Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Saturday, April 30, 2011

I got the gift of a water garden last year for my 50th birthday and I am having a great deal of fun with it. The designer told me that the best way to keep the pond clear of string pond weed was to have a gravel filter. Well, the filter has been helpful, but I read that all water gardens will eventually suffer from pond weed until the garden stabilizes, and that is indeed the case with mine. I did not like the look of green water (pond weed plus the bottom green scum) and I did not enjoy seeing the liner when I looked into the pond (see the first photo). So I bought pond dye, called Deep Water in black, and added it half strength (I wanted to see what it would do before I added it full strength)(middle two photos). Deep Water is a vegetable-based dye that is advertised as being harmless to wildlife, pets, etc. I think the black dye is nicer looking than the blue, which looks more artificial to me. I do like the fact that the dye obscures the liner (last photo), but I am still undecided. I noticed that it has already faded somewhat, only 10 days after adding it. It will fade over time, so if I decide I don't like it, I just need to wait.
Happy Gardening!

Monday, April 25, 2011

2011 Spring Ginter Plant Sale

The Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens Spring Plant Sale

For those of you in the Richmond area, the LGBG plant sale is this Thursday, April 28 (1-6 p.m.), Friday, April 29 (9 a.m.-5 p.m.),and Saturday, April 30 (9 a.m.-3 p.m.). IT is a pretty good sale- I always come away with something interesting! Happy gardening!

For more info, go to:


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Garden Politics

Garden Politics
I am back to reading about early colonial gardens in the US and the founding fathers (Andrea Wulf's new book Founding Gardeners: The revolutionary generation, nature, and the shaping of the American nation was just published and I was given a copy as a gift by a dear friend- the book is amazing, especially if you love gardening and history). I had understood before the political connection with garden and landscape design (or, at least, the symbolic associations we make between gardens and politics), but Wulf has reminded me more strongly of this and has filled in some important pieces.

What I find most interesting to think about is how current garden and landscaping practices are echoes of political or civic ideals through time (bear with me here). Take the American lawn ("Please!" al la Henny Youngman! How I dislike grass!). Imagine driving through a suburban area- what do you see in your minds's eye? Swathes of green lawn marching across all the yards. In the past, the lawn was only available to the very wealthy, those who had the money to hire gardeners to cut it (in a time before power tools), feed it and rip out any offending weed before it got established (no roundup [TM] then, either). The lawn itself was large, a type of conspicuous consumption: no poor or "middling sort" could afford this, as all their land was necessary for the production of food (plant or animal), medicines or for other utilitarian purposes (storage or out buildings, and areas to slaughter animals, make barrels, chop wood, do the wash, etc). The large, perfect lawn was a sign that shouted "wealth be here!"

This symbolic meaning of the lawn-as-wealth transmuted upon its arrival to America. Of course, at first, only those who could afford a lawn had one, either as a broad area of land near the house or as an accent in their pleasure gardens. Later, the lawn became a symbol of democracy, with every household having at least a small one, fronting the house, to create the visual image of a continuous green swathe across many yards, to show all were equal and this was a democracy. [We see this very same kind of transmutation, in words, with activist groups, but in an opposite direction: they take the pejorative term for their group, and adopt that very same term with bravado and courage, as a slap in the face of those who perpetuated the negative stereotype in the first place. "We riff raff can have a lawn too, you evil despots!"]

But the American political ideals of democracy and equality went even further in gardening and landscape design. Think of the Court of Versailles, and the last King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Known for their excesses, the king and queen had elaborate gardens. The gardens of Versailles, like many gardens at royal palaces, were places of excess. Not only did European royal gardens have statuary, elaborate water features, grottoes and mechanical devices to surprise visitors, but they were full of exotic plants from far-flung countries and many of these were tortuously pruned into twisted shapes, balls, boxes, hedges, fences, espalier and other unnatural forms. This style of gardening was seen by political thinkers and gardeners in America as a sign of despotism, venality and autocratic rule and, hence, was rejected by Americans. Thus the American style of allowing plants, most especially trees and shrubs, to grow as they will, with a little helpful pruning, to form their own, natural shape, was born: this was viewed as an analogy for freedom. (Remember the Liberty Trees in many communities? Also that the sign you were a revolutionary was wearing a pin or medallion representing a tree?) Wildness and wilderness were viewed as quintessentially American

There are many other examples of the garden as a political act. People grew a substantial amount of produce through Victory gardens during World War II and having a Victory Garden was a mark of your patriotism (indeed, of all the homeland efforts during WW II, including rubber and metal drives, saving household fats to use in the war effort, only Victory Gardens made a substantial contribution). Prior to WWII, the Utopian movement in America (and abroad) often focused on gardening, agriculture and other natural aspects of self-sufficiency. These Utopian movements can be thought of as a way communities of individuals tried to assert themselves against social trends with which they disagreed. Currently, the Slow Food movement and the impetus toward community gardens and farmers' markets are also political, as well as social, acts.

