Garden Rant is a team blog by Susan Harris, Elizabeth Licata, Evelyn Hadden, Allen Bush and Thomas Christopher. This blog have been named as Best Garden Blog, Most Innovative Garden Blog, and Best Written by the Mouse and Trowel award program.
One of the many cool things that Debra does is put on wildly successful Slow Flowers Summits, and I was able to attend the second of them, here in D.C. It brought about 100 “doers and thinkers” together from across the U.S.
Right out of the gate, the keynote speaker Christina Stembel, CEO of Farmgirl Flowers, blew me away.
The business world seems wowed by her, too. Forbes is following her closely:
“Farmgirl Flowers in San Francisco will clock $15 million in revenue this year. ..Stembel’s strategy: source flowers locally and slash waste by selling a very limited number of arrangements direct to consumers from her website. She wraps her bouquets in distinctive burlap donated by nearby coffee roasters.”
Unlike any speaker I’d ever heard at a gardening event, Stembel talked really fast and used business school/Silicon Valley terms like “What’s your value prop? and “We only have 12 SKUs.” And her chutzpah was obvious, telling us she’s determined to grab $1 billion of the $3 billion e-flowers business.
The Silicon Valley language is no surprise, given her location in the Bay Area, her previous job doing events for the Stanford Law School, and her husband’s career at Facebook. Her lack of a college degree obviously isn’t holding her back.
Cyclists do all the Bay-area deliveries of Farmgirl bouquets. Great advertising!
More on how Farmgirl Succeeds
As a result of offering “fewer, better options” – basically whatever is available at the time the order comes in – it has less than 1 percent waste. Customers can choose color palettes but not particular plants.
She discovered the surprising demographics of e-flower buyers: they’re mostly women (78 percent) buying for other women.
While the leaders in e-marketing of flowers spend an amazing $19.22 per unit on marketing, Farmgirl spends just $10, a number Stembel said she wants to increase. 95 percent of her marketing is digital.
Farmgirl makes its bouquets in-house, which is atypical for online companies.
Stembel doesn’t worry about the pop-up companies that copy everything Farmgirl does and charge less. “You can’t fight them, anyway.”
Focus groups works! For example, she hates bromeliads herself but focus groups loved them and they’ve turned out to be a hit with customers.
Lawyer-up to protect yourself.
Spend time on company culture (even if it means slowing growth). In Farmgirl’s case that means more than Donut Fridays.
Addendum: The Problem with Pot
Through some post-summit googling I learned that Farmgirl’s goal of sourcing flowers locally has been stymied by the legalization of cannabis in California, which has created a gold rush of farmers switching from flower production to the more profitable pot. So now Farmgirl has to buy 80 percent of its flowers from Ecuador, targeting growers who treat their employees well, according to their announcement about the change.
Mud Baron was on hand to create wearable floral art for participants, like Kathy Jentz (R), editor of Washington Gardener Magazine. (Mud directs an urban community farm in Pasadena and his #flowersonyourhead photos are a thing.)
Rose and I traveled to England early this month with Story May Lowe, our 11-year-old granddaughter. To Story, I am known as Babu a name I inherited. My grandfather was also known as Babu. I’m not sure why.
Story has grown up around gardens and loves a good adventure, though our visit was not purely about gardens and parks. While in England, Story got to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,as well as Highclere Castle, where they filmed Downton Abbey. Big highlights! She also learned how to hail a London taxi, and she caught her first glimpse of Great Dixter.
Great Dixter, in case you don’t know, is an historic home and garden in East Sussex, England. In its quiet way, Great Dixter has made the successful transition from legend to legacy. I think of Great Dixter as sacred ground. Thankfully, it continues to be in very good hands.
Okay, I confess: I am partial.
The late Christopher Lloyd, gardener and writer [not to be confused with the American actor Christopher Lloyd, who is still alive] spent most of his life at Great Dixter. He was a good friend. Fergus Garrett is a friend, too. Fergus was Christopher’s Head Gardener and sparring partner. (I have been ringside for one or two of the their collaborative give and takes.) Their mutual admiration was unquestioned. Fergus is now Great Dixter’s C.E.O. He juggles fiduciary chores with his long-standing position as Head Gardener.
