Monday, December 22, 2014

Slightly Famous -- Interviewed by Dave Ledoux on BackToMyGarden

A little while back, I had the honor of being interviewed by Dave Ledoux for his entertaining and educational BackToMyGarden podcast show.

In case you'd like to hear the dulcet tones of my mellifluous voice, here's a link to episode #61: Growing the Garden of Aaron.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Still Useful After All These Years -- Vintage Advice on Hedges from the 1960s!

Cat hedge
Wrap it up and put a bow on it.
Photo courtesy of Lance McCord

Sometimes I love the Internet.

How else could I stumble across a 1960s report from the University of Tennessee detailing the results of years of trials into hedging experiments with popular landscape plants.

Much of the report is still useful today, nearly 50 years from when it was first published.

I learned that Abelia x grandiflora (still very much in use today) and Spiraea thunbergii (fallen out of favor) showed no ill effects from a 7-week drought.

On the other hand, ornamental quince (Chaenomeles) was nearly completely defoliated by the drought, which is interesting since numerous sources list Chaenomeles as being drought tolerant.

(Of course, the report does not say - as far as I could tell - whether the Chaenomeles was permanently damaged or only temporarily set back by the drought. Some gardeners might be willing to accept a temporary defoliation is the plant is just trying to prevent water loss (transpiration) from its leaves, but if it will leaf out again once the drought passes or in the spring...)

Shark hedge
Something fishy going on with this hedge
Photo courtesy of Len Matthews

The study also details the effect of cold weather on the hedging plants, particularly due to the winter of 1962-63, which if my secondary research is accurate, reached an official low temperature of -5 degrees Fahrenheit in Knoxville (where the study took place).

The winter hardiness research showed that plants like Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon Holly) suffered hardly any damage, which is interesting since most sources only list Yaupon as being hardy to zone 7. (In other words, it should have suffered major damage below zero degrees Fahrenheit, but apparently it did not.)

On the other hand, the cold winter apparently killed Lagerstroemia indica (Crape Myrtle) to the ground, which was not surprising. What was surprising was that it also reportedly killed Pyracantha crenato-serrata (Firethorn) to the ground.

Now Pyracantha is not used much today around Middle Tennessee, probably due to those vicious thorns. To give you an idea of its relative popularity, I'd say more than 50% of the houses in my neighborhood have crape myrtles on their property (and yes, many of those did suffer major damage due to the -2 Fahrenheit temperatures we encountered last winter, particularly the crapes that had been pruned back), whereas I've seen a grand total of one property with a few Pyrcanthas (looking glorious laden with berries) by the front foundation.

But I don't think Pyrcacanthas fell out of favor due to lack of reputed cold hardiness. Most sources I've seen list Pyracanthas as being hardy to zone 6 -- so they should have fared better than the Yaupons. But they didn't. That kind of first-hand scientific reports of heat and cold tolerance is invaluable.

(I should note that most Pyracanthas sold today are P. coccinea, not the P. crenato-serrata species of days. past. Perhaps coccinea has greater cold tolerance? It's hard to find much information on crenato-serrata via Google these days.)

I believe in hedges - just like John Lennon did
I think John Lennon had a song about hedges...
Photo courtesy of NCM3

But what is also interesting about the 1960s guide is what it omits.

Guess how many mentions of bees?


How about butterflies?


Birds, moths, small mammals?


In fact, there are no mentions of pollinators or wildlife at all. It's as though they don't exist. The concept of planting a shrub / hedge for anything other than privacy or aesthetic reasons seems to have not even crossed the minds of the authors.

(There's also no mention of invasiveness, which could explain why the guide recommends Euonymus alatus, i.e., Burning Bush, which is still sold in many nurseries today despite its reputed invasive characteristics.)


Then again, the population of Tennessee in the 1960s was only a little more than half what it is today (~3.5 million Tennesseans in 1960 vs ~6.5 million Tennesseans in 2013).

My guess is that there was a LOT more open and wild space. People probably didn't feel the need to garden specifically to attract or support wildlife because it probably seemed as though most of the landscape already supported wildlife, ergo people could afford to devote their relatively small piece of the pie toward beauty or functionality (i.e., food, fuel, building materials for people).

The population of Tennessee, the United States and the planet continues to climb inexorably higher year after year. Even as human fertility rates drift lower, our demographic inertia carries us toward a planet more crowded with people with less space for all the other inhabitants.

