09 October 2014


"Very much a favorite month, this. Even writing a capital O at the start of its name is a pleasure. Of course, the weather can be foul; when can't it? But October does give us spells of the most delectable weather, too, and the golden warmth of its light invests everything with its glow. Nights have a nip in them but by day the air is soft again and we just need to relax in appreciation."

- Christopher Lloyd in Christopher Lloyd's Gardening Year

07 September 2014

Are You My Mum?

Autumn is coming, whether (or should that be 'weather'?) we're ready or not! A heat wave last week sent fall annuals into overdrive so mums are fully blown, but the mild summer also means summer annuals and perennials are still growing strong. Ack!

Still, one must prepare for the inevitable so I did what any sensible gardener would do: I paid a visit to Longwood Gardens PG Class of 2015's greenhouse.

Second year students in the PG program enjoy an educational trip abroad focused on horticulture and public gardens, and are responsible for raising half the funds for the trip. Part of their fund raising effort includes growing and selling plants at three major sales during the year. 

This week is their Fall plant sale but I was allowed to pre-shop (one of the perks of being an alumna!). Guess what I'll be doing at work this week?

Thanks to Nick and Lincoln, PG Class of '15, for helping me load the truck!

28 July 2014

Thence I Went...Under Ground

On her 1697 tour of northern England Celia Fiennes visited landmarks rightly considered to be (and cannily marketed as) "great wonders". One such were the underground caverns called Poole's Hole, now known as  Poole's Cavern. It was a tourist attraction as early as 1622 and widely written about over the next few centuries (but I noticed Celia's account is scandalously omitted from the website's Literary Heritage page - for shame!).

No wonder that I thought of her when I visited the Luray Caverns, 'a subterranean world of wonder' right here in northern Virginia.

Limestone and mineral rock formations in Luray Caverns

Celia described her visit to Poole and the sights within the cavern:

"Just at the Entrance you must Creep, but presently you stand upright, its Roofe being very Lofty all arched in the Rocks and sound with a great Ecchoe. The Rocks are Continually dropping water all about, you pass over Loose stones and Craggy Rocks. The dripping of the water wears impression on the Stones that forms them into Severall Shapes"

The Luray Caverns were discovered in 1878 but are estimated to be 5 million years older than Celia's caves at Poole. Thanks to a good bit of engineering over the last century modern visitors don't have to 'Creep', you descend into the caverns via a sturdy staircase with signs urging, "Please Use the Hand Rails!" and penetrate into the depths along a bricked path lit with electric lights. I kept wondering what it was like for Celia, having to crawl into the cave (so unladylike, and in a fitted bodice and stays - so uncomfortable!) with no illumination on the path but the light of some candles in a lantern carried by a guide.

Pillars reaching more than 20 feet high
Like Poole's Hole, the cave rooms and some of the formations at Luray have names - all exceedingly fitting: Saracens Tent, Giant's Hall, Dream Lake, Pluto's Ghost, and Titania's Veil. There's even one monolithic formation affectionately called The Shaggy Dog. It's only 7 million years old; a mere blip in the grand scheme of geological formation.

The Shaggy Dog, largest formation in the caverns at approximately 7 million years in the making. At over 40 feet in height, standing before it makes you feel very small, in more ways than one.
Celia's friend and contemporary Daniel Defoe published his three volume A Tour Thro' The Whole Island of Great Britain, Divided into Circuits or Journies between 1724 and 1727. I often wonder if his travels weren't inspired by Celia's tales of her own. I enjoy comparing the two accounts, especially their descriptions of how the caves must have been formed, which I share here with you along with my own:

Celia Fiennes, 1697: "but the difficulty appears as to this hole how so large a Cavity should be Left, as in some places the Roofe is as lofty as you can see and all stone; now how it should be fixt so as not to tumble in by the weight of the Earth or stone on the top: as to the waters dropping it is but what is Customary among rocks and stones, there are many springs which run in the veines of the Earth and allwayes are running in such subteraneus vaults in the Earth, which gather together and runns in a little Channell in the bottom of this Cave"

Daniel Defoe, c. 1724: "It is a great cave, or natural vault, ancient doubtless as the mountain itself, and occasioned by the fortuitous position of the rocks at the creation of all things, or perhaps at the great absorption or influx of the surface into the abyss at the great rupture of the earth's crust or shell."

