Fairfax County Sustainable Garden Tour

A few shots from Fairfax County’s 2017 Sustainable Garden Tour:

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This year the gardens were in the Alexandria area — some down around Mason Neck, others near Mount Vernon, and then all the way up to the Rose Hill area.  There were 9 in all but I only made it to four because it was 95 degrees out today.

This place was in a nice old neighborhood just off Rte 1.  It had about an acre of land.  You never would have expected it to be there:

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It had an amazing artificial stream, which they had landscaped very skillfully.  Note the little bridge in the distance.  What is it about those little bridges?  You just HAVE to cross them.

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Very nice fountain:

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The bright blue birdbath and the variegated hostas.  Very bold.  I like it.

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They had another project underway as well.  Very busy, these folks:

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Garden #2…they converted their front yard to a meadow just a few years ago. You can tell they probably don’t have an HOA:

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The mulched paths really help the wildness look intentional.  If you’re in suburbia doing the no-lawn thing, it’s definitely helpful to have some element within the landscape that says, “Yes, I meant to do this”…like paths or sculptures or a bit of nice hardscaping.

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Even a short, narrow path lends a sense of adventure to the suburban yard.  Actually, to lure kids around a garden, the narrower and curvier the better:

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The backyard of this house actually looked much neater and more traditional than the front yard.  It had a great little artificial pond and waterfall.  Check out that purple weeping beech.

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A few other random items.  I thought this was a very classy looking rain barrel:

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Cute:

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I sooooooo wish I could have chickens, but our property is too small.  This place had more than 7 acres for these birds to roam:

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Not on the tour, but I loved this guy’s workshop/shed:

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One last thought: I’m not sure what Fairfax County’s definition of “sustainable” is when it comes to residential gardens.  A couple of these gardens seemed fairly resource intensive to me.  Oh well.  Sometimes all of the arguing back and forth about what makes a garden ecologically virtuous gives me a headache.

What I loved is that all of these homeowners were hanging around, eager to talk about their gardens.  They loved tending their yards and were proud of what they’d created.   I think the love has to be there before anything else can be sustained.

Click here to learn more about the properties on this tour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wealthy, Benevolent Homeowners Open Homes and Gardens to the Great Unwashed

Well, another season of open homes & gardens has come and gone.  This year I spent three full days touring a variety of homes and gardens in my state, Virginia.  They were all great!  I loved the old stone home overlooking the Potomac with the lush shade garden of bleeding heart and ferns, the gigantic Tudor on a hilltop with the infinity pool, and the fully renovated 19th-century Georgian with the silk rugs that took 12 years to make.

I like to take pictures and mental notes.  I must a get a Red Buckeye tree was this year’s big takeaway.

Here was another takeaway: I feel like a slack-jawed yokel walking through this person’s gigantic dining room. 

As I shuffle along with a pack of other middle-aged-to-elderly folk so I can get a better look at the Tiffany lamps adorning some stranger’s parlor, well, sometimes I feel a bit like a salivating voyeur.  A starry-eyed member of the teeming masses who swarm upon these forbidden domains once per year.

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Photo Credit: http://practic-al.blogspot.com/2012/08/more-on-shepherds-sheep-fences-religion.html

I don’t know how difficult it is to get these affluent homeowners to open up their homes and gardens to the public each year, but I wouldn’t blame them for being hesitant.  I know I wouldn’t want to.  Some properties can get hundreds or even thousands of people in one day tramping through their private living spaces.

And it’s not just dirty shoes and curious stares that we bring to these homes.

On a recent trip to a large property in central Virginia, the homeowner was nice enough to take fifty of us on a personal walk-through of her magnificent gardens.  When she asked if there were any questions, one of my fellow travelers waved her hand around.

“Where do you get the money to pay for all this?” was her question.

Ugh.  I wanted to crawl behind the homeowner’s imported French tuteur and hide.  C’mon lady!  I thought.  Don’t make us look like a bunch of mouth-breathing hoi polloi!

But we kind of are, really.  On many of these tours, the chatter among the visitors (myself included) focuses on how much things cost, how much help would be required to clean and maintain everything, with a great deal of speculation about how the wealth was acquired.