Ergo, I believe it is incumbent upon all of us gardeners to do what we can to build and tend our gardens in a way that not only pleases our eyes and our palates, but also offers sustenance and habitat to the many creatures great and small who also call Earth home.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last of the 2014 Travel Reports - Fiery Foliage and Banana Trees in Delft!

Thanks for keeping me company as I've shared some of my favorite horticulture or eco-travel memories from Germany and the Netherlands over the past couple of months.

This is my final travel report for 2014 and it's a quickie.

Although I spent most of my time in the Netherlands in Amsterdam (plenty to see and do there!), I did take a quick day trip to the nearby cities of Delft and The Hague.

Both have their appeal. I think I'd like to head back to The Hague someday, if only to sit once more surrounded by Vermeers at the Maruitshuis museum!

As for Delft, we traveled there especially to visit the Royal Delft pottery factory (very nice and a great source of Made in the Netherlands souvenirs).

We then took a small detour (which turned into a longer detour due to my lack of navigational skills) to visit the Botanical Gardens at the Delft University of Technology.

Truth be told, the gardens were a bit of a letdown to me, although I didn't really have time to explore fully since we had to make our way to The Hague before the Maruitshuis closed, but I did find two noteworthy plants that I'd like to share with you all without further ado:

Banana trees in the Netherlands?! It sure looks like it.
Of course, these are in large planter boxes, so presumably they can be moved inside for the winter.
Botanical name is Ensete ventricosum, known as a Red Abyssinian Banana or Ethiopian Banana.
Kew says it serves as a staple food crop in Ethiopia.
This is actually the same plant that I saw growing in Kentucky this past August at Yew Dell!

There was no sign on this plant, but I'm fairly certain it's some sort of Fothergilla.
I couldn't say if it's F. major or F. gardenii, but I could say that the fiery multihued foliage is spectacular.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Travel Report from Amsterdam - Hortus Botanicus Garden

One of the horticultural highlights of my three-week trip to Europe was visiting the Hortus Botanicus botanical garden in Amsterdam.

Though the garden is quite petite by U.S. botanical garden standards (only 3 acres), but it does manage to pack an impressive 4,000 species into that space. It also definitely has an edge over North American botanical gardens in terms of longevity since it was founded back in 1638, more than a century before the United States declared its independence from Great Britain.

Here are some of my favorite sights from the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam:

As soon as we stepped into the garden, my wife noticed this frog hopping across a gravel path. Always a good sign when the local garden ecosystem can support frogs!

New England Aster (Symphotricum novae-angliae), it's a pretty plant if you focus on the tippy-top and ignore the 5-6 feet of dead and dying foliage underneath. Also note that the garden had to corral the plants with a cord to keep them from flopping all over the place. In short, a vivid illustration of why there might be better ex-Asters for your garden. 
Honeybee hive hidden in a corner of the garden

This is Decaisnea fargesii, an Asian tree known colloquially (for obvious reasons) as Blue Bean, Blue Sausage Fruit or the unforgettable Dead Man's Fingers. Having only read about this in books, it was fun to see it in person for the first time! Not only does it make a eye-catching ornamental, but the fat long blue seedpods can be split open to reveal an edible and potentially sweet pulp (along with reportedly inedible seeds). I did not sample the fruit in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, Blue Sausage tree apparently cannot tolerate drought or hot summer climates, which I suppose explains why it's growing in cool Amsterdam and why I've never seen it in Tennessee.
Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam has a marvelous Butterfly Greenhouse. Here you can see butterflies emerging from their chrysalises. 

The butterflies are raised on site in a separate greenhouse that's normally off-limits to the public (although I was able to sneak a peak). These are some Very Hungry Caterpillars!
I had a chance to pet this fuzzy caterpillar and see the chrysalis that this species builds. The caterpillar felt soft as a teddy bear. (But don't assume that any fuzzy-looking caterpillar is safe to touch -- some of them can pack a hidden punch!)

I believe this is the same species of butterfly as in the photo directly above. Notice how the colors fade with age. 

Here are some amazing Glasswinged butterflies with transparent wings that appear to have just emerged recently from their chrysalises.

One of my favorites - the Owl Butterfly!

