Thursday, January 31, 2013

Classy Cosmos

Today was frigidly cold and the temperatures were around -10 degrees F with the windchill.  It warmed up in to the teens but wasn't conducive to outdoor garden work.  The photo above shows the Parker Education Center this morning.  This weekend is the last for turning on some lights (in this area) for an event.  By Monday morning, the entire Holiday Lights Show (HLS) is done and can be brought back in for processing.  We're close to 80% done with the take down based on my estimation.  There was still some very light snow and blowing snow today with the high winds.  Bill O. toughed it out and did some snowblowing work on our primary paths.  He also touched up around the Horticulture Center.  Pat, Urban and Dick H. were outside briefly to bring in more garden structures for painting.  We had a full crew out in the Horticulture Center though.  Vern, Dave and Jim continued with various carpentry projects while Ron Y. continued sanding benches for future staining.  Urban, Pat and Dr. Gredler did some significant obelisk painting today and Pat came back this afternoon for some more work.  Gary continued creating our new volunteer signs for the gardens and Janice came in for various research and projects.  We also saw Mary W., Bob T., Big John and many others.  The picture below is from the back deck above the English cottage garden.  Despite my frozen fingers at this point, I thought it was a nice view!   

When I mentioned zinnias in the blog yesterday, I was thinking what a nice annual they are for extended color, long vase life, attracting wildlife, etc. and how appropriate they are for the cottage garden.  I then thought about all the neat cosmos we grow for that same purpose and for those same reasons.  I've included just a smattering of the dozen or so varieties that we'll feature this year out in the gardens.  Lynn S., our volunteer in the English cottage garden, used them to great effect in 2012 with all different colors and heights throughout this space.  We'll miss Lynn as she is moving but she "raised the bar" in that garden and we'll do our best to keep it up in 2013 to her standards!  The cosmos below is called "chocolate cosmos" (Cosmos atrosanguineus).  This plant has an interesting history.  It is native to Mexico where it is now extinct in the wild.  The original plant introduced in 1902 became the starting source for the divisions that were needed to propagate this plant.  This cosmos has a fleshy, tuberous root and the division of this tuber is how it is commonly propogated.  A perennial in zones 7-10, this plant is also a wonderful, full sun annual with a chocolate scent that becomes more prominent in the afternoon.  While they are not overly floriferous, the 2" diameter blooms are beautiful.  I've been told that the fleshy root can be stored as you would a canna or dahlia but I've not tried that yet.  We used these in our Smelly Garden for the past two years and they were a visitor favorite.

Larry took the day off and I had a day full of paperwork and meetings.  I was able to work on some presentations but am glad to get through a couple of piles on my desk today.  I'm ready to roll for the WPT Garden Expo ( next weekend (Feb. 8,9,10) and Big John, Denise and I will set up the booth next Thursday.  We always look forward to this event and despite the fact that I'll live and breath that event for three days, the idea of exposing 20,000+ visitors to the gardens is exciting.  Some other favorite cosmos varieties are included below.  In sequence, I've shown 'Cosmic Orange' (15"), 'Sonata White' (24"), 'Sunny Red' (24"), 'Rubenza' (32"), 'Double Click White' (36") and 'Double Click Pink' (36") at the bottom.  All of these have a long bloom time and the butterflies will enjoy them as well.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Snow Arrives

As I came in this morning, it was still drizzling but that soon changed to wet, heavy snow.  We ended up with about 4" which was predicted with more accumulation further north.  The roads seemed clear enough for my trip up to Madison tonight for my presentation on "Durable Shrubs for Foliage Appeal".  However, Madison got more snow and my talk has been postponed until fall.  I must admit that I wont miss driving on potentially hazardous roads and past experiences have left me permanently unnerved regarding hitting an ice patch at 65 mph.  The white pine (Pinus strobus) above held the snow nicely and I'm glad it wasn't eight inches of wet stuff as that would really bend those branches down.  Our obelisks below looked neat too and these are the ones showing off their new, 2013 paint colors!  The second photo down is a shot near the Horticulture Center.  I had a productive day of preparing presentations, seed ordering and other fun, winter duties.

