Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Already Cutting The Grass

Today was another mild one with temperatures around 50 degrees F. When the sun was shinining earlier, I thought it felt like early May! This weather has pushed more plants out of the ground and the rain last night was welcome. I remember that old line, "April showers bring May flowers...". Now we're seeing "February showers bring March flowers..." It certainly was an odd winter and my blog title certainly doesn't mean we're mowing turf quite yet although I bet Dr. Gredler is ready to head out there! We're continuing the cutting and removal of perennial ornamental grasses as you can see above. That's Pat M. in both pictures above adding to the growing pile of grass debris that will go in to our compost pile. Cool season grasses that emerge early are coming up already which necessitates a timely removal of the older foliage while we can still cut it low to the ground. It was windy today which made it challenging for collecting and hauling debris but we had four volunteers out there most of the morning doing just that. Aside from Pat above, who later moved on to pruning too, we had Dick W. cutting back grasses in the main parking lot and both Gena and Myrt came in and gave some attention to cutting back smaller grasses and doing "spring" clean-up around the east end of the gardens. To the left are Rose and Urban continuing to paint the next three culvert pipe planters. These planters have rebar cross supports that will help contain a literal trash can insert that holds the soil in the top 30" of the pipe. I have a neat idea for what to put up in these and hope it works out. To the right are some of the thousands of winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) blooming out in the gardens. After planting so many over the years, we're starting to see some significant colonies forming and nice patches of yellow can be seen in the gazebo garden, hosta hollow and fern & moss garden. We also saw Luis (making tree signs), Bill from The Janesville Gazette, Chuck, Janice and Big John at the Horticulture Center today.

To the left are more snowdrops (Galanthus sp.) which are always nice in a photograph including snow. Our first snowdrops were up three weeks ago and they are now blooming nicely in hundreds of locations. I worked on a couple different projects including some details regarding our annual Home Garden Tour (July 21st, 10 am - 4 pm).
This year will feature many home gardens in the neighboring town of Milton, WI. I'm excited as I've heard many good things about all seven of our locations. I also ran about half of our seeds to one of our local growers (Evansville, WI) and it was nice to chat with owners Pat, Herb and to see Rochelle, Zack and Jane. It's always nice catching up on news and we reminisced about when I first met them 14 years ago as we started these special growing arrangements. It's amazing how none of us has aged!... I'll haul the remainder of the seeds to another grower tomorrow. I'm glad we have three seed growers and three other sources that are preparing plants from plugs or cuttings. We've "gone local" as much as possible and most of our purchases are from within 50 miles of the gardens. To the right is the collection of concrete-anchored stakes that Larry has created. They are ready for their labels and with the ground almost thawed out, we can start putting these in early this spring.

Directly below is a shot of our Volunteer Soup Dinner from last night. We had around 55 attendees and it was another fun evening of chatting, enjoying three soup selections (thanks volunteer committee!) and my presentation on the Gardens of Philadelphia - Revisited seemed well received. I also talked about some of our 2012 events, collections, etc. Our third of three volunteer events like this will be on March 27th (5 pm). I'm going to do a neat historic retrospective of the gardens using old images (before and after type approach). At the bottom is a shot of Land of the Giants Hosta Farm ( in Milton, WI. I show this image for two reasons. Number 1. The owner, Jeff Miller, will be giving a talk on hostas (Hostalicious!) next Wednesday evening, March 7th (6:30 pm) at the Parker Education Center. Number 2. Jeff and his wife Penny's garden/nursery will be one of the sites of our Home Garden Tour in July too!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Diversity = Sanity

The title of my blog today refers to the fact that diversity (at work) really equals sanity (at work) as well. As stretched as I feel this time of year with the myriad spring preparations, I'm glad I can work on so many different projects and today was no exception. I was also able to get out in the gardens this morning where I observed more progression of our earliest blooming plants. At the top are more snowdrops (Galanthus) in the woodland walk garden and directly above is an opening bud of the vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis 'Sandra') in the shade garden. This early bloomer looks only a week or so away from blooming which would be about 4 weeks earlier than usual. It has been that type of year thus far. To the left is the winter adonis or "pheasant's eye" (Adonis amurensis 'Fukujukai') which I've shown in some previous blogs as the buds just started to open. What a tough plant to take these tough conditions and still bloom so strongly. To the right are the male catkins on the contorted filbert (Corylus avellana 'Contorted') which is also commonly called Harry Lauder's walking stick. This picturesque variety, shown in previous blogs, was originally discovered growing in a hedgerow in England back in 1863. Apparently all specimens ultimately can be traced back to that specimen. Most of the filberts (Corylus) and birches (Betula) are showing their March catkins at this point in time.

