HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.


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Road Trip: Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg Florida

All things vintage strike my fancy and this garden had me at its sign:

The Retro Sign of Sunken Gardens  - St. Petersburg, Florida

The Retro Sign of Sunken Gardens – St. Petersburg, Florida

I am thinking of this small gem today as I keep the wood stove burning and the thermometer doesn’t get out of the single digits. Sunken Gardens has been around since 1935 when George Turner Sr. opened his 6 acre property to the public to show off his walled gardens for $0.25 a person. Starting out as a place with a sink hole and a shallow lake, Mr. Turner turned this land into a rich area to grow fruits and vegetable by installing a tile drainage system. He was a plumber by vocation and horticulturist by avocation, Turner’s gardening transitioned from the fruits and vegetables he sold at his road-side stand to exotic flowers and tropical plants.  Turner maintained the gardens, eventually leaving them open year round and amassing a flock of flamingos numbering in the hundreds. Turner’s sons purchased the property from their father and the garden became world famous. Celebrities visited and beauty contests were held there. The gardens went through many changes, a large gift shop (at one time the largest in the world), walk-through aviary, religious exhibits. Due to the construction of a nearby interstate and the creation of large theme parks, this garden, like many others, experienced a decline in audience and an increase in operational expenses that led a discussion concerning closing the gardens. The City of St. Petersburg now owns the attraction. Since 1999 the Parks Department has been operating and maintaing this oasis with great help from an army of volunteers. Right behind this sign is a strip mall and bustling 4th Street. You must enter, and leave (of course) through the gift shop. Modest, I’m sure, compared to the mega-shop of its past, this shop featured locally made and horticulture themed gifts for all ages and budgets. When you park in the lot, you have no idea what’s in store for you. The garden is walled, and even at my height, I couldn’t sneak a peak to see what was inside.

A Tropical View in the Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg, FL

A Tropical View in the Sunken Gardens, St. Petersburg, FL

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Textures

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Marsh Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Marsh Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos)

Of course a garden is more than flowers. There’s weeds and bugs too! The nice thing about gardening in this region – the mid-atlantic – is that we can create a garden that has flowers blooming nearly 12 months of the year. Sure those late fall and winter flowers may not be the showstopper the Hibiscus pictured above is, but they are flowers nonetheless. Summer is the time when flowers abound, annuals like impatiens, begonias and marigolds brighten up gardens throughout the warmer months, only succumbing when the first frost hits, turning them into mushy piles of petals. For those of us more inclined towards the perennial persuasion of plants, having blooms throughout the growing season means developing a diversity in the garden that ensures multiple seasons of blooms. It is not as simple as planting rows of impatiens we know will keep blooming through the summer. We have to plan a sequence of flowering to ensure something’s in bloom whenever we gaze into the garden. I love this challenge. When I worked in an urban educational garden, I challenged myself to create a garden with 4 seasons of blooms. Not just four seasons of interest, which we had, but I wanted visitors to see flowers in the city whenever they visited. Through careful selection and combination of trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs flowers could be found 12 months of the year, much to my delight and to the delight of the visitors.

But there’s so much more to a garden than flowers. I always tell my students while flowers may be present for just a short time, foliage is there a lot longer and you should always consider the foliage when you are planning to add a plant to the garden. When considering interest in the garden and bloom times, don’t forget about the foliage!

This was cemented in my brain after a trip to Costa Rica. I had never been there before and it was pre-google (& pre-digital camera – 23 rolls of film later!). I was expecting orchids dripping off the trees, practically slapping me in the face everywhere I went. I expected carpets of tropical flowers lining every road and trail. What I didn’t expect was green. Lots of green, everywhere green and not many flowers to speak of (well, at least compared to what my vivid imagination conjured). During a canopy tour, I peered over the swinging bridge railing into the top of the rain forest and noticed how different all the green was. There were countless shades of green and the textures ranged from the coarse Monstera speciosa or Swiss Cheese Plant to the lacy Tree Fern. It was fantastically beautiful. From then on I had an appreciation for how beautiful and interesting foliage can be.

