Sunday, November 30, 2008

Planthropology: The Myths, Mysteries, and Miracles of my Garden Favorites by Ken Druse

We’ve grown to expect beautiful books from Ken Druse, notable for his excellent photography, and an easygoing style that makes for a good read. I enjoyed this book and, as with Ken's other works, I’ll go back to it to recollect a fact, get a jolt of visual stimulation, or just to pass the time in pleasurable reading about gardening and plants. The publication is just in time for the holiday season. The eye-catching dust jacket, with big red poppies yearning for your attention, makes it just look perfect as a Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

Planthropology is a ramble through Ken Druse’s head – a very entertaining ramble – profusely illustrated with his beautiful photographs, and rather lavishly produced. Though the book has a clear structure, it’s really a miscellany (in a good sense) full of personal reminiscences and anecdotes, intriguing plant lore, history, and an occasional dose of science.

Ken tells the stories of plants. He writes about the heroic adventures of early plant explorers, about evolution and surviving “living fossils” like the ginkgo and dawn redwood, the uses of plants through history (as food, medicine, poison), the universal patterns governing the growth and structure of plants, seashells, and other natural phenomena. But trying to list its subject matter is hopeless; it’s far too wide-ranging for easy summary.

This book will be an immediate draw for the plant lovers among us. Some readers will enjoy just turning the pages, looking at the pictures, reading the captions and maybe a bit of the text here and there. Others will read the book from cover to cover, as I did, then return, dipping into the flow of prose almost at random. You can easily drop in at any point.

Although the book is structured into major sections organized around broad themes, Ken takes every opportunity to segue into diversions on particular plants, personal reminiscences, his experience growing his favorite plants, or any number of other interesting side stories. This loose structure is what makes the book so easily accessible.

Perhaps one of the greatest virtues of this book may be its clearly stated goal to capture the interest of people, especially children, who are unaware of plants. The last chapter in the book begins with a discussion of what Dr. Peter H. Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, calls “plant blindness” – the inability to most Americans to even see plants, much less know their names or anything about them. Planthropology is full of the kind of information about plants that could delight children, that parents could use to reduce “plant blindness” in future generations of potential gardeners and, in doing that, contribute to an awareness of the natural world, and a concern for preserving it.

(photo: Clarkson Potter)

Monday, November 24, 2008

Durer's Large Piece of Turf

Albrecht Durer painted A Large Piece of Turf in 1503. This water color is considered a masterpiece of his realistic work. His attention to detail and extraordinary skill in rendering what he saw (if this is what he saw; surly he made alterations for aesthetic reasons) allows us, at a distance of over 500 years, to immediately appreciate the image and even to identify most of the plants.

While the work is highly realistic in its detail, it uses artificial compositional elements, presenting the piece of turf against a blank background, contrasting the complex image against the void behind, and using the edges of the paper to frame and arbitrarily cut off the vegetation at the top and sides. We use similar skills in the garden to frame features, scenes and vistas, and to contrast foreground against background.

The contrasting shapes and textures of the foliage, the massing of the plants, and the tension among the vertical grasses provide lessons for the naturalistic gardener.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Groundcovers: lessons from Italy

In my never ending quest to find groundcover solutions to "hands-free" garden maintenance (I know, no such thing), I've been browsing through photos of groundcovering wildflowers and grasses I saw in Italy a few years ago. Looking forward to spring in western New Jersey, there may be lessons - certainly not ideas for specific plants - but observable growth habits, mixtures of forms and colors, that I can take from the Italian countryside.

I took these photos in late April of 2003 on a roadside just below Todi in Umbria. Previously we had always traveled to Italy in the fall, so this was my first experience of the Italian spring. I was amazed to find so many plants well adapted to the stressful environment of a busy roadside. Above and below is an unidentified Hawksbit (Leontodon). Notice the roadside gravel in the image below. This plant is growing only a foot or so from the traffic.

A striking carpet of grasses and a plant I can't identify (below). I can imagine this matrix of chaos and geometry in the foreground of a Renaissance tapestry or painting.

Italian bugloss (Anchusa azurea, I think), also right beside the road...

and a closeup showing more of the intense blue ...

Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas) growing out in the field ...

and beside the road with short, early grasses ...

I'm guessing this is a sanguisorba, but you tell me ...

All of this was adjacent to Tiber River Park ...

We couldn't see the Tiber. This was the view.

