Anyone can grow plants

While we were visiting North Carolina, Karen met up with one of her friends at a local coffee shop.  I joined them, and her friend asked me an interesting question. Here’s a paraphrased version of the exchange.


Friend:  So, here’s a question about gardening.  Are there some people who just automatically fail at gardening?  You know, like how some people are tone-deaf and can’t sing?  

Jared:  Absolutely not.   To me, gardening is a lot like the movie Ratatouille (yes, I really went there…).  I believe gardening is like the running quote in the movie, “Anyone can cook." Anyone CAN grow plants.  The problem is they don’t fail enough.  Have you ever cooked a recipe that failed?

Friend:  Sure.

Jared:  Yea, we all have.  But, when people fail, they don’t stop cooking or say I’ll never eat again, right?

Friend:  Right, no.

Jared:  The big problem that people have with plants is that instead of viewing them as a craft, they view them as pets.  (She really engaged with this point).  When a plant is purchased, there’s an emotional connection with it because you are now somewhat responsible for this organism’s life.  You water it, light it, feed it, etc.  Then, if or when the plant dies, they view it as failure instead of a learning opportunity.  People tense up and instead of going through the pain of killing something, they say never again.  

Jared:  And, I get the affection.  I’ll never forget when my last sprig of my late great-grandfather’s sage plant died.  I was crushed, and talk about love for a plant!  But, I’m not going to stop gardening because of that failure.  


How many times have we gardeners had a form of this conversation with self-proclaimed brown thumbs, cactus killers, and funeral plant murders? 

But, can these agents of plant death really not grow plants?  I mean, I’ve had succulent leaves fall on my carpet and root with zero help on my part.  (I promise I clean!  It’s just when you overwinter 50 pots inside you miss a leaf or two on the floor...) 

I don’t think killing plants indicates a lack of potential ability.  Growing plants is something that one must learn.  There must be a willingness to push through failure and see failure differently. 

In so many other activities, time spent engaging with it is seen as practice.  Working with the craft and learning from failure will make you better.  But, the stumbling block for the amateur’s psyche is that plants are alive.  They aren’t a smeared painting, a grounded model airplane, a foul ball, a flat home brew, a wobbly bench, or a sloppy batch of baklava, which is still delicious by the way.  

If these inanimate objects fail, no big deal.  Deconstruct and remake.  Live and learn.  But, plants... the compost heap means you’re a failure as a human being.  

People know plants are living creatures, and they see them as pets.  When they see this living thing die, they feel responsible, and they view it as a reflection on their character.  And, to never relive failure again, they swear off growing plants.  

As an educator, I asked how do we change this?  I’ve had students day one indicate they can’t grow anything, and by the end of the semester their flora is thriving.  Are there a few nuggets of knowledge and hope we can sow in people's minds to help them on their growing adventure?

 

FAIL MORE AND LEARN FROM FAILURE

If people are turned off to gardening because they “can’t keep anything alive," the problem I see is they don’t fail enough.  Seth Godin talks about this concept with generating ideas, but it also extends into the world of crafts and hobbies. Often in crafts, we humans start looking for patterns to figure out what we are doing well.  Growing plants is like taking up any hobby or activity.  It’s unlikely you know how to do it the minute you jump on a bike or are thrown in the water, but you have to learn the motions.  I would encourage those amateurs who feel they are plant-deaf to look for patterns. 

You only grow plants in a dark room?  Ok, that might be a problem because most plants need light.

You don’t have holes in your decorative containers?  Ok, well that might be a problem because roots need oxygen.

You keep killing cacti that you think should be easy to grow?  Ok, maybe you should try something else.  Like basil.  That actually is easy to grow. 

 

Plants die, and that’s ok

Those of us who have leveled up in our horticulture powers have done so on the heaps of humus we've created.  I say that because we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of plants in our lives.  It’s ok!  (I chuckled writing that because maybe we’ve just become numb to their suffering?) 

Some species like sunflowers and poppies are programmed to die after they set seed.  No matter what you do, they are already courting death right out of the womb.  It's ok!  They’ve evolved to do that.  And, as you’re slaying plants left and right learning how to be a better gardener, their corpses don't clog the trash piles of the world like so many other hobbies and spending sprees.  They compost and return to the circle of life (cue The Lion King intro music).  It's ok!  

 

ASK FOR HELP

We need to be there for people.  Instead of being critical when someone thinks fertilizer really is plant food or when someone buys a painted succulent expecting it to stay that color, we need to help them out.    

One reason I think we might be gardeners is because early on we had the serendipity of success that helped to propel our green thumbs forward.  Maybe it was because we had a great-grandfather helping us plant tomatoes, or maybe a book on houseplants accelerated our knowledge.  

But, what would have happened if everything you grew right out of the gate had failed?  You might be quilting instead.  


You have to fail to learn, and see failure as just that.  A learning experience, not a measure of how good of a gardening guru you are.

What I say is true.  Anyone can grow plants, but only those who fail time and time again can be great.

The Azaleas on Gregory Bald

With the return of high summer and the longest days of the year, my mind drifts back to an incredible mountaintop experience I had just a week shy of the solstice some years ago.  

  The azaleas on Gregory Bald are breathtaking to witness in full bloom.  

The azaleas on Gregory Bald are breathtaking to witness in full bloom.  

Gregory Bald was this magical place that I heard about in graduate school, an Appalachian peak covered with azaleas that lights up in mid-June like an orange St. Elmo’s fire of Rhododendron cumberlandense (Cumberland azalea).  I had been cooped up for six months with a torn tendon in my right foot, and at night I would scour the internet looking to experience the wild beyond my bleak apartment walls.  The quote still burned into my brain seven years later from reading Hiking in the Smokies was, “This [hike] should be on the life list of any self-respecting hiker, gardener, or nature lover.”  I knew before I moved from Raleigh I had to experience this natural treasure.  But, when and how?

One day, that opportunity presented itself.  Sitting in the graduate office with my foot fully healed, I struck up a conversation with my friend Irene Palmer who casually mentioned that she and Tom Ranney’s crew were hiking up to Gregory Bald.  They were blooming early due to 2011 being a warmer than normal year.  