Sure, we are all generous with the compliments, but they are often followed up with vague suggestions that perhaps the amount spent by the homeowner was a tad grotesque.

“Sally, check out the field stone wall along the drive.  It’s absolutely gorgeous! I bet this wall would pay for three years of long-term care at Mom’s assisted-living place.”

Another homeowner was nice enough to let my tour group use the bathroom in her pool house if we needed to.  I did, so I got in line behind a gentleman shaped like a large butternut squash, who occupied the bathroom for a full fifteen minutes.  After he finished, I went in and the room was absolutely toxic.  It felt so wrong that this bathroom, with its beautiful limestone tile floor and high-end fixtures, should have been defiled by the gastric system of this man.  Such bad form!

I now envision the wealthy homeowners bringing in a team of cleaners at the close of open garden day, swooping in and disinfecting everything we’ve touched.

And me, driving my ordinary car back to my rather ordinary home and garden, wondering if crowds of people would ever want to come tour it.

Being mostly relieved that the answer is no.

 

 

 

I am Not a Science-Based Gardener

If my Facebook feed and many prominent gardening blogs are any indication, “science-based gardening” is trending.  Here is my feeling about that:

Zzzzzzzzzzz.

Hey, I know there’s a lot of bad gardening advice out there, and it’s great that there are strong and trustworthy voices ready to stamp it out, but gardening is just not something that I (and dare I say, the majority of gardeners?) approach scientifically.

For me, gardening — like cooking — is something to be approached intuitively, even sentimentally, rather than methodically.  I would rather bake and eat the chocolate chip cookie made from my mom’s recipe on the yellowed index card than the one whose sugar/butter ratio was tested and deemed superior by a panel of food science doctoral students.  (Yes, I can taste her love in the cookies, don’t tell me I can’t!)

Same with gardening.  My planting choices are often guided by pure emotion, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  The little voice that tells me I really oughtn’t to plant a banana tree in my yard just because I saw it done in that little garden in Charleston with the amazing wrought-iron gate with the pineapple motif and the whole vignette just about made my heart stop — that’s a voice I often just ignore.   The banana is going in!

Years ago I got a soil test done.  I carefully followed the instructions given to me by the Master Gardeners: I selected several different spots in my yard, dug a few inches down, collected the prescribed amount of soil, placed it into the designated receptacles, and sent it down to the lab at Virginia Tech.  The helpful people at the Extension service sent back a detailed report indicating acidity levels and the presence of micronutrients, etc.  I recall they suggested that I add a quantity of lime to my lawn — even specifying how much per square yard and such.  It was awfully nice of them.

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I carefully folded the report back into the envelope, stuffed it into my Gardening for Dummies book, and drove to the garden center, where I purchased plants that spoke to my eye and heart, which that year was probably columbine and clematis.

I never did lime my lawn.

Unfortunately, the way I usually learn what NOT to plant in my yard is by heartbreaking trial and error, and not by flipping through Foolproof Plants of the Midatlantic.  I have learned many other life lessons in this same painful and unscientific manner, and it seems to be the only way that things stick.  And let’s face it, sometimes it’s more fun not learn the lesson at all.  Sometimes life is best lived by moving from one gloriously impractical idea to the next.

So I shall continue to stumble along, letting my ridiculous, irrational brain guide my gardening choices.  And the banana shall be planted forthwith!

 

Great Day to Be Alive

When it’s close to 70 degrees on February 18 it seems like there is very little in the world worth complaining about.  Even the traffic on New York Avenue seems worth it once you’re finally at the National Arboretum walking among these beauties:

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(Prunus mume and Edgeworthia in the Chinese/Japanese Pavilion Gardens)

Even the often dour blooms of hellebore knew enough to perk up and tilt their faces toward the sun:

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(I know, I know, many hellebores are bred that way, let me just do my personification thing, will you?)

I liked the stark contrast between the black mondo grass and the old stalks of ornamental grass (Northern Sea Oats, I think):

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Cherry blossoms!  (I think it’s another Prunus mume, so technically apricot but I’m in a t-shirt in February so who gives a toss!)