On July 4, happy for a holiday from President Trump’s, inescapable presence, Rose, Story and I drove down to Great Dixter from Wimbledon with our friends Vickie and Nick Brookes. In my view, there are a few essential places in the world that anyone who holds a trowel must see. I was very fortunate and happy to share Great Dixter with the Brookeses and with Story. Rose and I had been guests of Christopher Lloyd on a few previous visits. This visit, my first since Christopher died in 2006, felt like a homecoming.
Christopher Lloyd was such a fun and brilliant man. He was a joy to be around. He came to North Carolina in 1985, on his first US lecture tour, and stayed a night with me—on a bed the cat had peed on the night before. He didn’t seem to mind at all. “You must come to my house sometime.” And I did! He suffered no fools and had a wonderful wit. His family were familiar with Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, who lived down the road at Sissinghurst Castle.
Feverfew, Tanacetum parthenium.
Paul McCartney was a neighbor and occasional dinner mate. Christopher proudly told me he’d never heard his music, at least not when they were first introduced. He later acknowledged that he’d seen a BBC special with McCartney, at a friend’s house in the village (he didn’t own a TV) and said “He was quite good.” But more commonly, Christopher was just as happy to have interesting souls—of all stripes—as guests.
Fergus invited us for lunch. Afterwards we scattered, wandering the gardens.
Story has turned out to be a fine young photographer. She is a lot more patient and creative than I am. I handed her my iPhone and told her to make a few impressions.
Lilium lancifolium var fortunei.
A few days later, I interviewed her about the visit. She had known little about Great Dixter beforehand.
All of the photos in this story are Story’s, except where noted.
Babu: You’re a gardener, aren’t you?
Story: I like gardens, but I like photographing gardens more than gardening. I’ve been photographing for a while.
Babu: Do you know many gardeners?
Story: Yes, I’m related to a lot of gardeners.
Babu: What was your first impression of Great Dixter?
Story: Fergus was really nice, very enthusiastic. The house was beautiful and old, and the flowers were amazing. The house seemed so simple but exquisite.
Red poppy, Papaver commutatum ‘Ladybird’
Babu: What impressed you the most about the gardens?
Story: I liked the arched doorway. The pond and topiary were pretty, too.
Babu: Did Great Dixter remind you of a fantasy?
Story: Some parts seemed otherworldly, but some parts just looked like a garden. I liked the hedge with a door through it that led into a meadow. Most was really groomed and colorful, but the meadow was wild and dry. That was different. I liked the flowery parts of the garden better.
Babu: It was hot and dry that day, wasn’t it?
Story: Yes, it was hot. A lady had a heat stroke.
Babu: Was she okay?
Story: Yes, she went off to cool off.
Babu: You photographed the flowers that you liked the most?
Rose campion, Silene (Lychins) coronaria with a yellow-variegated Euonymous in the background.
Babu: What were your favorite flower colors?
Story: I liked the red flowers and purply-blue ones the best. There was this one red flower with black spots that I liked a lot. That might have been my favorite. I like bright orange flowers too, because they seem exotic.
Babu: Would you like to go back to Great Dixter someday?
Story: Yes! I’d like to see how the garden changes.
Babu: Anything else you want to say?
Story: If you haven’t been to Great Dixter, I’d recommend you go. It’s majestic ‘cause there aren’t a lot of new buildings around and it feels like being in the past. That was cool. I like history.
Story May Lowe in London’s St. James Park on July 8th. Babu photo.
So long ago that I can’t remember when, I gave up on the idea of having any real pride in myself. It wasn’t what anyone would call a decision. No momentous occasion or anything. I just don’t really know that pride ever mattered that much to me. If I had any left, whatever there was was finished off by four years at a Jesuit college. Because, in case you don’t know this, Jesuits exist to convince young minds that one’s trajectory through life is subject to so many random social, physical, mental, and economic rolls of the dice that one’s own accomplishments are just a small part of a very large equation. That said, I do my best, take advantage of the good breaks and shake off the bad, and, more recently, try to live a good enough life. So when and if I take my own pride into consideration these days, it’s less about something good I’ve done and more about something stupid I hopefully didn’t. “Hey y’all, look at me” kinds of things. Yeah, my pride is mostly focused on keeping those to a bare minimum.