Deb Wiles, 2014: "Water plus Time equals THAT!? Woooooooaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!! "

Yeah, whoever finds my travel diary 300 years from now might be a wee bit disappointed.

I do have two advantages over Ms. Fiennes and Mr. Defoe, though. Namely 300 years of scientific advancement in geology and a little tool called Google. Like those at Poole, Luray's caverns are "solution caves", meaning a solution of calcium carbonate donates some of its carbon dioxide, allowing a precipitate of lime to form. The limestone which is formed by this precipitate grows at the supersonic rate of approximately one inch every 120 years. Highly acidic water once filled the chambers and ate away the softer material. As the natural water table declined, the chambers drained leaving the eroded forms behind, which are still growing. There are still springs in the caves and a constant drip in places due to surface water percolating down into the caverns. Our guide called these drips "cavern kisses" and claimed each 'kiss' brought 100 years of good luck. I should be set for the next four centuries. I suspect if the dripping at Poole's Hole had such a catchy nick name Celia would have mentioned it but all she says is:

"The dripping of the water wears impression on ye Stones that forms them into Severall Shapes, there is one Looks Like a Lyon wth a Crown on his head, ye water trickling on it weares it into so many shapes; another place Lookes just Like ye shape of a Large organ wth ye severall Keys and pipes one above another as you see in a great Cathedrall;"

I wonder if Leland W. Sprinkle had read Celia's diary when he set about creating the Great Stalacpipe Organ at Luray? It's the largest musical instrument in the world, and took three years to build starting in 1956. Sprinkle reputedly got the idea when touring the caves with his son, who hit his head on a stalactite producing a musical tone. He painstakingly located and shaved thirty-seven naturally formed stalactites to get the right notes, connecting each one to a solenoid and small rubber mallet controlled by a traditional organ console. The caves cover 64 acres and while the selected stalactites are spread around only 3.5 acres within the caves, the sound can be heard anywhere in those 64 acres. It really is an amazing feat of science and musical engineering, and I found myself wishing again for that TARDIS so I could see the look on Celia's face when she heard this:

There is also an underground lake called the Dream Lake. Fed by a spring, the lake is only 20 inches deep but very wide. The water is crystal clear and the still surface creates a perfect mirror reflecting the ceiling above so that it looks as if stalagmites are growing up beneath the water from the lake bed. The photos don't do it justice, and a collective awestruck "Ahhhhh!" came from everyone in the tour group.

Mirrored reflection of the ceiling in the still crystal water of Dream Lake
Different minerals lend their colors to the rocks as well, from brown to red to alabaster white.

The range of colors and intricate layers in this formation can be clearly seen thanks to the lighting

The formations that really awed me were the curtains, or veils. Their delicate waves look like they were carved by a master sculptor (well, I guess one could argue they were) yet each fold took millions of years to form. Mind. Blown.

Part of Saracens Tent, one of the most well formed draperies in the world.


And while Celia noted the formation at Poole that looked like 'a salted flitch of Bacon', Luray's got the fried eggs to go with it:

I still intend to visit Poole's Cavern to see what Celia saw, and I have to admit I'll be a bit disappointed if I don't have to crawl through the entrance as she did, but I love the fact that these wonders exist all over the world and that some can be so similar. Take away the modern amenities and I bet my visit to Luray Caverns wasn't really all that different from Celia's to Poole's Hole. She was a bit of a rebel, though, and broke off pieces of rock as souvenirs. This practice is Frowned Upon and visitors are admonished not to touch the rocks at Luray so I had to content myself with a free piece of Unakite from the museum which my entry ticket entitled me to.

Fitz enjoyed the American version of traveling under ground

Luray Caverns are located in Luray, VA in the Shenandoah Valley. For visiting information go to their website. Guided tours last about an hour. Tip of the day: if you go on a weekend, plan to go early and beat the crowds!

