Book Review: Kniphofia: the complete guide by Christopher Whitehouse

by Eric Hsu

One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.

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A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.

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Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer.  I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project,  may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.

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Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.

Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.

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The range of colors from the Kniphofia cultivars at the 2007-2009 RHS Trial (Photo Credit: Tim Sandall from Kniphofia)

The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.

Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.

The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.

Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm.  A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value.  Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.

Book Review: Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman

by Eric Hsu

All images are the courtesy and copyright of Isabel and Julian Bannerman.  


Garden designers are like fashion designers in that they memorialize their work through books. Their books are either modest affairs or expensive productions. The former can become deserving classics for their information dispensed with wit and poetry. The latter can lapse into the clichéd interior design format – large two-page photographic spreads, minimal or no text, and glossary to matt paper. A brief introduction may preface the photography. They have their sole purpose of mindless dreaming and fantasies of what money or time can achieve. Isabel and Julian Bannerman’s Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016) toes these two categories of being informative and visually slick.

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In a NY Times T Magazine profile of their Cornish garden, Tim Richardson describes the husband and wife team as to-go ’90s landscape designers for high profile clients that included the Prince of Wales (at Highgrove), Lord Rothschild (Waddesdon Manor), John Paul Getty Jr. (Wormsley) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (Houghton Hall). Their projects veer heavily towards grandiose ones rather than the townhouse and urban gardens other designers take on.  Their gardens have the bold armature of wooden or stone structures embellished with anthers, finials, and carvings that are dramatic peers to their plantings. Grasses are seldom used as they are in contemporary gardens, but roses, aquilegias, tulips and topiary, all archetypal elements of classic country gardens, are liberally deployed. As prescriptive as this look may seem, the Bannermans have developed a knack for blurring the lines, muffling out the formality with self sowers, perennials that flop decadently over the hedges, and curvaceous topiary forms. They admitted this feat a slippery one: “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”

Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans' second personal garden in Cornwall.
Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans’ second personal garden in Cornwall. Image credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman

A foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales opens the book with an enthusiastic acknowledgment of the Bannermans’ interdisciplinary talents in architecture, landscape, and interior design. This royal endorsement hardly adds to the book apart from the seal of approval to readers unsure about the book’s contents. What follows is an autobiographical chapter in which the Bannermans recount their upbringing, early influences, and philosophy. Their reminiscences are revealed with surprising candor especially about people whose lives happened to collide with them. Reading passage after passage unwinding about these quirky individuals is like a communion with the fantastical characters who populate Alice in Wonderland. DV or David Vicary is described as [a] magical scarecrow of a man, beautifully turned out in his uniform of dark brown alpaca long waistcoat – a sort of subfusc outfit after Doctor Johnson – had a mop of excellent hair definitive nose, and wry vivacious eyes.’ Coincidentally the Bannermans allude to  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for its ‘illusory, hallucinatory quality’ they strive to instill in their work.

Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans' commissions.
Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans’ commissions. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

 

The Bannermans are not shrinking violets when it comes to theatricality in the garden. They have marvelous fun poring over historical texts, paintings, and references to pierce together imaginative gardens that would have delighted garden goers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is precisely what they have achieved in half of the former walled kitchen garden at Arundel Castle, Sussex. From the Somerset House garden plan the Bannermans tailored the two-terraced garden – the upper terrace being a trio of courts interlocked by a oak pergola, and the lower terrace a miniature castle, Oberon’s Palace. Two graveled courts with a fountain and four catalpa trees each flank the central court with its canal of water. Oak urn fountains topped with gilded bronze agaves squirt water into this canal. A  large open lawn planted up with alliums transition between the upper and lower terrace. Oberon’s Palace, which takes after the Little Castle at Bolsover, is miraculously mounted on a plinth of Sussex ragstone rocks. The interior palace walls are encrusted with shells and corks, and the room centerpiece is The Dancing Crown. The Bannermans left no detail undone – dolphin, dog, and lion figurines adorn the fountains in the catalpa courts while deer anthers adorn the Park Temple. Sea monkeys guard the arch entranceway of Oberon’s Palace. One cannot help smile at the playful atmosphere of  all the features, even if the embellishment may come across over the top for some.

