Saturday, December 13, 2008

Fraser Fir Tree Farm in North Carolina

We passed this tree farm on the Shortia collecting trip this summer. I took the picture as we drove back from Panthertown Valley; I would guess that the tree farm ran for something like two miles starting at the road and varying in width from half a mile to a mile. All of these trees are Fraser Firs, a species native to the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians.

When I was young, in the 1950s and 60s, the commonest Christmas trees were Balsam Firs, and Scotch Pines. Christmas tree growers are far more sophisticated than they were 50 years ago and most of the trees are sheared. That means that the Balsams, that have a nicer smell than the Frasers, now are thick dense trees. The Balsams I remember were Charlie Brown types. So open it seemed as if you could almost throw a football through a tree without touching a branch. Good for hanging a few ornaments. They never held their leaves very well but they did smell good. Scotch Pines, like most pines, are attractive trees that hold their needles well but often have yellowing needles and don't present any easy places to suspend pendant ornaments. If you see a tree sprayed an unnatural shade of green it is probably a chlorotic Scotch Pine.

When you work at a retail nursery, come December you sell Christmas trees. That's what's happening in December. When I was at Behnke's I sold Christmas trees a few years. It was pleasant work; the trees smelled good and the customers were, by and large, cheery. The aroma of Douglas Firs is the best....sort of citrusy, but they weren't designed for hanging ornaments. Fraser Firs are the best all around trees, and it seems to me without doing research, the best sellers. They hold their needles well, have a nice shape, and have branches strong enough and spaced far enough apart to easily support fairly heavy ornaments. Noble Firs are the model for top of the line artificial trees and they are beautiful, but they have no smell, excepting, occasionally, a foetid stench that rises from the water reserve after a week or so. We almost always choose a Fraser, but I was often tempted to cut the top 4 feet out of a Douglas Fir (after we closed on Christmas Eve) and set it up as an ornamentless, just for the smell. I never did it but it would have been a good idea.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It finally rained on the Florida garden!

This is what it looked like in Florida in October when we went down for my mother-in-law's memorial. We're going again the day after Christmas. It just rained almost an inch but its only the second time it has rained since October and the other one was less than half an inch. At the least it will green up the lawn. In winter's past we have had Aloe saponaria, Asclepias curvassavicam, Cestrum newellii, and various other plants flowering. The butterflies that braves winter showed up at the Aloe and the Butterflyweed. I'm looking forward to seeing how the garden has progressed..... Anticipation.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I remember building these steps and I remember transplanting that mondo grass

Both highly visible and memorable, the Red Pagoda sits astride a ridge that divides China Valley from the Central Valley of the Japanese Woodland. The Central Valley used to be called Chadwick Valley to honor a major donor who funded large portions of this garden. At some point Dorothy Kidder nee Chadwick, requested that the family name no longer be used and so now we have the Central Valley.

My position now in China Valley is funded by an endowment from Ms. Kidder. She was a fascinating woman, tremendously intelligent with a lifelong dedication to gardens and gardening. She maintained a wonderful garden in France, a pleasant waterfront property outside of Easton Maryland, and a rooftop garden outside her primary residence at the Watergate just across F Street from the Kennedy Center.

After leaving the Arboretum, I had the pleasure of working for Ms. Kidder as a gardener at the Watergate and at her residence in Easton. Her interest in plants never flagged; piles of gardening books and magazines overflowed work tables at both residences (regretably, I never accepted any of her offers to visit the garden in France). She made a point of meeting with me just about every time I worked at the Watergate and the few times, I drove her to the Eastern Shore in a grubby old 3/4 ton Pickup; she never complained. We talked about plants and gardens the whole way and the long drives passed quickly.

The topography in China Valley is extreme and the drainage a complicated problem. It took several incarnations of pathway before success was achieved. My introduction to the Asian Collections was intimidating; I was tasked with sorting, by myself, about 12 pallets of stone. I graded them by size for various uses. most of the smaller and medium pieces, by far the bulk of the stone, we used as vertical edging along the path. (they were set in concrete but the concept failed and they were subsequently removed. The remaining larger stones became steppers and make up both this stairway and the similar one across from it in China Valley. While the pathway was eventually replaced, the stairs remain!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Nice Sunrise Over China Valley

That sunrise isn't just pretty, it's metaphorical; I started in my new position at the Arboretum today and China Valley was cold. The temperatures have been mercurial (analytically true) . A week ago we had highs in the 50s and lows near 40 while the last few nights have been cold: near 20F, 24 this AM. Tuesday night is forecast to be wet with a low of only 47F though and we are supposed to get into the 60's by Wednesday afternoon. Wow.