With dicey road travel, we didn't see a lot of volunteers today.  Dr. Gredler came in to continue painting obelisks and was called home earlier as the roads became more difficult.  Doc has a steep incline to get to his house too which has proven challenging in the past.  Doc can be seen below.  I think he dropped a penny down the drain and wont give up digging for it (or he's washing his paint brushes...).  Ron Y. (next photo down) did a nice job re-sanding two of our benches.  Bob C., Vern and Ron have started this long process as we hope to have all 40+ of our wooden benches (teak, cedar and pine) all sanded down to bare wood and restained/sealed.  Janice came in for seed processing and research and we also saw Kris K. later in the day.  Kris brought up some great ideas for future educational programs at RBG.

I was making an order from Chiltern Seeds which is based in the UK (  This is a neat catalog and we've purchased some fun varieties from them in the past.  Their catalog is funky too and includes interesting artwork.  I was struck by the two art pieces below that were in the catalog as they are renditions of the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) which I featured just yesterday in the blog.  This is certainly a humorous take on the cardoon which gives this plant a rebellious stature (at least in the UK).  I also ordered more zinnias (Zinnia sp.) and realized that yet again, I can't stay away from these tough, sun-loving annuals.  The third photo down shows some of the zinnia trials I saw this past summer in Michigan on a 100 degree F day in late July.  We'll have plenty of zinnias out in the gardens and the last three photos just show a few that we'll feature.  In order, I'm showing 'Uproar Rose', 'Double Zahara Cherry' and at the bottom, 'Zowie! Yellow Flame' which is dynamite.  That's probably my best picture of that zinnia and it always catches my eye.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Go Away April!

As I type this blog around the lunch hour, the temperature is 50 degrees F with a projected high temperature of 63 degrees F.  I heard the thunder last night and it was raining pretty good this morning as I came to work.  I can't say that I remember thunder in January...  The ground is still frozen in spots so the gardens are a mess as the rainfall puddles and pools everywhere.  The two retention basins above were devised for runoff from the Horticulture Center parking lot.  We'll see how much of this is left as it begins to freeze tomorrow and become a skating rink.  It stopped raining this morning so Larry was able to head out and bring in more lights.  Below are just some of the packaged lights ready for storage.  Pat went out in the gardens for lights as well and Urban did some pruning along the shade garden.  Vern came in to stain one of our teak benches (second photo down) and Dr. Gredler continued his obelisk painting with another coat of powder blue (third photo down).  Dick H. did some welding work (third photo down) and we also saw Ron Y., Mary W. and many others today.

Cindy B. and I were emailing today about cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) which is one of my favorite annuals for a silvery, textural impact.  That prompted me to pay some tribute to the plant which I photograph often and have grown every year here at RBG (see shots below).   We plant cardoon from small containers and by the end of summer, we have a 4-5' wide by 3-4' tall plant (see directly below) that offers great color and rugged character.  The second photo down shows cardoon with 'Black Magic' elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta) along a border at Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus (a 2.5 acre, "must visit" garden).  Ed Lyon, our former Executive Director, is the Director at that garden and always is doing some neat things.  The third photo down shows the value of cardoon in a dark composition at RBG a couple years ago.  We used silver and white to break up the rich combination and it was very effective.  The newest foliar growth is always coming from the center so we will cut off the leaves on the outer edge as they age and flop on neighbors.  In fact, you can snap them off by hand with the intent of keeping a "vase-shaped" or upright form.  Old leaves can become matted and smother neighbors.  This close relative of the artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is also considered an ornamental edible as the stems (frequently blanched) are used in many delicacies.  The cardoon is a common vegetable in Northern Africa and has many other uses (including as a potential biofuel).  Keep in mind the "real estate" this plant will dominate by mid-summer and plant neighbors accordingly.  The fourth photo down shows the artichoke-like bloom which resembles a large, violet thistle.  Our cardoons don't always bloom and it's odd that in some years, they all bloom.  We plant cardoons primarily for the foliage though and have never been disappointed.  The last cardoon photo below shows an October frost on the textural leaves.

