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?