips away in a garden has everything to do with a lack of respect for place, season, and nature.

I take my job very seriously.  No small part of it is about explaining, educating, referring, counseling, interpreting, understanding.  The best part of my effort is that the landscape within my reach might be a fraction better.There is not much mystery to any of this; it is easy to see what is not important to me.  I have a tuna salad every day for lunch, and have for at least 3 months now.  I do not subscribe to Popular Mechanics or Vogue. I did watch my fountain being rebuilt, but I cannot sit still long enough to watch a tv show from start to finish.  Others who do not care about gardens how I do-they don’t bother me one bit.  Its just likely I have little to offer them.  My design advice-figure out what is important to you, and be sure you aim for that.   Should you need a moment, ask for one-do not ask for a garden.  If you like lifelong projects guaranteed at some time or another to be mired down by failure, weather, bad luck, frustration, and disaster that requires just about every ounce of energy you have, a garden will be the perfect thing for you.  When your best laid plans for your garden are crashing down around you, take some comfort in the fact that your thoughtful time and effort to create beauty benefits all.

At A Glance: The Tulip Community

Boxing Up World Expression

My office windows look out onto a series of window boxes.  The box right behind my desk is, as you can see, a magnet for wild life.  How MCat manages to insert himself between the flowers and the glass without so much as a petal being ruffled-I have no idea.  These old factory windows are cloudy with lime, but I have a view, none the less.  On a lark, I planted World Expression tulips in them last fall. 

The lark part has to do with plants (in this case bulbs) surviving a winter boxed up. Few plants like to live over a winter with their roots above ground.  The repeated freezing, thawing and heaving wreaks havoc; all any plant wants over the winter is to sleep deeply, and undisturbed.  Had I been a better gardener, I would have lined the boxes with sheet insulation first-in an effort to keep the freeze consistent once it came. I just buried them deep, mulched them, and kept my fingers crossed.  

World Expression is one of my favorite tulips.  The plants develop surprisingly fast, considering how large they are.  When I am in the mood to contemplate the miracle that is nature, tulips instantly spring to mind.  From a brown orb barely an inch and a half in diameter comes a plant whose luxurious leaves grow in excess of 14 inches tall; the flower and stalk take the plant to 28 inches or better.  Miraculous.  I understand that giant trees grow from tiny seeds, but tulips grow up and hold forth in the blink of an eye.  In the beginning the flowers are small; the red flames are really pink,  the  white ground is a yellow ivory. 

Tulips open in an immature stage; watching the flower grow and change color dramatically is one of their charms.   It may take better than a week for that pink to go red, and longer than that for the white to whiten all the way up.

We had a very mild winter; the tulips in the boxes are amazingly good.  The box with the maximum amount of exposure to the snow, sun cold and wind tells the story of that exposure.  A few bulbs only sprouted undersized leaves.  Others of them produced undersized plants and flowers.  But by and large, there is quite the show going right now.

As I wrote a long time ago, I grew up without TV-weather was my idea of a one hour drama, movie, or news flash.  Buck will watch the weather on TV, but has a very narrow range of tolerance for anything venturing very far from 70 degrees and sunny. I like all kinds of weather-a spring rain is a favorite.  What it does for all those things coming to life and growing is beautiful to behold.

Just after the rain, equally as beautiful.  I do have a fondness for bi-color flowers; how tulips flame is particular to their species.

The flowers quadrupled in size over a period of 10 days; I began to worry they would flop over to the ground.  Though the flowers are huge, they are remarkably weather resistant.    

The 80 degree wind yesterday-fierce.  I worried every petal would be blown into the street. I need not have bothered; most every flower survived just fine. 

Now is such a good time to decide where in your garden some tulips might be just grand.  I have 3 yellow tulips at home in my wild garden-the walnut sized flowers have been there for 15 years.  I am thinking I do not want to miss this part of spring ever again.