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Daniel Mytens’ portrait of Alathea Talbot painted in 1618 – the Bannermans enlarged the background detail of the garden with its hornbeam pergola, fountain and the doorway on which the Collector Earl’s Garden and Oberon’s Palace’s interior were modelled. Image Credit: Wikipedia
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A gilded crown is propelled into the air by the jet of water from a fountain at Arundel Castle. This water trick was inspired by the one the Bannermans had seen at Hellbrunn, Palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Image Credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman

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The yellow Chinese bridge at Woolbeding. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

If Arundel Castle is the court jester in the Bannerman design portfolio, then Woolbeding is the royal advisor who parlays a sensible and sympathetic strategy for problems. In tackling Woolbeding, the Bannermans realized: “Lightness of touch is an intangible quality, something we all always seek to achieve and can never be sure of finding.” The late Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw already established the formal and productive gardens since purchasing the property in 1970s. For a long time, they struggled with unifying the ‘Long Walk’ to the woodland garden, a large copse of trees, and a placid body of water. A painted Gothic pavilion was positioned listlessly on a grassy knoll without any incentive to visit it. To announce the change from open pasture to arboretum with its structural elements, the Bannermans constructed a Gothic ruin archway entrance. A visitor then would take this entrance as the cue to anticipate the next episode. Because the owners did not wish to move the pavilion, it became the reference point under which a 12′ cliff fashioned out of Sussex sandstone was created. Water would cascade from this cliff, breaking up the still waters and giving impetus to the pavilion views across the lake. A Chinese bridge painted yellow to echo yellow flags and skunk cabbages hovered enchantingly close to the water surface and provide views towards the pavilion. The Bannermans continued the ‘journey’ to a thatched hermitage and the cave of the Rother god, conceived to be the ‘father’ of the river. They installed a tufa monolith, which oozed water from the Rother through clever engineering, in the circular glade where Simon and Stewart had positioned statues of four seasons. This monolith,  “a strange and powerful beast, slumbering, closed-winged but latent”, introduces mystery and a note of danger without which a garden can be atmospheric. It is a light theatrical touch that brings cohesion to the woodland garden, lake, and the pavilion.



 

A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans' residence for 18 years.
A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans’ residence for 18 years. Image Credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Hanham Court and Trematon Castle, the last two gardens in the book, are personal ones which the Bannermans patiently and diligently wrestled out of their derelict, overgrown status quo. Had not for the help of the antipodeans (one Kiwi who looked after the children and cooking, and seven Aussies who helped with the construction), the garden at Hanham Court would not have materialized given the sorry state of the property at the beginning. The inception of the garden at Hanham Court prompts a comedic recollection of a conservation officer who, initially horrified at the swimming pool within the remnant medieval ruins, was less than enthused about being duped by the architectural chicanery the Bannermans constructed. It was not simply enough to undertake the house and garden restoration for the impoverished soil needed earth backfills and compost additions before anything was to be planted. The ancient tangle of wisteria was forcibly pulled down to wire the house and retrained to maximize their flowering productivity, and roses like Rosa bankisae ‘Lutea’, ‘Felicite Perpetue’ and ‘Rambling Rector’ joined in the climbing chorus. Nonetheless each project led to another until Hanham Court became civilized with the requisite romanticism. It’s a place that is breathtaking in scale when you visit as I did several years ago on an open garden day. Like Alice who crawls into the rabbit hole or mirror only to end up in an alternate world, you first enter through the wicket gate that is a brief dark interlude before the colors, scents, and all that is the Bannerman magic overwhelm you.

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Native wildflower scenes at Tremarton. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Despite its Cornish location, Trematon proved no picnic either. Archaeological restrictions (no duplicitous ruins and no gullible enforcers) meant no wanton digging. Years of neglect had allowed winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) to spread aggressively and smother out the native wildflowers. Sloping terrain doubled the time it took to complete projects. The Bannermans describe their first year as grey and disconsolate from the rain that fell incessantly. ‘Grey skies, grey granite, grey shaley soil, bitter and wet it was, and the boiler was bust, when we landed with a lot of furniture in a heap from Bristol.’ Just as they had done with their previous derelict projects, they valiantly persisted as they replanted their losses, wrenched out boulders, and excavated new planting holes. Bramble, ground elder, and heliotrope were either sprayed or pulled out from the banks. Judging from the photographs, much of their efforts appeared to pay off. The removal of the invasive and aggressive weeds allowed some of the native wildflowers to return, and made what was once impenetrable promising canvas to ‘paint’. Given how the castle walls already provided the essential backdrop, the Bannermans describe a dizzyingly range of plants, especially those scented, added over the last five years. Their emphasis on scent is purposeful for ‘Cornwall is good for scent, being warm and wet and, when the sun does appear, aromatic plants exude their turpentine tang.’

