Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Review: AHS Encyclopedia of Perennials

They had me at A for astrantia. They kept me with twenty pages on hardy geraniums. Then they sealed the deal with extended entries on helleborus, knautia, penstemon, and verbascum.

God knows most of us have at least one doorstopper of a tome filled with plant descriptions. Here at the GWI property, our shelves groan under the weight of such volumes as Botanica, Flora, and a host of smaller reference works, in which plants are generally arranged in alphabetical formats.

So I'm happy to report that the American Horticultural Society's Encyclopedia of Perennials is considerably livelier than most other reference works. The text is well-written and accessible. Entries are divided into the useful categories of description, cultivation, propagation and problems, with an emphasis on practical uses rather than obscure botanical or historical information. Most significantly, someone on the editorial team saw the usefulness of sidebars and boxes containing information on companion plantings, flower structure, cultivation advice, and other odds and ends. The sidebars are often illustrated and help create the dynamic, information-packed look of the publication.

Oh, and the photography is beautiful. I was impressed by the vibrancy of the colors, especially in the close-ups.

There are a few caveats, of course. I was surprised not to see an entry on gallium, for example, and the entries on plants such as agapanthus, cosmos, diascia, and musa—all of which would never be considered perennials in Western New York—were more envy-inducing than informative. But books such as these are fun to read regardless of how relevant their contents are to a specific situation. Sometimes it's enough just to know what a pimpinella is; it doesn't have to be available at the local nursery.

Kudos to editor-in-chief Graham Rice and contributing editor Kurt Bluemel on a beautiful and useful guide.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The garden critique

There is a fascinating post over at Garden Rant about an Egyptian Islamic scholar, Sayyid Qutb, who lived in the small town of Greeley, Colorado for six months in 1949, observed American life first-hand, hated what he saw, and went on to become one of the major inspirations for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. An article in 5280 magazine (Denver's city mag) details Qutb's reactions to the lifestyles of the Greeleyites, including their grim dedication to rigorously-manicured lawns and flower plots. This was referred to in the post as "bad gardening."

Many of the comments that followed defended the citizens of Greeley, opining that if neat lawns and hedges are what an individual gardener wants, who's to say it's bad? Indeed, any criticism of almost any garden practice (including mine of painting garden furniture to match flowers) often gets this reaction. "If it makes you happy, that's all that matters," is the general view of many in the gardening blogging world.

It's a view that—up to a point—I have no problem with; indeed, anyone is free to do almost anything they want in their garden. And I'm equally free to express my opinion of it. I'm a critic (though professionally more an art critic than a garden critic). If I see a front yard characterized by hedges painfully shaped into little boxes and regimented annuals, or a back garden so filled with windmills, gazing balls, and cowboy silhouettes that you can't see the flowers, I'm not thinking, "How nice. I'm sure that makes them happy." There is good and bad gardening, and I think blogs like this are as good a place to debate those categories as any, particularly since we don't see much real garden criticism in the maintream press.

Famous gardens like the one shown above (Hestercombe, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll) took planning, discipline, and hard work. Though the plantings often look exuberantly full, even wild (this is what I love about English gardens), they're the result of vigorous upkeep and adherence to the original design. You really can't do anything you want. There are standards; there is good and there is bad.

Of course, I can't emulate a Jekyll or Sackville-West garden. But what I do appreciate about these gardens is that the plants are framed and enhanced by the design and the plants are what you look at. Too often in American gardens, plants are getting engulfed in a wave of objects and "garden room" elements. My goal this year is to get rid of as much junk as I can and see how I can best bring the plants back to the fore.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Help wanted

Seeking an entrepreneurial, experienced professional to manage start-up garden cooperative retail center in Buffalo, New York; must have knowledge of plants and gardening, retail, be flexible and willing to work with board of directors, be capable of managing seasonal employees and volunteers. The position is flexible, negotiable, may include benefits including health, 401k and vacation. Send resumes by Feb. 14, 2007 to Urban Roots; P.O. Box 1402, Buffalo New York 14213 or jobs@urbanroots.org.

Company: Urban Roots

Location: Buffalo, New York

Employee Status: Full Time/Year Round

Job Category: Garden Center General Manager

Compensation/Benefits: Salary, Merit Bonus and/or Profit Sharing Program (based on achievement of sales goals), Paid Vacation, Simple IRA, Medical Benefits

Job Description: The Garden Center General Manager will be responsible for the day-to-day coordination and oversight of a fledgling garden retail center operated in accordance with cooperative principles.

Principal duties will include management actions in the areas of retail activities to include: store operations, inventory management, buying, quality control, customer care, staff administration, information technology and achievement of sales goals.

The General Manager will report to the Urban Roots Board of Directors.

