Monday, February 18, 2013

Michael Dirr at Lewis Ginter

Dr. Michael Dirr was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Lewis Ginter Winter Symposium. Or maybe I should just call him Dirr. As another lecturer pointed out, he has reached the one name status of Cher or Madonna. All you have to do when talking to other plant enthusiasts is say 'Dirr' and everyone knows exactly who you're talking about.

Much of the reason that he is so well known is his book Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. This is an essential book for garden designers, and there's not a day that goes by that I'm not looking up some plant or another to check on growth habit or information on cultivars.

For his morning lecture Dirr presented The Flowering Shrub Revolution from Abelia to Zenobia: Our Clients Love Color. The talk covered some of the most popular nursery plants, where they come from, customer expectations, and what interesting new plants are on the horizon. It was an very interesting review of shrubs, some familiar, some not.  Topping his list of the biggest selling shrubs was boxwood. He seemed a little skeptical of this fact but anyone living here in the tidewater area would not be surprised. One shrub he mentioned that I was unfamiliar with was distylium, which he said would make an excellent substitute for evergreen shrubs like Otto Luyken laurels and dwarf hollies. Dirr also showed several plants that were in development like dark, almost black-leaved crapemyrtles.

It was a bit difficult taking notes, as Dirr was speaking a mile a minute (while his wife Bonnie cracked wise from the back of the lecture hall). I did learn one new word though : remontant. It means reblooming. I'm not exactly sure if there's a technical reason why you would say remontant rather than reblooming, but it does sound smarter and it's one letter shorter.  Remontantisminess (is that a word?) is becoming ever more important for new plant introductions.

Dirr spent many years teaching at the University of Georgia, but is now retired and is started Plant Introductions Inc. several years ago to pursue his passion for introducing unusual new plant cultivars into the nursery trade. As Dirr pointed out, plants are shaped by economics as much as genes. New cultivars need to be developed with regularity and having a catchy name is crucial.  A simple change in names can cause a plant to explode in sales. 70% of sales are from March to May, so plants have to be bred to be in bloom and looking their best at this time. Or they have to be grown in greenhouses to get a head start on the growing season. Or breeders can cheat a bit by using growth inhibitors to manipulate a plant's growth. You may have noticed a plant that ended up looking a bit floppy when it went from the pot into the yard without the special chemicals it was used to.

You're probably familiar with one plant Dirr helped to make famous: Endless Summer Hydrangea. Dirr came across the selection in a test field at Bailey nurseries in Minnesota. The plant had been ignored for years, but the nursery certainly took notice when Dirr became interested in it. Bailey's had it patented and went on to sell millions of plants. And now, new improved varieties like Twist-n-Shout  are on the way (and beating Endless Summer in the reblooming department).

The holy grail of hydrangeas right now is a pink version of 'Annabel' with strong stems that can hold up the enormous flower heads. Some attempts are available, but Dirr said we don't seem to be quite there yet. It's only a matter of time though. Looking at all the hydrangea pictures was great, but alas, I can rarely use them as a designer. They are much too susceptible to deer damage to be used in most gardens around here.

In his afternoon lecture Dirr presented In Praise of Nobel Trees. He talked about his passion for trees,  describing their inspirational, spiritual and generational qualities. He also went into a bit of detail about how they are misused through single species plantings and poor species selection. It reminded me of what Joan Crawford used to say:

Most of the trees he mentioned were familiar, like oaks, but he also praised less commonly used species and varieties  like Kentucky coffeetree and parrottia (anyone know of any good examples of parrotia in the tidewater area?). A recent maple hybrid he recommended was Red Pointe. And keep an eye out for 'Bonnie & Mike' swamp white oak (named after the Dirrs).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Satchel's Pizza Garden

Here in Gainesville, Florida is a great little garden surrounding a place called Satchel's Pizza. The garden is an impressive mixture of landscape and art that has been under construction since 2003.
The property is filled with an amazing assortment of plants and decorations including hubcaps, bottle caps, floppy discs and just about any other castoff thing you can imagine. Everywhere you look there are interesting details: murals, tile benches, and huge mixing pots filled with plants. Even the trash cans are decorated.

The restaurant is owned and operated by artist and restaurateur Satchel Raye.  Raye created much of the art on the site, though it's been supplemented by the work of employees and talented folks just passing through.

