Archives for November 2012

Giving Thanks

Though my 8th grade American history book ascribed the first Thanksgiving holiday to the Pilgrims for the bounty of their harvest in 1621, many cultures celebrate some version of Thanksgiving.  Sometimes referred to as a harvest festival, a great crop yield meant food would be available for all during the winter.  I cannot imagine being responsible for growing the food I would need to survive the winter, much less the survival of many.  Issues of life and death are much better left to physicians, theologians, parents and teachers than me.  But celebrating the harvest, and giving thanks, is a tradition in our culture that I value.  We buy magnolia wreaths, garland and stems for the holidays from a company whose sole crop is magnolia cuttings.  When the trees are well looked after, they grow.   They weave the harvested branches onto heavy galvanized steel frames.     

Their construction is worth it.  A magnolia wreath will dry; properly cared for, it will last many years.  Their classic wreath features both the front, and the brown felted backs of the leaves.  This 30 inch wreath is perfect for a front door, or over the mantel.  A client from out of state wanted a magnolia wreath decorated with fruit.  She is in town visitng her kids for the holiday.  Would I be able to get it ready for her to take home?  Holiday decorations focused on fruit is a holiday tradition dating back to the delle robbia wreaths in Italy.  Traditional Williamsburg is noted for their fruit centered holiday decor.  I am both appreciative and thankful for that precedent.     

Traditions come with that aura of connection-whether they be cultural, religious, regional or neighborhood oriented.  One generation to the next.  Every creative expression has roots.  I am thankful to have a few clients every year who are interested in this particular and traditional representation of the celebration of the harvest.  It is comforting to feel a part of something that came before, and will go on beyond.  My faux fruit are most certainly not part of this tradition.  But they will age with the same grace as the wreath.     

I am thankful to have a professional gardening life that allows me to design.  I am more than thankful for those many opportunities clients provide to make something grow.  Yes, I did go to work today to make this wreath.  I have lots of good reasons.  The corgis dislike having their go to work routine interrupted.  Buck dislikes being distracted when he is planning a holiday dinner.  I enjoy the opportunity to be at work making something, uninterrupted.             

I start with the major fruits-by this I mean the fruits of considerable size.   I pierce them with an awl, and insert a floral pick coated in glue.  Sturdy and solid construction is a must.  Yes, I am thankful for that company that makes wired floral picks.  That pick wedged into the wreath frame means that heaviest of the faux fruit is secured to wreath frame.    

The finished wreath is a traditional nod to the celebration of the harvest.  Our 2012 gardening season was not the easiest.  Bitter and very late frosts damaged so many plants.  A summer that was incredibly hot and even more dry-daunting.  Many local farmers harvested more disappointment than anything else.     

But no matter the trouble, there is always something, and more importantly, someone to be thankful for.  A good friend, a family member, an associate, a client-so many people who deserve thanks.  A practical knowledge of traditional expressions provides a solid base from which to move on.  I am thamkful to have a culture that provides community.          

My sole contribution to our Thanksgiving?  A very good looking pumpkin, and a vaseful of orange gerbera daisies.  Our Thanksgiving tradition-I am grateful for it.




Homing In On Winter: Part 2



Growing amaryllis in glass jars on a window sill is one way to keep the spirit of the garden going on in the winter months.  That said, gardeners like me are hard to persuade.   Those who insist that the garden is over at that moment we have a hard frost are selling their inclination to garden short.  Very short.  A gardener’s point of view is strong-all year long.  It doesn’t much matter whether you garden in Austin or Olympia or Chicago or Miami-a love of the garden can electrify a life.  Garden on-everyone.  If you garden in my zone, there are those “other six months”-like them or not. 

This might be my most favorite container I have ever planted at home.  For sure, it is my most favorite photograph of one of my containers.  How I loved how this looked, and how I regretted watching it succumb to the cold.  These Italian pots are in the basement now.  It is a quiet time for them.  Time for me to move on.