I was ecstatic.  For them at least.  She invited me to join, but I had errands and prep for an upcoming conference that were to fill the rest of my week and weekend. But, then the calendar in my head started moving the to-do’s around, and I realized that I actually had a free weekend if I could get the bulk done before their excursion.  

Friday after work, I drove to Asheville to spend the night.  The next morning, we headed toward the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of my absolute favorite places in the world as blog readers will likely recognize.  Traveling with me was Tom Ranney, esteemed plant breeder at North Carolina State University; his wife, Amira; Kevin Parris, horticulture instructor and arboretum director at Spartanburg Community College; and Tom's student crew and my good friends Jason Lattier, Kelly Oates, the previously mentioned Irene, and Kim Shearer.  The main purpose of the trip was to assess the Gregory Bald azaleas for Kim’s summer internship project focusing on better understanding their genetics.

We stopped at Chimney Tops on Saturday to do a little pre-hike to see what botanical interests we could find.  Climbing the steep crag made me feel like I was following my father’s footsteps.  Dad would often share with us on family trips through the Smokies that when he was a youngster he had hiked Chimney Tops.  Now, I was, too.  

  Looking down from Chimney Tops.  The Ericaceous  Kalmia  (mountain laurel) on the right are hints of other blooming plants to come.  

Looking down from Chimney Tops.  The Ericaceous Kalmia (mountain laurel) on the right are hints of other blooming plants to come.  

After summiting and returning to the trailhead, we travelled toward Cades Cove.  Traffic was heavy in spots as many tourists congregated to see the synchronized fireflies in the Smokies.  We, however, were there to see something botanical glow.   

  Crowds await travel into the park to see the synchronized fireflies.

Crowds await travel into the park to see the synchronized fireflies.

I think seeing the crowds for the lightning bugs inspired us to make some of our own lights in the mountains after dark.  We got several flashlights, I set up the long exposure on my camera, and we started making light art.

  Light art fascinates me.  I need to do more of it.  

Light art fascinates me.  I need to do more of it.  

  Kevin Parris tried his hand at drawing a  Rhododendron  flower, and I'd say he succeeded!  

Kevin Parris tried his hand at drawing a Rhododendron flower, and I'd say he succeeded!  


We woke well before dawn, clamored our campsite into the cars in the dark, and zoomed through Cades Cove in the civil twilight.  It cracked me up.  Every time I’ve travelled the eleven-mile loop in the past, it was slow going either because you were taking in the scenery from the valley or because you were following someone slow.  And, I’m sure for you readers who have ever been can attest that you, too, have sit in traffic while onlookers (or you) pause for deer and bear.  But, today our goal wasn’t the fauna in the valley but the flora on the top.  

  A quick pic from the car of the glorious Cades Cove at dawn.  

A quick pic from the car of the glorious Cades Cove at dawn.  

We travelled the gravel of Parson Branch Road.  At one point in particular I remember being told to not let off of the gas because of the steep incline my Ford Escape had to climb.  I recall leaning forward in the needless hope the car wouldn’t topple backwards.  

We arrived at the trailhead around daybreak ready for a four and a half mile hike to the summit of Gregory Bald.  After the hike from the day before, I felt every tenth-mile of the trek.  It was beautiful hiking through the forests of Appalachia, and along the way we paused to appreciate the flora from towering Magnolia to verdant seeps inhabited by Veratrum.

It seemed we had been walking forever when suddenly the forest broke away and the Rhododendrons appeared.  Staring at the orange orbs conjured thoughts of lava erupting from ancient couldrons.  

  WE MADE IT!!!  AND, THEY'RE BEAUTIFUL!!!  

WE MADE IT!!!  AND, THEY'RE BEAUTIFUL!!!  

We were a bit weary from our trek to go into full plant geek mode, so we rested and ate lunch before we began our explorations. 

  Evidently, we weren't the only ones hungry...

Evidently, we weren't the only ones hungry...

From our vantage point, we saw the loop in Cades Cove we had just raced through in the pre-dawn light.  It was a bit of an out of body experience for me.  So many years I’ve circled that road and looked to the surrounding peaks, sometimes stopping to enjoy a picnic with my family.  Now, in this shallow heaven, I was looking down and stuffing my face with a sandwich.   

  The light green in the valley below is Cades Cove.  

The light green in the valley below is Cades Cove.  

After lunch, we began to explore the bald like kids in a candy store with with each plant offering a new flavor of petal color—cherry red, butterscotch yellow, bubblegum pink, and orange... orange.  Then, there were other attributes to devour like sweet fragrance, licorice-colored stamens, colorful blotches, early and late flowering, and differing heights.  Here’s a few photos to make your mouth water.  

  I loved seeing the loners, little islands of orange surrounded by a sea of grass.  

I loved seeing the loners, little islands of orange surrounded by a sea of grass.  

  ...islands in the stream, that is what we are...

...islands in the stream, that is what we are...

  Here's a nice close up photo of the flowers of  Rhododendron cumberlandense .

Here's a nice close up photo of the flowers of Rhododendron cumberlandense.

  We encountered color variants in pink,...

We encountered color variants in pink,...

  ...apricot,...

...apricot,...

  ...peach,...

...peach,...

  ...lemon,...

...lemon,...

  ...and salmon.

...and salmon.

  Another loner.  Notice how the softer orange petal color echoed the tan of the surrounding grass panicles.

Another loner.  Notice how the softer orange petal color echoed the tan of the surrounding grass panicles.

  Occasionally, we spotted some plants with galls on them.  

Occasionally, we spotted some plants with galls on them.  

  One plant I found had buds still unopened, and getting up close made me weak in the knees.  They look so cool, like little flames licking the sky and waiting to burst into full-flowering conflagration.  

One plant I found had buds still unopened, and getting up close made me weak in the knees.  They look so cool, like little flames licking the sky and waiting to burst into full-flowering conflagration.  

  Pollinators were working these shrubs left and right.  

Pollinators were working these shrubs left and right.  

