Fab Foliage Friday

After spending the last few Fab Foliage Fridays in the luminous company of assorted silver- and gold-leaved splendors, I'm heading over to the dark side. I've always loved deep, mysterious garnet and burgundy hued plants for their sense of mystery, the feeling of impenetrable depth they add to a planting, and for the easy way they have of associating with hot colors or, for that matter, any color at all. One of my top picks in this part of the palette is tropical smoke bush (Euphorbia cotinifolia). It's among the darker brethren of this leafy fraternity, and is especially beauteous when sunlight shines through the leaves--they almost glow, like molten lava. And then, there's the way raindrops bead up on the leaves, like jewels. It's a tender tropical plant, but easy to overwinter dormant--I've seen it growing in the tropics and even there it loses all its leaves during the "winter"--I just put mine down in the basement.


Jungle in the Garden

Not only is there a garden in the jungle, but I managed to find a jungle in the garden. No, not my own sometimes out-of-control patch of property, but a real garden, with real jungle plants. Tromping around in Panama's cloud forest and seeing gardenesque jungle scenes was the subject of a post last week, and those scenes were not my only discovery in that part of the world. We set off on a hike through the steep-and-deep ravines of the Three Cascades trail, and after climbing through tangles of vegetation, fording creeks and getting lost a few times, we stumbled back out onto the road., or what passes for one hereabouts, and headed downhill, toward the charming hamlet of Guadalupe.
Along the way we--the Artiste, Birdboy and I--happened upon Finca Dracula, a huge edge-of-the-cloudforest garden named, not for the famous bloodsucking Transylvanian count, but rather for a genus of orchids native to the northwestern Andes (mostly Ecuador) and Central America. Finca Dracula, as it turns out, cultivates one of the world's largest collections of orchids. Needless to say, I had to pay a visit. Birdboy and the Artiste, being wet and cold from our high-altitude ramble, proceeded to town for sustenance and a wood-fired sauna at Los Quetzales.

What drew me through the gates and into the spooky green twilight of the farm's entryway was not a love of orchids. Oh, I like them just fine, but have not yet really surrendered, gardener-wise, to their charms. Instead I was lured by the rushing stream along the finca's edge, the glimpse of a lake within, and the sight of enough giant plants to make Gulliver feel homesick for Brobdingnag. When I happened upon the garden's anteroom, where visitors arrange for a tour or to simply pay a nominal fee to wander around, I knew I had come to the right place. All that orange!
Aside from the orchid collection, here was a garden busting out with all the plants we'd seen on our hike. And they were used in all manner of dynamic, eye-catching combinations. It was a jungle, but cleaned up and ready for prime time. There were, for example, those gunnera. I have NEVER been able to grow those darn things, though certainly not for lack of trying. As if to prove their value as garden plants, there they stood, bold shapes silhouetted against a filmy bamboo background. Talk about textural contrast. Wowsa!

Or how about this bold vision of Dracaena, tree ferns, and bananas? Foliage rules!

Of course it's nice to have color too. These heliconia certainly provide it. And look at all those impatiens. I like the Spanish name for them, miramelinda--which I'll translate roughly as "Look how pretty I am!"

Then there are the cool mosaic pathways winding through the gardens.

Lastly, a grab bag of sights around Finca Dracula. Can't wait to get back there.


Backyard Birds 'n Bugs

Extraordinary photos of backyard birds and bugs are the province of Rick Lieder. Rick's a sci-fi illustrator who, in his spare time, hunkers down amid the plants in his Michigan backyard and spends hours stalking the local birds and bugs, waiting for the perfect moment. His eye for composition and fine natural light produce incredible results. You can see a wide selection at his site, or hunker down yourself and purchase "Aerial Acrobats", his new book of backyard bird photos. Tip 'o the hat to Duncan Brine.


Fab Foliage friday

More on massing: Bigs clumps of stuff get lots of attention, as Wesley Rouse's sweep of elephant ears and bamboo showed. But there's another reason to mass plants: to create a thematic thread that runs through the garden and ties it all together. Here at Sydney Eddison's Newtown, Ct garden, a river of lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina) flows along the edge of one of Sydney's mixed borders, providing an easy care edge, a pathway for the eye, and-best of all-a unifying element that makes the garden, with all its disparate parts, seem like a single entity.