That being said, I must share my proudest moment ever. It happened two years ago, and I was on drugs. Morphine, to be exact. I was just coming around following surgery and hazily listening to a conversation between the nurse and my wife. At some point the nurse happened to mention that my urine had good color. My urine had good color! Lord have mercy, I almost burst! Too far gone to speak, I simply basked in the moment like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon filled to floating with enormous, joyful lightness. Even now, soberly aware of the ridiculousness of it, I can still feel a little pulse of that joy. Such was just one of countless anomalous moments—sometimes surreal, usually all too real—that I went through while “surviving” c-c-cancer.
A cancer diagnosis launches you on an imagination-fueled, internet-misinformed, emotional and intellectual odyssey, even as your body suddenly becomes a whack-a-mole game for doctors and technicians. The word “survive’ is accurate. Really nails it. Because whether you make it don’t, surviving the process is about all you really manage. Everyone says great upbeat stuff like, “You’ve got this”, or, “You’ll kick butt!” but all you really do is what you’re told. You go to appointments. Lots of appointments. You take drugs. You do treatments. Go in for tests. Wait and wait and wait on results. Have surgery. You never really feel like you’re in control or doing anything to impose your will on the situation. At least I didn’t. Never had that LeBron James taking over the game for a win moment. Sure, I prayed, remembering every time I did all those friends and family I’ve prayed for that never got better. Some people try to become their own experts. I didn’t bother. Nor did I have any faith in miracle diets, exercises, meditations, trinkets, powders, or crystals. Nope. I just hit my marks, relied on 21st century medical science, and hoped for the best possible outcome.
Oh, and I checked my dignity at the door. Big time. Prostate cancer requires this, in my opinion, more than most cancers. Doctors, nurses, interns, students, spouses, cleaning crews, paid spectators, preschool classes, all parading through and crowding around in small exam rooms while probing things are going in and other things are coming out. I found myself here, my clothes over there, people taking fluids, handing them off, and sometimes ducking them as they fly across the room. The worst was when I was wearing a hospital gown that simply wouldn’t stay tied shut and had a mile or two of corridor to cover between different exams with three waiting rooms, a news crew, a gift shop, and a cafeteria along the way. Eventually, I was so devoid of dignity that–and this is true–I crafted a euphoric group text to my wife, mother, and sisters that I had finally had my first poop since surgery.
I should probably tell you now that I had a very treatable form of prostate cancer. The surgery was successful. No radiation. No chemo. They tell me I have less than a 1% chance of dealing with it again. I was and am extremely fortunate and very grateful. I’m almost embarrassed to call myself a “survivor”, knowing that so many others have gone through so much worse. Still, I’ve got to say the process did take over nine months. Six months of that fell into what my sister, the hospice administrator/RN, calls the “information void”. This translates as “the imagination run amok period.” So when the doctor says it could possibly be cancer but probably isn’t, the mind fills in the gray area with, “Oh God, it’s cancer.” When he says, “You have cancer, but you’ll be fine,” that means, “Start planning your funeral.” When the technician refuses to venture an opinion on a CT scan, deferring to the doctor who will eventually read it, the only possible explanation is that they’re thinking, “I don’t get paid enough to tell people this kind of crap.” Six months of this! And my mind never wearied of tumbling like a gymnast through all the permutations. But, eventually, it all got sorted out. I went in, had a prostatectomy twofered with three open hernia repairs, experienced the world’s proudest urine-related moment, and then I went home to keep on keeping on, using as a role model any dog’s total mood transformation following a cone-of-shame removal.
All of my follow up test results since have been good, and I’m grateful that my situation had a great outcome. I’m well aware that it isn’t always so. My youngest sister died of cancer when she was 25 years old. Cancer has been all around me my entire life, and it has almost always meant that bad news gets worse. During my six or so months of information void, a friend was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died. During the hours and hours of time I sat sagging in waiting rooms and hospitals, I tried very hard not to overly notice others with situations far, far worse than mine.