17 July 2014

A Gardener's Garden

Every gardener has a favorite garden. Or two, or twelve. And every gardener I've ever met knows a garden - a gardener's garden - that inspires them, that speaks to their soul, and leaves them with a renewed passion for their profession every time they visit. Whether it's the design, the designer, the plants, the architecture, the artistry, the history, or all the above, there is something about it that resonates. This is mine:

The Gardener’s Garden: Great Dixter on

15 July 2014

What's That Plant?

I simultaneously love and hate when someone asks me the name of a plant that I don't know. I love it because it means as soon as the conversation ends I'll be able to dash to my library to look it up and will learn something new. I hate it because I'm a professional horticulturist with extensive training and education and we're supposed to know these things, right?

Then I remember the story about Christopher Lloyd, one of the - if not The - greatest plantsmen of the 20th century. If he was visiting a garden and encountered a plant that was unfamiliar to him, he'd nudge it with his toe and nonchalantly ask his host, "What are they calling this these days", a cheeky reference to the fact that taxonomists are constantly changing plant names and a brilliant way to mask his extraordinarily rare ignorance. Unfortunately that trick doesn't work when you're the one being asked and you don't know the answer.

So there I was at work - in a garden that's still new to me and that I'm still getting to know - when a guest asked me, "What's that plant?" and pointed to a variegated ground cover with seed heads that clearly mark it a member of the Umbelliferae, which the taxonomists have changed to Apiaceae (see, Mr. Lloyd was really onto something). This puts it in the same family as carrots and Queen Anne's Lace but I recognized it as neither of those. Whatever it was, it was happily colonizing a small space under an apple tree and doing a splendid job of crowding out the Sarcococca*.

After this cursory and incomplete identification, the guest went to her lunch and I went about the rest of my day, temporarily forgetting about the Mystery Plant. Until five o'clock this morning, when I reluctantly awoke from a very pleasant dream with "variegated umbellifer" in my mind and couldn't get it out (we plant geeks obviously have very strange cognitive functions).

You'll be happy to know, then, that the plant in question is a variegated form of Aegopodium podagraria, commonly called Gout Weed** and it's Number 1 on Canada's 10 Most Unwanted List. Introduced to America from Europe and Russian Asia, it was known in those parts as a medicinal and pot (culinary) herb back in the Middle Ages where it was used to treat gout. The 16th century herbalist John Gerard described the thuggish habit I observed thusly:

'Herbe Gerard groweth of itself in gardens without setting or sowing and is so fruitful in its increase that when it hath once taken roote, it will hardly be gotten out againe, spoiling and getting every yeare more ground, to the annoying of better herbe.'

I didn't ask the Sarcococca if it was annoyed, but it sure looks it.

Its botanical name is derived from the Greek words “agios” meaning goat and “podion” which means little foot, combined to "Little Goat Foot" because the shape of the leaf is thought to resemble the shape of a goat’s foot.

Another of its names, Bishop's Weed,*** comes from it's being commonly found near monastic ruins. Monks grew and traded medicinal plants, they being practically the only persons who could travel extensively in the Middle Ages without much fear of being set upon by highwaymen. Saint Gerard lent his name to the plant, as well, being the lucky saint invoked to cure the gout. The roots and leaves have diuretic properties and were boiled or crushed then applied as a poultice, or eaten in a bitter spring salad. It's also thought to be helpful in alleviating symptoms of rheumatism, kidney, bladder, and intestinal disorders, and hemorrhoids (not sure how they discovered that one).

All in all a very useful addition to the early physic garden and the variegation makes this variety a very decorative plant, but it's ruffian personality dictates a ruthless hand in controlling its spread both in the garden and in the wild. It spreads by underground rhizomes and by seed, so cutting off the flower stalks immediately after blooming and pulling it out roots and all are the best control methods. The variegated leaves do make a nice ground cover in an area of dappled shade so long as it's kept in bounds.

Now armed with this bit of information, I'll be ready the next time someone asks me what it is. I might even give it a nudge with my toe and say, "This one? Well, in the Middle Ages it was known by a whole list of names but these days they call it something completely different..."

*Sarcococca hookeriana: also called Sweet Box, makes a nice groundcover. Leaves are deep glossy green in shade with clusters of fragrant white flowers in late winter and early spring.