  I bet that bee on the right is saying, "WHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"  I mean, who doesn't want to slide on some stamens?

I bet that bee on the right is saying, "WHHHHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!"  I mean, who doesn't want to slide on some stamens?

So, how does this magical place, this garden of Eden even exist? 

  A narrow path leads through the grass matrix surrounding the fiery-colored azaleas.  

A narrow path leads through the grass matrix surrounding the fiery-colored azaleas.  

We should first address the absence of the trees that allow for other species to grow and give the balds their name.  For many years, the origins and persistence of these fascinating ecosystems have been debated, but the current hypothesis from Weigl and Knowles is that these grass and forb dominated patches originated due to glaciation and were maintained by herbivores.  The cold made the the high mountain tops unsuitable for woodies, and during warming periods when plants reclaimed the peaks, herbivores—megafauna and their modern ancestors—topped woody flora with munching and trampling.  Similar ecosystems in the Pacific northwest and the Poloninas in Europe support this hypothesis.  

  One end of the bald had more trees and shrubs growing around the azaleas, a step towards succession.  Here, blueberries dominate.  

One end of the bald had more trees and shrubs growing around the azaleas, a step towards succession.  Here, blueberries dominate.  

The bald created a place for the azaleas to grow, but why were there so many azaleas here?  We had only seen a few of the deciduous rhodies on our trek up, and yet here there were hundreds in full bloom.  And, not just one color but many variations on the warm hues.  One hypothesis is that the azaleas have climbed by seeding themselves, scaled the mountain with warming temperatures, and hold the last high ground against the advancing forests.  Others have made the case that this colorful collection is an example of gardening the wild and that many years ago settlers moved azaleas they adored to the top of the mountains.  The shrubs that we see today are relics from this pioneer gardening or those plants' offspring from an earlier time.  

  The silvery foliage of a ground-hugging  Salix  (or, that's what our best guess was) played as a nice foil to the orange azaleas.  

The silvery foliage of a ground-hugging Salix (or, that's what our best guess was) played as a nice foil to the orange azaleas.  

Either way that the azaleas arrived on top of Gregory Bald, they form a hybrid swarm.  Sinister-sounding, but quite harmless.  It is a way of describing how the genetics move in the plant population.  Most people think of evolution and the movement of traits between species as a tree.  You start at the base and climb upward, and every so often there is a branch where some new trait or species arises.  But, for some genera like Rhododendron that readily hybridize, the movement of plant traits is more like those rope jungle gyms that you used played in as a kid.   Traits can jump from where there are knots in a rope as long as there is a bridge between them.  Kim’s summer internship project focused on better understanding how these bridges might exist.  For example, Rhododendron cumberlandense and Rhododendron arborescens (sweet azalea) are separate species that occur on Gregory Bald, and the identification of several plants that show intermediate characteristics helped to support genetic movement between species.  If you want to learn more, check out her insightful paper here.

  Here's a nice example of an azalea showing intermediate characteristics.  While the exact parentage is unknown, hints of pink from  Rhododendron arborescens  appear to mingle with the orange from  Rhododendron cumberlandense .

Here's a nice example of an azalea showing intermediate characteristics.  While the exact parentage is unknown, hints of pink from Rhododendron arborescens appear to mingle with the orange from Rhododendron cumberlandense.

I unfortunately had to leave the group early as I had a six hour drive ahead of me to get back to Raleigh.  It was the experience of a lifetime with good friends, and I want to go back.  

  This scene could all be forest.  But, it's not, and that enriches life.

This scene could all be forest.  But, it's not, and that enriches life.

And, I hope I can return and see the azaleas and the bald.  Researchers believe that if we don’t intervene, the balds will one day become reforested and disappear.  On some balds, encroachment from the trees is already a management issue for maintaining these ecosystems.  Granted, some might argue that succession towards forest is nature taking its course, but I think it is important to maintain these ecosystems for the diversity of the Appalachians and for people to have these incredible plant experiences that help us appreciate the beautiful web of life and to garner inspiration for our gardens.

Echinacea Named Tennessee

Echinacea tennesseensis (Tennessee coneflower) is beginning to bloom in our SFA student garden here in east Texas.  Plants that we started over two years ago as class projects have returned yet again and are flowering their little heads off.

  I must admit, when  Echinacea tennesseensis  first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

I must admit, when Echinacea tennesseensis first bloomed I was amazed at how floriferous it was!  

It's one of my favorite native wildflowers, but I'm a bit biased, being a native from the great volunteer state.  You can easily identify this member of the aster family apart from the other nine or so species of Echinacea that are native to the US. Their inflorescences face east once mature, and the ray florets ascend to the sun instead of drooping like the petals on most other coneflowers.  This plant embodies such a great metaphor for life.  Start every day gazing at dawn and reaching toward the sky; I can get behind that.  Or, in front of that I should say as this trait does force us to consider where to situate it in gardens.  It must be planted on the eastern flank.  Siting it to the west will cause you to only see the backstage of the inflorescences and leave you unable to enjoy the full performance.  

  Can you spy the east-facing  Echinacea tennesseensis  'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical  Echinacea  at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Can you spy the east-facing Echinacea tennesseensis 'Rocky Top' in this incredible planting at Chanticleer's elevated walkway?  Hint, it's on the right.  Compare these blooms where the ray florets curve upward with the typical Echinacea at the back left of the image whose outer rays droop.  

Of course, it's a bit of a miracle that we still have this delightful perennial with us.  Tennessee coneflower is only found in a few counties in Tennessee, and if heroic stewards hadn't stepped in to save it, our world would be less colorful.  It was discovered in 1878 by Augustin Gattinger, and less than a century later in 1961 its absence in field surveys led some researchers to claim it extinct.  Later in the 60's it was rediscovered; however, survival wasn't guaranteed as the land some populations inhabited was cleared to make way for trailer parks and housing developments.  We have people like the late Dr. Elise Quarterman to thank for advocating for this species's livelihood.  Efforts from her and others helped the plant become listed on the endangered species list, one of the first flora ever.  This attention led to areas where Echinacea tennesseensis occurred being protected, and with enough populations safe, the species was delisted in 2011, certainly a success story for horticulture and humankind's intervention.