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Bannermans often turn to climbing roses in their work – Rosa ‘Albéric Barbier’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’, and ‘Rambling Rector’ clamber over a ruined wall at Euridge Manor Farm. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

One of the admirable aspects about the Bannermans is their fluency with different plants, a skill that is becoming more uncommon among garden designers and landscape architects. They act like discriminating magpies who retain their proven prizes, experiment a bit, and fold in new possibilities to an existing scheme. Philadelphus (mock orange), old roses, pinks, lilies, sweet peas and lupines are always introduced to gardens with tour de force herbaceous borders.  It is easy to pooh pooh these plants in these gardens, but the Bannermans cherish them for their ‘lived in’ effect they inject in a youthful garden. They are familiar and sensual, evocative of the dreamy past.

If a criticism is to be volleyed at the book, the photography occasionally fails to match the exacting high standards of the garden. Either the authors or the editors have taken the unusual step of not commissioning a garden photographer to illustrate the text, instead opting for the authors’ photography. The downside of such photography is their uneven quality, which can be a letdown for those accustomed to crisp and sharp images in other garden books. Some of the photographs would have been culled to prevent repetition  – one or two close-ups of the plantings would simply suffice. On the upside, the ‘homemade’ feel of the photography gives the text a personal touch as if we were peering through a creative scrapbook or compendium of the authors’ work.

Landscape of Dreams is a book which deserves periodical poring for its sophisticated fluency in landscape and garden design. It demonstrates that truly talented designers do not produce products of hubris, but of respect and humility to the sites they are commissioned to work on. The Bannermans are sensible to realize that each site has its limitations that require their plans to be specific and individualistic.

 “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not…”

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 “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”

~ Isabel and Julian Bannerman in Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016)

 

Justin’s Plant Picks

by Justin Galicic and Eric Hsu

Photography by Justin Galicic

Justin depends more on foliage rather than flowers, although he still appreciates fragrant shrubs and bold annuals that fulfill the bold and brilliant look he aims in his Normandy Park garden. Some of these plants are adaptable and can be grown successfully on the East Coast of North America as well as maritime western Europe.


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Dryopteris sieboldii – Tropical-looking evergreen fern that can handle a bit of dry shade. This Asian Dryopteris from China, Japan, and Taiwan can retains its foliage down to 5 degrees F according to Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery.


agave-ovatifoliaAgave ovatifolia (Whale’s Tongue Agave) – Stands up to Seattle’s wet winters and still looks beautiful 356 days a year. According to Greg Star in Agaves (Timber Press 2012), this agave is a high elevation species found in two populations, one between 3000 and 4000 ft (900-1200 m) and the other between 7000 and 8000 ft (2130-2440 M). Its cold hardiness has enable its cultivation in Dallas, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina taking down to 5 degrees F without damage (Star 2012). Gardeners less daring can treat it as a decorative container plant.


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Magnolia grandiflora ‘D.D Blanchard’ – Stunning copper-colored indumentum on huge glossy leaves. This native magnolia is equally hardy in the coastal Mid-Atlantic Region and New England as much as it is in the Pacific Northwest, and its evergreen foliage have become popular in holiday wreaths and bouquets during winter.


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Eucomis ‘Rhode Island Red’ – Looks like ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ but gets twice the size!  This hybrid between Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Eucomis pole-evansii from East Coast maestro Ed Bowen of Opus Nursery, Little Compton, Rhode Island, is certainly deserving for its large size, sturdy infloresences (most stalks tend to collapse in themselves), and dark foliage.


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Butia capitata – Hardy in Seattle only with some occasional protection.  Still, this blue pinnate-leaved palm is a fast grower and eventually reaches tree status. The jelly palm owes its light frost tolerance to its geographic range in northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.


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Shibataea kumasaca – Averts the two worst attributes of a hardy bamboo: mites don’t bother it and it doesn’t run aggressively.  It keeps all the great attributes like gorgeous foliage year-round and is easy to grow.