Specific Duties to include:
+ Managing business capital
+ Analyzing business performance and preparing regular report for
Urban Roots Board of Directors
+ Supervise staff and volunteers
+ Oversee customer service and networking activities
+ Provide information on plants and cultivation practices
+ Maintain store security
+ Manage merchandise and store presentation
+ Buy merchandise

Preferred Qualifications:
+ 5-10 years Retail Sales Experience Required - Garden Center
supervision preferred
+ Possess the ability to inspire and motivate sales associates and
steward customer loyalty
+ Must have high ethical standards and be willing to foster the
principles of cooperative working model in all Urban Roots activities
+ Should have excellent time management and organizational skills


You can find further information about Urban Roots on our website:


Our Board of Directors and Advisory Council:


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Botanical gardens vs. winter 07

This year, visits to the gardens are even better because I now have an Olympus that takes close-ups. I'll need some practice with it, though. A friend and fellow gardener was with me, trying out her equally new but much fancier Nikon on the flowers.

The amaryllis (actually hippeastrum—why can't we have just one name, preferably the correct one?) show is in bloom now. It was scheduled for all of January, but the flowers were a bit slow to perform and waited until mid-month. It's an interesting difference between museum exhibitions and this type of show—you really are at the mercy of nature. Human plans and effort can only do so much.

Anyway, here's one:

I've never been too interested in distinguishing between the various hybrids of this plant—they seem aimed chiefly at producing different colors—but they are beautiful.

Also at this time of year, the thunbergia mysorensis is in full bloom; it forms a dramatic entrance to the Victorian/herb greenhouse. The plant in the background is codiaeum (croton).

Here's my best close-up, of what I believe is a miltoniopsis orchid. Signage is always a bit of an issue at the Gardens. Labels are scattered here and there but often the plants move and the labels don't.

In fact, I'm a tiny bit peeved. There's more information provided about the model circus train installed in the Palm Dome than about most of the plants.

Still, it was a balmy break on a very cold day. And this am we had combined snow and hail. It's winter.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I am a compost fraud

Of sorts. The truth is, I volunteered to help feed the vermicomposting installation at Hallwalls (Music for Worms and Compost) at an insouciant moment during the opening night celebrations. I think the offer was made at around 1:30 a.m.

Not that feeding compost is any big deal, but I don't compost and never have. I don't save scraps in a bucket under the sink or whatever. After casting about (would X café give me their scraps, etc.) I came up with the easiest solution, which is to simply buy the appropriate matter from the supermarket. So as I write this I have a plastic container filled with attractive layers of torn up lettuce, cut-up carrots, a few stalks from old paperwhites, and some cilantro. It's quite pretty. It's all been sitting at room temp for a while, and seems wilted enough. I hope the worms like the little salad I have prepared for them.

This week it's Boston lettuce; next week I'll try them with some radicchio or maybe some curly endive.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I bite off more than I can water

Against my better judgment I rejoined the Allentown Association's board of directors this year—it seemed important. At my first official meeting I was very pleasantly surprised. The board seems filled with bright, enthusiastic young(er) people, all ready and willing to do the grueling volunteer service this board requires. (Why don't I ever join those boards where they just sit around and collect honoraria—oh right, they haven't invited me.)

As usual, there are plenty of preservation nightmares awaiting our involvement and advocacy and the usual events to organize. When they passed around the committee list, I found that I was not only on, but chair of the beautification committee. The big project this year is the reinstatement of hanging baskets along Allen. How to keep them watered? Which plants to choose? Which service to use? How to pay for it? It's a bit early yet, but these and other mighty challenges loom in the near future.

If we don't make the baskets work this year, I'll never be able to convince them to try it again.

P.S. I won't always be mentioning these, but I hope my WNY readers will pop on over to Garden Rant where I have a post about a compost/worm installation at Buffalo's own Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

Friday, January 12, 2007

January is gardening season in magazine-land

Last year's cover

On the one hand, it’s my favorite issue. On the other hand, it’s hard to get writers in the gardening mood when we’re just beginning to enter the grim, gray days of WNY winter. Nonetheless, this is when we start to produce it, and I think we have some fun topics lined up, including:

•Alternatives to lawns. This is widely discussed throughout the gardening blogosphere, but the idea is only beginning to make headway in Buffalo—mostly in the city. We hope to cover wildflower meadows, eco-lawns, and other alternatives.

•Urban Roots. Buffalo’s new gardening co-op, due to open in April. I’ve already written about it here and here.

•What is a landscape designer and when do you need one? Living in a densely-built urban neighborhood, it’s hard for me to imagine this need, but this will be great for those who actually have a landscape to design.

•Solutions for “hellstrips” and other nasty gardening nightmares.

Unfortunately, gardening will not be the cover element as it was last year (we featured a gorgeous banana plant at the Botanical Gardens), but we’ve got some great photography lined up.

