Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013 Winter Symposium at Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Next month, get some inspiration at the Atlanta Botanical Garden's and Georgia Perennial Plant Association's winter symposium.  The (mostly) chilly winter months are the best for planning and raking in new ideas before the garden starts running out ahead of us with its spring dash. The Symposium Brochure details this year's speakers and programming--a rich list of designers, horticulturalists, and photographers.  Check it out!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hush...It's 2013

Edgeworthia chrysantha with Euphorbia robbiae

It’s a drippy New Year’s Day.  It started with the softest of drizzles and opened into an earnest rainfall.  It’s 2013.  Perhaps this morning, out in the wide world, we are a people careening off a fiscal cliff or spawning innovative plans for managing climate change, population density, and the capricious world markets.  Perhaps this rainy morning, you are a person pounding the Gatorade in need of detox, furrowing your brow to lists of goals about sleep, diet, money, time management.  Me, this morning, I’m myself in my cozy cottage, grateful for the rain that cloaks my epic planning and ruefulness with a quiet hush.  It's somehow enough to have a warm cup of coffee, my fluffy dog, and good music filling up my space.  A rich little space I gladly inhabit this morning.  I have Fatsia flowers in a jug from my garden.  The Fatsia have been in the ground a full three years now; this December they presented chunky white ornaments of bloom in time for the holidays.  The flowers I cut are pretty spent, and the miniscule petals litter the countertop.  I haven’t wiped them up.  

And I can look outside and see how my Rodhea japonica ‘Picadilly Farm’ finally has some new growth, its variegated straps creating a flute for the drops of rain to spill down into the crown.  I know that the Edgeworthia will fill up January with its subtle fragrance and stark branches.  There is a hardy Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Album’, whose silver leaves and soft pink flower caps emerged this fall without my even remembering it was there.

Cyclamen h. 'Album'
Rodhea japonica 'Picadilly Farm'
Today, the rain is my teacher, grabbing my hand and sitting me down with a whisper of stillness.  I have no need for resolutions or penance.  Today in my garden, the shredded banana tree leaves can stay put, hanging heavy under fat drops of rain.  I’m not gonna cut them off.  Neither am I rushing to cover the exposed roots on my Hedichyium greenii, which will be hit hard in the next freeze.  Today rain will wash away such efforts. Instead it leaves me only gratitude this January morning. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Shorter days and the Encore Azalea conundrum

I tend to really resent the shortened days following daylight savings.  I mean, early sunset isn't a personal insult, but it sure as hell feels like it when the sun starts setting at 5:30 and I still have 8 things I want to do outside before it gets dark.  I find myself less motivated to tackle energetic projects.  I know I'm not alone in this and suppose it's really about accepting my place as a living creature--subject to omnipotent natural rhythms.  Despite perpetually buzzing elliptical machines at the 24-hour Snap Fitness Center, it's only in relatively recent human history that electricity has allowed us to resist this natural spinning of the earth on its axis.  The more subtle thing is that these shortened days require an internal set shifting--from the flurry of early-fall activity into a quieter more contemplative stance.  

So here it is, high autumn, and the beech leaves are glowing in the 4'oclock light.  Cold humidity stirs up the smell of leaf mold.  It quiets me.  The crunch under my boots and the sound of squirrels pouncing also creates a hush.  Maybe during this contemplative time there is something we're supposed to be hearing in the whispers of a maple leaf floating to meet its companions on the ground.  

My scientific side would say, "Bollocks!  Nature isn't here to say something directly to us."  My need to hear something is just another example of narcissistic anthropomorphizing.  Still, I'm urged toward quietude, sensing there is in fact a message available when I pay attention.  (Besides, I don't say the word "bullocks" so my scientific side clearly isn't winning).

As humans we are nothing if not meaning-finders.  We derive meaning from the spaces around us.  Beauty calls to us, appealing to the better angels of our nature.  In a beautiful space, we are elevated from a mean scrappy existence.  The space itself communicates something hopeful and motivates.  And holding this truth alongside a respect for Nature's remote processes may be the most important thing I need to understand in seeking to design gardens.  Design matters, beauty calls and we respond.  The spaces around us reach into our cerebral isolation and pull us out into a global community.

In each designed space, we're challenged to find the delicate balance between artifice and nature.  And in each space, this balance rests a little differently on that continuum.  Maybe it's at this time of year, when the natural processes of decay and dormancy are so obvious that I become a little more aware of that culture/nature tension.   Strong gestures and architectural bones in the garden are only frames for what is happening in the cool dark autumn.  No matter what ideas I have for the exuberant spring, they seem remote as I watch and listen to the garden preparing for its winter rest.