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Daphne bholua – Its intoxicating fragrance scents the dark and dreary winter air starting in January in Seattle, well before Daphne odora. Some gardeners have reported trouble getting it to establish, although the effort is worthwhile.


ricinus-communis

Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ – Everything on this plant is red.  It’s an annual but easy to sow.  It can be thought of like an awesome, poisonous sunflower.


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Schefflera delavayi – Huge, glossy foliage grows quickly into a small tree.  Amazingly it’s one of the hardiest scheffleras.


Sinopanax formosanus

Sinopanax formosanus – Evergreen, palmate leaves with beautiful copper indumentum for a Taiwanese shrub. It is probably tender for much of continental North America, but likewise can be an arresting container subject.


5-10-5: Justin Galicic

Interview by Eric Hsu and Justin Galicic

Photography by Justin Galicic (except for the profile pic by Michael Siegel)

Justin is one of those rare individuals whose chief profession isn’t horticulture, but music education, although it has not deterred him from being an avid gardener who has willingly transformed his parents’ garden into an one with subtropical touches. He has the enviable advantage of residing in the maritime Pacific Northwest where mild winters and moderate summers permit a wide range of plants to be grown. I have long heard about him from my other friend Riz Reyes, another keen plantsman, and finally had a chance to meet him at the Mahonia Summit in Seattle in February 2015.


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Justin Galicic with his ever tolerant parents Caroline and Al in their garden (Image courtesy of Mike Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Please introduce yourself.

I am Justin Galicic


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Morning light lights up the lupines and Kniphofia in the Galicic garden.

 

The arts or horticulture?

Horticulture


What is your first gardening memory?

As early as I can remember, each year my dad would rototill the vegetable garden in the spring and give me a section to grow whatever vegetables I wanted to. I always wanted to grow every seed packet we had!


You’re somewhat unusual among the people we profiled here on the blog that your chosen profession isn’t in horticulture or landscape architecture, but rather music education for young children. Have you found yourself feeling a bit of an outsider or a spectator?

No, I definitely feel like an active participant in the horticultural community. I am on the board of the Northwest Horticultural Society so I think that officially qualifies me as an insider. As far as my career goes, this past year was my last teaching music and as of right now I’m a full-time student getting a tech degree in front-end web development.


 

Garden designers and landscape architects frequently refer to music terminology to describe the feelings or emotions of their work. Do you have specific musical vocabulary that would describe your style of gardening?

There are a lot of similarities between the two because I think the end goal with a musical composition is virtually the same as designing a garden: to create an experience that transports you to another place. All the great composers juxtapose contrasting elements in their music: high vs. low, loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow, etc.  In the garden, I like to put big, loud, scary and dangerous right next to small, quiet, happy and safe. A musical composition is also moving – slowly building a crescendo, retreating from a climactic peak, modifying a previous theme, etc. In the same way a well-designed garden pulls you toward some feature or echo colors and textures that establish a sense of overall harmony.  It’s always moving and compels anyone in it move with it.

 


Because you currently reside in an urban condo with no gardening space, you have creatively appropriated your parents’ home in Normandy Park to create an impressive garden. While parents are generally supportive of their children’s interests and endeavours, did they have any inkling of what they had set themselves up for when you started the garden there? I imagine that there were some concerns especially with what your parents favored.

They definitely had concerns! When I was building the pond, it took all almost all the intellectual energy I had to convince them that the waterfalls should be 7′ tall instead of 3′ tall.  They wanted the design on paper, but I wasn’t able to draw anything resembling what I had in my mind.  But little by little, they gained confidence in me. My mom still vetoes some things I want to do. I’m not allowed to grow Equisetum or Cannabis (it is legal in Washington!) but other than that I’m pretty free to plant whatever I want.


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Visitors admire the koi and waterlilies at the Normandy Park Garden Festival.

Your parents must have tremendous patience as they were willing to consent to hosting an annual horticultural fair. How did the idea come about and has the community response been positive?