The winter season has its opportunities.  Winter arrangements in frostproof containers not only help stave off the off season blues, they are a delight to the eye.  Our shop is very busy-constructing winter gardens that reference the garden.  We produce an enormous amount of work for clients between mid November and mid December, but this post is not about my work.  I am interested in in passing along what all of that work, and all of that contact with people keenly interested in the garden, has taught me.  The upshot- every gardener has options.  All year round.  Every season.    

The moment any gardener decides to make something -and by this I mean envision, create, construct, edit, and install-is a good and satisfying series of moments.  As heartbreaking as it is to watch the garden go dormant, it is equally exciting to have a winter gardening season asking for a gardener’s best effort. Feeling low?  The best counter to that is to make something.  Make something be.  Make something happen.    

Winter container arrangements speak the language of the garden.  More importantly, they scoop up, engage, and occupy the heart of any serious gardener.  Be generous.  Go large.  

Those topiary forms that over the course of the summer that provide a form for hyacinth bean vines or mandevillea can provide a structure for winter lighting.   Lighting in the winter-essential.  Should you garden in my zone, the dark at 4pm is soon to come.  Light up the night.     

These pots are stuffed with greens.  Fresh evergreens.  In the center, variegated English boxwood.  The steel topiary forms are detailed with lights.  The time it takes to create a winter arrangement like this is time very well spent.  The process of coming to grips with the winter is every bit as important, maybe more important, than the passing of the summer garden.  Change is not so easy, but change is essential.

How do I handle the garden going dormant?  I get busy.  I decorate for the holiday-and the winter.  It helps sooth the sting that begins with the first hard frost.

Fresh boxwood is available at your local farmer’s market.  This 54 inch wide boxwood wreath-a request from a client.  Hew plans to decorate his client’s home in a big and positive way.  Spend more time making your winter season beautiful. 

Whenever I am making something, I am happy.  My advice?  Get busy.  Make something.  Make something beautiful.  I promise-the winter will fly by. 




Bringing The Garden Indoors: Part 1


I am no fan of plants in the house.  Once the gardening season comes to a close, it is a relief not have to worry about keeping plants alive. Plants inside the house-what could possibly be more unnatural than that?  Would I really subject a perfectly well meaning and decent plant to the dry heat and lack of sun that characterizes an interior space?  Perhaps this is wrong, but I like the separation of my gardening life, and my personal life.  OK, my gardening life is my personal life, but the thought of a winter getaway from the demands of the plants is attractive.

I have a very good friend whose house is loaded with all manner of tropical plants.  Julia does a great job with them, and I marvel at how she is able to keep all of them looking great.  She cannot bear to be without the garden for any longer than a moment; her house/conservatory is proof of that.  I think if she had her choice, she would live in a conservatory situated in the middle of a giant property.    

 I have had friends bring me plants for the windowsill behind my desk.  One Valentine’s day my landscape superintendent gave me a dozen auricula primroses-how I love them. I spent a whole winter doing watercolor paintings of them, such is my enchantment with them.  It took me 3 months to kil them, but kill them I did.  Stationed in the windowsill behind my desk, I could not remember to water them until they were in a state of utter dessication.  After too many water crises, they finally gave up on me.  

 My friend and  grower Marlene Uhlianuk, whose unusual plants and vegetables are a mainstay of my local market, gave me a pot containing the smallest rose in the world.  She insisted it would be easy to take care of.  On my window sill.  It took a few months to prove her wrong, but prove her wrong I did.  I still feel guilty about it. 

Though the thought of trying to keep tropical plants alive, inside over a winter leaves me absolutely cold, I can be seduced.  By amaryllis, that is.  Bringing on amaryllis bulbs indoors late in the gardening year-a means by which even I can bring the garden indoors. 

 The bulbs are enormous.  The bigger the bulb, the more stalks, and flowers.  The blooms are just as enormous-startlingly so.  There are miniature varieties, like the amaryllis “Evergreen” pictured above.  Though it is a miniature, it’s effect is anything but.  Amaryllis is a very small genus of flowering bulbs made up of just two species.  Amaryllis belladonna is a species native to South Africa.  The taxomony aside,  these hefty bulbs can produce flowering stalks from December until April. 

