Gotta Garden

Monday, February 16, 2009

Garden Education: Gardening in an Era of Climate Change: Is the Sky Really Falling?

On February 4th and 5th, I attended a few lectures of the above mentioned symposium held in conjunction with the Lewis Ginter Anniversary Symposium Series and a CVNLA (Central Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association) short course. Virginia Cooperative Extension was also a partner and as such, education credit was available to master gardeners. As you might guess, the audience was composed of a large number of individuals for whom horticulture is a business. I'm sure there were others like me...folks who love to learn and are slightly obsessed with gardening.

The first speaker was Dr. Allan Armitage, known to most of us for his books, articles and, of course, his work at the University of Georgia. I digress here for a moment...I first heard Dr. Armitage speak maybe four years ago or so at a symposium in South Carolina put on by the Midlands Master Gardener Association (fine symposiums, by the way....I think I've been fortunate to attend three...still mean to write about the one last year...I'll get to day...) and credit him with my introduction to and now love of Clematis Armandii (click here to see mine; click here to see Clematis Armandii on a return trip to Riverbanks).

His topic on this day was entitled Gardening is a Four Letter Word - The Changing and Confusing Landscape of Consumer Preferences and Industry Trends. The main point here seemed to be (to me) that the wrong attitude has been conveyed to public. That, for instance, gardening is hard but landscaping is easy. You know, those shows on cable tv that put a garden together in 24 hours and then, as Dr. Armitage says, it dies in 24 days. We've made gardening too complicated. While horticulturists should know botanical names, don't expect your customers to know them.

Big box stores account for 75-85% of all plants sold. He also feels strongly that too many choices are available to consumers. The story of his daughter, Heather, not being able to chose some heucheras because she had too many choices available to her was told to make his point. As well as a slide showing too many mustard options in the grocery store.

(Sigh)....Okay, I disagree with that premise...I strongly disagree with it. I like lots of options and choices. The more mustards, the merrier. And, frankly, if a nursery I visit only has five varieties of heucheras, I won't be buying. I probably already have them! Somehow, I feel Dr. Armitage would say I am not typical, but the thought of only a few choices makes me want to break out in hives! I can make choices...and do...every single day! Long live variety and choice.

I did like his use of the term 'Nativar' for cultivars of native plants. Here we can find some common ground. Native plant pushing is big these days (my words, not his) and he stressed that these Nativars are a good way of getting 'native plants' to customers. I especially appreciated hs comments that he hasn't found the longevity in echinaceas other than purple. His favorite is Kim's Knee High. I so agree! I'm not even interested in trying any more of the new echinaceas. My one exception is a white one called Fragrant Angel that I got a few years ago from a now defunct online nursery.

In an interesting twist (which will become apparent later), an article I read in Carolina Gardener (Spring 2007) entitled Echinacea from Spring to Summer: More Than Just Purple Coneflower by Richard Bir basically says the same. That the hybrid colored echinaceas are not long lived. Most persist three years , a few as long as five. As Mr. Bir says, "In the end, I've learned not all perennials last forever. Perennial means that they return more than one year, but not necessarily every year from here to eternity." (Carolina Gardener, Spring 2007, page 38) Kim's Knee High has been very reliable here as has what is probably Magnus (although it may just be reseeding). I'd actually like to remove the Magnus, but it seems unwilling.

Okay, back to Dr. Armitage...he concluded with showing slides of some interesting new plants (although, I'd not sure exactly how new some of them are...I think they are probably new varieties of some known favorites) like Pineapple Lily (that's the only one I wrote down...*shrugs*). Dr. Armitage thoughtfully provided lecture notes and copies of some of his columns. I found in the lecture notes that he recommended as great plants for gardeners: Salvias, Hellebores, Heucheras, Echinaceas and Eucomis.


The next speaker was James Urban, a landscape architect and urban arborist who is nationally known for his work and research on trees in an urban environment. This was one of the most interesting and informative talks I have been to in quite a while. He is the author of a book Up by Roots which is considered a manual for those planting trees in urban environments.

First off, I learned that pieces of soil (maybe we call them clods?) are actually called peds. They come in all sizes and are important indicators of soil structure. By the way, amusingly, Mr. Urban said compost should be the color of 70% dark chocolate. He urged us to smell the soil (good soil does smell nice....maybe not as nice as chocolate, but still nice).

His work with trees in the urban environment has led him to say that the politics of trees is more difficult than the science of trees. I didn't take extensive notes, but his research into container grown trees was startling. I believe he said that he hadn't found a single container grown tree that didn't have girdling roots. Some have such serious girdling that you will probably kill the tree trying to correct it/them...but, you have to try because the tree will die in 5-10 years from those girdled roots if you don't. Scary.

On fertilizer, I learned that most fertilizers were developed to boost yields for crops...and trees are not crops! It is better for them to grow slowly. Too much N (Nitrogen, but you knew that) increases sucking insects and foliar diseases. Less fertilizer is better.

We saw great slides of soil and soil structure...very interesting! He talked about ways to correct it. Compost is the solution to almost all problems. Get it into the soil and not just on top (oops).

In correspondence with Dr. Dirr (very famous author...authority on trees, etc. also at the University of Georgia), Mr. Urban had Dr. Dirr define his use of "adaptable". It means the plant grows without obvious discontent over a wide berth from zones 4-7 (I hope I got that right).


The final speaker I stayed to hear the first day was Dick Bir. Did you catch that? Yep, the same author I mentioned above. His lecture was called Successful Gardening in an Era of Change. In short, I believe his answer to the question posed by the symposium was "Yes". Yes, the sky is falling...translation, all of us in zones 6/7 should now plant zone 8 plants. (Giant sigh.) This after a record cold for the month of January. Maybe he didn't know. He is from North Carolina, after all (retired extension agent and faculty emeritus from the Department of Horticultural Science at N.C. State University).