It is a big undertaking but always rewarding. The idea actually started as I was trying to think of an environmentally friendly way to get rid of the ginormous stacks of black nursery pots I had been accumulating over the years.  I figured the best way to get rid of them would be to repurpose them by selling new plants that I propagated in the old pots at a plant sale.  I e-mailed Dan Hinkley to see if he would be interested in giving a talk in our garden to accompany the plant sale. He said yes and we got about 200 people in attendance that first year. After five years, it has helped bring the gardening community in the neighborhood together and I know more than a few neighbors who have gone from intimidated to over-the-moon-excited about their own gardens.

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Plant sale at the Normandy Park Garden Festival.

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The new growth of Metapanax delavayi, a temperate member of the Araliaceae.

 

Like other serious plant geeks, you have a limitless interest in all plants. However, are their specific genera or horticultural groups you seem to gravitate towards?

I’d say my interest is centered around palms, agaves, and much of the aralia family.


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Hardy palms (Trachycarpus) give a subtropical feel around the central fountain in the Galicic garden.

Bold foliage and shapes from bananas, scheffleras, hardy cacti, and palms are emphasized at the Normandy Park garden. Was it a subconscious fantasy to have a bit of tropics in the Pacific Northwest?

No it was entirely conscious! For a while I was only interested in tropical and subtropical plants. The idea of creating a jungle in my backyard was always a fantasy.  Perhaps if I grew up in the tropics I’d be more interested in hardy plants, but tropical plants have been forever imprinted on my heart.

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Waimea Canyon, Hawaii.

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Schefflera taiwaniana rapidly becoming a large shrub in the mild climate of Seattle metro region.

Except for Schefflera delavayi, most of the scheffleras are not hardy for us in the East Coast. For our Pacific Northwest and mild climate gardeners, what scheffleras have been successful and hardy?

S. taiwaniana is probably the easiest to find, but S. fengii and S. alpina also make appearances at plant sales in the NW from time to time.

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The dramatic new growth of Schefflera delavayi

Justin's economical method of building fake rocks for his garden.
Justin’s economical method of building fake rocks for his garden.

 

Not only has your plantsmanship served you well in the garden’s diversity, but also you have a knack for building as evidenced as your ‘fake’ rocks that add some hardscaping to the garden. Were you largely self-taught where these projects came to mind?

Yeah I learned how to make the fake rocks from watching You Tube videos and studying how they were made at places like the zoo and Disneyland.  It’s not as difficult as it looks but there is definitely an artistic touch involved.

The final result - it's hard to imagine that these rocks were facsimiles constructed reasonably quick from concrete and chicken wire.
The final result – it’s hard to imagine that these rocks were facsimiles constructed reasonably quick from concrete and chicken wire.

I like how you keep the budget-conscious gardener in mind during the construction project as you outlined the cost per fake rock in your blog. It’s a change from the usual gardening or lifestyle magazines that assume its readership having unlimited funds to buy or build high quality features outdoors. What other budget-friendly projects do you wish to tackle and demonstrate online?

Probably the most budget-friendly project a gardener can do is propagate their own plants. I do it on a scale that gives me enough of the plants I want to fill my garden while also having some extras to sell at plant sales.  I also started building my own arbors when I ran out of things to grow vines on.  They have the added benefit of acting as “doorways” to different areas of the garden.  I painted them a creamy color, the same color as the house’s trim, and they help to visually tie the house in with the rest of the garden.


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The propagation master bench!

You demonstrate a knack for propagation – and the basement setup seems within the reach of an average hobbyist. Any tips on what to do and avoid?

Taking plant cuttings had always mystified me, and for a while I thought I would never be good enough to be successful at it. But with some persistence and determination, I can say I’ve now gotten over 100 plant species to root.  There are a lot of great how-to videos on You Tube and of course countless books on the subject.  Definitely invest in a heat mat and propagation dome (in order to maintain humidity).  And avoid doing it in a place where bugs are going to interfere. I find the garage is a pretty good place to root cuttings. If you take 20 cuttings and 10 of them root, that’s a success.  If all of them fail, that’s a success too because now you know not to do it that way.

 

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Bulbils forming at the cut leaf base of Eucomis ‘Rhode Island Red’.

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Justin’s acquisitions from Far Reaches Farm – Paris polyphylla var. yunnanensis, Schefflera fengii, and Berberis malipoense/hypoxantha.

Gardeners in the Seattle -Portland metro region can count themselves fortunate to have specialist nurseries and sophisticated garden centers for plants. What are some of the nurseries and garden centers you often turn to when you seek to satiate your plant addiction?