I worked on finalizing our seeds and where they will be delivered over the coming days. The bottom photo shows just one box of the seeds I've been double checking. It's interesting that this "shoebox sized" container will result in 25,000 plants that will become our All-America Selections display garden and will cover 6,000 sq. ft. or so. We are so fortunate to have talented and committed growers that help us out. I also worked on preparing woody plant labels for Luis, annual sign information for Jenny, plant orders and had some meetings. Again, that diversity keeps me from going insane. I'm not sure I would have done well in a repetitive action career. Of course, our "repetitive action" involves holding a planting trowel for six weeks as we plunk all these plants in the ground. To the left is a shot looking up the trunk of our bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) out in the arboretum. That exfoliating bark with hints of red is quite showy. I was out in the arboretum with members of our youth education committee as they are preparing some youth programs utilizing this space. See the second photo from the bottom and from left to right are Bev, Barb and Marlene. We had a nice walk and enjoyed a brisk, late winter morning. To the right is Rose who helped paint in the Horticulture Center today. That flying saucer is actually one of the upside down bowl planters that will be used out in the garden (and placed on its own pipe/column which will be planted the same color). The bowl that Rose is planting is one of five that will be used in an area that is "strongly orange!"We had another great turnout of volunteers today. The second photo above shows Bill who was here all day working with Larry as they continued their pruning efforts in the Scottish garden. They worked on some large honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis) trees and thinned out some congested specimens. Urban, directly above, helped with some painting this morning but then moved on to cleaning these next three culvert pipes that will receive their next three coats of paint (white, semi-gloss) over the coming days. Larry, Bill and I tipped them back up on end for painting and they were not light! Dr. Gredler finished the last of the obelisks to be repainted for the 2012 garden. He still has some other painting projects to accomplish and will likely start putting more sealer on some of our benches that are in need. Jenny came in and we touched base about this year. She took home our big list of annuals and will start data entry (for label production) at home and I'll just try to stay ahead of her as I provide more lists that need to be converted in to labels in a timely manner. We have really streamlined the process and want to have labels installed as the plants are planted (which makes sense but is not always that easy!). We'll continue to label our annuals and seasonals with the white sticker labels as that will differentiate them from the new black labels which indicate a permanent plant (perennial, shrub, tree or woody vine). Pat was in to cut back some ornamental grasses and we also saw Del. To the above right is a book, The Heirloom Life Gardener, from Jere & Emilee Gettle that we received for our reference library. I've heard good things about this book and the story of the Gettle's and their cool nursery, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ( is amazing as Jere started this business when he was just a teenager and now they offer over 1400 varieties of heirlooms! To the left is a photo shared by John and Jackie which shows the snow from last Friday in their backyard. Their blue bottle tree and bird house look neat with that layer of snow. I hope to include a bottle tree like this in my garden yet this year. To the right is a respite from observing deer tracks as it looks like the geese were on a jaunt as well. Tonight is our second of three Volunteer Soup Dinners (5 pm) and we're hoping for a good crowd despite the chance of freezing rain. The next one is on March 27th and I'll do a presentation on the history of the gardens using past images. March will be a busy month for programming so check out for more information.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Seed Closure