When Winter Comes...Spring Follows

Bill Cullina's most excellent account of how plants adapt and survive to the frigid temperatures of winter appeared in two parts. I linked to the first installment when it appeared a couple months ago. Part two -which looks toward spring, as I too am already doing- is now available at the fine site maintained by the New England Wildflower Society. Good reading for a January day, especially here in New England where we're having an old-fashioned winter. Brrr!


Biped, B-iPod (Before iPod)

Listening to music while gardening is a lot easier than it used to be. Thanks Apple! Tip 'o the hat to boingboing.


A Garden in the Jungle

While tromping around western Panama's highland cloudforest, I was immersed in a world of green. This is my favorite ecosystem in all the world. I've visited cloudforest--basically high altitude tropical jungle--in Peru and Ecuador, as well as Panama, and have fallen in love with the cool temperatures, eternal mists and clouds, the soft rains, and the explosion of life that characterize such places. The profusion of plants--their sheer numbers and the incredible variety--makes this a magic land for a plant geek. The reason the Artiste, Birdboy and I were visiting this realm magical was to fulfill a birding quest of sorts, which I wrote about in Quest for Quetzal. But for me, the journey soon became less ornithological, and more horticultural. Or something.
Anyway, as I said, I was nearly overwhelmed by the abundance of plants and their exotic qualities. Some of the plants were familiar to me from my home garden-brugmansias, elephant ears and tree ferns, for example, but on a scale unknown to me. The angel's trumpets (Brugmansia spp.) were maybe 30 feet tall, and draped with mossy tendrils. The tree ferns, well, they were actually trees! And there were others I wished I grew, primarily gunnera, which I cannot keep alive even long enough to get it home from the nursery (a gunnera's unfurling leaf and floral plume, below). Not to mention the heliconias, orchids and gingers. At first, it was all just a blur, a vegetative mishmosh.

But was we wandered the trails of the vast Parque Internacional La Amistad, rambling along rushing mountain streams, picking our way down into sheer-sided valleys, and cresting ridgetop vantage points, it became apparent that there was a method to the green madness. In fact the closer we looked, the more it seemed as if the cloudforest was the work of some fevered gardener. We paid attention, and soon began to notice beautiful plant combinations, like this streamside elephant ear and fern. That pairing of richly contrasting forms is just the effect a gardener might seek, but this combo, set against a roaring, rushing stream, was far more sublime than anything human hands might create.
Somehow, there were even groundcovers punctuated by beautiful ferns, a scene I might have tried to create in my own garden. Don't know what the groundcover is, but I'm sure I've seen it as a houseplant.
Seeing such examples of the gardener's art occurring naturally amid the vegetative swirl of a cloudforest really got me thinking about the fragile boundary between what's wild and what's culitvated. It renewed my belief that nature is the best instructor for matters horticultural. From it, we take what lessons we can, and apply them as best we're able. And seeing the exuberance of this Edenic, primeval place reminded me that it never hurts to invite a little wildness into even the most carefully planned garden. Randomness can be your friend. Because even the jungle is a garden.


Fab Foliage Friday

More is better! We always hear about planting in drifts. Design books always advise using three, five or seven of a plant. Well, how about 15, or 20, or 25? That's what Wesley Rouse does in his stunning Southbury, Ct garden. This massive sweep of varied elephant ears (Colocasia spp. and cultivars) rising above a sprawling carpet of some groundcover bamboo (not sure which one) creates a foliage extravaganza that looks great all season long. For a look at another of Wesley's fab foliage combos, go here.


Garden Blogger's Bloom Day at Clatter Valley

There's precious little in the way of flowers in January here at Clatter Valley, so I try to compensate for the lack of quantity by going all out for quality. Queen's tears (Billbergia nutans) is a Brazilian bromeliad relative that blooms without fail here when days are darkest. Its amazing combination of colors sure brightens up the room. Carol over at May Dreams Gardens hosts Bloom Day; head over there to see what's brightening the day for other gardeners.


Chrissie's Happy Color

Since everything outside is either white or brown, it seems like a good day to think about some other colors, lots of other colors. I'm starving for them. So where better to turn than to my friend--and garden juggernaut--Chrissie D'Esopo (remember her dragon?), who loves color and is not shy about it. I don't know too many other gardens that put on such a lavish display, with big blocks of color jammed higgledy, piggledy against other blocks of color. Wowsa! What a show.

