Shake gardening books at the sky

A pretty hilarious description of a gardener’s efforts to follow advice from garden books. A good lesson on why “gardening is local, and always a long game”.

The writers of these books have apparently not experienced ninety degree days in December, heavy snowfalls that are melted two days later because it’s now sixty and we’re all in flip-flops. There are years when my plants do not sleep, when the honeybees are gathering in January, when ice storms take down trees and you can plant peas two days later. I have to go around and clear rotting leaves off plants before the new growth rots. I am told about the importance of uniform watering. All I can do is shake the books at the sky.

All Gardening Is Local, or “Don’t Believe Everything You Read”

Now I understand how we got here

John Brookes spoke at the Toronto Botanical Gardens tonight. I’m glad I went.

Mr. Brookes is a distinguished garden designer with awards under his belt that include gold medals from the Chelsea Garden Show and a nod from the Queen in the form of an MBE. His services are in demand all over the world and he runs garden design schools in more than one country. He is described first and foremost as influential: One of THE most influential garden designers and teachers of the late twentieth century.

Phew.

Mr. Brookes began his talk by telling us that his work is inspired by patterns in modernist paintings. By the end I sadly concluded that the materials on his pallette are unhealthy – as unsustainable as the lead paints used by artists before anyone knew better. And I finally understand how the lawn became the default ornamental feature in yards all over the English-speaking world.

I mean no disrespect to Mr. Brookes, but as he talked through slide after slide and the audience sighed, I grew quite uncomfortable. There was little in the way of “garden” in the designs, but he had warned us about that. Mr. Brookes stated up front that his gardens are for people, not plants; in fact, plants are quite far down on his list of important things in a garden.

But there were plants, miles and miles of plants – small city gardens, large estate gardens and everything in between – all one type of plant that formed the main design element in the midst of hardscaping: Mowed lawn.

There were also some ponds; artificial ponds, with hard edges and little to no vegetation, with grass borders mown short up to the edges. There was even a substantial lake covering a bed of what he suggested was rubber.

As each slide slipped by I wished there were a second speaker on the stage, an alter ego commenting on each slide with an eye to ecology. Pointing out that lawns are virtual deserts – devoid of habitat for pollinators and other creatures, outcompeting trees for water and nutrients, and demanding the chemical nurturing of fertilizers, pesticides, and gas-guzzling equipment. An alter ego who pointed out that creatures in need of wetland habitat need plants to hide in and feed, shallow sides and mud bottoms. Who wondered how many decades will it take for the rubber under that lake to break down and leach into the groundwater? Who viewed, with a critical eye, the large expanses of hardscaping impermeable to England’s ever-pouring rain.

When his talk ended I put up my hand and asked if he consciously uses lawns as a major design element and what could he imagine as an alternative. He said it was an English thing; he said grass is low maintenance (it’s not), and that it’s practical for kids and dogs. He thought maybe gravel might work, but maybe not – the expanses it would have to cover are too large; or perhaps (in all seriousness) artificial turf. I covered my face with my hands in dismay and he assured me that there are some nice ones available now.

I honestly believe he had never really thought about it before. It seems that for even the best garden designers, original thought on the subject ended in the 18th century with Capability Brown.

With all due respect to Mr. Brookes, surely garden designers of his stature – influential, shaping the next generation of designers, in a position to dictate the paradigms for good taste in landscape design across the world – surely they can do better. Gardens are not just for people. They are for people who live in a world in which 75% of its food relies on disappearing pollinators; in a world sustained by complex and interconnected ecosystems on a precarious edge; in a world in which the climate is rapidly changing due to human activity. In short, gardens are for people who want someone else to solve problems that start, but can end… in our own backyards.

The butterfly blame game

Noel Kingsbury recently posted a thought-provoking article about disappearing Monarch butterflies and the rush to blame Monsanta, GMOs, and (overly) intensive agriculture. I loved what he had to say:

I have driven around Iowa a bit… it is the quintessential Midwest farming state, and one where monarch butterfly populations and milkweed have notably fallen. And do I remember roadside to roadside crops? Every patch of ground covered in soya or corn? Er no actually. I seem to recall that like much of the rest of the USA there is an awful lot of mown grass. Vast areas of the stuff in fact. Alongside roads, around houses, offices, churches, shops there seems to be endless acres of this utterly useless vegetation. You can’t eat it, cows can’t eat it, wildlife can’t live on it, and it needs mowing all the time.

Noel may point the finger at North Americans for our love affair with lawns, but I’m going to point it right back at England and a certain influential garden designer in my next post. En garde.