My top three are Cistus Nursery in Oregon, Far Reaches Farm in Washington, and Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. All offer mail order, and between those three there is enough of a selection to fill any sized garden with an incredible variety of plants.


In addition, the region is accessible to majestic national parks. What natural areas do you like to visit when you wish to escape the horticultural haze?

It’s always great to see how plants like to grow in their native environments. Mother nature is the best garden designer, and no one has ever been able to even approximate the horticultural wonderment found in nature.  The most beautiful spot within driving range for me are the wildflower meadows in Mt. Rainier National Park.


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Watermelons, a rare occurrence, forming during one of Seattle’s abnormally hot summer.

A lot of us are envious at what the relatively temperate climate of the maritime Pacific Northwest can accommodate and foster while we battle extreme heat and humidity, invasive Asian tiger mosquitoes, and floral displays that go over too quickly. It’s harder to reconcile our horticultural aspirations with the continental climate in North America. Are there any plants you see elsewhere in your travels that you wish you can grow better or successfully in your area?

Oh yeah I’d love to be able to grow more palms, proteas, bananas, bromeliads, citrus, echiums, agaves, cacti, and other tropical and subtropical plants. We usually can’t get beefsteak tomatoes, cantaloupes or watermelons to ripen.  But I’m always discovering a new appreciation for plants I can grow in my climate that I might not have discovered if I could grow anything I want.


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The exterior hardscaping of the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle.

Seattle is one of the fast growing cities due to the influx of tech companies moving upwards from Silicon Valley. Is there a growing disconnect between public space plantings and companies who are building campuses, but not aware of the climatic possibilities?

Thankfully conventional urban landscape design is moving away from turf grass accented by gaudy colors toward more natural and sustainable landscapes. But there is the unfortunate reality of heirloom turfgrass and flower beds leaching runoff fertilizer and pesticides into nearby lakes and streams. Self-sustaining urban landscapes are the answer.  The alpine wildflower meadows on Mt. Rainier are an example of a beautiful, completely self-sustaining landscape.  If we can create urban landscapes that don’t require additional resources after the initial installation and strike a balance with nature, the air we breathe will be cleaner and we will leave more water in our lakes and streams for wildlife to flourish.

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Holboellia coriacea, Beesia deltophylla, and Adiantum venustum at Amazon’s corporate campus where plantings were done by Seattle plantsman Dan Hinkley.

If you were to create a new garden from scratch, would that garden resemble the one at your parents’ home? Sometimes our tastes change and evolve over time, and some people begin to simplify their gardens.

If I designed a garden from scratch it might very well look similar to how the one at my parent’s house looks right now.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way that I’ve gone back and fixed so it would certainly take a lot less time!  When I eventually buy my own house and start my own garden, I hope it will have many of the same elements – tropical jungle with roaring waterfalls, sunny Mediterranean border, shaded woodland, zen garden, a veggie patch, and plenty of space in between for growing whatever my latest obsession happens to be.


Your desert island plant?

Artocarpus altilis aka breadfruit. It is a beautiful tree and has the added benefit of being edible and life-sustaining.


 Any nuggets of advice you wish to pass along to your peers who have just bought homes, but are intimidated about their gardens?

Home builders (at least here in the Pacific NW) are really good at putting dense clay soil on top of the native topsoil when they excavate, leaving little room for plants to develop strong root systems.  Bringing in some loamy topsoil before planting goes a long way toward helping plants get established and reducing the need for future watering.  Even if something dies or doesn’t do what you want it to do, don’t get discouraged.  Keep trying new things.  If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.


Thank you Justin!

 

Eleftherio’s Plant Picks

by Eric Hsu and Eleftherios Dariotis

Photography by Eric Hsu


As Eleftherios revealed in his interview, he gardens in a climate made challenging by its drying northern winds, high summer temperatures, and little to no precipitation except for winter and spring. Although the garden will receive supplemental irrigation under extreme conditions, the plants often have to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, the majority of adaptable plants originate from Mediterranean regions that have the same climatic conditions as Eleftherios’ garden at his parents’ home. The following are plants that he has found to be either essential, successful, or deserving of cultivation in California, southern Oregon, Texas, and other regions of the world having similar climatic conditions.