I'm so blessed to have a job that allows me to bounce between different projects.  It would be tough to do the same thing all day and I was fortunate to spend my day ordering more seeds, working on presentations, finalizing special event details, preparing for the WPT Garden Expo ( etc.  I rarely look at the clock and pray for the day to end (it has happened though!).  The registrations for our Spring Symposium (see below) are starting to roll in quickly.  Check out our website for more information on this annual event which I think has four excellent speakers.  Our website also has information on other upcoming events, lectures, etc.  At the bottom is a new sign sample that Gary has been working on recently.  These new, engraved signs will be used to recognize our assigned garden volunteers out in the gardens and is a big improvement over the previous laminated signs.  Now Don and Pearl have to re-commit since we made them a darn sign!  :)

Monday, January 28, 2013

First Snowdrop Appears

Last winter, my first photograph of a bloom in the garden was a snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) in the woodland walk garden.  That photo was taken on February 1st which was the earliest that I've ever observed this harbinger of spring showing color (usually late March).  Well, I beat that record today and probably found the same, earliest clump in the same location (next to a nice rock that gets plenty of sunshine).  There is evidence of other bulbs poking up in many locations and the "April-like" weather over the next three days should encourage these early bloomers even more!  Today was a nice day to get out in the gardens although the sleet last night made for slippery paths and roads this morning.  Directly below, from left to right, are Dick W., Urban, Larry H., Jim D. and Pat.  They, along with RBG Larry, were out in the formal gardens removing more lights from hedges and other locations.  Those lights were needed for some rental events over the past couple of weekends but we have clearance to continue the take down of the Holiday Lights Show (HLS).  Larry also collected many cords today as well.  We still have many "post-HLS" tasks to complete but after today, I'd say we are 75% done with the take down.  On the other side of the hedge below, the deer took advantage of a break in the snow fencing and did some serious damage (should recover).  At the Horticulture Center, Dr. Gredler painted more obelisks, Gary worked on volunteer signs and Dave, Jim, Vern and Bob finished up the garden art project suns (available for purchase/sponsorship next Monday, Feb. 4th).  Del continued disassembling the deer cutouts and Dick H. started cutting and bending our strap aluminum for various label heights.  Bill O. popped by this afternoon to help process some of the newly accumulated HLS lights from the gardens. Chuck came in to gather our recycling and Janice came in for more seed organizing (newly arrived).  We also had a meeting of our Horticultural Therapy Committee this afternoon.

Winter interest still abounds out in the gardens although I sure would like some snow cover.  There will be no snow on the ground by Thursday when the temperatures return to arctic conditions.  Two photos above is the 'Winter Gold' white pine (Pinus strobus) flaunting golden needles that look the best in December through March.  This tree is essentially green needled in the summer but does have some nice winter interest.  Above is 'The Blues' little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) still upright and featuring dormant coloration of pinks and oranges.  I like this grass more and more each year and the summer color of this grass is a superior, powder blue.  Directly below are the specimens of our 'Flame' willows (Salix hybrida) along the west bank between the Parker Education Center and Lion's Beach.  These shrubs are functional in holding that slope and their winter stem color is quite vivid and at peak right now.  Another willow for showy, winter stem color can be seen two photos down.  This is the variety 'Britzensis' (Salix hybrida) which also turns quite bright and like 'Flame', appreciates a hard cut back in March to encourage new stems that will be the most colorful the following winter.

I bounced between various projects today which included a meeting with Sue M. regarding our marketing plans for upcoming spring events (compost sales, tree sale, spring plant sale, etc.).   Early this morning, L.P. Tree Service (two photos below) came and chipped up all our spruces (Picea sp.) that were used as temporary decoration out in the HLS.  It's nice to recycle these trees and the chip pile (as seen) will be utilized later this year to mulch various areas.  I'm finalizing my presentations for the Garden Expo ("Trendy Annuals", "Annual Grasses" and "Vertical Gardening") and am ready for my shrub talk at Olbrich this Wednesday.  Do check out details regarding the Wisconsin Public Television (WPT) Garden Expo at for dates, times, presentation topics, demonstrations, etc.  We are still selling tickets to this event from our Cottage Gallery Gifts.  I'll also finish ordering seeds this week and am transitioning to ordering/reserving plants as well.  The bottom photo was shared by Patrea W. and is a nice recent shot of the alpine garden this winter.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Dynamic Duo

This blog is just a small effort to communicate the important role that Marv and Marianne have contributed to RBG for 23 years (and beyond).  Marv and Marianne are retiring from their grounds positions at the gardens but certainly not from the gardens as volunteers.  We wish them well in their retirement although neither is the type to not keep busy and we're sure we'll see them continue to volunteer at RBG as their busy schedules allow.  This well-deserved break comes after so many years of dedicated service to the institution of RBG.  It goes with out saying that they are irreplaceable but few know that they have been at the gardens since the beginning.  As they have "lived and breathed" with the gardens, so the gardens have benefited from all their time and dedication.