The endemism is a peculiar subject.  Why is such a floriferous species isolated to just a few counties in Tennessee?  Sure, humans destroyed a few sites, but it seems that it never had the wide distribution that some of the other Echinacea genera enjoy.  The current hypothesis is that the species arose during the hypsithermal interval, a period of climatic warming and drying that occurred around 5000—8000 years ago.  Drier conditions opened the woodlands of middle Tennessee and allowed the colonization of prairie species like our Echinacea.  When the climate cooled and became more moist, forests began to reclaim the land, and this stress-tolerant species began to decline in numbers.  Walck et al. (2002) state that its narrow endemism is due to several factors—seed-based reproduction; large seeds that aren't animal or wind dispersed; self sterility; intolerance of shading; a lack of seed persistence in the soil, and few individuals making it to adulthood in the wild.  All these characteristics would have limited its dispersal from middle Tennessee.  

The xeric-adapted nature of established plants is quite apparent in the root systems. Earlier this spring I had to move some Echinacea tennesseensis, and I was very surprised to discover massive, deep taproots on plants that were only one year old.  Unearthing knowledge about roots (in a literal and figurative sense!) is always exciting, like discovering buried treasure.  I expected to see more rhizomatous roots like those on Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) that I've transplanted much of my life .  The soil had mostly sloughed off one taproot, so I rinsed it to get a better look.  Near the crown it was as thick as a plump carrot!   From there, the chthonic organ divided with depth, but the roots were still stout.  (Yes, most of the transplants survived in case you are wondering.)

  I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on  Echinacea tennesseensis  likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

I learn so much each time I expose roots.  Here, plump taproots on Echinacea tennesseensis likely help the plant survive stressful times during the year and store resources for the coming bloom.  

  A close up of the crown of  Echinacea tennesseensis .  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

A close up of the crown of Echinacea tennesseensis.  The pink tinge in the lower wrapper leaves are hints of colors yet to come.  

I'm already applying this new anatomical knowledge to our propagation culture.  This spring, we currently have over 10 deep-celled propagation trays of Echinacea tennesseensis that my student team has grown.  Seeing the deep taproot was insight to not keep the plants in the trays for too long.  

While it is beautiful to see in the gardens, I hope one day to see this Echinacea named Tennessee in its provincial habitat.  Perhaps at daybreak with their heads basking in the new glow of the day and me basking in the existence of such a great species for our plantings.

Where the Wood Thrush Sings

It's a sound that will stop me dead in my tracks, and turn my head like dog on point.  The song of the Wood Thrush.  Frozen, I listen waiting for the silence to break, half worried it might just be my imagination.  There it is again, the ethereal notes echoing through the woods and across the yard.

I drop my shovel and make a beeline for the thicket to the east of our house.  I pause and listen.  It is still far off.  The song is a bit choppy.  A few notes here and there.  Maybe it's just warming up.

I follow the fence up to the road and straddle the gravel shoulder.  Slowly I advance afraid I might scare it off, but the dense brush that hides this solitary performer must also obscure me.  

Now the song really picks up, and I am happy to provide an audience. 

My mind drifted back to when we first visited our new property.  I opened the door of the realtor's truck, and as I stepped out I heard the call of the Wood Thrush, one of my favorite (if not my top favorite!) birds.  Just a solitary note.  Nothing more, and since that hot July afternoon I haven't heard a peep.  No surprise there as I know it is a migratory species.  But, I have long wished to live in a place where one could walk outside and hear the trill of this passerine.  And for the past eight months, I've also hoped that first impression of our new property would not be the last.  The ee-oh-lay was certainly a good nudge saying, "This is right", and let's be honest, a small reason why I signed the closing papers.    

I started the short trek back to my planting, and throughout the day I was tickled pink to have it performing a natural oratorio with the ensemble of vireos, bluebirds, and gnatcatchers.  

I'm happy to live on an earth and happy to garden in a place where I can go outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer.  

Happy earth day, gardeners.  

Whenever a man hears [the Wood Thrush song] he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.
— Henry David Thoreau

Discovering Blue Wood Sedge

Last fall, a plant caught my eye under the mammoth Magnolia grandiflora in our front yard.  Few plants save for moss can survive under its shade, but yet here was a grass ally holding its own.  Squatting down, I ran my fingers over the triangular edges and felt giddy.  It was a sedge I had never before seen.

Sedges are the "in" thing in horticulture.  Using Carex is quite fashionable now as green infrastructure, rain gardens, no mow lawns, and designed plant communities are all trends that capitalize on this incredibly durable species.  I have been searching high and low for the latter reason, good candidates to use as a ground cover layer in my plantings, and here was one right under my nose.  Well, my tree.  

The foliage was glaucous and broad, which limited it to a few species.  Searching online images and Carex keys made me believe that it was Carex flaccosperma (blue wood sedge).  But, with time I started leaning towards Carex glaucodea (whose common name is confusingly also blue wood sedge.  Why not call it glaucous sedge?).  Evidently Carex glaucodea used to be a variety of Carex flaccosperma, so I don't think I'm that far off.  And, the official taxonomic identity doesn't matter for the purpose I have in mind.  

  Carex glaucodea / flaccosperma  in a wooly part of our yard.  

Carex glaucodea/flaccosperma in a wooly part of our yard.  

I considered digging the single clump to propagate, but as with many flora finds, once you acquire the mental image it's suddenly everywhere.  The plants are primarily along the property perimeter—on the front bank, skirting fencerows, and under trees.  A few are actually hiding out in our lawn in full sun.  Frost made it easier to locate them as it browned the surrounding camouflage, and made the evergreen, glaucous blue blades easier to see.  With the arrival of longer days it's still easy to see from a distance.  The emerging foliage is colored honeydew and spikes above the turf.  

Back in November I started transplanting clumps into a bed along the roof drip line of our house, and recently, I finished filling it with plugs.  Any plant that can grow in such varied conditions warrants evaluation in the garden as we turn to using lesser known but ecologically importance species.  These relocated clumps will serve as a source for propagules and seed if the plants produce any.  In total, I moved over 100 clumps, and there’s still plenty more around our property.  