Throughout the process my garden was a crutch. Before an important appointment or after a bad one, you would sure as hell find me walking around and finding distraction or comfort or hope and sometimes God in my little scratches of design—favorite plants gathered in the sunlight, sprouting from the good, rich earth. My family and friends were wonderful, and their love and support was a given, but my garden was where I could go to be alone, to process, and to pull it all back together. And I wondered, while I kept my eyes dutifully aimed at my phone in dismal waiting rooms, if these other patients had gardens or some other green spaces into which they could get their heads out of prognoses and patient plans and into a place that allowed them to feel the planet and gather perspective?
A green roof at Mercy Hospital West in Cincinnati. Many rooms look out onto this.
The room where I spent five days on morphine, consisted of four walls, a bed, a TV, an IV stand, and a myriad of discarded Jell-O cups. That was about it. Since then, I’ve toured a few newer hospitals that were built so every room looks out onto some form of nature, whether it be a woods, a green roof, or gardens. I think this is great, and I believe the research which suggests that such investment pays off with better outcomes, quicker recoveries, and even fewer pain meds. I believe that with every fiber in my being.
The Great Rift Valley in Kenya, on the road into Nairobi.
Great works of art can take your breath away, and make you feel, think, or even just stare without words to utter. Buildings soar and amaze. Cathedrals inspire. The works of Shakespeare have stood as pinnacles of literature for five centuries. Any of the world’s religions can guide, console, and offer hope. And all of that is good stuff. Important stuff. But I recently stood on a cliff overlooking the Rift Valley in Kenya and looked out over the very cradle of mankind, and it still looks every bit the part. Horizon to horizon of primitive, verdant wonder. Wild. Big. Beautiful. Primordial. I get goosebumps just remembering. I can’t imagine I ever won’t. For it is from that ground that we as a species came. Those savannas, the sights and smells, are still in our DNA. Everybody should stand there once. Everybody should feel that feeling. To share in what we all share. And as a gardener I couldn’t help but to think that the Garden of Eden, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the great early gardens of Islam, the Temple gardens of China and Japan, Versailles, Longwood, Sissinghurst, my garden, your garden are the human spirit’s attempt to momentarily capture that lightning in a bottle. To remind us of home. To fill our hearts. Feed our bodies. Warm our souls. Allow us to grow even as we’re dying.
But now with dozens of new perennials and 18 new shrubs all at their mid-summer best, bare juniper parts are barely visible.
This is my favorite before/after combo – what people see as they leave the visitors’ entrance. I cringed every time I saw those overgrown junipers made ugly and half-dead by shearing.
Like most landscapes around public and commercial buildings, this one HAS to be low-maintenance while looking good. So like the “Mostly Shrubs” city center I recently showed you, the shrubs here will eventually fill up these foundation borders, and I’ll gradually reduce the number of perennials to pockets of color here and there.
Naturally, there are no annuals, and therefore no need for irrigation after new plants (all pretty drought-tolerant) are established.
Thanks to all the full-grown perennials donated for the project, the garden looks pretty darn full in its first year, and the coop only had to spend $1,500 on plants and materials.
Anyone hazard a guess as to what this make-over would cost if done professionally – with no volunteer gardeners or donated plants?
Shrubs above: 3 ‘Gumdrop Burgundy Candy’ Ninebarks (native, fast-growing, ultimate size 4-5′ x 30-36″) and 3 ‘Golden Mops’ Threadleaf False Cypress we chose for the yellow leaf color to contrast with the deep green of the Junipers and purple leaves of the Ninebark.
Perennials above: 2 ‘Walker’s Low” Catmint, a few donated Garden Phlox and many donated Black-eyed Susans (native and the Maryland State Flower. This cheerful long-bloomer is so popular in Old Greenbelt, it’s almost our signature plant.)
Perennials above: Many donated Purple Coneflower, another native, with long-lasting blooms that we’ll leave up in the fall for the goldfinches that love their seedheads. The white flowers on these (instead of the usual purple) were a big surprise. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is an orange-blooming native plant that’s great for pollinators. And more Catmint ‘Walker’s Low.’