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Agapanthus (unnamed variety): “I grow about 20 cultivars of evergreen Agapanthus, some named and others unnamed. You can count on them for adding a strong blue touch in June and July when most of the salvias seem to fade.”


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Aloysia virgata: “Although this shrub might not be the best looking plant, its scent can fill the whole garden on a warm still day.” This Argentinian and Brazilian native (Zones 7B to 10B) is treated as a die-back perennial in its colder limits, but becomes a tall open shrub in warmer zones. The scent has been compared to vanilla and almonds.


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 Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii: “A Texan plant perfectly adapted to our Athens climate, having minimal watering needs and covered in flowers. Hummingbirds in US will make a beeline for this xerophytic plant (Zones 7A to 10B) adaptable either in rocky alkaline or heavy soils.

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Erythrina x bidwillii (E. crista gallii x E. herbacea): “You can count on its constant flowering all summer long, despite the more popular E. crista gallii.” This hybrid (Zones 7B to 10B) originated in Camden Park, an Australian estate outside of Sydney, in the 1840s where William Macarthur named it after his convict gardener Edmund Blake.


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Micromeria helianthemifolia ssp. helianthemifolia: “This little thing from the Canary Islands stole my heart right away. Beautiful scent on the foliage and once put into the ground, it forms a perfect round shrublet covered in pink in June.” Relatively unknown in cultivation, this mint relative may be hardy up to Zone 7B, if not Zone 8.


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Monarda ‘Lambada’: “A self sowing Monarda that always seems to select the correct place to grow.” This annual beebalm is grown from seed and has proven to be a good cut flower in trials.

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Leucophyllum frutescens: “I discovered Leucophyllums some years ago and now I would never garden without them. Their ability to repeat flower all through the summer is just amazing.” The Texas silverleaf, a member of the figwort family Scrophulariaceae, has become a popular xerophytic shrub (Zones 8-10) in Texas for its tolerance of gravelly alkaline soils and drought.


DSC_0051Salvia guaranitica ‘Blue Enigma’: “Probably the least running of the S.guaranitica forms. All others have me running along every winter to confine them.” The flowers are indeed true blue for ‘Blue Enigma’, which can become a hardy subshrub for those gardening in Zones 7B to Zone 11.


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Salvia lanceolata: “A South African sage, similar to but much more confined than the more common S. africana-lutea.” One of the few Cape species not pollinated by bees, but by birds, this salvia (Zones 8 or higher) has unusual bronze to coppery colors that would look with grasses and purple-flowering perennials.


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Sideritis dendro-chahorra: “A species from the Canary Islands. The Macaronesian Sideritis are surprisingly drought tolerant plants and much larger than their Mediterrranean relatives.”


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Tecoma ‘Sunrise’ – “A cultivar that produces little seed, thus putting all its effort into constant flowering from April till the first frosts.” Mature height and width is 8′ by 8′ for a relatively rapid growing shrub hardy to Zone 8. Its old flowers are spent rapidly and seed production occurs late enough in the season that the floral display isn’t compromised.


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Tulbaghia violacea: “The common society garlic, has sparkled my interest to grow more in the genus, now counting more than 20 species and cultivars.” With its strap-like leaves and umbels of pale pink flowers, the common society garlic does resemble a pink form of Agapanthus campanulatus, although it is less hardy, withstanding warmer limits of Zone 7 and above.


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Yucca rostrata: “A plant I raised from seed, now in its fifth year and slowly starting to develop a trunk.” One of the hardiest yuccas (up to Zone 6B with good drainage, although plants have withstood cold winters in Denver, Colorado), the beaked yucca eventually forms a trunk giving its sharp architectural form in the garden. The leaves are a beautiful blue green color.

 

 

A Philadelphian Printemps

Dear Jimmy,

In our recent conversation you had expressed some impatience for spring to jump into action since the maritime climate usually means temperatures slower to warm, while moderating them. Each year I am always anxious to see how winter transitions to spring because it is a rare year when I experience a seamless change. While the mild winter was a welcome change from the last two years’ unforgiving winters, it caused me some concern about how some plants may been cajoled prematurely from dormancy, risking their tender shoots or flowers to sudden cold snaps. Snow in April has happened before, and early spring frosts have despoiled early spring displays of magnolias and cherries. A summery spell in mid-March this year awakened some bulbs, perennials, and woody plants foolish enough to respond in turn, and two weeks later a frigid cold snap curtailed what would have been a spectacular show from some magnolias and spring Asian perennials like epimediums. At the same time, we were able to see how cold resilient the plants were – unsurprisingly the spring ephemerals and bulbs did not flinch at all, save for limp leaves that perked up with warmer temperatures during the day. There isn’t much one can do in the face of seemingly cataclysmic events – instead one just accepts the havoc with quiet resignation and move forward to what the remainder of season will send our way. My intervention was draping my fig tree with swathes of fabric to mitigate the cold from damaging the emerging shoots – two figless summers had me unwilling to experience a third figless summer.