Another Owl Butterfly

Zebra Longwing butterfly, I believe

This was a rather interesting tree. First, as you can see, it's been grafted and the graft is quite obvious since the very bottom of the trunk looks dramatically different from the rest of the tree. I don't remember the identity of the rootstock, but the scion (the top part of the plant) is apparently a species called Manna Ash or Plume Ash (Fraxinus ornus). I'd never seen this kind of tree before and outside of its handsome ornamental characteristics, I was interested to read that the tree apparently produces a sugary sap (known as Manna) that can be used as a gentle laxative!

This is a robust clump of Kalimeris pinnatifida, also known as Double Japanese Aster. Highly recommended by Allan Armitage at University of Georgia. I hope to try this in my garden at some point. Clearly it seems to have a flopping problem, at least when grown in a somewhat shady spot. (Maybe it's more upright with more sunshine?) Regardless, the foliage certainly looks much better than that of the New England Aster.


This is Osmanthus heterophyllus, also known as False Holly for obvious reasons. I'd like to try some of this in my garden, but it's very hard (impossible?) to find locally except for the highly variegated "Goshiki" variety. Goshiki is nice and I may end up buying that by default, but I wish that some of the local nurseries started carrying one of the green cultivars.
Finally, I bring you a Plant Behind Bars!
Yep, it's a caged Wollemi Pine.
Don't worry - the plant is not dangerous to people!
Rather, it's people that might be dangerous to the plant, and since this is a very rare and endangered species -- once thought to be extinct -- the Hortus Botanicus is determined to protect it.
It was quite a neat experience to see this so-called living fossil, a link to a faraway era.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Travel Report Amsterdam -- Passion on the Streets, Formal Gardens in the Rear

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers in the States!

Now to continue with sharing horticultural tidbits from my European sojourn...

So I was wandering around Amsterdam on a canalside street one day, when what should I see, but a passionvine!

Passion(vine) running rampant on an Amsterdam street!

Closeup on the marvelous passionflower. This is not the Tennessee wildflower Passiflora incarnata (which has a purple flower). Based on my research at Tradewinds, I think it's actually a white form of the Blue Passionflower (Passiflora caerulea). Confusing? You betcha.

Now the townhouses in Amsterdam are packed cheek by jowl and present mostly sober faces to the streets, but some of the townhouses are open to the public as museums, and in their backyards, you'll find charming gardens. True, the gardens are a bit formal for my taste, but they're still a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. Here's what you might see in the backyard of an Amsterdam canal house:

You might see a curvaceous design on a grand scale using gravel and boxwoods and topiary to make an artistic statement.

Here's an elevated view of that same garden showing you the carefully espaliered trees along the walls and the hard straight lights of the modern buildings outside the garden juxtaposed against the curves and swirls of the garden itself.
You might see a tree loaded with apples.

You might see a healthy thick hedge of Aucuba japonica.

You might see these red.... rose hips? (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)

You might see a charming zinnia, which reminded me of home.

Another long narrow garden between two rows of townhouses. This one keeps the theme (which they seem to love in both Germany and the Netherlands) of low clipped hedges. It's got more greenery, less color than the other formal garden. I think the thing I like best about this garden is actually the long pond in the middle of the garden with a small fountain at one end and a globe statue at the other.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Travel Report from Amsterdam - Andaz, Mercure Arthur Frommer, De Kas and Senses

From Germany, we made our way by train to Amsterdam.

It was my first time in the city of canals and bicycles (not counting getting stuck overnight once at Schiphol airport due to an Italian airline strike).

As I mentioned last month, whenever I travel I try to look for eco-friendly accommodations. In Amsterdam, that meant picking the Mercure Arthur Frommer, which has made a commitment to recycling hotel waste and using green cleaning products.

In fact, the entire hotel represents a sort of large-scale recycling project since the guest rooms are packed into 19 former weaver's houses that were built in the 17th Century. That's adaptive reuse!

As you can imagine with such an old building, the Mercure Arthur Frommer is right near the center of town, while still being on a quiet side street that allows for a good night's sleep.

I liked the artistic touches in the rooms:

The decoration in the sink at the Mercure Arthur Frommer reminded me both of Delft pottery and also of Amsterdam's nautical heritage

The headboard of the bed at the Mercure Arthur Frommer was covered with a large scale reproduction of a work of art. Just the inspiration you need to explore the marvelous collection at the nearby Rijksmuseum, with its famous "Night Watch" painting by Rembrandt.