I'll be delivering seeds to two more of our growers yet this week. I've been sorting the last of our seeds all day. These two growers are very generous in agreeing to grow and commit to so many varieties (and flats!) and we have appreciated our relationship and friendship with these families over the years. Every winter I call back and ask if they are interested in growing for us again. I'm always a bit nervous that they'll say "no" or that it's become too much of a burden. Thankfully, we have their support again. Collections like those above (All-America Selections) are only possible if seeds are started. This entire collection comes from our seed orders and most of the varieties aren't common enough that we could find them already as plants. In summary, our awesome seed starting arrangements have allowed us to display over 5,000 varieties of annuals over the past 15 years and we're happy to have those relationships. While the burden on the growers has certainly increased, it's also become more challenging to keep everything organized and sorted on our end as well. Regardless, we're looking forward to a great year of color and interest out in the gardens. Jenny is back in town and will start the arduous task of creating all the labels for these plants before they arrive. The picture to the left is a "snow cat" that my daughter built in the front yard. The snow is melting fast but may be replaced with freezing rain tomorrow...

We had a busy day at the Horticulture Center with lots of coming and going. Jim and Vern continued working on the repair of the garbage and recycling bins. They'll be done by next week and the "carpenter Grumpies" have a long list of additional projects. Dick W. was out cutting back more ornamental grasses throughout the gardens. Urban (seen to the right) put in some solid time applying the third and final coat of semi-gloss white on our culvert pipe planters. He later went out with Pat to continue some pruning duties out in the gardens. Larry had to pause his concrete operation (creating sign bases) as we ran out of aluminum for the stakes. He's already made close to 600 and we'll keep him moving on it sometime next week when more stake material arrives. Larry headed out later to prune a large honey locust (Gleditsia) in the Scottish garden and was joined by Bill in the afternoon. Maury was in and we met with some masons that will be working on some retaining walls in the sunken garden. Maury also ran plenty of errands. Luis was in making more tree/shrub signs and Dr. Gredler continued painting obelisks. Terry finished up his two pallet planters (see below) and they turned out quite nice. Janice came in to work on more plant sale details and we also saw Gary, Fred and some others today as well. Our Horticultural Therapy committee also met and we hope to continue momentum as it relates to a future garden space called our Wellness Garden.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Elevated Planters

Elevated planters are a nice way to garden in a "non-traditional' way. The traditional way of gardening, if we want to call it that, involves the use of open soil areas or dedicated portions of our property that we use for something other than turf. Examples would include the flower border, vegetable garden, foundation plantings and other areas of specific use. These types of garden spaces frequently require maintenance that invites us to kneel, stoop, bend, crawl and otherwise contort to keep up with planting, weeding, picking produce, etc. at ground level. Another potential drawback to this system is that we are reliant on our current soil structures although those can be modified by amendments, mulches, synthetic materials and even removal/replacement. In many cases, poorer soils that we inherit with our properties are a daunting challenge that may deflate our original hopes of growing vegetables, or acid loving plants and/or plants that just wont thrive because of those initial soil limitations.

Elevated planters allow us to "bring the garden up" to a comfortable level that allows us to minimize or even totally avoid the need to kneel, stoop, bend, crawl and contort. By elevating the growing situation (soil and plants), we're better able to continue gardening when some of the challenges with the traditional garden limit our ability and interest. Elevated planters are not just for older gardeners or those with some physical challenges, they are for any of us that want a little more convenience and accessibility as well. We provide the soils for these built planters, thereby creating an ideal situation for our "plants of interest". Consider a garden that has little or no traditional growing space that only provides the homeowner with a small deck or patio. Condos and assisted living apartments may have strict limits to gardening on the property and it may be limited to these patios and decks. Containers are a great option and an elevated planter, which is just a large container when you think of it, can also provide some significant growing opportunity and gardening potential. Remember that this mini-garden and its living contents are expecting decent soil, adequate watering, appropriate sunlight and other inputs as do all your landscape plants.