He had some wonderful slides of shrubs (a lot of azaleas/rhododendrons) and from a project he has been involved with (lovely, truly). But, I just couldn't get past his rather often mentioning of the fact that we should now plant zone 8 plants. Okay, I do some zone pushing....but I wouldn't recommend it. Our winters are such that you can think something is going to make it...and then we have a wicked period that kills all those iffy plants ( makes some special efforts...and then, sometimes in spite of those...they still die). Happens every so many years. A couple years ago, we had a week in February with single digit temperatures and no snow cover after a mild January. Very difficult. Those zone 8 plants would probably not make it for most people under those circumstances.

He did state something about how nothing is really going to happen (climate-wise, I think) for 50 years or which I think I'll wait until year 48 or so to make my changes. Of course, in 48 years (assuming I'm here), I'll be asking someone else to make those changes for me!

He also stated that the temperature has gone up a few degrees in the last ten years. I'm sort of ambivalent about all this. You know I like peace in my garden. It would have been helpful to have provided some data and links on this. I'm just saying...if it gets warmer, I'll adapt...and so will the they have a history of doing. Who knows what the perfect temperature is supposed to be...this planet has changed, is changing and will change. So be it. Let's all just be happy in our gardens.


Day Two begin with Felder Rushing. Now, I would drive many miles to hear Felder Rushing! You remember when I last heard him? He is such a character and so fun to listen to!

He opened with this beautiful quote by Minnie Aumonier: When the world wearies and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden. I liked it so well, I added it to the signature line of one of my email addresses!

Being Felder, there were a lot of good jokes and funny lines, but here's one I remembered: You might be a garden nerd if you clean your truck with a leaf blower. (Pretty good idea, actually)

I had this moment of excitement (kinda like a thrill running down your leg...just kidding) when I realized that my brain might sorta sometimes kinda be aligned with Felder's. He showed a picture of larkspur with its famous bunny reminding us of the beauty in nature when you take the time to look (I called it Bunny-in-a it was shared with me). And, then he took a moment to mention the Museum of Garden History. Finally, he showed a slide from Chanticleer (one of these days I will finish all my posts on Chanticleer...I just loved it there). Amazing, huh...

But, on to more Felder-isms...He showed us some slides of his own garden(s) and pointed out the edging with a train that can carry two beers with ice. Sure beats mondo grass, he pointed out.

He doesn't care much for the 'meatballs and gumdrops' of many front lawns and speculated that those with a nice neat (boring) front yard may feel a need to have control over wilderness. You can just imagine what his front yard looks like...especially as compared to his neighbors'. As he points out, theirs haven't been featured in most of the leading publications of our day. When he was growing up and having to mow lawns, he decided that when he was grown, he wasn't going to mow any more lawns. He certainly appears to have succeeded...although he does like to remind us that he is actually a turf specialist. When people question him (since he doesn't grow grass), he points out that a brain surgeon doesn't have to have a tumor. There was also a laugh-out-loud picture of weeds (yes, weeds!) growing in an artificial lawn.

Especially amusing to me was his comment that he was genetically selected to be a southern gardener as his mother and grandmother were gardeners. His grandmother actually had labels in her garden for her daffodil collection. So, as he says, he was raised in a garden with labels. (You know I can relate to that.)

He covered fire pits in his particular way noting that sitting around a fire pit was as interesting as watching (on tv) people argue and blow themselves up. We were reminded that swings in the garden need a long chain so that you get that slow leisurely ride. Finally, he loves to recycle (you remember those tire planters?) and has made use of chamber pots. His preferred to plant to fill them with? Sweet peas.


Darn hard to follow Felder Rushing, but someone had to do it. Next up was Dr. Roger Harris, the Interim Head of the Virginia Tech Department of Horticulture. In a self deprecating manner, Dr. Harris told us that he gotten "the short of end of the stick" as to why he was the Interim Head. Undoubtedly not true as he proceeded to tell us what Virginia Tech is up to...horticulture-wise.

I would fail in my duty if I didn't tell you that Dr. Harris...of course...had on an orange shirt. Standard attire for Hokies.

Besides some of the things you might expect, like recycling and sustainability programs (there is actually a Sustainability Office which hosts an annual Sustainability Week), Va Tech has been engaged in some major tree planting and, of course, has ongoing research in a number of areas. They're getting better every year and are certainly more conscious of their need to improve.

One particularly interesting project was a rooftop garden (I believe this is actually the third one on campus) planted and designed by students. Dr. Harris provided great pictures of the progress of the project and then the finished garden...complete with, of course, a very nicely planted VT in the middle!

Along with the wonderful Hahn Horticulture Garden, there is now online an inventory of the trees on campus. Each entry provides information on the tree as well as a detailed map of where it is located. This is an ongoing project, one it is hoped will create interest and over time provide another reason for individuals to visit the campus.

Sounded like VA Tech is on a great path. One sorta sad note, Dr. Harris noted the declining enrollment in the Horticulture program.


There were a number of other speakers that contributed to the three day program. I'm sure they were also interesting and informative.


As I finish this up, I have to note the weather here today. We've had sleet, teeny tiny hail and now large snowflakes this morning. I don't expect any of it to last as we should be up on the 40s (eventually) and the ground was not frozen.

1 comment:

Les said...

Sounds like it was a great conference with some dynamic speakers. I have heard several of them speak as well, and while all are knowledgable and interesting - Felder Rushing is certainly the most entertaining.

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