Costa Rica from above

Costa Rica from above

My recent visit to the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College really solidified for me what one can do in a garden by simply taking a considered look at foliage.

Scott Arboretum

Just a small portion of the Terry Shane Teaching Garden at Scott Arboretum

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About that tree in Brooklyn (or… Adventures in Finding Free Things to Do in the City…)

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Lily Pond at the Narrows Botanical Garden

Lily Pond at the Narrows Botanical Garden

Perhaps you read the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  {{Spoiler alert}} The tree in the story was an Ailanthus altissima or Tree of Heaven. This tree is known for its ability to thrive in even the harshest of conditions, hence its use as a metaphor for the strength and tenacity of the main character in the book.

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps.  It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree  that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It should be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The “ghetto palm” (as my inner-city high school interns once described it to me) has become a bit too successful dominating roadsides and vacant lots in all but 6 of the states. Introduced from China as an ornamental plant Ailanthus was planted widely throughout the Northeast in the first half of the century. It fell out of favor with the horticultural crowd but despite its lack of popularity continued to insert itself into devoid and neglected areas of our landscape.  In his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast Peter Del Tredici asks us to take a different look at these weed plants colonizing waste spaces.  He suggests that these “weedy” and “spontaneous” plants benefit the cities by creating forests and the ecological benefits associated with forests, at no cost to the residents. Hmmm. Del Tredici says these are as important part of the urban landscape as the native plants restricted to protected natural areas and the highly maintained cultivated gardens on display throughout the city.

I am still digesting this point of view as it flies in the face of everything familiar to me. While I appreciate the sentiment, science and statistics, it is still hard for me to promote the embrace of invasive, weedy plant species to the detriment of native plants and the wildlife they support.  As I continue to consider and explore this topic, I visit those highly manicured cultivated garden spaces that are also an important part of the fabric of a city. This trip takes me to Brooklyn.

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Orchids

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Lady Slipper in the morning  mist.

Lady Slipper in the morning mist.

‘Tis the season. I am getting beautiful pictures sent to my email and phone. The orchids are blooming! Friends share their finds with me regularly and each one excites me. These are not the run-of-the-mill tropical orchids you can now find in row after row at the big box stores. Though they are lovely in their own test-tube-propagated way. These are the wild, native, I-can’t-believe-I-just-found-an-orchid, orchids that make even the most grueling, mosquito ridden, tick infested, poison ivy covered hike worth the effort. May through October, I hike with one eye on the trail and one eye in the woods looking for bright spots of color that would indicate an orchid.

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Violets

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One of the many violet color variations.

Once again I find myself on my local rail-trail. I am trying to get my heart-rate up so this meander will count as some form of exercise, but I keep stopping to look very closely at tiny little wildflowers blooming everywhere. It is truly like I stepped into a jewelry box. Virginia Bluebells coat the hillside in blues and pinks. White saxifrage, rue anemone and Dutchman’s britches dot the trailsides like scattered pearls. Various shades of jade and emerald are starting to appear on gray branches. The creek along the trail, very high after all these rains, slithers through the color like a gold chain. I should just go to a boring track, who can focus on fitness with all this beauty around?  Each time I squat down to investigate, that’s a rep…right? Today I am enamored by the violet. If I am going to take the jewelry box analogy just a little too far…these are the amethysts.

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Witch Hazels

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Hamamelis x intermedia 'Rubin' Seed Capsule and Flowers

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Rubin’ Seed Capsule and Flowers

Some of the most fascinating things you learn by accident. That is how I became aware of the forces of the Witch Hazel. I was taking a botanical illustration class at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania and had an assignment to collect some botanical materials to draw in the next class. Being fall, I collected crunchy leaves, seed pods and acorns. I placed everything in a small cardboard box on top of the TV where they would stay, and I wouldn’t lose them, until next class. A couple evenings later I am settling in for the night, curled up in a chair watching what my dad calls “the idiot box”. During a lull in the program I hear a noise. A faint tap. What in the world?

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