Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Suburbia, red in tooth and claw

On a recent trip to the US I found myself in several conversations with people about animals in the garden. Some astonishment that we do not have coyotes in Britain, nor racoons, or groundhogs, and that our deer are relatively small and tend to run off at the mere glimpse or whiff of a human, and unless you are very unlucky, do little damage to the garden. There's a lot more wildlife out there in those American woods, and for gardeners a lot more capacity for damage. The deer for a start, are enormous, and remarkably fearless. No wonder so many gardeners get obsessed with them, or more accurately how to keep them out. Actually they are a much more serious problem, as nature reserves and other areas of habitat can suffer some pretty serious impact from continued deer browsing - to the point of major ecological damage.

Soon after I got back I got an email from Helen Yoest in Raleigh, NC, with a book review about this very issue. the woods are reclaiming the suburbs and the wildlife problems that result, or is it the suburbs invading the woods? Interesting stuff, and something which follows on from my recent blog with the rather lurid Martha Schwartz quote. The first few generations of European settlers felled every tree in sight, farmed, then realised that much of the land was too poor, and moved west, to plough up the much more fertile prairie. The woodland fought back. Very successfully. Whereas in Britain, woodland re-establishes itself through a fairly slow process, in the US, I feel that if all human beings disappeared one day (selective gamma ray burst that leaves other species standing?), then ten years later there would almost be no trace left of their presence. Trees re-establish so quickly. The upshot is that much of the area where people live is actually forest: roads, houses, gardens etc. are carved out of the forest. The wildlife, deer especially, have bounced back from the days when they hunted by anyone and everyone, to enormous numbers, numbers which in the absence of enough predators (i.e. not enough coyotes, bears, wolves, guys with guns who can shoot straight) have rocketed. Not good for gardeners, not actually very good for the environment, or even for the health of deer populations. For much of the wildlife, humanity is no longer a threat, but a source of food and habitat.

I am reminded of the British equivalent, the urban fox; cities support far more foxes than the countryside - all those bins to raid, discarded take-away meals, food left out for hedgehogs etc. No longer afraid, the wild animals creep back. Except that having exterminated all the big predators centuries ago (wolves, wild cats, bears, lynx) the urban wildlife we have is very unbalanced. Bring back the wolf? except that the farmers would complain (more than farmers complain anyway) and I somehow don't see large predators being welcome in British cities and suburbs.

Deer clearly need intelligent culling, and a more natural source of meat cannot be imagined. But in both the US and Britain, any mention of a cull brings storms of protest - often from people who are quite happy to sit down and eat meat from farmed animals. Another symptom of a failure to engage with the realities of life on earth.

What is so strange about this suburban woodland which so many US citizens choose to live in, is the extreme contrast with areas deemed to be landscaped: the vast deserts of grass mown to within an inch of its life, the extensive mulchscape which surround 'plantings' of evergreen shrubs ruthlessly pruned into meatballs. Much US landscaping and its management seems to express almost a hatred of vegetation, or as often with hatred, is it really fear (as with misogynist men). Or is it just job-creation? In the land of the ruthless corporate downsize, it seems strange that so many hands are paid to keep doing what is so apparently pointless. At one stage I got talking to a guy who worked as a landscape architect, he was fairly new into his career and was clearly on the bottom rung, designing landscapes for MacDonalds outlets etc.; he had almost no room for creativity - local zoning/planning requirements are incredibly prescriptive about how many shrubs had to be planted, what size, spacing etc. Driving through the junkscape outside Raleigh: endless auto retail outlets, strip malls, fast food outlets, box stores, made me feel very depressed. Such waste of space, such mediocrity on an epic scale, such obsession with control, above all the CONFORMITY. The conformity that we expected from Soviet communism, but which these supposedly free citizens embraced.