**Other names include: Ground Ash, Ashweed, Pot Ash, White Ash, Ground Elder, Dog Elder, Dwarf Elder, Garden Plague, Farmer’s Plague, Snow-on-the-Mountain,  Jack Jumpabout, Jump About, Goat’s Foot, Bull Wort, Bishop Wort, Bishop Weed, Herb William and Herb Gerard (whew!)

***Not to be confused with another member of the Apiaceae also called Bishop's Weed for similar reasons, Ammi majus, seen here used to great effect in the garden at Great Dixter.


13 July 2014

A Review of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

I was extraordinarily fortunate to be doing my MA in London during the year which saw the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the XXX Olympiad. What a year!

In the autumn of 2011 a landscape architect who worked on the design of the Olympic Park gave a presentation to our class; a design teaser of what was then being built. While I was writing my dissertation my tutor, Tom Turner, very generously gave me a ticket to the park so I was able to see it in all its Olympic glory (I can also boast that I ate at the World's Largest McDonald's). In this video Tom and fellow University of Greenwich professor Robert Holden, Landscape Architects both, discuss the post-Olympic landscape of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I would love to see it again, in light of this review.

07 June 2014

Happy Birthday, Celia!

Were she alive today, Celia Fiennes would be celebrating her 352nd birthday. In the spring and summer 317 years ago she would have been embarking on what she called 'My Northern Journey' in which she traveled from London up to Scarborough and back, traveling about 635 miles on horseback or by coach over 7 weeks.

A page of Celia's diary noting the beginning of her Northern Journey (Wiles, 2012)
1697 is the only travel date she mentions in her diary. And it struck me looking at the photo of the journal entry in her own hand: She made these travels in the year 1697. Sixteen. Ninety. Seven.

No cars, no busses, no trains, sometimes no roads. No electricity, no 4G wireless, no Wi-Fi hot spots, probably no map (she would have hired guides), and none of the modern conveniences that we all take for granted nowadays. I never get tired of reading Celia's diary. In this digital age where selfies are all the rage, I wonder how much of the experience is lost when viewed through a camera lens or on a phone screen as one whizzes through a town or flits from one monument to the next. Hardly anyone keeps a journal any more. Yes, there are blogs (hello!) but one big zap from a power surge like, oh say, Betelgeuse going supernova will wipe out the servers and the blogs will be lost forever. So will the entire solar system, but that's another post for another day.

Burghley House, 'eminent for its Curiosity', built between 1555 and 1587. It had just been remodeled in the modern style by the Fifth Earl when Celia visited in 1697.
Of course I'm guilty of being a rabid picture taker and feel a great surge of gratitude to the inventor of digital photography every time I click the shutter but I'm more grateful to Celia for opening my eyes and mind to another way of seeing the places I visit. I still marvel at the level of detail she includes in her diary and wonder how she managed to retain all that information until she was able to sit down with quill and paper to record it. Seriously, I've seen her diary and she didn't write it in the coach on a bumpy dirt road between destinations.

Celia included a description of her family's seat, Broughton Castle, in Oxfordshire (Wiles, 2012)
Broughton Castle, as it looked 273 years after Celia's death (Wiles, 2012)
Still, these days we tend to rely on the camera to capture views and help us recall details when not too terribly long ago those details would have been recorded by hand, either in prose or drawing. There are no drawings in Celia's diary, though it's reasonable to expect she knew how, 17th century ladies of noble birth being schooled in the arts and all. Either she simply didn't take the time or what sketches she may have done have not survived.

Audley End, built between 1603 and 1616. If Celia's figures are to be believed, at the time of her visit there were 3 courts, 30 towers, a cupola, and 750 rooms. (Wiles, 2005)
Each time I travel I keep a journal of the journey but have not the capacity for memorizing such minute details that Celia did. She challenges me to do better at recording what I see, which helps make the traveling more enjoyable. That's especially true when I visit a place she'd also been to. Several times I've stood before a grand country house, in one of its rooms, or in the gardens with her description in hand and can instantly see how much has changed. Sometimes not much has and a little thrill travels up my spine. Is this the same view she saw? Would she have noticed those trees, that architectural detail, that painting on the wall, did she approach the place on the same road I did? Following in an historic figure's footsteps has to be one of the greatest highs in the life of a historian.