Potted up, a solid two-thirds of the bulb needs to be above the soil line.  This makes sense-big juicy bulbs have no need of too much water.  As for “planting” amaryllis in soil in clay pots, with 2/3’s of the bulb above ground-this leaves me cold.  I don’t have a conservatory or greenhouse, just a house.  My idea of a household is a space unsullied by dirt.  Apart from what the corgis track in, that is.  Forcing bulbs in water is an alternative that sounds good. 


I like to grow amaryllis in water.  Water gardens are perfect for people who cannot remember to water-both inside and out.  A jar, a bulb, and a handful of stones is a simple and easy means of bringing the garden indoors.  The jar, and the stones-entirely up to you.  Rob bought canning jars for our amaryllis this year.  The capped jars from Fisk are so beautiful.   I am dubious of any idea about which might make my winter easier.  But in truth, the process of bringing the amaryllis into bloom indoors-simple and satisfying.

 The amaryllis Baby Doll is white, with the slightest hint of blush pink. If these pictures do not make you long to grow some on your windowsill, then nothing will.  The reward for your effort is considerable.  If you follow a few simple rules, amaryllis can be grown on, and kept for years.

Grumpy about the passing of the gardening season?  Growing amaryllis is guaranteed to help with that.  Set the bulb low in the jar.  The rim of the jar will help hold the heavy flowering stalks aloft.  Add water to just below the basal plate of the bulb-the water is for the roots to reach for.  Soaking the bulb itself in water is asking for rot.  Provide a warm place.  Amaryllis bulbs are ready and waiting to grow and bloom, meaning that even a haphazrd effort will probably produce flowers.  Not interested in hauling in jars and bags of stone?  Rob has all of these amaryllis ready and waiting.   






Say Good Bye

Don’t you despise it-saying goodby? 

 Finishing a good book is a mixed blessing.  As much as the resolution of the story is eagerly anticipated, the closure is tinged with regret.  That experience has regretfully come to an end.  How many times did you read all of the Wizard of Oz books, hoping for yet another sequel?  Frank Baum reluctantly wrote several sequels to his first book of Oz-children everywhere did not want the story to end.  At one point, he wrote that Oz had lost touch with the world-there could be no more books.  The hue and cry was such that he wrote a new Oz book every year until his death in 1916, making 13 sequels to the original Wizard of Oz in all.  After his death, his publisher engaged the writer Ruth Plumly Thompkins to write another 21 Oz books.  There was a new book released every year at Christmas from 1913 until 1942-imagine.  35 books were written in all, as no child who read them ever wanted to say goodby.

I am sure you know where this is leading.  Though I have had gardened through 36 seasons, I still hate to say goodbye.  There are plenty of signs that make point to the end.  In a good year, the woody plants slow down gradually, so the state of being awake, and the state of being asleep is about the duration of a heartbeat.  The annual flowers fade.  The leaves turn color and finally drop.  The shortening of the day length is so gradual that the first day it is dark at 5pm is shocking to the bone.

But for a few cold days, we have had a long and mild fall.  Until just a few days ago, a neighbor had thick gorgeous hedges of mixed dwarf marigolds blooming.  My Japanese anemones went on and on.  However, the last sequel to this season is just about to come to a close.  A shockingly low 23 degrees yesterday made for an abrupt end to that long slide towards the end.

It was 33 degrees all day today.  My insulated fall jacket fell far short of keeping me warm.  Outside without gloves on, it felt like hands were about to fall off.  The perennial garden has been cut back to the ground.  The leaves from all of the trees have been collected, and added to a giant pile at the landscape yard.  Even the parrotias are shedding their leaves. 

 On the deck this morning, an ever so thin dusting of snow.  The sky was an unvarying shade of light lead all day.  The wind was biting.  All of the tulips are in the ground-where it is warmer than the air temperature.  They are rooting-not growing.  The trees are dark and skeletal.     

It is not my idea to leave any gardener with an image of dark and skeletal. The spirit of the garden can go on.  What goes on outside can come inside.  The memory of the garden can powerfully inform and lighten the burden of the winter season.  More on this to follow.