 
 Saved from the mower blades, a wheelbarrow full of  Carex  ready for planting.  

Saved from the mower blades, a wheelbarrow full of Carex ready for planting.  

 
  Carex  is hipster Liriope.  

Carex is hipster Liriope.  

Propagating all this Carex reminds me of reading in Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher's Garden Revolution where they share how Native Americans would replant Carex barbarae (Santa Barbara sedge) as they dug clumps to use the blades for weaving.  And, as I re-wild our 2.5 acres of mostly turf, I’ll be sure to move some back into the landscape once I make more.

As far as the first plant that started it all, I left it.  I figured as a survivor under a mighty tree it should stay right where it is.  Plus, who knows how long it'll live if not moved.  We shall see. 

Chanticleer in Winter

During my recent escapade to Philadelphia to attend the Seed Your Future board meeting, I was able to visit Chanticleer in the offseason.  I love seeing a garden in each of the four seasons, and winter was one I hadn't witnessed at Chanticleer. 

If you haven't been to this pleasure garden in Wayne, PA, most horticulturists will tell you it is in their top ten favorites.   For me, I'm mesmerized each visit by how the gardeners weave creativity into plantings of both ordinary and extraordinary flora.  Even with the dearth of many flowers, forbs, and foliage, the garden still looked stellar.  Below are photos with comments along the way.  

 The big takeaway for me from the visit was a reminder of the importance of incorporating strong lines into garden design and then maintaining them.  From this overlook view, manicured lines delineate areas, and different colors of the detritus enhance the contrast next to the torpor turf.  

The big takeaway for me from the visit was a reminder of the importance of incorporating strong lines into garden design and then maintaining them.  From this overlook view, manicured lines delineate areas, and different colors of the detritus enhance the contrast next to the torpor turf.  

 A close up from the previous image taken from the bottom of the elevated walkway.  Here you can see different materials compose different beds.  Mowed ornamental grass in the foreground, and fall leaves in the ovoid beds in the back.  

A close up from the previous image taken from the bottom of the elevated walkway.  Here you can see different materials compose different beds.  Mowed ornamental grass in the foreground, and fall leaves in the ovoid beds in the back.  

 The serpentine plays homage to the agriculture crops grown in the Pennsylvania countryside and features a different crop each year.  Even from a distance you can make out the bold curves of the bed.  

The serpentine plays homage to the agriculture crops grown in the Pennsylvania countryside and features a different crop each year.  Even from a distance you can make out the bold curves of the bed.  

 An upclose shot of the serpentine.  Again, look at how neat that border is between the turf and the bed.  

An upclose shot of the serpentine.  Again, look at how neat that border is between the turf and the bed.  

 Curvilinear turf severs this sea of  Sporobolus heterolepis .  The contrast between tamed lawn and wild grass already creates interest, I feel it is even greater now that winter color has manifested on the prairie dropseed.

Curvilinear turf severs this sea of Sporobolus heterolepis.  The contrast between tamed lawn and wild grass already creates interest, I feel it is even greater now that winter color has manifested on the prairie dropseed.

 It appeared that one part of the  Sporobolus  prairie had a test burn.  With the foliage removed, you can really appreciate the cespitose nature of the grass.  

It appeared that one part of the Sporobolus prairie had a test burn.  With the foliage removed, you can really appreciate the cespitose nature of the grass.  

 With the dormancy and death of plants in the cut flower garden, curved arches provide drama when little remains.  I like to appreciate their importance by imagining their absence.  

With the dormancy and death of plants in the cut flower garden, curved arches provide drama when little remains.  I like to appreciate their importance by imagining their absence.  

 One behind the scenes practice I witnessed was the staff's efforts to keep plants alive.  Here yuccas in the gravel garden were covered with plexiglass.  

One behind the scenes practice I witnessed was the staff's efforts to keep plants alive.  Here yuccas in the gravel garden were covered with plexiglass.  

 
 And, here caged leaves insulate a tender banana near the tea cup garden.

And, here caged leaves insulate a tender banana near the tea cup garden.

 
 A lone  Schizachryium  echoes the color of the blazing branches of  Salix alba  'Britzensis' in the background.  

A lone Schizachryium echoes the color of the blazing branches of Salix alba 'Britzensis' in the background.  

 With the foliage gone, prickles on  Rosa sericea  subsp.  omeiensis  f.  pteracantha  (whew, that's a mouthful) are quite visible.  

With the foliage gone, prickles on Rosa sericea subsp. omeiensis f. pteracantha (whew, that's a mouthful) are quite visible.  

 A glance towards the pond.  Nary a weed to be seen.  

A glance towards the pond.  Nary a weed to be seen.  

 
 In all my visits I've never seen this three-foot-tall, stone pear.

In all my visits I've never seen this three-foot-tall, stone pear.

 
 A final shot of a prominent primary axis that runs part of the length of Chanticleer.  Such primary axes help to connect separate parts of a garden.  

A final shot of a prominent primary axis that runs part of the length of Chanticleer.  Such primary axes help to connect separate parts of a garden.  

 

 

 

Field Notes from Philadelphia: Seed Your Future & Longwood

SEED YOUR FUTURE

Recently, I travelled to the Philadelphia area for an advisory board meeting with Seed Your Future.  If you are not familiar with the movement, it is the green industry’s effort to increase the awareness of horticulture, and it was enlightening, encouraging, and exciting to see so many high-level hort heads pursuant in connecting more people to our gardening world.  There are some really cool announcements ahead from Seed Your Future, so keep checking the website.  Some of the the takeaways that I can share are below.  

