30 May 2010

We Kick Grass!

Last Wednesday was a red-letter day. It was the day our Student Exhibition Garden was finally complete! Nearly a year in the making, the sense (or should I say 'scents') of excitement, pride, accomplishment, and not a little relief at watering the last plant in was downright euphoric. I swear I could hear a score of garden angels break into the Hallelujah Chorus when we turned the hose off!

I've heard our exhibition gardens compared to the likes of those at Chelsea, Hampton Court, Chaumont, Cornerstone...if you're not into gardening and aren't familiar with these venerable horticultural venues, trust me when I say such a comparison is huge! Flatteringly huge! Dare I say intimidatingly huge? Granted, we don't have the financial backing that those gardens do, but we took what we were given and turned it into something spectacular!

It was an enormous challenge and we not only rose up to meet it, we stared it in the face and declared through gritted teeth, "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya punk?!" (apparently channeling Clint Eastwood with a trowel in his holster is what happens when one blogs at 5am).

My design partner Shannon and I, along with our Class of 2011 colleagues Carolyn and David, not to mention my other classmates with their gardens, well, there's just no other way to put it - we rock!

Imagine, then, how utterly deflated I felt when I asked why the photos on two of the signs for the gardens don't feature images of the designers and received the answer, "It's not about you".

And there followed a stunned silence.

Beg pardon? 'Not about us'? What is a program - any program - if not for the people in it? And what is a design - any design - if not a reflection of the designer(s)? The Program (she gestures with both hands to indicate appropriate placement of quotes around the word) didn't conceptualize, design, and build these gardens, we did. The Program (quote-y gesture repeated) didn't slog 14 hours a day - often longer - to satisfy work obligations, deadlines, and balance all the other requirements 'the program' puts on us, we did (hey, it's my blog, and I'll rant if I want to!).

The Student Exhibition Garden at Longwood will be officially launched sometime this summer and it is my sincere hope that our hard work receives the recognition it deserves. These gardens reflect not only our creativity and ingenuity, but countless hours of planning, preparation, and sweat (LOTS of sweat! We worked our asters off!).

Installing the gardens was supposed to offer "real world" experience. I worked in the landscape industry for three years before coming to Longwood and I can tell you that many of the tools essential to landscape installers "in the real world" were sorely lacking yet we made it happen. And while there were things that needed to happen and people involved who laid the groundwork, developed the space, and provided invaluable assistance along the way (I salute Dan Maffei and Harold Taylor - We couldn't have done it without you!), my class is the first to leave our green fingerprints on it. I can't think of anything more personal than that.

Last summer when we were putting our design programs together the three main objectives for our gardens were: "Fragrance", "Safety", and "Wow!". If you ask me, I think we hit the bull's eye with that last one! Who's feeling lucky now?

Nicotiana and Papyrus bloom abundantly in our containers

Rebar arches fabricated for us by Longwood master welder, Dave Beck

Our central focal point, a floriferous 'downtown' skyline surrounded by native sedge Carex pennsylvanica and Calamintha 'White Cloud'

Mina lobata covers the arches with flaming blossom

14 May 2010

'A Scents of Place' Comes to Life

They say Rome wasn't built in a day, but I bet they made good progress given enough time and all those soldiers (and slaves - but that's a history lesson for another day) to lug around all that stone. We aren't building a city, just a cityscape, we have rebar instead of stone, we don't have slaves, we have fellow PGs (though the terms can sometimes feel synonymous), and I have to say the four of us made some amazing headway on our exhibition garden in just two days' time.

Let's go back to mid March: the site containing the Student Exhibition Garden was completed, the paths laid, the plots tilled and ready to go. By the end of March we were able to mark and stake our hardscape areas. By early April the hardscape was in and a few other elements put in place.

Part of our design consists of a series of arches in various stages of construction (or deconstruction, depending on which way you're going) that frame different views of our garden as you traverse the path around it. The arches we designed were fabricated in Longwood's metal shop by our new best friend, Dave. As he finished each piece, we transported them the half-mile from the shop to the garden and set them in place (the full arch - at 10' in height and set in the bed of my pickup - just barely cleared the overpass between the maintenance facility and the Boiler Room Woods access road. We were all holding our breath on that one and let it out in a collective sigh when we made it through!).

Since the garden is ephemeral we didn't use concrete to hold the pieces in place, opting instead to set the two-foot footings in well tamped course gravel. These suckers aren't going anywhere!

With the arches in place, we tilled the planting areas once more to incorporate a healthy dose of compost.

The containers, composed by my design partner Shannon, offered the first hint of what was to come: whimsy, creativity, use of ordinary materials for a not so ordinary purpose, not to mention color, texture, and - most importantly - fragrance (too bad garbage cans don't always smell this good)! People's reactions to using rubbish bins as planters has been very positive and I've overheard a few visitors remark favorably on the idea. Plus, when the garden is dismantled, the cans can be reused for their original (or another equally creative) purpose!