The Chapel at Chatsworth. Celia noted it as being 'very lofty...and supported by 4 large pillars of black marble two at the alter 2 just at the bottom to support the gallery for the Duke and Duchess to sitt in' (Wiles, 2012)

I will be celebrating Celia's birthday in a part of the country that's new to me and I hope I'll be able to take the time to notice things the way she did. Who knows, maybe my travel journals will be found 300 years from now and used to compare what is then to what was now. Better take good notes, then. I might even attempt a sketch or two.

Happy Birthday, Celia!

12 May 2014

On the Case: Garden Detective

As a gardener, there are times when I visit a garden and my hand automatically reaches for my hip and the secateurs that should be there, the itch to restore order to an unruly border a constant garden visiting companion. As a garden historian there are times I step through a garden gate and find myself thrown back in time, too easily seeing the ghosts of gardeners past. It's when these two sensations collide that I know I've found some place special.

I discovered just such a place last week when my friend Dan Maffei, a landscape designer, asked me to take a look at a property he's working on. What was once a farm on the Philadelphia Main Line is now under corporate ownership but the 1930's mansion perched atop a hillside over a once formal garden complete with grotto and reflecting pool, all screaming 'American Country Place Era', are what stopped me in my tracks and made my mouth form a soundless, "Oh."

View of the garden at the rear of the house, complete with grotto.

Overgrown yew hedges and junipers left to smother their neighbors do their best to obscure the garden features but we garden detectives are trained to read beneath the overgrowth (Dan laughed at me as I declared, "I'm going in!" and dove headlong into the thicket). Massive boulders forming a terrace of 'natural' paths with scraggly azaleas struggling to bloom in the shade, the boulders themselves in danger of being consumed by tree roots, and the outlines of a fountain basin still imprinted on the ground tell me this was once a grand garden indeed. Strong axial alignments and a plant palette popular in the 20's and 30's all give tantalizing hints but the identity of the original designer remains a mystery. For now.

This conifer's roots have been growing over the rocks for some time.

The pool terrace

Ever since my tutor used the term I've preferred 'garden detective' to 'garden historian'. It really is surprisingly accurate, after all. In seeking to discover who designed this garden I've got to follow seemingly random leads and apparently minor associations, looking for clues wherever I can. It's a fascinating process, and I was only too thrilled to take the case. I shall be, to the best of my ability, the horticultural Sherlock to my friend's Watson, for while I endeavor to solve the garden mystery it will be Dan who saves it's life.

The goal isn't necessarily a wholesale restoration of the garden, though that depends on what is revealed about its creators and the ultimate desire of the present owner. I think there's more to this garden, though, and while I find myself wishing fervently for a TARDIS (yes, fandoms colliding, I can't help it) I know with a little digging the garden's ghosts will reveal themselves to me in time.

04 May 2014

Happy Star Wars Day!


03 May 2014

Put Your Plants On

Just when you thought there couldn't possibly be any more spring time revelry, I'm here to tell you about World Naked Gardening Day.

Yup, you read that right.

Internationally celebrated on the first Saturday in May, gardeners around the world are encouraged to tend their plots au naturel. I suppose a sun hat would be acceptable, though I think not having a holster on my hip to hold my pruners would be an inconvenience.

Founded in 2005 as a way to interest people in getting back to nature there's a nod, of course, to the First Gardeners - Adam and Eve - who tended their Eden with nothing on, resorting only to fig leaves after they'd eaten of the forbidden fruit.

"Are you sure that's not poison ivy? Oh, look! Shiny!"
Adam and Eve, c. 1701-1704
Antonio Molinari  (1655-1704)

This year a group of professional gardeners in England have taken WNGD a step further by baring all to raise money for Perennial Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, a UK charity supporting people in horticulture. Taking their cue from the Calendar Girls, the Twitter formed group called Grubby Gardeners launched a social media campaign by posing in naught but their Wellies in order to reach their goal of raising £20K for Perennial in 2014.

