Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Beauty Unexpected

As a creative person--a designer--I've come to learn that I see things differently than most people. As a gardener and plantsman and someone who appreciates, or at least tries to appreciate, the smallest details of the world around me I've learned that I see beauty and opportunity in places that most people just walk on by. As a photographer, I've learned that even the minutest of details share a kind of beauty that is lost on so many.

Each day I try to find something that offers me a glimpse into this natural beauty that is all around us. Many writers will tell you that they write SOMEthing on a daily basis. It might not be any good, but they write. It might only be a few lines, a scribbled down thought on a legal pad, an idea that has been floating around but never put into words. In much the same way, I carry the camera with me every day. I try take a photograph of something on my way to or from work. Some days it might just be a few snapshots of a job site. Some days I try to be artistic and creative. Some days it works. Some days it is an absolute and utter failure. On the best days, you come away with a few shots that please you. On the rarest days, you come away with something that may eventually get published. But even on the bad days it keeps you looking through the lens, focusing on your subject.

This shot may or may not be one of the greatest shots I've taken, but it's one of those that offers that intimate glimpse of inner beauty that most people just walk on by. I mean, really, how many people do you know who get down on their hands and knees to look underneath a mushroom? Have a beautiful day!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Of Sun and Sunflowers

Being a Kansas boy by birth, it seems only natural that I would have a strong affinity for sunflowers. Kansas is, after all, the sunflower state. The wild form of Helianthus annuus grows up and down the roadsides and throughout natural areas across the state. This is not the giant garden form of sunflower that we often see, but a shrubby, multi-stemmed, small-flowered version--the wild form--that sometimes covers acres of land in a sea of yellow blossoms in late summer.

Today, some of my favorite garden flowers are the perennial sunflowers that put on such a spectacular garden show in the summer and fall of each year. These are true perennials that come back from the same rootstock year after year to touch the sky with their golden yellow flowers. They're not all towering giants, of course, but some of my favorites are. For example, the plant in the photograph is Helianthus 'Marc's Apollo' and it's a skyscraper! Not for the faint of heart and not for the small garden, this graceful giant may reach upwards of 12 feet by the time it's in full bloom in mid- to late September. I've made room for it, even though it's a little tall, because the show that it puts on is truly stunning--HUNDREDS of butter yellow flowers for nearly 6 weeks from September all the way 'til frost.

Helianthus salicifolius, the willowleaf sunflower, is another favorite. It's also a giant, but if you pinch the tips out of each stem about mid-June, it will flower at 6 feet or so instead of the nearly 10 feet it can reach otherwise. It has, in my opinion, the most beautiful foliage of all of the sunflowers--almost threadlike in its appearance it is so slender. It's a fantastic texture to add to the perennial garden even when it isn't in bloom.

A little-known species, but another that I simply wouldn't be without is Helianthus microcephala, the little-headed sunflower. Very bushy, almost shrubby in habit, it has a broader leaf like those you would see on Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' or Echinacea. It flowers a little earlier in the season, usually beginning in July, but the show goes on for months. It is not uncommon for it to still be flowering at the beginning of October when, as luck would have it, it's foliage turns burgundy red! Yellow flowers and burgundy-red foliage! Wow! It's still not a small plant, but it's worth the space.

If you would like to have a sunflower in your garden, but simply don't have the elbow room for one of the larger fellows, look for Helianthus angustifolius 'Low Down'. It's a true genentic dwarf and when in full bloom will only be about 18" tall with a 2-foot spread. I'm usually not a big fan of dwarf forms of plants that should be tall and willowy, but this one's a winner! I promise!

Plant some of these later flowering sunflowers with other spectacular late summer and fall beauties such as Aster oblongifolius 'October Skies' and Callicarpa americana and you'll have a combination that will have the traffic stopping in the street to admire your garden's beauty.

Please note that there really is no need to deadhead your sunflowers. It will do very little to extend their flowering season and besides, the birds (especially the goldfinches) will go absolutely crazy over the seed as it ripens on the plant and this brings an entirely new dimension of beauty to the garden.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Striking Gold

On my recent trip to Philadelphia I was reminded, while at Longwood Gardens, just how much I miss having waterlilies in bloom. My grandmother had a "lily pond" when I was growing up--nothing more than an old bathtub that had been buried in the ground up to its rim with a few stones laid around the edges, but it worked. Each spring I would go down and spend a day or two with Granny and we'd get the garden cleaned up and go through the ritual of going down into the cellar and hauling the rubber washtub that the waterlily was planted in up the flight of old stone steps. Granny wasn't a very big woman and I was probably only 9 or 10 years old at the time, so we'd struggle and heave and haul until we'd wrangled the thing up the steps, then drag it across the yard and plunk it down over the side of the "pool" that we had just spent the morning mucking out and scrubbing clean.