When I started at the gardens back in 1998, Marianne was running the RBG gift shop and did a great job of keeping the gift shop stocked, clean, organized, staffed and profitable.  She has a knack for retail which benefited the gardens in many other ways.  She has been instrumental in helping coordinate over 26 plants sales, additional tree sales and other fund raising events.  Her attention to detail is second to none and I certainly have always had peace of mind with any event in which she is involved.  Out in the gardens, Marianne was a top notch gardener that while willing to do anything and shift anywhere, spent major time in the entrance garden, particularly right in front of the Parker Education Center.  Marianne also prepared and staged our cutting display for the past 9 years.  Some of the photos here show a smattering of many of her "unsung" accomplishments.  Above, Marianne is out in the big iris collection (2009) that she helped plant, label and organize for the American Iris Society convention visit a couple years ago.  She kept track of 600 irises from their planting, labeling, handout development, digging and ultimately their sale!  Marianne has also maintained a binder with clippings, press releases, articles, photos, etc. of the gardens for the past seven years.  These binders have great value now and certainly for posterity.  Below, Marianne is going thru old slides and ultimately photos that we ended up scanning for historical reference. This was a huge project and thankfully she mercifully prodded me along the way.  Marianne also helped prepare labels for our annuals every winter, created plant signs for many ferns and alpine plants, tidied up the Horticulture Center countless times and trained many volunteers at plant sales (see her in orange below) and out in the gardens.  She was also vital to the preparations and installation of the Holiday Lights Show with hundreds of hours of attention.  There are so many other tasks that she accomplished and her work ethic was nothing short of extraordinary.  We'll miss her in her RBG STAFF t-shirt but look forward to her continued efforts as a volunteer.  RBG has benefited greatly from her efforts and few have been so committed to this organization.

When I started at the gardens, Marv was maintaining a garden space with Marianne (as mentioned above) and was a very active Grumpy from the early years.  I was immediately impressed with Marv's work ethic and his work pace.  What I mean by that is that he gives 100% from the time he arrives at work until the time he leaves.  He doesn't slow down (regardless of the weather) and I never stopped being amazed by how much work he could get done in a day.  He frequently outworked volunteers half his age and I don't recall every having to check on the quality of his work as it was always superior.  He is a very accomplished and talented gardener (at home too) and never shies away from a dirty task at the gardens.  Marv is an expert at shearing and was responsible (with Terry) for shearing hundreds of our boxwoods (and other hedges) twice every year.  He has a natural talent for this task and the patience to do a perfect job.  Marv was also very good at determining with the best way to address a challenge or problem and had no shortage of good ideas.  His observation skills are also top notch and he has always been my extra set of eyes out in the gardens.  Marv is multi-dimensional (as seen below) and would shift from planting to re-laying brick, installing edging, shearing, etc.  He was also quite experienced with setting up sprinklers which is truly an art form when you consider adequate volume and coverage over large areas.  He's probably unrolled and rolled hundreds of miles of hoses over the years!  Marv also took various projects under his wing like installing art projects out in the gardens, installing edging, smoothing out gravel paths, etc.  He also started our large scale compost pile and took on the responsibility of turning the pile and sifting it to the final, usable product.  This compost pile has saved us thousands of dollars and is impressive in scale.  Marv was also very involved with the Holiday Lights Show and he and Terry collectively would prepare the largest percentage of the show.  Marv and Terry (four photos down) have been a great duo out in the gardens for over seven years and their teamwork is legendary.  As with Marianne, this narrative doesn't address everything that Marv has done for the gardens.  His contributions have been numerous but so important to the development of RBG.

Because of gaudy displays of public affection (see below), Marv and Marianne were frequently separated and didn't work together often.  However, better supporters, advocates, promoters and volunteers of RBG can't be found.  We have great staff and volunteers at RBG but these two are rare in their consistent history with the gardens as both volunteers and staff.  We hope they enjoy more time to relax, travel, spend time with family and decompress.  However, I speak for everyone when I say I hope they come "full circle" and we see them often in the coming months and years!  A big Thank You from everyone at RBG and a well deserved and earned kudos to this dynamic duo!!!