So check out Buffalo Spree in April. I will try to put all the gardening content online (not usually done) for the benefit of bloggers.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Mail order plant shopping and why I do it

Here in Buffalo, I’m generally met with blank stares when I tell them about annuals and perennials I have purchased from on-line and print catalogs. Indeed, when the Urban Roots people surveyed me, they said I was the only person they’d talked to who “bought on the internet.”

I know many of my fellow garden bloggers are very familiar with ordering from catalogs, but for those who aren’t, give it a try! You buy everything else in your pajamas—why not plants? Or at least plants you’re not going to be able to find at your local nurseries.

Here are a few cultivars that to my knowledge are only available to me via mail/online order.

Unusual annuals in general: If you’re sick and tired of the impatiens/petunia/geranium scene at the local places, on-line is the only option. (This includes ordering seeds, of course.) Over the years, I’ve found unusual varieties of nicotiana, diascia, polygonum (or, as it is irresistibly known, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate), lathyrus (sweet pea), and more. Though I must say this scene is getting better, at least in WNY.

As for perennials, I’ve bought:

Astrantia. I have never seen this in an area nursery. It’s a weird little plant, but I always get comments and its little blooms pretty much last the season—interesting foliage too.

Gallium verum. This is the tall version of sweet woodruff; it looks like baby’s breath, and thrives in wet or dry shade.

Geranium/cranesbill. You can now find many of the common varieties around, but no one has the selection that Bluestone has, or—sigh—Heronswood had.

Rudbeckia triloba. This is again an uncommonly tall version of a common plant (I like to pretend I’ve got a meadow going in my little courtyard), and it blooms conveniently late.

Verbena boniarensis. The nurseries around here just started carrying this, but I give people who bought it online the credit for popularizing it.

Anyway, I list my favorite vendors somewhere over on the sidebar. Sure, I’ll be spending lots of money locally (oh yes, indeed), but the final clincher for online purchasing is that you don’t have to wonder if your local places will carry your gotta-have plants—a nice bit of insurance for us compulsive types.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Ranting with the best of them

Starting tomorrow, I become a regular poster on Garden Rant, a popular garden blog that concentrates on opinions, observations, and the politics of gardening. It was started by three savvy gardeners: Susan Harris, based near Washington, D.C; Michele Owens, of central New York; and Amy Stewart, of California. All three are garden experts and published writers (yes, print, not just blogs).

Where do I fit in? Well, I, too, like to opine on garden-related issues beyond my own little courtyard space, even search out the controversial aspects of the gardening world.

Or let's just say I like to babble away on any outlet that will have me.

This won't be the easiest gig in the world; one of the reasons I'm coming aboard is that Amy Stewart will be off on a book tour throughout February and March (indeed, little does she know that I am trying to arrange a stop in Buffalo!). February and March are not exactly high gardening season here in my Buffalo-based world, so finding topics will take some inspiration and research. If I'm not successful, I'll probably be de-ranted.

I'll let it be a challenge to me and, don't worry, I'll keep babbling away on this blog as well.

(Observant visitors will note that I've completely outed myself—full name, picture, job, etc. I no longer see the point of what was only a token anonymity, particularly since the Garden Ranters provide their information. It seemed to be the appropriate thing to do.)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

We get calls

Tonight I participated in a phone survey for Urban Roots, a local gardening group that is trying to start a co-op nursery. I did it as a personal favor; I don't know how many other people they called, and I believe it was limited to known gardeners rather than randomly chosen Buffalonians.

They asked:
•How much money I spend on plants per year (I guessed at least $500, but it's probably more)
•Where I bought my plants (mail order and locally)
•Which local nurseries I patronized (all the arguably best ones as well as Home Depot)
•What was the main criterion upon which I based my opinion of a nursery (selection)
•Did location make a difference (never; I enjoy a nice drive)
•How I ranked these variables: location (4), selection (1), price (2), and knowledgeable staff (3)
•How would I define co-op (a cooperative, a group of people who together participated more or less equally in achieving a common goal, perhaps all paying memberships, donating time, etc.)
•What non-perishable items I would buy from such a co-op (pots, organic fertilizers, stones)

Urban Roots wants to establish a co-op nursery within Buffalo's city limits; amazingly (or not), there is only one nursery actually in the city of Buffalo. All the major nurseries are in the suburbs.

I think it's a great concept. Will I patronize it? Maybe. Urban Roots sold plants from an empty lot last year and they were mostly common annuals bought from a wholesaler. There was nothing interesting and no information about the cultivars they did have. The woman who called admitted that some of the current organizers of Urban Roots didn't know much about plants, and asked if I would advise on selection. I said I would and that I'd be happy to help them. (edit: I have since heard that a board with some real experts is bveing assembled.)

In any case, I think wanting to start a nursery should come from love of plants and knowledge about plants. Not just because it's better for urban dwellers to go to a nursery within city limits rather than drive to the suburbs.

We'll see how it plays out; in the meantime, I'll support them in spite of my caveats.