I first worked at the Arboretum almost 20 years ago and I was the Gardener in China Valley. While I have come full circle, the garden has been moving forward. The half-dozen Magnolia denudata that I remember as barely over my head are real trees now. A Nyssa sinensis is assuming shade tree proportions and the Taiwania cryptomerioides that was 6 feet tall, has more than trebeled in size. This is a lovely, rarely encountered conifer that seems to tolerate both poor soil and our summers without missing a beat. The Heptacodium have grown, very reasonably, to the size of large Crape Myrtles, which they vaguely resemble in that they are vase shaped, multi-stemmed shrubs with attractive bark. Their's is a chalky bone-white. It is another, not quite so uncommon, but still underutilized plant; inconsequential white flowers in summer have notwithstabding a wonderful fragrance and are followed by attractive reddish bracts that give the appearance of hydrangea panicles.

It is curious and disconcerting to be back. When I left, the Miscanthus and Pennisetum that came from Kurt Blumel and were intended to carry the garden until the Chinese plants came through were still the dominant visual component in the garden. I remember dividing the Miscanthus with Beth Finney, and planting a "River of Grass" on the flood plain stretching from the bottom of the hill to the Anacostia River. That planting has come and gone. Other gardeners remeber disassembling it. That's the way it is with gardens though; they evolve......some plants grow, some are transplanted, some die and are replaced with newcomers.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Poinsettia 'Ice Punch'....New Variety

There's something about seeing a greenhouse full of plants in artificial light and with our short days, this is the time to do it. Behnke's greenhouses full of poinsettias are spectacular under the soft illumination of artificial light.

Another great greenhouse after dark is the United States Botanic Garden; both their regular plantings and their holiday displays make the trip downtown worth it this month. Low key and relaxing is a good thing in December

Every year Behnke's Nurseries grows a number of new and or unusual varieties of Poinsettias. Every year we buy one or another of them. I rarely like any of them as much as the standard red, but this year is different; this is a beautiful plant. Repeated attempts at photographing it left me unable to convey the softness of the variegation. It has a warm warm feel, as though the plant were lit by firelight. I know this isn't true of the picture where the variegation looks harsher and more sever than it does in person but trust me!

Stipa (Nasella) tenuissima, Corylus avellena 'Red Majestic', Skimmia cvs., Rhapidaphyllum hystrix, Betula sylvatica 'Tricolor', Bismarckia nobilis

I was thinking about plants and box stores and the free market system and, one of my favorite subjects, lethargy, (perhaps less pejoratively, inertia) and I came to a startling and disturbing conclusion. Home Depot, and its ilk, may be good for the introduction of new or underutilized taxa into the marketplace, and so our gardens. Wow!

Okay, here's my reasoning. While I have no knowledge whatsoever about the inner working of Box Store Management, I think I can infer a few things by looking at the plants on their shelves. They clearly aren't interested in giant markups on their woody plants and perennials; many sell for barely above what I remember as their wholesale cost. They seem to look for most of their margin in annuals. It is not an organization that is studded with horticultural knowledge, yet they do have good and interesting plants on an increasingly regular basis. Actually, they are a source for a few plants that I like to use in designs that more traditional garden centers and nurseries seem not to be able to either get in the first place, or keep in inventory. When these plants appear at the Box, we buy quantities because they won't be stocked for long.

My guess is that they have one or a few plant geeks in buyer positions. I don't mean plant geek in a bad way. Hey some/most? of my best friends are plant geeks; actually, I'm a plant geek. Anyway, if you combine this geek input with the tremendous clout that goes along with the volume they do, you get a situation where maybe (here my figures are pure whimsy), maybe they contract to have 10.000 pots of an obscure but wonderful plant grown that was essentially unavailable through traditional retail sources. They are definitely putting some good plants out there.

The horticultural ignorance of management is a good thing here. They don't care what they sell so long as its not poisonous or illegal... just that it moves and can produce the desired margin. This provides a flexibility that doesn't exist when the inevitably stodgy prejudices and preconceptions of an industry determine what to take a chance on. Not only are the Boxes more flexible, they aren't burdened by the need to maintain any semblance of a "complete" inventory. You can't go to a Box expecting anything other than that there will be good plants and they will be seasonally appropriate. The stores tend to have relatively large quantities of a relatively small number of taxa,but healthy and occasionally exciting.