She does it almost all with annuals, and plants 20,000 a season to get the colorific effects she's after in her ever-enlarging garden. She also uses lots of pots--500 or so--so she can more easily yank and replace any poor performers. The results do get attention--when Chrissie is open for a garden tour, she gets more than a 1,000 visitors, sometimes twice that. There have actually been fender-benders in front of her house, as passing motorists can't keep their eyes on the road. Yep, it's the kind of place that can cause whiplash. She has so much to see.

There are lots of ways to use color, from mannered, carefully wrought harmonys and color complements at one end of the spectrum and wild free-for-alls like Chrissie's at the other. Actually, Chrissie is just about off the charts. I use plenty of vivid colors too, but tend toward restraint in combining them, so it's always kind of liberating for me to see Chrissie's extravaganza. The sheer exuberance of color, splashed thither and yon, is something I call happy color. It's not about making conventional combinations, or using a color wheel or any other designerish notions, it's all about I-love-color fun. She even protects tender plants from pounding thunderstorms by covering them with her huge collection of umbrellas--all in bright colors, of course.

High-Flying Rollers

Birdboy has been at it again. We got some new birds. We went to a pigeon show not long ago, checking out the idea of getting some kind of homing pigeons, so he could have some pet birds that could fly free. Some guy he befriended wound up giving him two pairs, saying he liked to encourage kids to get into...what pigeonry? Pigeon keeping? Whatever, while the four newbies will be able to fly free this spring-provided we let them out when they're hungry and don't feed them until they return. We are really interested in subsequent generations, who will be imprinted on their home coop, and so will always return. We actually got rollers, birds who perform tumbling acrobatics while circling overhead. It's amazing the variety of pigeons--we saw many weird, mutant breeds--with pinwheel feathers, fluffy plumage, outlandish colors, enormous chests, or stubby beaks--who were quite showy but unlikely to survive out of captivity.

For now the newbies are living in the aviary (pictured before Arctic conditions bulldozed their way into these parts), which is otherwise vacant for the winter. But that means we need a new house for them, so I'm building a kind of ornamental coop from which they will be able to come and go. Winter construction is a slow process, but I'll show off the new cool coop when it's ready.

The new acquisitions didn't make my wife, the Artiste, altogether happy. Birds in captivity are not her idea of a good thing, but she's kind of resigned to Birdboy's passion for feathered friends. It helps that these will be able to fly free, and soar when they get the urge. She's holding one that Birdboy named Acceptance--maybe you can guess how that name came about.


Honey, I Shrunk the Garden!

Calling all photo geeks! The weird and wonderful technique of tiltshifting your photos magically transforms real world scenes into something that looks like a miniature trainset model. It's fun to try with garden scenes, travel shots, or just about anything. This digital re-imagining of an old view-camera technique turns proper perspective on its head. Photographers prized the old, accordionlike camera's shift and tilt controls to correct the problems they encountered when photographing architecture and similar subjects that had to be rendered in perfect perspective.

Tiltshift uses those same techniques and another trick or two to narrow a photo's depth of field, accentuate some of its color, and manipulate the image enough to make the subject look like a miniature. You can tiltshift your own photos here. Not every picture translates well; the best bet is for views taken from above that encompass a large scene with plenty of foreground and background. Close-ups won't work well at all . Anyway, you can get tips about the right kinds of photos to use here, and see some terrific examples here. Tip o' the hat to boingboing.


Fab Foliage Friday

I'm still on the gold standard, foliage-wise. This beauteous gold poet's jasmine (Jasminum officinale 'Fiona Sunrise') is a rambling, vinelike plant whose lacy gold leaves are welcome wherever they go. It can play a strong supporting role in all kinds of plant combos, in ground or in pots. Here, it echoes off 'Dipt in Wine' coleus while accenting the gloriously burgundy trunk of a red Abyssinian banana (Ensete ventricosum 'Maurelii'). Unfortunately this great jasmine--grown for its foliage rather than its flowers--is tender so I need to bring it in each winter. But on the bright side, I've noticed this plant layers itself, setting roots wherever it touches down. So, propagation is a no-brainer. And since it's so easy to build up my supply, I can put 'Fiona Sunrise' to more and different uses each season.