This year: Lilium ‘Regale’ (can’t see the leaves, it’s surrounded by phlox)
I’m starting slow. When I see one of these that hasn’t set buds for whatever reason, instead of leaving it to gather strength for next year, I just pull it out, bulb and all. I’m also more likely to cut some of these to bring inside, allowing for longer stems than I have in the past. I’m not going cold turkey, not even close. They say doing it gradually is actually harder, but I’m by no means sure I’ll have to kick the habit entirely.
The battle against the lily beetle is getting just a bit wearisome. Truth is, I don’t have much patience with pest or disease management. I hate spraying anything; even my fertilizing regimen has been reduced to throwing down some Rosetone in spring and top-dressing with compost once in a while. Lilies were never high maintenance except for staking, and, considering I have partial shade, staking is something I have to do with a few other plants. There is something satisfying about tying up a plant so it will stay where you want it.
I’m not one for recording insect damage, but you can see it on the leaves of this one, from last season.
That is all changed now. Every day I need to go around to all the plants and watch for the little red bugs, which must be removed and killed. Then, the leaves have to be either swiped clean of the hideous, excrement-covered larvae, or removed if they are too far gone. I’ve done pretty well; most of my plants are in decent shape, except for the martagons, which seem to be a favorite. Container plants do better and weird hybrids appear to be disliked.
These doubles in containers are untouched.
It is sad, because lilies are among of the first things I planted. I’d always loved them in arrangements and was amazed that these beautiful flowers were so hardy and so easy to grow. Unlike most spring bulbs, lilium foliage is minimal and the stalks unobtrusively decline near summer’s end. They give a burst of color and fragrance at a good time: right around Garden Walk.
For now, I’m keeping up the fight, but, at the same time, I’m whittling myself down to a maintenance dose: lots of container lilies and a few stands here and there, where they are semi-hidden by roses and tall perennials. Did you ever have to kick or cut way down on a plant habit? It’s not easy!
Hey, remember the Sustainable Sites Initiative? It’s the project of the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Lady Bird Johnson Center and the American Society of Landscape Architects that created the landscape equivalent of LEED certification for sustainability.
Well, some happy news here in D.C. (and I can read your cynical minds at this very notion) is that the newly renovated Bartholdi Park at the U.S. Botanic Garden recently won SITES Gold certification – the first public garden in the U.S. to do so and the first in D.C. of any kind.
Now I’ll confess my doubts about the renovation. Bartholdi Park has been a favorite of mine for decades! It’s at the base of the House of Representatives office buildings and when I worked there I escaped to this spot as often as possible, as did so many Hill staffers. (Insert snarky thoughts about Hill staffers here.)
And the kind of garden it was? The kind designed 80 years go as a place for humans to sit in, relax, have lunch, and get ideas for their home garden – a decidedly “ornamental” one. (I hate that term but that’s a topic for future rant.)
So when I heard about the make-over, a redesign focused on eco-services, food and accessibility, I worried.
But then I saw the result, now just over a year in the ground, at a recent press conference and was totally won over. Though still too new to judge, it’s very pretty, and even more human-friendly than before.
Bartholdi Park receives SITES Gold certificate. (L-R) Saharah Moon Chapotin, USBG Exec. Director; Thomas Crawley, Bartholdi Park gardener; Ray Mims, USBG Sustainability Horticulturalist; Jamie Statter, VP of SITES, U.S. Green Building Council; Darron Damone, Andropogon Landscape Architects; Emily Janka, AOC Planning and Project Mgmt Jurisdiction Exec.; and Jason Curtis, SITES AP, Andropogon
As described in more detail in the press release, judging of the garden by SITES was based on five elements:
Bog garden includes carnivorous plants from the collection of Bill McLaughlin
Most are native, and the USBG is working with the Mt. Cuba Center to monitor the pollination results. There’s also a good-sized kitchen garden. The use of annuals in pots is reduced. Plants were re-used on site or nearby.