Sunday Opinion: Miss Dirtiness


Every living thing has various incarnations-some of these states of being have names.  My corgis go by many names, depending on the circumstance.  Howard, for example, lives, eats and breathes just how I imagine anyone named Howard would.  He takes his job very seriously.  He never misses a day’s work; he is somewhat humorless where dealing with the public is concerned.  He is a dignified and serious dog of very short stature. So sometimes, Mr. Howard.  But when he comes inside with every bit of detritus from outside stuck to his fur, I call him Hoover.  When he is racing around in jubilation after breakfast in the morning, I call him the head pupathon.  When he looks worried, Mr. Bebe.  When he does crack a rare joke, I call him Mr. Pookiness.  Milo might be Clowndog or Hambone, depending on how hard he is trying to get someone to play ball with him.  Milo So Sweet-I name the day, and talk to him.  His human name is a good one, as I am convinced he is really a little person in a dog suit.  The two of them-the dodies.  Don’t ask where that word came from-I have no idea. The Dod-ies-so be it. 

Miss Dirtiness-that would be me. It is under my fingernails better than 250 days a year.  My clothes and shoes have that sepia-toned vintage look; the washing machine does what it can.  When it comes time to clear the plates after dinner, there is the clean table which was underneath my plate-and the fringe of bits all around that somehow managed to slide off. Some of the food on that plate, I probably ate with my fingers that had gotten only a cursory wash. It is enough to make Buck raise his astonshingly expressive eyebrows. My steering wheel, glasses, computer keyboard, and camera, my socks- all have that telltale aura of grime. As my grandmother said, a peck of dirt before you die.  So I was surprised last week at my own considerable dismay at the sight of dirty water coming out of the tap.  Rob had left me a note from the night before-check the water.  I ran a three gallon vase full of water-very unappetizing.  

 I am telling a tale-unappetizing doesn’t begin to describe my reaction. The greasy film on top of the water had a greenish cast. Dark bits in suspension-what were they?  After an hour, not much had settled out.  I emptied out the vase at the end of the day; the dried dirty grime in the bottom of the vase the next morning did not dissolve when I tried to rinse it out the next day-shocking.   I was appalled.  It was revolting, that dirty water.  Needless to say, I made my coffee with bottled water.  It took an entire day of calls to the water department to finally get an answer.  A contractor working on the road construction near the shop had hit the water main. It took another day for them to fix whatever, and flush the hydrant.  For three days, I did not have clean water.

A few weeks ago at a dinner party, I had occasion to talk to a professor in nutrition from the University of Michigan; we had a spirited debate going about organically grown food.  I protested to her than no study has even shown that the consumption of organically grown food resulted in healthier people who lived longer.  She replied-the people in this country have access to clean water. Clean water, she said. This skews the organically grown food studies.  Though I was dubious that night; today I have a different take.  Miss Dirtiness stands on the side of clean and drinkable water. No doubt clean water was on my mind the other day.  I regularly have it to drink, to wash in, to cook with.  I do not want to, nor am I competent to, discuss the science of clean water, but suffice it to say, I have never been made sick by dirty water.  Today I understand that clean water is not a given, it is a mission-a committment. What I once thought was about food, may be about clean water.

 We have had a fair amount of rain this week.  What water is falling through the sky to the ground-who knows what it might pick up in the atmosphere.  But every spring, I see plants clearly being nourished by it.  Our rain this morning cleared; we have sun now.  Everywhere I look, I see healthy plants growing lustily.  A big part of that-clean water.

There are many places on this planet where a supply of clean water is little to non-existent.  One serious and immediate consquence of natural disasters can be the disruption of a clean supply of water. The agony of Haiti-so many people with no clean water to drink. Please do not fault me for an in depth overview of that disaster-I am not able.  But I did agonize about that impossibly hot and humid island culture, enduring no source of clean water for drinking.  Shocking.  Whether I drink the water, bathe in it, water my garden with it, put cut flowers into it ,or observe it in a lake or stream or fountain, clean water is essential to the health of every living creature. I may be a Miss Dirtiness, but I have a Miss Stewardia in my repertoire-we are not owners, we are stewards.

 I am watching with as much dread as every other American, the oil spreading across the surface of the Gulf of Mexico towards the Gulf states. The case of the dirty water in my vase from a jostled water main-this disaster a trillion zillion times my momentary trouble. This country is full of good people who not only understand the science, but will commit to what it takes to deal with disaster. 

God willing, a good number of them are all ready working, or are on their way to the Gulf.