Autumn argues for a stronger nod to natural elements in the garden.  Without seasonal reference, such spaces feel hollow at this time of year.  I don't want to be in a garden so full of broad leafed evergreens that there is no response to the season's calling (I also NEVER want to see an Encore azalea in bloom in November--but that's just me!).

 Perhaps the most seductive aspect of designing gardens is that the medium (plants) and environment (climate, architecture, time) place strong parameters on the designer to create something authentic within those bounds.  Never is this more true than in the late Autumn garden, as we can't ignore the raining of leaves and sinking of the sun.  So I guess I will listen, before the loud demands of the holiday bustle crowd out the message.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Thermodynamics and a Wedding: Fall's Bounty

Fall is so pretty.  Abundance calls to us, and we respond--even if it's to head out to a pumpkin patch with a small hand in our own, off to collect a prized fruit for hobgoblining.  We are not different from generations before us.  Maybe we don't identify this calling in the same way as those for whom harvest was really about a flurry of preparation for a cold winter.  Still, we respond. 

I spent last weekend working on and enjoying a beautiful wedding at David's beautiful farm.  Abundant it was.  Abundance of love, of community, of beauty, of laughter.  Abundance of warm light.  Abundance of gratitude. 

This warm light translates to abundance in a more categorical way.  Michael Pollan heartbreakingly delineates sunshine's bountiful yield in the natural order (please bear with the long quotation): 
"Entropy is the great faith of our time. Those who are most awed by it preach “limits to growth” — that we should consume our fixed, unreplenishable stores as slowly as possible…. But the second law of thermodynamics, under which entropy increases as matter converts to energy, applies only to closed systems, and… the global ecosystem is not a closed system…. new energy is continually pouring down on it, in the form of sunlight — free, boundless, virtually infinite sunlight. And sunlight come down to Earth is used by the process of photosynthesis to create new plant matter. Plants, in other words, are energy returned to matter, entropy undone, at least here on Earth.
The lesson in this is not that we should feel free to waste our resources; it’s that our environmental problems may have more to do with our technologies and habits and economic arrangements than with the planet’s inherent limits or the burden of our numbers. All we could ever possibly need is given. In terms of the global ecosystem, there is a free lunch and its name is photosynthesis. In a sense, the ancients were entirely correct to regard the harvest’s abundance as a gift from the heavens….
this strikes me as the harvest’s most salutary teaching — indeed, as reason enough to garden. Here in my garden the second law of thermodynamics is repealed. Here there is more every year, not less. Here it is ever early, never late. Here… newness comes into the world (145)." --Michael Pollan, Second Nature

Senescing Dog fennel and ageratum in the wet meadow.


Ageratum, Vernonia, Asters all lit up in the sun.

Centerpieces picked over in the aftermath...we filled baskets with fruit from the farmer's market, and flowers and branches, mostly cut from the roadsides in Dekalb Co (We bought the roses).  People were snacking on them during the wedding.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Don't miss it....Cooper Sanchez at "The Gate Called Beautiful"

Georgia-boy artist and meadow-maker Cooper Sanchez has an easy knack for making what's old seem new and what's fresh seem relic.  His style?  Something of an unselfconscious interpretation of classical aesthetics and refined nature themes, with a visceral take on nostalgic Southern folk art.  His work shows an obvious reverance for creatures other than the human kind and a sense of humor towards the human kind.   Cooper's mixed media work is playful and elemental and seems a reflection of someone creatively navigating the modern South.

He's a thoughtful and talented gardener in all that free time and has wowed Atlanta's gardenati with his evocative meadow plantings at his Clarkston home and historic Oakland Cemetery.  There he's sown old-fashioned reseeding annuals, redolent of vintage meadows, making something fresh by literally rooting into a Southern folk ethic.  Click here for a video from Cooper's dramatic plein air installation in Oakland Cemetery's greenhouse ruins.

Meadow planting at gate of Oakland Cemetery, image courtesy of Creative Loafing

So I'm pretty jazzed and not at all surprised that he's gained access to the mysterious Decatur property with "The Gate Called Beautiful" for his next plein air installation, this Thursday and Friday nights (October, 18th & 19th, 7-11pm, 426 W. Ponce de Leon, Decatur, GA 30030--next to FarmBurger on Ponce).  In the spirit of making this old place seem new, Cooper will be debuting paintings, drawings, and a light installation.  When I popped by the site last week, he was hard at work getting the property navigable for the event:

Don't miss the Agave parryi that he's planted out front

Friday, October 12, 2012

Um...so...maybe not...