The waterlily was the old tried-and-true yellow 'Chromatella', as I recall. It was cold enough in Kansas that Granny's small "water garden", as it were, froze solid in the winter, so she overwintered the waterlily, pot and all, in the cellar. We hauled it down in the fall and back up in the spring every year for as long as I can remember. We would check the tubers, make sure they were still alive--maybe remove a few if the plant seemed to crowded--and then she would topdress the pot with some old chunks of cow manure scraped up out of the neighbors pasture and top that off with gravel from the driveway to keep the mussing up of the water to a minimum. We had, after all, just scrubbed the pond clean!

So as we were walking through the magnificent water gardens at Longwood a few weeks ago, it brought back many memories. Not just memories of my summer at Longwood, but memories of summers long past--of Granny, the old bathtub, the musty smell of the cellar after being closed up all winter long and of the first waterlily flower to open each summer. Who says you can't go back?

(The waterlily pictured here is not the old-fashioned hardy 'Chromatella', but instead is a tropical lily called 'St. Louis Gold'. It's one of my favorites of the tropical clan and was in its full glory a few weeks ago when we were visiting Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, near Philadelphia.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Finally Getting Settled In

Well, the past few weeks have truly been a whirlwind. I was in Philadelphia for a few days for the annual symposium of the Perennial Plant Association--something I do almost every summer. It was great to see old friends and make new acquaintances. I shot nearly 400 photos a day for four days, so I have a LOT of editing to do.

One of the highlights of the trip was returning to Longwood Gardens where I was an intern 17 years ago this summer. What a treat! That summer was one of the greatest learning experiences I've ever had and I found myself reliving little bits and pieces of it as though it was yesterday. Longwood is second-to-none when it comes to showmanship in the garden and I highly recommend it if you're up in that area.

The other place that simply blew me away was a garden called Chanticleer. Chanticleer was not open to the public yet when I spent the summer at Longwood, so I had never seen it in person before--only in pictures. WHAT a place! My friend Bill Thomas is in charge of things there, so of course I didn't expect anything less than perfection. Bill was at Longwood when I was there all those years ago and now has taken the reigns of Chanticleer. Funny, neither of us look a day older--especially Bill! And my good buddy Dan Benarcik is at Chanticleer, too, so there was plenty of greeting and catching up to do.

There's more, but I'll tell you about the rest of it later.

The weekend after returning from Philadelphia I FINALLY got to move into my new place. I'm beginning to settle in now and it's a wonderful place to call home. I'll post some photos as soon as I have a chance to take two breaths and actually take some.

Immediately after moving I was involved in a 4-day-long photo shoot for Garden Design magazine. It was absolutely grueling week for all of us involved, but the effort was well worth it. The photos turned out beautifully and will appear in the magazine next spring. I'll give you more details as we get closer to the time. I think it will be the April issue, but will let you know for sure.

If all of the stars align just right I could also be in Fine Gardening in April. So--that would be two of the biggest gardening magazines in the country in the same month! Sweet! Keep your fingers crossed. Even so, I'll be in both magazines, even if it's not in the same month and I'm very excited about it.

Now that I'm in my new house, my new office and my new studio I will FINALLY be able to dedicate the time and attention to the website and the blog that I really have intended to all along. I've kept promising and now the time has finally arrived. I'm going to be going full speed ahead with the blog, with new additions to the website, the garden travel and tours division of my business and host of other things. I hope you'll keep checking back. I'm very pleased with the traffic the site has had so far and I really haven't even been trying that hard. Hold on to your hats, 'cause it's full steam ahead from here! Be sure to check back often!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


Can you believe it's already August??? I keep promising to post more regularly and little things like packing hundreds of boxes and taking four truckloads of stuff (one entire truckload of nothing but plants!) to a new house keep getting in the way! The good news: It's FINALLY done! Done!

Well, almost done. I still have to set up my design studio and office, but other than that, it's done. Thanks to some really fantastic friends, I got moved this past weekend, the furniture is in place, the art is hung, the closet is organized and the plants have made the 50 mile trek from the old house to the new. Now if it would just rain and cool off enough to actually get a shovel in the ground and be comfortable doing it. Well, one CAN wish!

Thanks so much for sticking with me and continuing to come back and read the blog. As the new garden starts to develop, I'll be posting pictures and stories as often as possible so that you can see the progress. I'll try to get some "before" pictures up in the very near future so everyone can see what I'm starting with. There are already some very good bones, as the lady who lived in the house before me was quite a good gardener and had created some beds and done quite a bit of planting. So I'll be building on what she had already accomplished and we'll see where it takes us! Stay tuned!