Plantings enliven the entire site, but  the main garden is the area immediately in front of the restaurant. Lying along busy 23rd Avenue, it does an great job of buffering the traffic and creating a sense of other-worldliness, especially at night. The garden is a relaxed organic design of plants and winding paths boldly edged in cast-off concrete columns (I wonder what they were originally designed for...) and anchored by an old Ford Falcon van now used for seating small groups.

Sculptures are scattered here and there throughout the garden. One touch I found especially intriguing was the use of bald cypress knees as a decorative element. I never would have thought of that myself, but when I saw them it seemed like an obvious and undiscovered use for them.  Not sure where you'd get them though.

The garden was started several years ago under the care of Jeff Zicheck, who brought in loads of organic mushroom compost to create the basis for the garden. Since then it's grown into a lush oasis. I've only been in Florida less than a year so I'm not really familiar with most of the plants growing here. Raye said he had things  like figs, sugar cane, tangerine, guava, cherries, crazy cactus and sago palm, some of which are used in their delicious food. The garden is irrigated with rain runoff from the roof, which is stored in two big tanks behind the kitchen.

The warm climate in Gainesville allows for a nice variety of maze-like spaces on the property, ranging from  completely indoors, through screened porches and a covered patio, and out to the open air seating. There's also a custom-built children's playground, bocce court, and a space for live music. And in the very back corner is a long-narrow greenhouse where they nurse plants. It's really great how the site invites people to hang out and explore before or after their dinner.

With its assemblage of recycled materials, the garden reminds me quite a bit of the Houston Beer Can House and Garden, though it's more sophisticated in execution. It also reminds me in a way of  Chanticleer, another garden that fuses landscape and art (as opposed to what I might call 'design', as in most cutting-edge gardens). As with Chanticleer, the  landscape is not just a setting for art, but part of it. Satchel's garden though, is much rawer and funkier than Chanticleer, and denser with art.

The main thing that ties all this wackiness together is a skillful use of color. The palette of the garden is dominated by the rich oranges, reds and golds used on the buildings and repeated on assorted sculptures. The colors nicely complement the darker greens of the plants, and unifying the space. 

Unfortunately, Satchel's was hit by a fire in February, and has been closed for repairs. But I'm looking to the  reopening scheduled for this month.  Check out their website: You can also browse my photos on flickr.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Five Forks BMP

For the second field trip of 2011 I organized a trip to a BMP (detention basin) in the Five Forks area of James City County. Most BMP's aren't worth a second look, but this particular one was constructed along a local stream and has a nice selection of native wetland plants. I scheduled the walk to coincide with the blooms of some swamp doghobble that was growing along the edges of the BMP, but there was a very small turnout since there was a competing plant walk on the same day to see sweetleaf in bloom.

We started off looking at the nice selection of vines growing on the edge of the BMP: crossvine, grapes, poison ivy and (yuk) Japanese honey suckle.

The crossvine had a very interesting structure within the flowers, with crossing stamens leading to butterfly-shaped anthers.
Another interesting thing about the flower was the smell. One of the field trippers noted that the crossvine was supposed to have a mocha scent, so I gave it sniff and sure enough, it smelled just like coffee grounds.

Speaking of scents, another flower that I had never bothered to smell before was the tulip tree flower. They have a wonderful vanilla scent.
After looking at a couple trees, we ventured into the bottom of the BMP. I didn't bring any boots, but luckily someone else did and he was kind enough to get in the mud and pluck a bloom of yellow pond lily for a close up view.
I'm still a little confused with the pond lily. Depending on the source, the number of species ranges from 1 to 25. I'm not sure there is a final consensus yet.

Not too far away from the pond lily was the swamp doghobble I wanted to see. It was a little difficult to get to however. We had to make our way through a thicket of sapling trees to find them.
Swamp doghobble has long racemes of bell shaped flowers which are sweetly scented. Standing next to the doghobble you could see the lush stands of cinnamon and royal ferns on the other side of the swamp, but we decided to leave those for another day.

A couple other plants we spotted on the walk: willow, elderberry, swamp dogwood, and American holly. The dogwood wasn't in quite in bloom the day we were there, but when I went back a week later, the white flowers seemed to be everywhere.

You can see all my photos from the walk here.