In moment of atypical candidness, I'd like to describe a bit of an experiment I've just undertaken--a less-than-successful solution to get from here to there ("there" being the magic bullet to assuage my dismay with an ugly spot in my garden).  And why, ultimately, it hasn't been that successful.

The reason my candidness is rare is because from a design perspective, my personal garden is more or less a non-garden.  I'm hesitant to show it off, as it's really a collection of plants rather than a garden.  I rent a carriage-house behind another house, and I do love it.  It's quiet, the price is right, my neighbors are great, I can clean the whole house inside from top to bottom in about two hours etc, etc.  The other reason it works is because the problems with this VERY imperfect house are not utimately my problems, so I can turn my head at things I would feel a strong need to resolve were the space my own.  The fact that it stands completely akimbo, has less-than-stellar plumbing, and really schlocky craftsmanship are not for me to pour money and time into rectifying.  

This translates to the outside too.  It's wonderful to have a quiet spot to garden and my neighbors seem thrilled to let me.  Still, I am approaching a threshold of what I can tolerate visually.  Three houses share a steep busted concrete driveway that is a bit of a rabbit's warren:  a parking lot, a view of garbage cans, barely held together by dilapidated railroad ties (this is a nice neighborhood, by the way).  It's just that the space wasn't that well-conceived when constructed: it was an effort to build houses in a fairly urban setting on a steep ravine.  My neighbors have asked me about an approach to resolving their steep backyard, which isn't very usable from their charming house.  When the houses were constructed, there wasn't much thought given to future projects or use of the outside.

When I first came here three years ago, I was working all the time and didn't do that much other than plant some containers that related in no way to this space--I just had to plant something.  That year I worked to eradicate the enormous drifts of ivy choking the space and removed some really sad-looking azaleas.  I had to be careful about what I did, as my new neighbors didn't necessarily want me monkeying with what had been there long before me.  There were odd ligustrum topiary and the saddest looking boxwoods knocking on death's door.  It's deeply shaded and incredibly dry in some spots, gets blasted with 4 pm sun in others, and all around the carriage house was initially sludge that was added for fill to build the little cottage (though down the slope the soil is like gold). 

So how it all evolved is how many plant-lovers' gardens evolve.  I just couldn't help myself.  I had to buy that variegated Fatsia.  And that Yucca linearifolia.  And that Beschornaria septronalis.  And that Rosa 'Climbing Pinkie'--such a collection does not a garden make. 

So I've done more and more to make a bit of a garden--always understanding that it's gardening, not really designing--simply because I love plants and I have to garden.  I love the act of it and my hands in the cool dirt; I want to be experimenting and learning about plants in a way that's different from learning in someone else's space.   For me, it's data collection and continuing ed, professionally, and personally, it's a tonic and an expression of creativity.  I like to work quietly and intuitively, cutting back and transplanting in a way that is rarely feasible in a client's garden.  I've been content with appreciating the texture of the ferns next to the Heuchera and have refrained from looking at the space as a whole.

So my experiment was this: I have a little concrete path from the crazy driveway to my door, and it's lined by a narrow bed that is at the edge of a railroad-tie retaining wall that supports my neighbor's parking pad.  This was the worst of the soil when I moved in, and I'm pleased at how it's character has changed with the addition of organic matter (e.g., worm castings), letting leaf mold do it's thing to add microbial life, and growing tough herbaceous plants that themselves have added life to the soil.

Let's be honest:  this is an inherently ugly bed.  It's a frame for a parking lot of at at least 6 vehicles and a barely effective solution for dealing with a steep slope.  It's not level and is honestly kind of hard to understand.  There were concrete pots on top that I have filled with succulents because I love them and they live there, even all year while I was in California.   Most of the plants I'd just thrown in there when I first pulled out the azaleas: Yucca recurvifolia, Iris tectorum, Carex 'Frostly Curls', Hellebores, Euphorbia, Opuntia 'Morning Star'...a disparate collection.  I finally decided I wanted that bed to look like something that is worthy of an entry--that I am pleased at seeing as I walk in the door, and that I'm not worried someone will see and resolve NEVER to hire me to design anything.   It had started to look just enough like something with the success of the C. 'Frosty Curls' and Iris t. that I got excited and decided to make more of an effort.  The yucca had gotten too big, and I needed to move it anyway.