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On one hand, the cold nights kept my tulips on a slow waltz – only a day or two of 80 F is enough to send tulips into early overdrive, crinkling their petals and shattering them the next day – they had budded and turned color, and maintained that status for a good two weeks until consistent warmth swelled their buds without warning. After a mosaic-like grids of different tulips last year, I opted for a simpler scheme of white tulips sprinkled with some dark purple ones for contrast. Keeping tulips to a minimum of 1 to 3 varieties prevents the effect from becoming too Easter-egg like, a chromatic chaos disjointed visually. Tulipa ‘Hakuun’ was and is a winner in my black book of top notch plants- the slightly upright foliage does have the floppy gait of some Darwin tulips, the buds taper elegantly like the closed beaks of well-fed birds, and are flushed with a pale wash of celadon, and the ovoid flowers have a pure crystalline color untainted by cream or yellow. The Japanese who bred this tulip for their cut-flower trade obviously knew what they were doing.

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Narcissus ‘Manly’ and N. ‘Ice Wings’ with Tulipa ‘Continental’ – an inspired concept of black and white from Scandinavian minimalist color template. 

Tulipa ‘Continental’ is peppered throughout T. ‘Hakuun’ and the white daffodils, giving a depth that prevents the white scheme from being too ‘safe’. The touches of yellow in Narcissus ‘Manly’ emulate sparks of light, injecting warmth, and similarly the emerging inflorescences of the biennial Isatis tinctoria takes the same color to a different height.

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I like the Viridiflora type tulips but their late flowering tends to occur with those heat waves that hasten the display. I always stop to take notes of tulips I admire here and there, and place my orders in late summer. For new varieties, I grow them in pots for closer observation. One such pot contains Tulipa ‘Night Rider’, a Viridiflora type mauve streaked with green. The bulbs had been bought in the clearance rack at Home Depot early December.

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The sole peony I inherited from the previous owners have surprised me with its shade tolerance during summer, and its reliable blooms. Earlier the new growth was a vibrant red, a burnished tone that proved to a good foil for the cool icy whites and greens. I nearly removed it last year, but its fortitude last summer won me. The foliage gets powdery mildew, and I usually cut it down.

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My garden would feel bereft without alliums, which takes over the show after the tulips and daffodils. Allium schoenoprasum or chives surprised me with its precocious flowering, and its soft mauve color harmonized well with the bulbs. I plan on harvesting a few blossoms to garnish salads, and use the leaves for scrambled eggs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium ‘Mt. Everest’ have yet to flower, although I hope that they coincide with woad and poppies (Papaver rhoeas and P. commutatum). I should have started borage for their blue flowers since the primary color mix of red poppies and yellow woad could be stronger with blue. However, it has been exciting to see small rosettes planted last December literally galloping away into full growth and soon flowering.

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The cool colors are intentional as I only enjoy my garden very early in the morning or later in the evening. As the sun begins to fade behind the row houses, the garden takes on an incandescent aura.

As some supermarkets and home-improvement stores roll out racks of warm season annuals and vegetables too early to be planted outside (I’m always incredulous at how people allow a few warm days and the haze of spring fever delude themselves into planting these heat lovers too early), I’m sketching mentally a shortlist of annuals and tender perennials to take over after the early summer flush. Last summer, I struggled to keep the momentum I had from spring and early summer in my terrace garden. We have had a dry and hot summer, which meant shriveled plants and terrible mite infestations that ruined my cosmos and dahlias. I decided that I don’t have enough sun to grow composites well, and will revise my summer planting this year. It didn’t help that I was often on the road last year, nationally and internationally. It’s the promise of starting afresh each year that keeps gardening a beautiful and positive endeavor.

Best,

Eric