The Grubby Gardeners pose for charity at the Kensington Rooftop Gardens in London
(photo: Jason Window via
Now, I enjoy walking bare foot on the lawn as much as the next gardener but deer ticks and poison ivy are enough to convince me that full coverage is required while I work, so I can't imagine what kind of gardening the proponents of WNGD are thinking of. I do, however, think the Grubby Gardeners' fund raiser is one brave way to get into the spirit of the day and help a worthy cause. So how about it - are you audacious enough to garden in the altogether? Public nudity laws vary, so check the local ordinance before you march out the door in your birthday suit. And don't forget your pruners.

If you're on Twitter, follow the #GrubbyGardeners fundraising efforts @PerennialGRBS.

01 May 2014

May Day

Can you believe it's already the first of May?  May Day! Or International Workers' Day, if you're a laborer. Particularly, for some reason, if you were a chimney sweep or milkmaid in centuries past.

Thomas Sevestre: 'Jack in the Green, May Day Celebrations
of the Chimney Sweeps of London', 1850
In many cultures around the world it's a big day for celebrating. If you're leaning toward Celtic ritual, it's the Feast of Beltane, so be wary if you happen to be near any stone circles with a cleft stone*. For you Germanic types, it's Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night (which is actually the night of April 30 but we won't quibble).

They're all very pagan, these festivals, but while I was in England I witnessed the Jack in the Green festival in Hastings and what a riot it was! You really can't go wrong with feasting, dancing, music, bonfires, and really big people wandering about!

Jack in the Green floats and revelers lined up for the parade

Why, hello there.

I do miss the English traditions and celebrations but have the feeling I would be hastened to an asylum were I to walk outside dressed like this:

But when it's for a parade and everyone's invited - nay, expected - to participate, then one must get into the spirit of things. Even Flora made an appearance, with her own crew, yet.

Flora, goddess of flowers and the season of spring

Spring is definitely a festive season, when the earth comes alive with flowers and the promise of bounteous harvests, and when we can shed our thick winter coats and dance around in robes of flowers. So grab your May Pole and some Morris Dancers and have fun this weekend! (Just try not to get arrested.)

*A reference to the historical fiction series Outlander. If you're a fan, you'll understand.

28 April 2014


If spring's bounteous bloom has you giddy at the long-awaited break from a long, hard winter, no doubt you're looking for reasons to keep the giddiness going. Although May is already upon us you can still have your spring and celebrate it, too!

This week, why not dig back to your Ancient Roman roots and celebrate Floralia? And really, who wouldn't enjoy a six-day festival honoring the goddess of flowers right on the heels of Vinalia (the Roman festival of the wine harvest), though I suspect things could get a bit out of hand. All in moderation, people, all in moderation.

Because Ancient Romans believed these things, there were gods and goddesses for just about every occasion and situation. Flora, the goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, was one of the most ancient. She even had her own priest, the flamen Florialis (they really liked alliteration, those Ancient Romans).

Triumph of Flora by German artist Tiepolo (c. 1743), based on Ovid's description of the Floralia
Gladiatorial games, dancing, feasting, licentious behavior, and the flinging about of vetches, beans, and lupins were the hallmarks of the festivities, which began at the end of April and ended in the beginning of May. Naked putti were optional. If you should choose to emulate these celebrations and your neighbor peers at you over the fence with arched brows as you prance around a May Pole wearing a diaphanous gown, pelting him with members of the Fabaceae family, don't say I didn't warn you. Personally I think the Romans seized on every opportunity to be naughty and Floralia was another excuse to throw a party. After the winter we've had, I can't say I blame them.

Even Erasmus Darwin, Charles's physician grandfather (who was also a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist,inventor and poet), used an image of Flora as the frontispiece for his lengthy poem, The Botanic Garden, written in 1791. By inserting Flora into his work as metaphor for the science of botany, Darwin was using ancient mythology to connect modern readers with science, popular culture, literature, and art history; all things the best gardeners I know are curious about. Unlike modern day counterparts, Darwin's Flora is assigned a minion of Gnomes to do her bidding and assist Spring in its debut:

"Oh, watch, where bosom'd in the teeming earth,
 550 Green swells the germ, impatient for its birth;
      Guard from rapacious worms its tender shoots,
      And drive the mining beetle from its roots;
      With ceaseless efforts rend the obdurate clay,
      And give my vegetable babes to day!
      And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes, c. 1908

After the brutal winter the east coast has had, I'd say spring was definitely 'impatient for its birth' and now that it's here, why not celebrate it? Perhaps we don't in the way the Ancient Romans did, but we still celebrate it in our own Western way. Do you think it's a coincidence that Earth Day is at the end of April? Or that blooming plants and flowers are exchanged at Easter and Mother's Day? Something to make you go, "Hmmm....".