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Terrible photo of one of my favorite plants in the whole arboretum: Chimonanthus praecox:

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This specimen is perched on a steep slope above the Anacostia River, where the winter sun warms its buttery yellow blooms, which emit THE most delicious fragrance in the floral world (except maybe Vibunum carlesii???) a sort of warm vanilla spice that definitely makes you forget it’s winter.

And last but not least my beloved Camellias.  It always surprises me seeing such perfect, extravagant blooms on such awkward, lanky plants.  Kinda like seeing a beautiful young girl with knock-knees and pigeon toes…all the more charming for their imperfections.

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Melania Trump Vows to Preserve Obama Garden

Though many of her husband’s projects are likely to be uprooted, there is good news for Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

Looks like Melania Trump is fond of gardening, too.  Or at least fond of gardens.

This weekend, Mrs.Trump accompanied Akie Abe, the wife of the Japanese prime minister, to Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden in Delray, Florida.  Based on the brief video footage available, it looks like the two women strolled around the gardens somewhat awkwardly, posing for pictures, smiling at the guide, and feeding some koi.

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http://time.com/4668035/melania-trump-michelle-obama-vegetable-garden/

But it is this statement from Mrs. Trump that is most noteworthy if you’ve been fretting about the fate of the White House gardens: ‘As a mother and as the First Lady of this country, Mrs. Trump is committed to the preservation and continuation of the White House Gardens, specifically the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden and the Rose Garden.’

Trump also spoke of the positive effect of gardens and nature on young people: ‘I hope that together Mrs. Abe and I can continue to inspire our youth to enjoy the beauty around them and to restore their minds in the peacefulness of their surroundings.’ 

There are many minds that need to be restored in the aftermath of this election — I won’t say whose! — and one thing most of us can agree on is that gardens are a good place to do that.

It’s interesting that before she left the White House, Mrs. Obama reinforced her garden with more permanent fixtures of cement, stone, and wood; she did not want this thing torn out!  It will be ironic if something as mutable and unpredictable as a garden turns out to be the most enduring Obama initiative of them all.

obamagardenhttp://www.politico.com/story/2016/10/michelle-obama-garden-changes-white-house-229204

Random Thoughts About Floral Design

Here are a couple of arrangements I made in a flower arranging class I took last week with my sister:

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Now for my random thoughts:

1) The theme of this particular class was “Succulents.” Apparently succulents are all the rage in the flower design world as well as the gardening world generally.  The owner of the flower shop said that brides are now carrying bouquets featuring succulents, which is neat, but what about brides carrying full-on CACTUS bouquets down the aisle?  The closest I could find is this really cool desert-inspired bouquet below, but it looks like they snipped off the spines.  Too bad.  I like the idea of the bride being able to literally — rather than just figuratively — impale anybody at the wedding who displeases her.

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2. Flower arranging is one of those things I would love to take up as a hobby, if only my time, dollars, and closet space weren’t already depleted by other expensive, time-consuming, stuff-heavy hobbies.

3. There are many different styles of flower design.  The shop where we took the class specializes in Pave (imagine an accent mark over the “e”) style, which is where you really pack the flowers close together to create a jewel-like effect.  I actually like the naturalistic style of flower design a bit better, like the ones featured in this awesome book, but I like the Pave style, too.  It is opulent!

4. Here is a helpful primer about floral design published by the Garden Club of Virginia, if you are interested.

5. I really have no aptitude for floral design at all, which is why I appreciated this class. The instructors talked a bit about design theory, but also told you exactly how to make the arrangement, so that even a talentless doofus could walk away with something amazing.  The instructors are so nice as they come around and help, too: “hmmm, why don’t we just take this” (green branch that juts awkwardly from the vase) “and trim it and tuck it right here?” (where it won’t look like a kindergartener put it).  Yes, thank you!

6. Flower arranging has an interesting history, going all the way back to ancient Egypt.  Certain cultures were really into it (e.g., Victorian England) and others not so much (Communist China).  In fact, during the Cultural Revolution in China, flower arranging was seen as an extravagant capitalist luxury, and Chairman Mao encouraged citizens to dig up flowers and smash flower pots.  I am so glad that I live in America, where you can pry my opulent succulent arrangement from my cold, dead hands.