I believe it is now time for a new political ethos of American garden and landscape that echo earlier notions of wildness and freedom. Today a lawn (as well as other modern, garden practices) is costly, in time, money and environmental degradation. I have written about this before, that a lawn uses a lot of water and chemicals and is a good as a desert for many native creatures to feed. The lawn can now be rightly seen as representing the opposite of freedom and democracy: that is, it is a new kind of oppression. This is the oppression of neighborhood conformity (can anyone say "neighborhood association?") coupled with the oppression of being beholden to large chemical companies that make the crap that is spread on our lawns, and larger lawn care outfits who spray this stuff for a fee. Lawns commit us to pollute and tie us down to repetitive work for little gain (OK, I guess to some the lawn does look pleasing when it is at its optimally sprayed and watered self, though when I see a perfect green lawn, my reaction is not to want take of my shoes and run about it with bare feet- my reaction is yuck, wonder how many chemicals I would pick up if I walked there?).

You can have a low-care yard of trees and shrubs, like my friend Mary- her yard is a no-care collection of lovely pine trees, whose needles blanket the ground suppressing weeds, and azaleas that bloom in spring. No mowing, no care, just occasional work to remove limbs after storms. Talk about freedom! Or you could have a yard that DOES something, grows flowers or food to feed you or wildlife. Gardening does something for you too- soothes the soul, improves your health and grows food, which is important for poor families or those wishing to be more self-sustaining. Yes, this involves more work, but so does lawn care. Care to re-think your lawn this spring?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Plant More Plants: Always Good Advice

The Chesapeake Club is encouraging homeowners to plant more plants. Why? Planting more plants reduces storm water runoff, cleans the water and air, reduces the amount of fertilizer runoff (less lawn, less fertilizer) and creates a home for wildlife. Plus it's just prettier and more interesting! So take the pledge to plant more plants! Go to:


Happy Gardening! And thanks to Betsy Franzen for this info- she's at: Metro DC Lawn and Garden Blog

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Love It Or Hate It (Part 4): The Ubiquous Bradford Pear

In mid-March, the 'burbs are full of the ubiquitous Bradford Pear in its bloom. This tree, known for its early, reliable white flowers and desirable shape (an elongated lollipop tree), is everywhere... as is its unique "scent." What do you think? Love it or hate it?

My response: I give the Bradford pear two thumbs down. It is pretty and reliably blooms, but has the scent, once described to me by a child, of "stinky shrimp" and, indeed, it smells to me like rotting fish. This is not a desirable attribute in the spring time (or any time). But the Bradford pear has another strike against it- its wood is brittle. The day after an ice storm or heavy snow, I can walk the neighborhood and find anything from huge limbs to quarter sections to entire Bradfords down on the lawns. Sometimes the tree seem to torque as it splits, leaving large limbs and shredded trunk everywhere. It may bloom reliably, but it also falls apart reliably too- oh, and it is highly susceptible to wind damage. Here is a photo of a Bradford that, a few years ago, lost about a quarter section of the tree to ice.

There are better trees out there, that are not as susceptible to winter storm damage, like flowering cherries. Though these are more expensive to purchase at first, they might save you time, trouble and money by being stronger overall.

Happy gardening!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Love it or Hate It? (Number 3): Invite to the Forsythia Ball?

Love It or Hate It? The Forsythia Ball

I found many examples of this in a short walk around the corner today- a example of the tidily, geometrically pruned shrub, in this case, forsythias (I found many more examples of highly pruned versions versus the natural form). What do you think: love it or hate it?

My response? I feel sorry for the poor plant. The true beauty of these early spring flowering shrubs is when they are left alone, with minor pruning to reinvigorate the plant (a few stems removed at ground level, dead or broken branches removed) so that the lovely arching branches form, covered with flowers (no matter how brief the bloom time, the forsythia is a welcome early spring flower). Here is an example that is a bit better, in a better setting- the forsythia is planted somewhere it will not get in the way, and the branches allowed to arch over a fence:

I completely understand why a homeowner would severely prune a shrub. You buy a plant that is little more than a stick with roots in a pot and have difficulty imagining its final size. I have done this with a few passalong plants, for example bridal wreathe spirea. Forsythia can grow to be 10 feet tall and very wide around, and it is hard to keep it in a tightly constrained area and have it still look good- this is why people resort to pruning it into balls, boxes or rectangles. The moral- gardener, know thy plants! Do some research, and learn what the final size of a plant will be before you plant it. And don't plant it if you don't have the right site requirements for it- look for another, more suitable plant instead. You may end up doing what I have had to do in the past- fully removing a plant that is in the wrong space, which is a waste of time, money and energy! [Side note: in a tiny, postage stamp garden, it may work to severely prune some shrubs-I'll see if I can find examples this next week]
Happy gardening!

Saturday Lagniappe: Springtime and broken hearts

Springtime in Virginia is destined to break the gardener's heart. Beautiful "Bridal- Wreathe" Spirea :-) , and cold-blasted wisteria buds :-(