If the saying 'the earth laughs in flowers' is true, then it is positively cachinnate with mirth. Hot colored daffodils, iris, and forsythia, cool magnolias, crocus, tulips, blushing cherries and snowy (ugh) white crab apples, fresh green leaves in the trees and carpets of grass are all arrayed in their spring finery. Plant a kitchen garden and grow some 'vegetable babes', or visit a local botanic garden (just be careful not to 'press the pansied grounds'). What better time to go outdoors and celebrate spring!

Or, if you're stuck inside by rain like I am, you can try to identify all 500 plants in this painting!

Primavera or Allegory of Spring by Botticelli (1482). Flora is second from right. Sources say up to 500 plant species are depicted in the paining, with 190 different flowers. Of these, 130 have been specifically named. How many can you find?
Happy Floralia!

22 April 2014

Happy Earth Day!

Today is Earth Day, and it's almost as old as I am. The event, that is, not the earth. Ahem.

Although I was only a toddler when the first Earth Day event occurred, I remember well the era of the hippie flower child: vivid memories of the bright pink, green, and yellow flower pattern pants I wore and of my mom painting brightly colored daisies on the rear fender of my dad's VW bug are still with me. I wish that Bug was, too.

Earth Day was founded by then US Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI), inspired by student anti-war protests and the devastating effects of a massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara. Seeking to channel protestors' energy into a common agenda to improve the environment, Nelson enlisted help from Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA) to serve as his co-chair. Together they rallied supporters and organized events across the country. Democrats and Republicans working together? Whoda thunk!

The stage had been set by the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I'm kicking myself for not picking up a copy at the second hand bookshop the other day, for I've never read it. The book sold half a million copies in 24 countries and raised awareness of the environment and all the living things that inhabit it.

Are you my mummy? (photo:
Fast forward forty-something odd years and that sense of hippie flower power is still with us. Until recently buzzwords like "green", "sustainability", "eco-friendly", "organic", etc. were used to excess and people are becoming more aware of the importance of clean air, water, energy, and food. 'Grow Your Own' has become a movement in its own right with more and more people ripping out their water and chemical loving lawns in favor of home grown veg (and getting fined for it, too). At the same time, high profile battles are being waged against oil lobbyists and mammoth corporations like Monsanto which give me pause and make me ask just how far have we come since 1970? Technological and scientific advancement is all well and good but when those advances are forced on the population for monetary gain, how is that good? It can be argued that GMO crops aren't making us or the earth well, either, so is all the blather really effecting any change?

Image from the movie Wall-E, which should be required viewing on Earth Day
As I sit here working on a business plan for starting up a CSA on the family farm, one thing is certain: every day in the garden should be Earth Day. In studying agricultural and horticultural methods used as recently as 100 years ago it's obvious that 'organic' and 'sustainable' are not new concepts, just new terms applied to traditional methods. Perhaps in order to go forward, we must look backward and pay attention to what we see there?

So how will you celebrate Earth Day? Cities and towns all over the world are sponsoring events so getting involved is easy: Picking up trash on the side of the road or in your local park, local habitat clean up or restoration, taking a class about the environment and stewardship, planting flowers in your town's high street to make it more enjoyable, maybe even peacefully protesting the use of harmful chemicals in your local public open spaces where kids and animals play. It could even be as simple as planting a flower bed in your own garden.


However you choose to spend the day, I hope you'll at least give some though to the Earth and what an excellent planet it is to live on. After all, we don't have many alternatives and, while the time each of us is on it is just a blip, many more generations are coming and we should leave them something worth living on.