 My wife Karen who is a graphic artist tagged along with me on the trip and made this great illustration of the Seed Your Future hashtag #ilovemyplantjob.  #shesgotskills

My wife Karen who is a graphic artist tagged along with me on the trip and made this great illustration of the Seed Your Future hashtag #ilovemyplantjob.  #shesgotskills

  • #DOYOULOVEYOURPLANTJOB?  We are all advocates for horticulture.  We can’t set behind our ivory hedges and expect horticulture to burgeon.  We need to tell everyone that #ilovemyplantjob.  As horteconomist Charlie Hall said during the meeting, "We need to show them what the world is with us."
  • ALL IN A NAME:  The world horticulture is hard for some people to understand.  Terms like plantologist and gardenologist were thrown around, and from this very etymological base, we were encouraged to rethink how to make it easy to share horticulture with others.
  • SEED YO' FUTURE:  We need to speak to students in ways that are understandable for them and make sense.  For example, instead of saying pursue a career in horticulture we can say put some horticulture in your career to help show students that working with a plants is an option.  I feel like Emeril Lagasse saying that encouraging students to bring some plant spice into their lives.  BAM!!!!!!!!!  I can't tell you the number of times that I've heard a student say, "I never knew that I could have a career in plants."  (It happened this past weekend at SFA orientation.)  My fifteen-year-old self was in that category once. 

 

LONGWOOD GARDENS

The meeting was held in Longwood Gardens conservatory.  During breaks and before and after the meeting we were encouraged to galavant through the gardens.  It didn't take much on those chilly Philly days.  Pretty pictures follow.  

 We visited during  Orchid Extravaganza , and per Longwood standards, everything looked stellar including this 12-foot-tall arch covered in  Phalaenopsis  orchids.  

We visited during Orchid Extravaganza, and per Longwood standards, everything looked stellar including this 12-foot-tall arch covered in Phalaenopsis orchids.  

 Much of the conservatory featured the towering, yellow flowering  Roldana petasitis.   Here it carpeted underneath by the coral, tubular flowers of  Kalanchoe  x  houghtonii  and the golden  Euryops pectinatus.

Much of the conservatory featured the towering, yellow flowering Roldana petasitis.  Here it carpeted underneath by the coral, tubular flowers of Kalanchoe x houghtonii and the golden Euryops pectinatus.

 It's amazing to have all this color inside when everything outside is dark green and brown.  

It's amazing to have all this color inside when everything outside is dark green and brown.  

 I encountered an old friend in a cooler part of the conservatory.  I fell in love with the exploding flowers of  Scilla peruviana  years ago at the JC Raulston Arboretum.  Fun fact, it is not from Peru but from Africa.  Linnaeus named it so because the specimen had a note about "Peru" on it.  That was the name of the ship carrying the cargo.  

I encountered an old friend in a cooler part of the conservatory.  I fell in love with the exploding flowers of Scilla peruviana years ago at the JC Raulston Arboretum.  Fun fact, it is not from Peru but from Africa.  Linnaeus named it so because the specimen had a note about "Peru" on it.  That was the name of the ship carrying the cargo.  

 I liked how Longwood espaliered fruit trees on fencing material in one of the cool houses.  Such an easy option for the homeowner, too.  

I liked how Longwood espaliered fruit trees on fencing material in one of the cool houses.  Such an easy option for the homeowner, too.  

 
 When you go to Longwood and you have to "go", you'll find the restrooms are nestled amongst the largest green wall in North America.  

When you go to Longwood and you have to "go", you'll find the restrooms are nestled amongst the largest green wall in North America.  

 

Stalwart Asparagus

Asparagus is a real stalwart, evidenced by the times I’ve seen it in road right-of-ways and farm borders.  My first encounter was a clump catching the breeze off Highway 22 that led to my grandmother’s house in Tennessee.  While I thought this lone survivor from an old timer's garden was a fluke, I’ve since seen the frilly fronds on roadsides in Arkansas, North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas.  

 
 Asparagus also thrives in the north as seen here at Chanticleer.  

Asparagus also thrives in the north as seen here at Chanticleer.  

 

They aren’t native.  No, these old landrace plants are relics of yesteryear, markers of some old homestead or the final brush pile containing said homestead.  In these places it has survived abandon and bulldozer and seems to do just fine as the stem slithers under the surface of the ground, gaining a bit more purchase each year. 

The true stem, that is.  Most people call what we eat stems, but the spears are actually called cladodes, modified leaves that resemble a stem.  If you ever want to check, damage the asparagus’s foliage top.  New shoots don’t originate from the fronds as they would from stem tissue.  Instead, they pierce upwards out of the ground from the rhizome.  

These remnants may not be the supped up cultivars we see in seed catalogs today, but they are still delicious.  Asparagus's culinary essence seems to attract all the attention; however, the plants are quite ornamental, an epiphany I had when I saw in our SFA Sprout garden two falls ago asparagus's senescing canary-colored foliage next to blue, bold Rudbeckia maxima.  It was one of those color combinations that gives you pause in the garden and makes you ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  The autumn color and the plant's dainty foliage lent to its installation as a see-through structural interest plant in the food prairies on campus last spring.  The leaves on some individuals reached six feet tall before the end of the summer. 

I'm sure I'm not the first to appreciate Asparagus officinalis's texture and color attributes, but I feel like it.  A plant that you can see going 70 mph down the road warrants more use in ornamental plantings.  I don't think I've ever heard of using asparagus as a perennial like I have the tomes on Rudbeckia, Phlox, and Hosta.  I suppose that's because it "only belongs in the kitchen garden."  Rubbish.  

 Nestled amongst  Bouteloua ,  Symphyotrichum ,  Liatris , and more, one might not immediately notice the  Asparagus  in our plantings.  But, in the fall when the foliage fades gold, it hides no more.  It will hold a light yellow/tan color for the rest of the winter.  

Nestled amongst Bouteloua, Symphyotrichum, Liatris, and more, one might not immediately notice the Asparagus in our plantings.  But, in the fall when the foliage fades gold, it hides no more.  It will hold a light yellow/tan color for the rest of the winter.  

 
 I didn't even mention the flowers.  While they are no bigger than a rice grain, small pollinators like to jump from blossom to blossom.  The plants are different sexes.  You need a male and a female for fruit set.  The red fruit are usually not preferred since they take away energy from the spears, but if you're using the plant for ornamental purposes, have at it!

