Devils Workshop

has been moved to new address

Sorry for inconvenience...

E-Garden Almanac: January 2009

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
Learn more here!

My Photo
Location: Iowa

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Pursuit of My Sissinghurst

A recent conversation with a colleague prompted me to think about how I make gardens, present and future. A wise person told me once to find inspiration in everything, to seek it out in whatever was around, and borrow what you could make off with your eyes.

I guess Pam Duthie often says "steal with your eyes". The world is full of ideas all waiting to be spun in a thousand new ways, particularly so in the making of gardens. That's why I don't feel too ashamed looking back through the writings of William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Vita Sackville-West, all saints in the canon of garden manor writers of the early 20th century. Of the three, Robinson probably writes the best. Jekyll certainly wins when it comes to original ideas. But Vita trumps all because she collated her predecessors' ideas into a living legacy known as Sissinghurst.

But don't think for a minute that I'm starry eyed with thoughts of my own English garden. Sissinghurst, while obviously a beloved paragon, represents much more than just a collection of progressive ideas of its heyday. It was the culmination of Vita's gardening life, something she wrote about many times. While Sissinghurst was the largest garden she and her husband Harold created, her first garden was at Long Barn not far from Sevenoaks in Kent. Since she wasn't a childhood gardener and lacked professional training, Sevenoaks was a studio of sorts and a blank canvas. Vita gardened in a very practical way, something that made her popular with the readers of her weekly gardening column. She advocated experimentation, ruthlessness, serendipity, while all in the confines of an elaborate scheme. She admits that she made many mistakes at Sevenoaks, blunders that could've been avoided with a little more thought and ideas that just didn't quite fall into place. But it was a start, the workings of an expressive drive that would soon mature into its own. When she got to Sissinghurst, it did.

I wish we thought about gardening more like Vita did almost 75 years ago. Why does it have to be so formulaic and complex? Sure we live in a complex world but isn't it complex by nature and default? I'm a horticultural scientist. For me gardening is a way to explore nature, to curiously observe things like genetic diversity and ecology in my own backyard. Those are the things that fascinate me, and I like to think of my garden as my own little plant zoo or a laboratory for my creative expressions. Gardening has no greater context than that which we give it. Your way of gardening is different than mine and your garden probably shows it. But in the midst of drumming up the gardening bandwagon, we've lost a few green-hearted folks, those who just want to be outside amidst something of their own creation. The specifics don't matter so much, though they certainly revere and appreciate them. That's why Sissinghurst is so great. For scholars like me, it's a successful experiment in art and plantsmanship. For gardeners seeking ideas, it's a mother lode of inspirational moments. For people with an affinity for green, it's heaven.

I think if she were alive today, Vita Sackville-West might pen a critical review of horticulture. But what an advocate I imagine she'd be. She'd be a diplomat for the professionals, an envoy to the enthusiast, and a celebrity of great renown just like her garden. Though many may not know her name or even remember the great things she did, the fact that she did them serves as a reminder that when tucking in those annuals in the spring, we're in good company. Gardening is okay.

In the spring, I'll tuck in a few annuals at my Sevenoaks, beds and borders full of mistakes, error, and flaws in judgment. I'm growing some blunders too. My gardens certainly aren't the masterpieces I had in mind, but I grew up in them learning along the way. I'm proud of that, even though I take heed of Vita's ruthlessness as often as I can. I guess my Sissinghurst is still to come.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Resilient Grasses

I just got back from the Twin Cities earlier this afternoon after spending a very cold couple of days interviewing for graduate school. The drive from Ames to St. Paul transects a number of biomes, beginning with the tallgrass prairie and phasing through the transition from grassland to forest. The area is floristically diverse, historically, and thanks to both state's Departments of Transportation, the roadsides sport a network of restored patches of native prairie grasses and forbs.

But it's now that I appreciate those grasses the most, for their resilience mostly. Amidst snow, ice, and the occasional wrecked car, these fine textured plants hold forth with evolutionary determination to sail in the breeze again. Their roots extend meters into the ground, below that of most plants and the frost layer. Their strategies at thriving, not just surviving, in one of the more turbulent climate zones of the world warrants my admiration as I drive along an otherwise monotonous stretch of highway. Can you honestly imagine views like that above (taken in a prairie at the Lake of Three Fires State Park north of Bedford, Iowa) stretching for miles on end dotted every so often by fireworks of color from summer-blooming forbs? I honestly can't, though the temptation crosses my mind frequently. The very idea of millions of acres stretching endlessly beyond either horizon moves me to do what I can as a gardener to recreate the feelings associated with such an edifying wild place. Gardening in this way becomes not just a means to cultivate plants for aesthetic value but a conduit through which to transmit emotive ideas.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Sounding off...

If I chimed in last time, I might as well sound off this time. After all, it's a new year, and another rollercoaster year of sense-skewed and long-winded blog posts straight from the noodle.

I couldn't be more excited about 2009, though. I'm going to be all over the map in the next 12 months doing what I love best: looking for plants, looking at plants, writing about plants, talking about plants, and planting a few things of my own in my garden here at Rainbow Farm. I'll share as much of it as I can muster with you. After all, keeping a blog is dreadfully hard work.

I realize of course that it's only January 9, and here in Iowa we've safely got another two months before hope dawns on any horizon. Yet I still ambled about the garden today, pretending to make the rounds as if it were June, inspecting and looking over my greenly subjects. Dwarf conifers are about the only greenly things left though, and even a few of them are showing signs of burning in the wake of bitterly cold temperatures (and more to come). The Chamaecyparis selections that I coddled through the summer thanklessly wither amongst the stones of my rock garden. The hellebores I've collected look pan-fried too.

But a few salient emblems of 2008 hang on, reminders of the bounty, joy, and all the seed I didn't but should've collected. Stiff legumes of Thermopsis montana, the mountain goldenbanner, jut out from behind a snow-smashed clump of bearded irises. The wispy, vase-like seed heads of Solidago drummondii hang over a stone outcropping in the rock garden, probably shedding their hairy cypselas amongst achilleas and centaureas; a confab of Asteraceae indeed. Another aster family perennial around the corner and to the east, the Maximilian sunflower with seven foot tall flower stalks, consumes its garden habitat and sprawls into the lawn, hydrant, and any unassuming passerby. Hollyhock stalks litter the backyard like limbs after a hurricane. 2009 will find the relocation of the hollyhock breeding to a field location, relieving the backyard of the Malvaceous menagerie.

Enjoyably the weather was suitable for my midwinter escapade. Temperatures in the low 50s quickly gave way though to the 20s by night fall. The cycle continues...

Upcoming engagements:
January 20: Lecture at the Iowa Turfgrass Conference on native plants
February 9: Lecture to the Muscatine Garden Club promoting The Iowa Gardener's Travel Guide