21 April 2014

Tools of the Trade

I belong to several plant-geek groups on social media and enjoy the exchange of ideas and questions in all of them. Today someone posted a question about an advertised tool used in pricking out seedlings. The question was whether anyone had used it and was it worth the $5.50 asking price (plus shipping and handling). Pricking out was my favorite nursery job at Great Dixter so when I saw that post, I immediately thought of my favorite gardening tools:
My favorite garden tools: a notebook, a pen, dibblers

When most people talk about favorite gardening tools, the first things that usually come to mind are pruners, or favorite gloves, or apparel. Not me. My favorite garden tools are a notebook, a pen, and two dibblers (that's the technical term for the thing you use to prick out plants. Try saying it ten times fast with a straight face, go on!).

One of my dibblers is a length of branch, about 1/4" in diameter. It's got a slight yet somewhat menacing curve and the narrow end has been shaped to a point by a pen knife. The cut end has also been shaped but is more rounded. Days and hours of handling, stabbing, and grinding into potting soil has polished the dibber to a smoothness that almost feels soft so it doesn't scratch my hand, a definite plus since I rarely wear gloves while gardening, and especially not while handling small and delicate seedlings. It may be just a piece of twig, but I counted it among my most essential tools while working in the nursery. Cost: free, with a little elbow grease.

Another dibbler that I've used in the garden only on special occasions is this hand turned beauty. It's about the length of a pencil, made from the wood of a white cherry tree felled at Castle Fraser in Scotland. I can tell you this with absolute certainty because the craftsman who made it told me so, chips flying off the whirling branch as it spun in his lathe. Some years ago I spent a week participating in a working holiday with the Scottish National Trust at Pitmedden Garden, picking apples and preparing for their annual festival which included traditional farm life demonstrations by various craftsmen. I got to chatting with a talented woodworker and when I told him I was a gardener, he said, "Och! You'll be needing a dibbler, then!" and set about making this for me. It's a beautiful honey blonde color, polished to silky smoothness by fine sandpaper and a bit of bee's wax. The thistle on the end was only fitting, given the tool's parentage.  During the festival I was stationed in the historic farm house making traditional oat cakes over a wood-burning stove so he also made me a sycamore rolling pin to roll the cakes with.

Hand turned dibbler, white cherry wood, with Scottish thistle embellishment

While at Great Dixter I befriended another woodworker who taught me a thing or two and let me turn my own chestnut mallet. Sure, manufactured synthetic tools are handy and might last a long time, but there's something about using nature's bounty to craft your own tools. Unlike injection molded plastic or metal, these handmade tools are part of a natural cycle of growth, use, and decay that won't harm the environment. When they've outlived their usefulness, throw them on the compost heap and make a new one. Cost: free. Value: intrinsic and highly sentimental.

By far my most indispensable garden tool is a notebook. I've always been a habitual note-taker anyway but while I was at Dixter, Fergus so ingrained the importance of recording observations in the garden that I never went to work without a notebook and pen in my back pocket. Christopher Lloyd always carried one, and the Alwych book was his brand of choice. This one was a birthday present from the staff at Dixter. It's got an 'all weather cover' so it will withstand some rain or occasional dropping in puddles but there are notebooks with waterproof paper specifically made for outdoor use if you're working in the wet.

Personally, I make no secret of being a Moleskine addict and for use in the garden prefer the pocket size soft cover notebooks which come in a rainbow of cheerful colors. They're available with blank, lined, or quad ruled pages. I like blank pages, because doodles and sketches are an important method of observing and recording the garden. They're not weather proof, though, so I usually have a collection of both weather proof and non-weather proof to choose from, depending on the daily forecast. I regularly go back and look through my notebooks to remind myself of thoughts and ideas for the garden, or to recall the name of a particular plant I saw used in a new and creative way. Lately I've been watching The Tudors and when a lawyer came to The Tower to remove a condemned Sir Thomas More's books, papers, and quills, I honestly felt his pain at their loss. Cost: varies. Value: priceless.

My doodle of a border combination seen in the garden at Wave Hill
The last tool I rarely enter the garden without is the one I used to take these photos. A camera is indispensable for recording changes in the garden and capturing images in gardens you visit but while a camera will capture an instant in time, it won't record the scents and sounds around you, how a place a makes you feel, or record notes for future improvements or ideas. Also, batteries die, and then what do you do? You pull out your trusty notebook, of course!

Whatever your trade, there are tools that define it. What's your favorite?