I didn't even mention the flowers.  While they are no bigger than a rice grain, small pollinators like to jump from blossom to blossom.  The plants are different sexes.  You need a male and a female for fruit set.  The red fruit are usually not preferred since they take away energy from the spears, but if you're using the plant for ornamental purposes, have at it!

 

This week, I planted asparagus into our kitchen garden at the house with the end goal of contrasting the fine-textured foliage with herbs and low-growing perennials.  A few students helped me collect some wild plants (thanks Aries, Jade, and Jevon!).  

Dividing the mature clumps took some finger work.  The rhizome can be separated into smaller pieces.  The five clumps we dug resulted in about 16 propagules, each with solid, off-white roots and a few buds.  Finding the growing buds, which resemble turtle heads just poking out of their shell, was fairly easy since on most specimens the remains of last years foliage were visible.  Broken up, the crowns look like they belong in Animalia, resembling a jellyfish with long tentacles.   

 A clump just after excavating

A clump just after excavating

 Pulling the rhizome apart

Pulling the rhizome apart

 See any turtle heads?  Then you've found the buds!  If you need a hint, one is at the base of this large out-of-focus root in the left corner of the photo.  

See any turtle heads?  Then you've found the buds!  If you need a hint, one is at the base of this large out-of-focus root in the left corner of the photo.  

Planting was a breeze.  One has to go wider than deeper.  I prefer to shovel soil out of the first hole, situate the crown, and then use soil from the next hole to fill the first.  The last hole gets the first soil.  Before watering and mulching, I made sure that the buds on the crowns were visible or close to the surface.

 Jellyfish washed up on shore?  Nah, just asparagus crowns ready for planting.

Jellyfish washed up on shore?  Nah, just asparagus crowns ready for planting.

By the end of the summer, they’ll form a swaying, verdant wall enjoyed in our side porch rocking chairs for years to come.  Who knows?  Maybe a century or two from now some other lad will find them and ponder from whence they came, and maybe he or she will enjoy how delectable they are as both a feast for the mouth and the eyes.  

 

Field Notes from Connecticut, January 2018

When I travel, I always report things I’ve learned to my students upon my return, and in the spirit of education I decided to start sharing these field notes from my trips on the blog. 


This past week I travelled to the frigid north to speak at the Connecticut Nursery and Landscape Association on engaging millennials in horticulture, and after an enchanting trip I wanted to share knowledge I gleaned from my excursion.  

 

GIRDLES ARE HURDLES

Rick Harper from University of Massachusetts Amherst spoke before me on how production influences tree survival.  He sees many cases of stem-girdling roots in trees in the landscape, a paradoxical condition where life-giving roots end up strangling the plant.   He reminded the audience to watch for causing this disorder when installing trees.  The disorder can occur on some species during production when roots in the pot grow out, hit the side, and then begin to circle.  What I learned is that in others like Acer, it may be due to planting the root flare too deeply.  If not corrected by slashing or disturbing the rootball or by planting at the right depth, the girdling roots can eventually result in poor health in the tree.  

 

BROKEN ARROW, PERFECT PLANTS

Caleb Melchior reminded me that Broken Arrow Nursery was in Connecticut.  Once I found out it wasn't far from where we were staying, I took Adam Wheeler, Broken Arrow's plant development guru, up on a previous offer to visit if I was ever in the area. 

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Once we arrived, we bundled up for a brisk but sunny walk through the display gardens and nursery.  Near the entrance we passed a massive Larix kaempferi 'Pendula' that was planted in 1960!  Adam hinted that it was likely one of the largest in the US.  

 Larix, Larix, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair.

Larix, Larix, let down your hair, so that I may climb thy golden stair.

Adam said that diversity is king at Broken Arrow, which is quite evident once you enter a greenhouse.   They have over 6,000 different taxa on the property, many offered as both retail... and mail order options!  Adiós, paycheck!  

As we walked in the the plant-packed, solar-warmed cold frame, my eyes wandered through potted shrubs and perennials.  One of the coolest plants I spied was ×Didrangea, a new-to-me cross the national arboretum made of Dichroa febrifuga and Hydrangea macrophylla that may have a chance in east Texas since both parents perform decently for us. There was also Acer conspicuum 'Esk Flamingo'.  I fold for great winter stem color on woodies, but alas, my appreciation must remain in the north and the Appalachians as most of them don't fair well in Zone 8.  Yes, I know.  I need to give 'White Tigress' a try.

 Adam Wheeler is all smiles in his element.  

Adam Wheeler is all smiles in his element.  

 Nerds, anyone?  The candy that is.  The grape-colored buds on ×Didrangea tease a taste.  

Nerds, anyone?  The candy that is.  The grape-colored buds on ×Didrangea tease a taste.  

 
 Snake-bark maples tempt me to make a purchase, but alas they wouldn't fair well long in Zone 8b.

Snake-bark maples tempt me to make a purchase, but alas they wouldn't fair well long in Zone 8b.

 

Back outside Adam recounted that history of the nursery.  It was started by Dick Jaynes who worked on Kalmia latifolia breeding for 25 years, and upon retirement, he opened the nursery in 1984.  As was briefly mentioned earlier, Adam’s role is plant development.  He stays on the cutting edge of what’s new and what’s been found to help the nursery keep its niche.  

On the east side of the nursery, we paused to enjoy the spectacular view of the low mountains of Connecticut with the sun hovering over Sleeping Giant Mountain.  Off to the side was a solar panel that impressively powered electricity in the main house and heat in the greenhouses.  I appreciated them as a nursery leading an effort toward sustainability as I feel all of us should be doing.  

 Photosynthesis and artificial photosynthesis powers Broken Arrow, each in it's own way.  

Photosynthesis and artificial photosynthesis powers Broken Arrow, each in it's own way.  

One take away for our operation at SFA was this nifty stack of pots to educate customers on the different sizes of pots.  As anyone learning a new craft language, customers (and students!) don’t always understand logistical terms like gallon pot or three inch pot.  Having something visible and readable helps ease any learning pains.  

 
 The leaning, learning tower of pots.  

The leaning, learning tower of pots.  

 

 

HORTICULTURE.  EVERYWHERE.