Now comes the exciting part! Until this week our plot had acquired a sort of junk yard persona with all the metal pieces lying haphazardly about, but put the plants in place and everything is transformed!

Putting the first plant in the ground was a moment worthy of capturing for posterity (I just might have to upload this to the Digital Archives when they aren't looking!)!
Within an hour, most of the plants were planted and the design came instantly and vibrantly to life.
A thick layer of composted leaves gave it the finishing touch. We're just waiting on our final plant delivery to complete the installation and then we'll be ready to take the rope down and welcome visitors to our garden!
With the progress we made in just two days, I bet even the Romans would be impressed!

09 May 2010

This is how my garden grows...

With all de hustle and de bustle (as Indigo Montoya would say) of late surrounding our Student Exhibition Gardens, it's sometimes hard to remember that I actually have a garden of my own to enjoy. I was able to spend some quality time in it recently and found a few surprises.

You might recall the record-breaking snow we had back in February - this is what my garden looked like then:

And when the thaw came, here's what was left of the veggie garden:

And the ornamental garden:

Not a pretty sight, huh? I was amazed at just how many weeds managed to survive 3' of snow and total saturation. Stupid weeds. As I waged war against them, a few rays of hope shot up out of the ground. Take this Leucanthemum x siberian 'Brightside'. Not looking so bright now, is it? But it survived, and looked as if it was going to make a go of things. Considering that two of its companions bit the dust in last summer's flood, I was quite proud of its tenacity and wasn't afraid to tell it so, even though a few people within ear shot gave me funny looks.

Sadly, the veg garden didn't fare so well. This is what a couple of blizzards and subsequent snow melt will do to an artichoke plant. Can you say, 'mush'?

We also had a freak hot spell in April that threw everything all out of whack. Trees and shrubs that shouldn't have come out until May burst indecently into bloom, bulbs weren't sure what to do with themselves, and the perennials in my garden suddenly exploded. A good spring cleaning revealed the stalwarts and re-established order in the beds, some of which received a new crop of herbs and veggies.

Last year this was the squash bed. This year I planted peas (we're growing several crops to sell to the Terrace Restaurant here at Longwood to help raise funds for our trip abroad which is in - quick check of the calendar - three weeks!!), along with a few rows of carrots and some radishes. A few volunteer seedlings of the fabulous Mina lobata that set the rebar tree aflame are being allowed to stay, so long as they behave themselves (but the bloom is so amazing, I might be willing to look the other way if they don't).

Over on the ornamental side, I was shocked - shocked, I tell you - to see that Leucanthemum living up to its name after all!

I decided to make a few changes in the ornamental garden. In addition to veg for the restaurant, we're growing cut flowers to sell to the floral design classes offered through the Continuing Ed. Dept. Since many of my ornamentals bit the dust last year, I decided to have a go at floral crop production. One square will be the herb garden (many of which will flavor the culinary delights in the restaurant as well as some of my own concoctions). One square will be given over entirely to cut flowers, the third will be a combination of cuts and ornamentals that made it through the winter, like this Tanacetum coccineum 'Robinson's Dark Crimson' which is more of a Dark Fuchsia but I say any flower that comes back this cheerily after being buried under 36" of snow can change its color if it wants to!

The final square will remain ornamental as the perennials and biennials I planted last year are finally showing off. The Cercidiphyllum japonicum previously in this square was given to my housemate, who planted it at his home in neighboring Lancaster County (may the scent of cotton candy always inspire fond memories of me!).

I relocated my container to fill the void and removed the winter greens. Note to self: wear gloves when handling Holly leaves. Some of the cut Cornus branches rooted and leafed out so they're staying. The thyme also regained its variegation and one of my esteemed classmates tells me the Muhlenbergia capillaris is a slow starter so I'm giving it time to wake up before deciding whether or not it gets shovel-pruned. I plan to sow some Sweet Pea seeds in the container and let them ramble up the Cornus. Just to mix things up, I'm toying with the idea of combining annuals with herbs and a veg or two.

And just look at these guys!

These Pansies are no pansies! Who knew such a dainty flower could be so hardy!? These were leftovers from our Greenhouse Management class last summer. Most of those crops were sold at the end of the term with our mums, but there was enough left to share and plant in our gardens.

And here's another pleasant surprise: the Phlomis tuberosa 'Bronze Flamingo' decided to show up after all! I started with three; one croaked, one was seriously set back by last summer's rain and is still lagging behind this one, which seemed to be doing just fine until the 40 mph winds that came through yesterday. I fear it will develop a permanent tilt.

I also discovered what happens when you don't deadhead Verbena bonariensis: you weed Verbena bonariensis. For weeks!

We still have about a week or so before the last frost date so I'm concentrating on prepping the beds for the cut flowers and planting out the veggies that will tolerate lower temps should they surprise us. The extended forecast calls for mild temps with some showers here and there, so I'm pretty optimistic that my garden will grow quite well this year.