I have wanted Variegated Boxwood for awhile, so I thought I could plant Aspidistra right up against the wall as a dark-green backdrop for the creamy shrubs.  I would underplant the Buxus 'Aureovariegata' with elegant Buxus 'Grace Hendricks Philips' (a groundcover form), and intersperse some of the the Iris, Hellebores, etc. while leaving the Carex weeping along the edge.  In my mind's eye, I could see the luurious combo, and got excited that it was a cohesive planting that would likely thrive, given that it's shady against the wall, but 18 inches in front of the wall it gets blasted with late afternoon sun.  The air circulation is limited as well.

So I planted my new combo, and I'm a little disappointed.  The truth is, a good planting can't resolve an inherently defunct space.  I've planted Muhlenbeckia capillaris (creeping wire vine) directly in the rotting wood at the top to cascade down and meet the Aspidistra.  It's still kind of ugly.  I can't hide the concrete and crooked roof.  I've reinforced what I know--you've got to get the space right before throwing in some pretty plants.

 Nevertheless, I love my new plants and will look forward to pruning the boxwood and watching the Hellebore flowers bud.  I kinda like my silly crooked roof, too--truth be told.  And I'm so grateful for this little spot that feels like home.  Maybe not the acme of my design ambitions, but a sweet respite nonetheless.  

Buxus 'Aureovariegata' among Helleborus and Buxus 'Grace Hendricks Philips'

Aspidistra elatior in the back--grow baby, grow!

I'm counting heavily on the Aspidistra and Muhlenbeckia to cover up the railroad ties.

Iris tectorum and Carex 'Frosty Curls' in front.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Homecoming Season

Lately I've heard some marching bands practicing and seen Friday night lights beaming from the stadiums around town. It's Homecoming season and ubiquitous sports team paraphernalia and tailgating tents herald this football tradition.  When I was in high school I never quite understood the significance of Homecoming (I hadn't yet left!). Now, I understand that come autumn we're likely to feel a twinge of nostalgia for our formative days.  Along with the senescing season, in come wistful impressions colored by comfy sweaters, brisk breezes, and wood smoke.  Such impressions somehow mix with memories of school books and bleachers.

And as the temperature has dropped and freshness has returned to the early fall air, so has my constant thought about gardens.  In a sense, this is a sort of homecoming--when summer is meting out her late-August brutality, parching the already parched earth, I feel somewhat in exile.  Not that my mind isn't turned toward the tall perennials in need of staking, the constant hope for rain, the itchy malaise as I perfunctorily think that I need to start gearing up for fall.  No, I'm thinking about it, but until there is that certain bend in the light and a break in the nighttime heat, it's just hard to get there with it.  I feel "other."

September has flown by in a confusing limbo of season--now autumn is fully enunciated in the golden light.  In a matter of a few days the trees went from making subtle overtures toward fall to blatantly propositioning the season to drape itself all over them.  Indeed, tonight is the first chilly night, and it's as though October came along and gave my shoulder a shake to say, "Hey, wake up from that late-summer sluggishness.  Come back."

So I got to thinking about homecomings and see that such urges--to look backward and connect with a sense of place and earlier time--are pulling from all around.  All of a sudden, my summer garden, which I've neglected all of August and much of September is calling to me as well.  I feel welcomed home from my sweaty, itchy summer exile.  I've been cutting back roses, pulling back fallen leaves from emerging Cyclamen, shaming myself for letting ornamental black peppers smother my lovely Callirhoe, assessing whether Muhly grass was really a good idea (if it doesn't look good now--it's never gonna)!  I'm transplanting boxwoods and moving Euphorbia seedlings.

Perhaps this silly poetic waxing is merely an attempt at intellectualizing a strange detachment (= laziness) I felt towards my garden this summer.  Certainly, the fact that working with a cool breeze and without constant fear of drought is exponentially more pleasant than the sticky August slog.  But this sense of Homecoming represents another way a relationship with a garden adds punctuation to the seasons and resonance to the passage of time.  We plant bulbs each fall with the promise of spring.  As the nights start cooling down into the 60s, we consider what shrubs we want to cut back before the threat of frost makes it too risky.  Whether it's a homecoming in fact, I'm simply grateful the garden is calling again through the fresh fall breeze.