 Will it ever change? I thought about the various people over the years I have met who have fought for the right to grow meadow or prairie in their front yards. It is a battle that is still being fought, against the totalitarian instincts of lawn ordinances and neighbourhood associations. Thinking of the Highline, and the other projects which it is beginning to inspire which embrace wildness, I realised that it may be a very slow process, but things are changing. And - that I, with my writing and lecturing, am part of this process. My first American lecture tour was in 1996, as part of a group, organised by Horticulture magazine and called 'Wild Style'. My realisation made me feel less depressed, and left me with a strange feeling of subversive power; I, chuntering down the freeway in my anonymous rental Ford Fiesta (BTW Ford have a green roof on their Dearborn, MI, plant) am doing something about this. The ability of nature to take back lost ground is so obvious here, much more so than at home, it only needs permission. Let's give it, but remember, it will have some consequences which we need to be brave and sensible about.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Plant Delights Nursery

A particularly delicious Trillium underwoodii form.
Tony Avent's Plant Delights Nursery near Raleigh in North Carolina is legendary. 20,000 plus taxa. Primarily for the huge range of plants of course, but also for its display garden, its whacky sculpture and provocative, hate-mail-generating cartoon catalogue covers. Plant Delights shows that it is possible to stand out againt the herd and run a successful business selling a huge range of plants, many of them distinctly slow to grow.
Asarum takoi 'Roundabout'
Organisation is key here; everything is incredibly tidy, and very well-labelled. With an emphasis on woodland species, you can wander around, see and photograph more new plants in a couple of hours than many would believe possible. Researchers get involved too – for them the meticulously labelled clumps of innumerable geographic and other forms of plants are perfect material.

One of several dry berms, mostly but not entirely for dry land stuff.

I'm very keen on ex situ conservation” says Tony, “although everyone bangs on about conserving plants in their place”. He has a point, habitat destruction can wipe out a rare variant of a species out overnight, but well-labelled collections in a protected location like this, will ensure survival. What's more, the public display of such a vast array of biodiversity is powerfully educational in its own right.

The soil here is very sandy, very acid, and was stripped of its nutrients by a century plus of tobacco farming (this is the greediest of crops). Wood mulch is used for the paths, and as it rots it gets shovelled onto borders, so steadily building up the humus content. Apart from some berms of imported soil and gravel, largely used for dry habitat plants, little effort is made to provide special soil conditions for plants; Tony is adamant that one size pretty well fits all here, he stabs a finger at an agave sitting next to an azalea on one of the berms to prove the point.

These are Rohdea.
 The whole, ten acre plus, site is managed as a rain garden, so as little water is allowed to run off as possible, and all water from the greenhouses (the only environment in which synthetic fertilizers are used) is cleaned by running through beds of wetland vegetation.

Water detention is a part of the nursery's rain garden approach to water management

I was there frustratingly early in the year. Trilliums were just beginning to show, and they illustrate perfectly Tony's passion for genetic diversity, with vast numbers of distinct forms on display, and thousands of seedlings coming up in the glasshouses. With their often exquisite leaf markings and mysteriously-coloured flowers, these are the ultimate collector plants. The US south-east is a major centre of diversity for them.
This is a floating island made from old drinks bottles, gently moving round the largest pool in the wind. 
Natural biodiversity may be the central passion, but Tony also oversees a number of breeding programmes to improve the plants available to gardeners; primarily with Epimedium, Baptisia and Hellebore. “With hellebores” he says, “we practice redneck breeding, just putting together groups of plants we want to cross, isolated from others, and let the bees get on with it.”

I can't wait to get back at another time of year.

Trillium maculatum
Episode Seven of Dig, Plant and Bitch, the world's only soap opera for gardeners is now available.
Iris stakes her claim
For years, Iris and Johnny Dalton have rather treated the almost-abandoned walled garden at Mere Castle as their own territory. Now aware that the Watkins-Smythes are thinking of renting it out, Iris decides to take matters into her own hands. Elsewhere, garden designer Sebastian Gilling-Jones is discovering that being a TV gardening personality pays a heavy price; nurseryman James Treasby increasingly feels like he is running a remedial class in basic horticulture, the Watkins-Smythes and their rivals, Wayne and Petunia Martin are playing a war of nerves over supplies of cakes for their respective tea-rooms, while Petunia makes a discovery that might be good news for local connoisseur gardeners, but will not be welcomed at Treasby’s Plants of Distinction.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ever green in North Carolina

Prunus mume, an exquisite early-flowering plum,  thrives in the South, where the hot sticky summers are so much like its native Far East, almost ungrowable in England because of fungal diseases,. So unfair!