I never knew that Connecticut was so agricultural!  While I had a brief visit once before, this time was the first I really got to explore the state.  It was charming seeing all the rustic farms and barns.  It seemed every road had this quintessential New England feel, and in every small town we saw a farm stand, garden center, or farm store.  Many were closed for the season, but in discussions with people I learned they come to life after the thaw.  Locals told me that there was a demand for plants in all forms, partly because Connecticut is New York’s playground.  As I left the state, I wondered why can’t we have more communities support small agricultural enterprises?

 

SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE A SIGN

One of the inspiring things I also saw was that many nurseries, farms, greenhouses, and vineyards were featured on a Connecticut Grown sign.  I began thinking back to many of the side roads and city streets I’ve explored searching for a garden center.  I wondered why more states don’t do this?  And, if they aren’t willing, maybe garden centers, farm stands, etc. should put more signs up so that passers by at least know they exist?  There's power in alerting people that you exist.  

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A BLANKET OF NEEDLES

While visiting Washington Depot to let Karen get her Gilmore Girls geek on, we saw a great use for your old Christmas trees.  Chop the branches off and lay them down to protect plants.  While in this setting the coniferous cover was for herbaceous ornamentals, the minute I saw the foliage I recalled how Eliot Coleman once wrote that spinach covered with evergreen boughs had a 90% survival rate while those uncovered only saw 10% survive.  I think it looked pretty, too.  

 Such a lovely carpet of green!  Better than bare soil or mulch.  

Such a lovely carpet of green!  Better than bare soil or mulch.  

 Another fun tale from Washington Depot.  The bookstore  The Hickory Stick Bookshop  had an incredible selection of gardening books.  AND, IT WAS VISIBLE FROM THE FRONT DOOR!  Not tucked away in some obscure corner covered with cobwebs.  

Another fun tale from Washington Depot.  The bookstore The Hickory Stick Bookshop had an incredible selection of gardening books.  AND, IT WAS VISIBLE FROM THE FRONT DOOR!  Not tucked away in some obscure corner covered with cobwebs.  

 

A FEW PRETTY PICS

Connecticut roadsides offered many places to stop and pull off for photo ops.  I leave you with a few favorites.  

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Happy Anti-privet Day!

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
— Edmund Burke

Now that a hard freeze has descended on east Texas and erased the deciduous foliage from the landscape, the evergreens radiate in thickets and pastures alike, their verdant foliage an afterglow of warmer days when the world was all green.  

Most of these I like.  Eastern red cedar I adore.  Pines are ok.  I have an aversion to the shroud of needles they drop, but I love when wind whispers through them.   Even honeysuckle I’ll leave to make the flowers into sorbet.  

 Sparse now, but once it leafs out in the spring, privet 

Sparse now, but once it leafs out in the spring, privet 

But, the one emblem of green I hate seeing more than any other in this dearth landscape is privet (Ligustrum sp.).  The scourge is everywhere and is a horticulturist’s nemesis.  The evergreen, shiny leaves cast dense shade preventing the growth of native plants below.  The emerald glow that does make it through isn’t enough for species to germinate or grow.  Some creature could eat it, but I’ve read due to distasteful compounds the leaves aren’t tasty to animals save for deer.  Now if only we could train these prized-plant-devouring, four-legged pests to eat only privet two of our problems would be solved!

Privet spreads like a plague upon the land near and far.  Rhizomes locally increase the pestilence, and it’s indigo-colored berries are feasted upon by birds and the seed spread by their wings.  Those seed not eaten drop below the mother plant, sprout, and create a carpet of minions .  

My first encounters with privet were at my grandmother’s house where I had my first vegetable garden.  I would hack the branches and use them for stakes.  Yet, sometimes even these limbs would attempt resurrection by sprouting shoots and roots.

It is so depressing to see a plant that we humans introduced for utilitarian purposes—to create living fences and hedges—now in some ways has a mind of its own.  It is taking over our land and erecting its own barriers, similar to the stories where robots we brought into being have become self-aware and gone astray to create a post-apocalyptic world.  


There. is. hope.  Research shows that removal of privet results in the return of native species

We should have an anti-privet day, a day when people and communities go out as a mob with pruners, loppers, machetes, axes, and saws to eradicate this species.  I vote sometime in winter when it can’t hide in the smokescreen of foliage,few other garden tasks occupy our time, and most ticks and chiggers slumber.  It doesn’t have to fall on a set cardinal date every year.   A warm, sunny day will do where working outside for a bit will welcome the removal of a jacket.   

 Before privet removal.

Before privet removal.

 After privet removal.  Hey, there's a fence there!

After privet removal.  Hey, there's a fence there!

I’ve been celebrating a few anti-privet days.  At our new property we have a few behemoths along our fence rows, but most are spindly young whips.  I’ve been eyeing their demise since we first moved in August. 

Small switches are easy.  A swift stab through the earth with a heavy shovel will make quick work of the job.  Larger beasts require a cut back approach.  They will sprout up in the spring, but a shot or two of glyphosate will kill the Hydra heads.  Be cautious cutting near or through barbed wire as the metal pricks can grab your clothes and you.  

Once cut straight branches can be used for trellising and staking material.  The rest of the refuse goes on a burn pile.  

 A good afternoon's work.  There's more privet rubbish that's not visible past the pile in the back.  

A good afternoon's work.  There's more privet rubbish that's not visible past the pile in the back.  

Clearing along our fence row I had the idea of planting a fruiting shrub like a native Ilex or Sambucus where I rip a few out so that the birds have something to sustain them and tempt them more than privet in the future.   

***

The east fence row is now clear of privet, and the north side is next.  The perimeter of our yard will soon be free of this curse.  Sure, there will be a few renegades I missed.  But, in the words of Seth Godin, I’ve put in the work and positively impacted my little microclimate.  I look forward to next winter when the deciduous leaves once again drop, and maybe the only verdant foliage I see will be the desirable evergreens.  If a few privet remain or have since sprouted, then I'll celebrate another anti-privet day.  

Maybe you should celebrate anti-privet day, too.  And, tell or bring a friend.