January 2, 2014
As I write this first day of 2014, the temperature outside is frigid and there is a mantle of new-fallen snow. Spread on the dining table are dozens of packets of seeds, each magically programmed by its DNA. I've ordered them online from the good people who perennially send their colorful catalogs, which leads me to my first manifesto:
1. It's time to tell these suppliers we don't need the printed (and costly) catalogs, instead send an email alert as soon as all the new season's new plants and old favorites are offered online. The seed houses and nurseries already have lavishly illustrated websites and the ordering process is as quick as click click. Personally, I'm allergic to filling out order blanks by hand and signing checks.
2. As avowed gardeners we need to lead the public at-large to better landscaping. When my partner John and I drive to the Chicago area to visit my son in Evanston, we end up taking I-294 North to an exit that takes us straight east on a local street. With John driving I spy on the state of front-yard landscaping for nearly seven miles each way, mostly in front of modest private homes. Know something? I see not a single admiral example. So-called foundation plantings are the biggest offenders and trees planted in the wrong place, treated as cuddly puppies with no awareness that some can grow up to be Great Danes.
3. The art and practice of gardening includes the coppicing of shrubs and pollarding of trees, in order to maintain a size suited to the location. Those of us who took the Friends-sponsored trip to the Netherlands in the spring of 2012 witnessed these practices in action—trees and shrubs, some quite old, that still fit comfortably in their space.
4. When I am next commissioned to design a new yard or garden, the edible landscape will come first to mind. After some of the crabapples that originally framed my front garden died I replaced them with dwarf fruit trees. The apricots bore heavily the first season. During last year's Learn on Saturdays sessions, plantsman Justin Hancock told us about blueberries, olives and persimmons designed as container plants (the latter two to be wintered over in a garage or other protected place) and of course there's the aronia berry, now grown commercially in Iowa. Need a vine? How about hardy kiwi or a temptacious table grape?
5. In case you haven't heard, straw bale gardening is going to be big. It solves the endemic problem common to gardeners: Clay and contractor subsoil, yucky when wet and hard as concrete when dry. The how-to is in a book you'll find in the Garden Shop at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden:Straw Bale Gardens by its evangelist, Joel Karsten. The basic plan is to use rectangular bales of straw, not hay. You cut a slit in the top to hold some planting medium (packaged potting soil) and fertilizer. Add water and sun and you are in business. The heat generated inside the slowly decomposing hay stimulates roots and purports an early crop.
6. Having founded in 1951 what is known now as the Gesneriad Society, I can only profess amazement at the ascendancy of the family. Last summer I was filled with a sort of parental pride when gesneriads like the one featured on the cover of the winter 2014 issue of Bloom (see above),Sinningia 'Lovely,' appeared in the container plantings at the entrance to the Botanical Garden. I soon discovered that horticulture manager Kelly Norris is a member of the Gesneriad Society. Catalog suppliers such as Plant Delights, Yucca Do and Kartuz—in that order, based in North Carolina, Texas and California—have astounding offerings of gesneriads, for outdoor gardens in warm weather and as houseplants any time.
7. Which brings me to my last pronouncement for 2014: Thomas Jefferson's observation that while old, he would always be a young gardener, came to mind when I remembered a herb (say “an urb” if you prefer) I grew in Houston 20 years ago, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida). It was all the rage as a substitute for French tarragon and I'm looking forward to seeing if it passes muster with John, the chef in residence at our house. Its genetically empowered seeds are among the packets I mentioned at the outset.