Corn growing in Bartholdi Park. Photo credit: U.S. Botanic Garden.
Raised-bed kitchen garden.
That’s the Rayburn House Office Building in the background.
Good soil. The terrible soil here “wasn’t a living system,” we were told.
Concrete from sidewalks was crushed and reused. Permeable pavers were used extensively. Furniture was made locally from fallen oaks.
Ray Mims showing off new furniture. That’s Devin Dotson in the background.
This last element you don’t usually see on lists of sustainable gardening features, and to SITES I say hooray for including us humans! In this garden it means wheelchair accessibility throughout, more paths and seating than ever, what they’re calling “nature-in-motion walks”, Saturday morning yoga, more water fountains, bicycle parking, and educational signage. Accessibility in this particular garden couldn’t be more important, since the opening of the Disabled Veterans Memorial just across the street.
Photo credit: U.S. Botanic Garden.
IF YOU GO.
Tours of Bartholdi Park and other events there can be found at www.USBG.gov/Programs. Bartholdi Park is open to the public free of charge every day of the year. It just never closes.
Bartholdi Park at USBG - SITES Project Profile - YouTube
Landscape for Life is the homeowner version of the Sustainable Sites Initiative. Check it out!
Front lawns are the outliers where I live. With a dense, mature tree canopy that provides cool shade in these dog days of early July, there’s not much hope of maintaining a lush green sward of turfgrass. Oh, there are maybe two houses on the street where the sun has managed to break through and, clearly, a diligent weed ‘n’ feed program is being maintained, but by far the majority of properties don’t even try. Expect shrubs, gigantic hostas, aggressive ground covers, and the few flowering perennials that will accept the shade and all-pervasive surface roots. I used to curse these limiting conditions, but I’ve long since made my peace with them.
It seems best to stick to the earlier tried-and-true varieties of many plants. My shrubs consist of Annabelle hydrangeas, h. quercifolia, some leucothoe, and a couple golden junipers. Perennials include athyrium ‘ghost’ which form a curving shrubbish line across the space, variegated polygonatum, brunnera, and lotsa, lotsa hosta. I am loving the miniature varieties; they can fill in but still maintain continuity.
Elsewhere on the block, I see interesting shrubs, massive stands of columbine and other shade perennials (always with the ginormous hosta), and maybe some annuals or a Japanese maple or two.
The thing that impresses me the most is that here’s an area where the usual front yard treatments—lawn, foundation shrubs, bright annuals for color—simply will not apply. And people are making the most of it.
My wife – who is the mower of lawns in our partnership – has taken to mowing around any wildflowers she encounters. As a result, our rather sparse fescue lawn has sprouted tufts of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), yarrow (Achillea miilefolium), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides), oxeye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) and, in the shady areas, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum). I am aware, by the way, that most of these are not true natives, but all are so long naturalized in our fields that they have thoroughly integrated into the local ecology and provide benefits to pollinators and other wildlife.
Back-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta)
I’m not sure how I feel about the present look of this selective mowing, but I applaud the impulse. I want to transform our lawn but don’t know exactly how.
It’s too big a space (3/4’s of an acre) to convert it all to groundcovers and flowering plants. The labor of weeding and maintaining that would be far too much. I could dig it up and plant a meadow, and I may well do that with a part of it, but our dog, a compulsive retriever, needs a mown area to practice her stick fetching.
I’ve experimented with fine fescue lawns, the so-called “no mow” lawns, using organic techniques to install them for a variety of clients. They can be very attractive, with a soft, lush look to them, especially when mown high. They don’t have any benefit for pollinators, however.
Fine fescue (“No-Mow”) lawn
What I wish is that someone would do for the Northeast what the late Dr. Mark Simmons of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center did for central Texas and develop a lawn mixture of native grasses that could be started from a seed mix. I had the good fortune to speak to Dr. Simmons a year or so before his untimely death at age 55. When we spoke, he was beginning to explore wildflowers that were compatible with his native grass lawns; I’ve been informed that research is now on hold.
If anyone who reads this is aware of any similar effort taking place in the Northeast, I would greatly appreciate a heads-up.
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