Read Noel’s blog post: Monarchs and Monsanto – a plea to think (and grow more milkweed and eat more insects).

Orchid discovery in Eastern Ontario

A species of orchid more commonly found on the Great Prairies, Spiranthes magnicamporum, has been discovered just 45 minutes outside of Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ontario.

Eastern Ontario has a rich-smelling species of orchid never recognized here until now, the Great Plains ladies’-tresses which, as the name suggests, mostly grows from Manitoba down to Texas.

It's a long way from its nearest neighbour, and and has left botanists scratching their heads about why it lives here.

A likely explanation is that the orchids have been here since soon after the glaciers melted, leaving a scraped, rocky landscape 10,000 years ago. The orchids and dropseed grass may have covered a lot of the land back then, before being choked out as forests took over.

The alvars remained rocky and open, preserving isolated pockets of orchids.

Proof positive that even in 2014, there are new things to discover in the natural world right at our feet.

Source: Ottawa Citizen, “What is this rich fragrance?” Eastern Ontario’s new orchid

All we want are the facts, ma’am: Horticulture crime drama, episode 2

Plant Code 2447B: “Subjecting Plants to Embarrassment”:

Think about it. What if all the other bougainvilleas on the block looked like plants, and you had to look like an Apollo space capsule.

Detective Billy Goodnick is on the case, and pruning crimes are his specialty.

Ok, we northerners will have to swap out the bougainvilleas (jealous!) for some shrub that actually grows here, but the spirit of the crime against horticulture is the same.

Lookout you “people perpetrating pointlessly pitiful pruning on peaceful plants”, the plant police are coming for you and your pruning shears. In my dreams.

Gardening: More fun with guns

This has to be the ultimate expression of redneck gardening.

…there’s a new way to sow your seeds: blasting them into the soil with a 12-gauge.

Flower Shell is a shotgun shell filled with flower seeds that will produce anything from daisies to sunflowers to poppies to meadow flowers.

Yes, you too can plant a garden without shifting your backside off the rocking chair on your veranda. The developer claims the shotgun shells really work and says of his planting efforts – with pride:

This flourishing field was my creation, it was all done with 142 shotgun shells.

LINK: For extreme gardeners, shotgun shells full of seed

New orchid species discovered in volcanic ‘lost world’, very little news silliness follows

For years, there was only one formally recognized species of orchid on the Azores, a cluster of volcanic islands west of Spain, though some claimed there were two species. However, a recent, three-year study to describe these Azorean flowers found that three species of orchids exist on the islands, including two that are newly recognized. (via www.csmonitor.com)

I see that in my orchid-blogging absence, new species have continued to pop up. Sadly, this particular one hasn’t inspired much in the way of purple prose, the news articles I’ve read have all been matter-of-fact and somewhat scholarly.

The only snicker to be found is courtesy of The Daily Mail (where else); their article contains a photo of boring grocery-store variety phalaenopsis with the caption, “Each plant could be worth a substantial sum to collectors.”

Screen Shot 2014-04-24 at 1.48.20 PM

Many thanks, Daily Mail, for the smile.

Botanical brawl over native plants

I spotted an irresistable tweet this afternoon; it was by @ThomasRainerDC and it read:

The native plant debate can get pretty ugly. Check out the comments on Garden Rant goo.gl/7TIi6f

Naturally, I checked it out. I love a good botanical brawl as much as the next person, and have fond memories of the hair-pulling slap-happy fights that used to go on in the orchid forums. This one, however, ranks as more of a girl fight. Quite civilized actually.

Still, it's worth a read if only to get acquainted with the ideological arguments that go on in the garden world over the use of native plants. The hard-liners that I have met are generally new to gardening, convinced that the way to save the planet is to banish ornamentals and grow "native plants" instead.  It's not so different, I suppose, from the high-minded ideals that draw beginners into vegetable gardening, motivated by fears for food security and the conviction that every inch of neglected space in a fat first-world city should be devoted to growing food.

Whatever it takes to draw new gardeners in, be it ecological passion or passing 100-mile diet fad, I say: Welcome. At least you're not boring.

I'm going to give the last word to Kermit, a rational voice in that "ugly" thread:

In the … ideological conflicts I’ve seen in my life, it seems that often the enemy camp isn’t attacked so enthusiastically as allies who fail to toe the most severe party line… In the 21st century gardening subculture we usually ignore folks who build and move into suburban developments – other than a passing comment on the boring lawn monoculture – but attack gardeners who aren’t “doing it right”.

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