Don't they just luurve their evergreens in the South?
Am currently in North Carolina doing some lectures, brought here by the Davidson Symposium next week. I last came her 21 years ago, on the my first trip ever to the US. Its one one of those places which is a real gardening hot-spot. At the weather feels like home - cold - but the camellias are flowering well, and that's what reminds you that you are in the South. Look more closely, and you see lots of of evergreens. They are a big part of the garden culture here. Partly I suppose its because there are some very good native evergreens here, such as Magnolia grandiflora and M. virginiana, some good hollies including the charmingly named Ilex vomitoria. Partly also I suppose its a mark of distinction - most evergreens get treated very badly by the weather north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Buxus sempervirens 'Dee Runk'

Box, or boxwood as the natives so quaintly call it, has always been grown from, and often grown in a different way to the way Europeans treat it - it hasn't always been clipped, but sometimes allowed to grow free; I remember years ago visiting the Cathedral Garden in DC and seeing box 'grown loose', and rather liking it. If you always clip box you are not actually going to be that interested in what shapes it adopts naturally, whereas if you let it loose, then the shape is going to be very important. So people here started collecting and selecting different cultivars, so there has always been much more awareness here than back home of the genetic diversity of box.
Arbutus unedo 'Elfin King'. Whoever named this was a bit optimistic about it being dwarf, but the leaves are very distinctive.

One place I was really confronted with the incredible diversity of evergreens available here, and indeed of woody plants generally (try and find a nursery that does an interesting range of woodies in Britain now) was Camellia Forest Nursery, where Bri Gluvna Arthur had invited me to drop in. I didn't go to see camellias, which quite honestly, if I wanted a flower like a piece of soap I'd buy the soap. Polytunnel packed with loads of plants which i have never heard of - which always gets me excited, especially since most of them would be growable back home: Distyllum, Eurya, Gordonia, Schima, Serissa, then loads of species of genera where we have only a limited selection back home like Osmanthus and Illicium, or general we really couldn't grow outside like Gardenia  and Cinnamomum.
Ilex 'Carolina Sentinel' - a very nice upright-growing holly. The hollies here are wonderful.
Then to be fair to Camellia, BTW, of which there are 100+ species, there were some wonderful camellias here. I've always loved 'Cornish Snow' with little white single flowers, many of the species look like that, but with many different variations in their foliage: nice n'smelly C. odorata, C. fraterna and many more.
Not just a nice smell - Gardenia augusta 'Michael'
Would you believe it, this is a camellia - C. sasanqua 'Silverado'.
While a lot of evergreens were showing signs of winter stress, boxes in particular, this shrub (trained as a standard) looked incredibly fresh and unfazed; I was very impressed by the quality of the foliage, it's an intergeneric hybrid involving Raphiolepis and Eriobotrya (loquat) - x Raphiobotrya 'Conda'.

Another chance to appreciate the southern love of evergreens, and the incredibly adventurous US nursery industry is the Paul C. Ciener Botanic Garden where I did my first lecture of this little tour. The botanic garden isn't there yet, but it will be; they have a car park and a very nice building, and the first plantings, a plan, and what looks like the ability to pull in sponsorship and achieve things. Horticulturalist Adrienne Roethling has got the enviable job of gardening the place into existence, she worked for Plant Delights Nursery for 8 years ("we call it graduate school round here" Bri Arthur says), so almost every plant is one which is new on me, and all incredibly well-labelled. Its all a very good start to what should be an exceptional small-town botanic garden. Kernersville is a lucky place.
Look! the agave has impaled that SUV! If only. The car park at the Ciener Botanic Garden. Notice the kerb insets for sempervivum.
Euphorbia rigida, in the planting above, good early colour, and superior to myrsinites. Must get it.
A great idea planting up the border between the fence and the sidewalk.The hell-strip though is going to take some more determined plant selection though. Yucca rostrata is clearly visible, and its soft enough not to risk impaling small dogs.
There will be a garden here one day.
And it will look like this!