I imagine these matrices of plants were transient. It would be revealing to see what plants - if any - were growing along this roadside after the hot, dry summer. Though climate change hasn't yet brought Mediterranean summers to western New Jersey, I'm sure I'll need to consider a succession of cool and hot weather plants to get a weed suppressing cover through the entire growing season.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gardens Illustrated has resumed publication of podcasts of the Vista lecture series at the Garden Museum in London. This series of thought-provoking talks, accompanied by lively question and answer, is one in a series of lectures presented by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury.

David Cooper, professor of philosophy at the University of Durham and author of A Philosophy of Gardens, talks about whether we need a philosophy of gardens. (Of course he thinks we do.) Many American gardeners probably have no interest in a highfalutin lecture on the philosophy of gardens, but I recommend you give this a listen if you have a serious interest in gardening, either from the perspective of a visitor of gardens or as a gardener.

Click on this link to go to the Gardens Illustrated Vista podcast page, where you can download or listen to the podcast.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Federal Twist Bloom Day

Not much is blooming mid-November on Federal Twist Road except this very non-native Camellia sasanqua 'Winter's Star.' Planted as a single slim whip last spring, it's grown slowly into a slightly taller slim whip and has been flowering for about a month now.

'Winter's Star' is one of the winter hardy camellias developed by Dr. William Ackerman of the U.S. National Arboretum. I bought this one from Fairweather Gardens, a superb mail-order nursery in southern New Jersey. These camellias are supposed to be hardy into USDA zone 6 so I hope that, with some winter protection in the first couple of years, it will survive and grow into a sizable shrub.

Having grown up in Mississippi, I do miss the camellias I came to know there. Though this one is completely out of place ecologically, I've placed it near the house, just outside the study window, where its Japanese origin complements the Japanese architectural influences of the house. (It would be totally out of place out in my naturalistic garden.)

Thanks to Carol at May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Thinking about Gardens

What I want for Christmas. Garden bloggers who are tired of posting pictures of blooming flowers (unless they do it to make a point or communicate useful information), blogs that tell us about your part of the world (preferably with pictures), nurseries that ALWAYS provide information on a plant's natural habitat and the conditions under which it is likely to thrive, blog posts that address whole gardens or large parts of gardens rather than one or two isolated features or plants, garden magazines concerned with big picture concepts rather than strictly edited "how to" articles (such as Fine Gardening), a less utilitarian gardening culture, people who read and think about garden design, the experience of being in a garden, the reasons for gardening. More thought and less sentimentality.

Friday, November 07, 2008

What's the story?

The sun broke through the roof of cloud near sunset, striking the tops of the trees with a brilliant red light. A transient phenomenon, an opportunity to grab the camera and take a few photos.

But it can be more; it can evoke the narrative of the garden. This is a story about the past - ghosts, memories, of native people, adventurers, settlers - and about physical process and geological time. About what to value - what was here, and what is here now.

Red was a holy color to the Lenni Lenape, who hunted and fished these hills; it was also a color worn for war. Eighteenth century settlers would have seen this sunset as a sign of their god's presence. Would each have looked on it with awe, fear, a sense of beauty?

So how does this story inform a garden? If I could afford it, I'd erect stone monuments throughout. Different styles, different sizes and shapes, almost like a cemetery. Not depressing at all, at least not to me; the cemetery was my first experience of a "gardened" landscape.

My new garden may be unsettling to some, may make them uncomfortable, may make them wonder what's wrong. But I hope it will be a journey into the nature of this place.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Gardens Illustrated - Conceptual Gardens Podcasts and Galleries

At long last Gardens Illustrated has published podcasts of The New Conceptualist Garden Symposium, sponsored by the Society of Garden Designers at the Tate Britain last summer.

Tim Richardson's introduction and each speaker's presentation have been edited as separate podcasts, making it easier to navigate the multiple speakers. While you can conveniently download these from the iTunes site, the Gardens Illustrated website also contains links to image galleries accompanying each presentation. You can link to the Conceptual Garden page, or go directly to the list of separate podcasts, which can be played on your computer while looking at the accompanying photo galleries, or downloaded individually.

Don't miss a talk by Fergus Garrett at the Royal Horticultural Society Wisley Dahlia Trials, also on the webpage.

Certainly not native, but ...

An unexpected combination of Toad lily (Tricyrtis) and Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail' at Chanticleer in late September.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

That time of year

Scurrying around from work to family obligations, waiting for the plumber, and work, of course, eight hours a day, five days a week ... days of fools errands on the weekend. I can't even find time to get the rest of the bulbs planted. And it snowed this week, then rained a lot. Winter dissolution is coming on. It's that in between time. I hope to get back to gardening tasks next weekend. Today, a 3+ hour drive to Catskill, New York.


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