Hunting Perilous Plants

Garden Ranter Amy Stewart just posted about her new book "Wicked Plants." To promote it she made a comically deadpan video. Enjoy!

Getting Greener Gardens

Sustainability is becoming the buzzword for the 2000's, the Brave New World of the new milennia. We hear it applied to everything from transportation systems and energy production to the economy. So it shouldn't be surprising that it applies to gardening as well. And it's a lot more than just planting native plants. A sustainable garden contributes to reducing greenhouse gases, helps cut down on energy use, saves water and other resources, and contributes to the health and well being of those who frequent it. Plus they are less work than many more traditional gardens. The New York Times crack garden writer Ann Raver has a piece about sustainable gardens, and directs readers to the Sustainable Sites Initiative, sustainablesites.org, where you can learn about the advantages of garden sustainbablitly, get all kinds of ideas to make your own garden more sustainable, and read several case studies of gardens gone sustainable. They are also developing a set of guidelines and performance measures for developiong more sustainable gardens.


The Ultimate Storehouse for Seeds

With species of plants, animals, birds and insects and all whatnot going extinct on an almost daily basis, I was relieved to learn last year about the creation of a secure seed bank--the Svalbard Global Seed Vault--on the island of Spitsbergen, way up in the wilds of the Norwegian Arctic. Here conservators store refrigerated seed of virtually all the world's food crops, in essence creating a DNA treasury for Earth's edible plants. Seeds could then be used-in the event of some global catastrophe-to kickstart agriculture.

There lots of other seed banks all over the globe, but this one is special. A post on Worldchanging explains it thus: The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is intended to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project. To survive, the seeds need freezing temperatures. Operators plan to replace the air inside the vault each winter, when temperatures in Spitsbergen are around -18 °C. But even if some catastrophe meant that the vault was abandoned, the permafrost would keep the seeds viable. And even accelerated global warming would take many decades to penetrate the mountain vault. "This will be the world's most secure gene bank by some orders of magnitude," says Fowler. "But its seeds will only be used when all other samples have gone for some reason. It is a fail-safe depository, rather than a conventional seed bank."
So the seed vault is a wonderful idea. And could anything seem more secure-I mean really, a cave on a remote island in the Arctic? Sounds impregnable to me.

Then I learned that to some researchers Svalbard's security may leave something to be desired. Indeed, to these fearful researchers, planet Earth is not secure enough, There is now a move afoot to create a seed bank on the moon. Really. I am not making this up.

According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, a group known as the "Alliance to Rescue Civilization, or ARC, advocates a backup for humanity by way of a station on the Moon replete with DNA samples of all life on Earth, as well as a compendium of all human knowledge - the ultimate detached garage for a race of packrats. It would be run by people who, through fertility treatments and frozen human eggs and sperm, could serve as a new Adam and Eve in addition to their role as a new Noah. Far from the lunatic fringe, the leaders of the alliance have serious careers: Robert Shapiro, the group's founder, is a professor emeritus and senior research scientist in biochemistry at New York University; Ray Erikson runs an aerospace development firm in Boston and has been a NASA committee chairman; and Steven Wolfe, who, as a congressional aide, drafted and helped pass the Space Settlement Act of 1988, which mandated that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plan a shift from space exploration to space colonization."
Seems like a long shot, but people are thinking quite seriously about an off world version of Earth 2.0. Now I'm all for the preservation of species, but it seems to me these projects have a serious flaw. Let's say there is some kind of planetary catastrophe--nuclear war, a plague, massive environmental disruption from global warming, or a direct hit from an asteroid. As a result, much of humanity is wiped out. Survivors hope to rebuild. But, how likely are they to even know about Svalbard, or the lunar treasury? And even if they did, how the heck would they get there? Hopefully, we'll never have to learn the answer.


Fab Foliage Friday

Thought I'd kick off the new year with a sizzling scene from my pal Sydney Eddison's garden. This is her back patio, her laboratory for concocting courageous color combos. And while this hot, bright design does benefit from a splash of paint and the hues provided by a few flowers, it derives most of its eye-popping, colorific splendor from foliage, brightly colored foliage, enough to make a whole garden. The close-up shows a few of the prime building blocks--Canna 'Pretoria', some unknown coleus, and a skirt of 'Margarita' sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas 'Margarita'). With those near-radioactive colors glowing all season, who needs flowers?