The other hotel where we stayed in Amsterdam was the Andaz, a fancy Hyatt property with a marvelous Alice in Wonderland themed garden. Only, in this case, as you can see it's actually Alice in AMSTERDAM. :)

Here's a real bed of herbs in the Alice in Amsterdam garden!

The Alice in Amsterdam garden has some big ducks.

Nothing particularly whimsical about this patch of perennial geraniums (I presume) in the Alice in Amsterdam garden, but it sure does look pretty.

A fireplace, a wrought iron bench and a chessboard-motif floor? These are just some of the quirky elements that await you in the Alice in Amsterdam garden.

A pretty hydrangea blooms alongside the fireplace.

The Amsterdam Press Office kindly arranged for me to sample the fare at De Kas, a restaurant built around the appeal of ultra-fresh produce. We took a tram from the center of town to get to De Kas. When we disembarked from the tram, we had to walk on a bridge across a pond. Looking down, I spotted this water bird with its young. I believe it was a Eurasian Coot!

(The Press Office also furnished me with a complimentary 72-hour I amsterdam City Card, which was super helpful not only because it provided free public transport and a free canal cruise, but also because it gave free entry to a number of the most popular Amsterdam attractions including the Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam, National Maritime Museum, Hortus Botanicus and Dutch Resistance Museum.)

Eurasian Coot feeding its young.

Approaching De Kas, the first thing you notice is a large greenhouse. This is where the restaurant grows some of the produce for your meal. Many of the vegetables not produced in the greenhouse are grown (in season) at a farm the restaurant cultivates not too far from the city in the Beemster Polder (land reclaimed from the sea),
All those bicycles outside the greenhouse? Many of the restaurant patrons probably arrived there by bike. That's Amsterdam for you.

A tray of the restaurant's apples greets you when you walk through the door.

In the greenhouse, you'll find cucumbers...

And lots and lots of tomatoes, beans, eggplants and other healthy fresh produce.

I found these melons, persimmons and nuts in the greenhouse near the kitchen. According to the founder and owner Gert Jan Hageman, the restaurant only harvests enough food each morning for that day's dishes, so you know your vegetables and fruits are as fresh as can be!
The restaurant has won praise and attention from international media such as The Telegraph.

Continuing to explore the greenhouse, I came upon these great looking beans. Everything seems so lush and healthy. 

The De Kas manifesto, printed on its menu.
De Kas knows that not all tomatoes taste (or look) the same! 

Not only are the fresh ingredients delicious at De Kas, they're also given the artistic presentation they deserve.
Kicking it old style - traditional Dutch wooden shoes at the entrance to the De Kas greenhouse.

 In addition to De Kas, I made a point to seek out other eco-friendly restaurants during my time in Amsterdam. This search led me to Senses, an aptly-named restaurant inside the Albus Hotel that features organic, local and sustainable ingredients.

I thought Senses did a great job of engaging all the senses - nice relaxing lounge music, sexy decor, plush materials and of course delicious food. I'll be honest - I can't recall whether the fish served here was herring or sardine, but either way, it was fantastic. Being so close to the sea, you can find some wonderful seafood in the Netherlands.

I don't know if I'd ever eaten goose before, but the version that Senses served was fantastic. And as you can see, it was a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth. In fact, the colors and arrangement on the plate are truly a work of art.

Senses did not skimp on the details. Notice the high quality tea and the fair trade honey. That's a sweet deal.

Full disclosure: 

The Mercure Arthur Frommer hotel provided me with a two-night complimentary stay and two additional nights at a discounted media rate in exchange for this review. I did not receive any special treatment from the Andaz hotel.

As mentioned, the Amsterdam Press Office arranged for me to have a complimentary lunch at De Kas. The management of the Albus Hotel was kind enough to provide me with a complimentary dinner at Senses restaurant. 

All of that being said, all of the opinions expressed in this blog post are my own and I stand by them wholeheartedly. I would not hesitate to suggest De Kas or Senses to a friend visiting Amsterdam. They were two of my favorite meals from my entire three weeks in Europe - both for their eco-friendly qualities and in terms of taste, ambiance and service. 

As for the hotels, frankly I preferred the Andaz to the Mercure Arthur Frommer, but the Andaz can literally be almost four times as expensive. For a three-night stay around the Christmas holiday, for instance, you might have to pay almost $400/night at the Andaz, but only a little more than $100/night at the Arthur Frommer. For the location alone, that makes the Arthur Frommer a great value in pricey Amsterdam!