7. I greatly admire the skill involved in floral design and love gazing at elaborate arrangements.  However, never underestimate the power of a few flowers/cuttings snipped from your very own yard and put in a glass of water.  Even herbs from the grocery store!  This winter I’ve been growing herbs under lights, and right now I have a juice glass stuffed with basil sitting next to my kitchen sink.  Whenever I wash dishes, I reach out and crush a leaf and the smell of it transports me to Provence or Tuscany, where I unfortunately also seem to be doing dishes, but still.

 

 

This Land is My Land, All Mine!

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means, as a gardener, to actually own my own piece of property.  Sometimes when I am taking my vegetable scraps out to the compost heap, following a route that spans the full expanse of my backyard, I marvel at the fact that the entire vast swath is mine to do with as I wish. The soil, the trees, the rocks, the grass (weeds), every dip and sweep of this somewhat pie-shaped, .49 acre lot is all mine!  For a single human, a half an acre is a king’s riches.  It is more than enough to keep a solitary gardener busy and fretting with planting schemes and projects for a lifetime.

A quarter acre would be enough.  An eighth.  A 10′ x 15′ rectangle.  It’s mine, I own it, I am content.  I would rather own a sunny balcony with an array of pots than merely occupy a 50-acre estate.  Mary Lennox, recall, pleaded only for “a bit of earth.”  A bit.  But she wanted it for herself.

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The whole idea of private land ownership is fundamental in American culture, obviously, but I think it’s in our genes as well.  Even hunter-gatherer societies who couldn’t conceive of private property clashed with one another over hunting grounds and resources.

But of course, they were just being practical.

We gardeners like to covet and control.  There is no sugar-coating it.  We see our gardens as a means of self-expression, whether we are decorating them as fussily as we would our living rooms or attempting to create native plant wilderness.  We tend, shape, manipulate.  What’s less obvious is that the rose garden and the bird habitat are shaped with equal passion.

I know that there is a certain class of gardener — protégés of Sara Stein, for example — who seeks to return their property to a Rousseauian state of nature, whereby they need no longer prune, nor weed, nor remove leaves, etc.  Even these good folk, I suspect, would dash out the back door with a giant machete at the first sight of Japanese honeysuckle overtaking their sassafras grove.  And who would blame them?  They spent 10 years getting those sassafras established!

I know I’m not the first gardener who developed the passion only after purchasing my own property, because the same thing happened to the famous garden writer Beverley Nichols.  In this passage from Down the Garden Path Nichols describes the joy he felt in performing even onerous tasks in his very first garden:

Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy.  You may say, ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that?  You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle…and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds that break off above the root…you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason…because you do not own the garden.  All gardeners will know what I mean.  Ownership makes all the difference in the world.  I suppose it is like the difference between one’s own baby and somebody else’s.  If it is your own baby you probably quite enjoy wiping its nose.  If it is somebody else’s you would have to use a long pole with a handkerchief on the end.  That was why I loved all this early work, because the garden was the first thing I had ever really owned.

What about community gardens?  Well, the community vegetable garden near me is sliced up like a pan of brownies at a kids’ party, with each gardener carefully guarding his portion.  Most community gardens appear to be set up this way, with fences making it very clear whose plot is whose.  The gardeners may share hoses and wheelbarrows, but they don’t often share the earth itself.

This is all kind of a paradox, because gardeners are also known to be very generous.  We are all quick to share our extra vegetables, divisions, seed packs, and of course, unsolicited advice.  And I know there are many gardeners out there who donate their time at public gardens, which is generous indeed.

For most of us, though, ownership is fundamental to the experience of being a gardener.  We are happy to yank up hateful little weeds — whether they’re sprouting in a pot, a city garden, or a 50-acre estate — because they are our hateful little weeds.

No Longer Winter

Is there anything more miraculous than taking a walk on a late January afternoon in zone 7a and encountering masses of flowers?  Not “winter interest”, no, but full-on, voluptuous, lipstick-colored blossoms?

img_5071This is Camellia ‘Autumn Pink Icicle’ — thriving at Green Spring Gardens — which is a hybrid of the already cold hardy ‘Pink Icicle’, an Ackerman hybrid.

Anyway, as I walked along with the sun shining overhead and these hot pink blooms reaching out to say hello, well for a minute it was no longer winter.

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