This short blog can't address the myriad designs that are out there for elevated planters but I've included some photos of those that I've observed. I'm no carpenter but I do want to stress that these planters need to be of solid construction as they will be supporting quite a bit of weight with the combination of wet soil and increasingly larger plants. There are also debates on whether treated lumber is appropriate for these or not. Look in to the research on this as there are some valid concerns. The soil preparation for these containers can be quite variable but will be determined by what you want to grow. We replace our soils each year in these and compost the soil from the previous year. Many of these planters are designed with clearance for wheelchair accessability in mind and are perfect height for an average height man or woman to comfortably garden. The best elevated planters I've seen in terms of plant "happiness" are those that are at least 9" - 12" deep. The more shallow planters tend to dry out quickly and don't provide adequate rooting volume for many of our plants including most of the vegetables. Do look in to this topic further. At RBG, we've built about 8 different styles of raised planters (including the accessible planting desk with inserts directly below) and will continue to observe their effective uses.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Let It Snow

Our promised couple inches of snow over night ended up being 6-7" of the wet stuff. The gardens were sure beautiful this morning though. In between my earlier shoveling efforts this morning, I took all these garden photos today. It is so nice to have the snow and associated moisture for the gardens. Carl Reiner once said "A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." I disagree as it sure created some picturesque images of our arched bridge above, the Parker Education Center and yet another shot of the contorted European filbert (Corylus avellana 'Contorta') which is also called Harry Lauder's walking stick.

Early road conditions were poor but improved quickly as it warmed up. I was scheduled to travel up to the Wisconsin Public Radio studio on the UW-Madison campus to be a guest on Garden Talk with Larry Meiller ( Larry is a great guy and I think he's had me on his show 7 or 8 times at this point. I opted to do the show by phone because of travel and the start of some sort of nasty cold. The show went great and has always been a nice way to create awareness about the gardens. Larry has a huge following and his program is quite popular.

I also finished up some orders for our spring sale (details at and am trying to finish some additional presentations that are looming in March. Next Tuesday evening, February 28th (5 pm) is our next Volunteer Soup Dinner for current, past and potential volunteers. It's not too late to RSVP at (608) 752-3885 (extension 0) if you are interested in attending. The event is free and I'll be doing a presentation on the Gardens of Philadelphia Revisited that will highlight my trip out there last summer. I'll also talk about collections, events and opportunities for 2012. To the right are Rose and Urban starting to convert our culvert pipe planters from their 2011 sky blue color to the new, semi-gloss white for 2012. These are two of five of these giants that will be nice verticals out in our entrance garden as part of that silver/white/light blue theme this year.We did have some additional volunteer help today. Above are Dr. Gredler on our CASE endloader and Bill on our Grasshopper snowblower clearing our Horticulture Center lot. I really appreciate these guys helping out as it freed me up to focus on some other projects. Bill went on to clear snow from around the visitors center and the primary paths in the gardens. Dr. Gredler quickly transitioned to repainting more obelisks (blue to green) in the Horticulture Center. Aside from those mentioned, we also saw Maury, Bill O. (there are two Bill O. volunteers!), Mary W., Bree and some others. To the right is a nice snowy shot of the Ma Chii' (resting structure) in the fern & moss garden. I enjoyed tromping thru the virgin snow this morning to catch some photos and was also pleased to note the least amount of deer damage that I've seen in a decade at RBG. We're not in the clear yet though! The weather has been a factor of course as has our more aggressive approach to fencing and netting of tastier specimens. To the left is a prime example of what wet snow can do to an arborvitae (Thuja sp.). This is the narrow variety 'DeGroot's Spire' and it should spring back in to form as the snow melts. I never advocate knocking off the snow unless there is imminent "breakage". In fact, if you do remove any snow, you brush upwards (minimal stress) instead of downwards (which just adds more weight).

I finally have all of my seed orders completed, organized and processed. It looks like we'll have 59 varieties of moss roses (Portulaca) grown from seed and displayed in our trial area. Kelley F. did a nice job researching this annual and we'll prepare some nice handouts listing these varieties and describing the history and uses of this neat annual. We're on track to have over 700 varieties of annuals this year and I'm also very excited about what we'll be planting in our Smelly Garden (fragrant plants in the children's garden) and all of our neat edibles. Our "Grains of the World" collection is coming along nicely and there will be no shortage of interesting plants and interpretation out in the gardens this year. Don't forget to mark March 7th on your calendar for our Hostalicious! talk by Jeff Miller of Land of the Giants Hosta Farm (6:30 pm - 8 pm). For details, see Our March 24th symposium, Create an Engaging Garden, is 2/3 full so check it out if you're interested! More snowy shots below.