Gardening Comes Second Only to Reading

Many years ago, my two sons gave me a special gift for Father’s Day that I am still using now, all the time, 365 days out of the year.  The gift was a fabricated flat, natural-looking stone that is engraved with the sentence: GARDENING COMES SECOND ONLY TO READING.  It was the perfect present because, for me at least, that declaration is quite true.  I would argue that my family actually comes first (I hope they would agree!), and I could certainly make the case for several more seconds and thirds, with music taking a prominent place near the top of the list.  Both of my boys knew then, as they still recognize now, that gardening is a passion for me — something on which I am willing to spend plenty of hard-earned dollars.  I have lived in three different locations since they presented me with that engraved stone, and it is still part of the hardscape of my gardens today.

Entry way garden
Entry way garden

I became interested in landscaping and ornamental gardening in 1987, shortly after my sons’ mother and I bought our first house.  I had started working in a public library two years earlier, and I was fascinated by gardening magazines and books that I was cataloging.  I wanted to have a yard with more than just an expanse of grass and a few foundation shrubs around the house.  I wanted to create a little oasis!  I started building my own personal library of gardening books, learning as much as possible about soil condition, hardiness zones, watering, fertilizing, and plant identification.  I didn’t have much disposable income in those years, so I started out small and concentrated on a few specific areas, such as the side entrance to our house that we used most often.  A few years later we started a family and moved into a larger house on a steeply sloping lot.  It was a challenging yard, but over the years I began to mold it into something that I could work with and make attractive.  One of the most successful projects was the creation of a lush entry-way garden leading from the parking area to the front door, which is pictured in the photograph above.  Before moving away from that house, I also created two azalea islands under oak and sweet gum trees in the front yard, a pathway leading through ornamental trees and shrubs in the backyard, and my first small pond with a waterfall. (See my post from May 17, 2016 to learn more about the waterfalls and ponds I have designed through the years.)

Pond garden at sunrise
Pond garden at sunrise

When I met my second wife, she was living on a lake in central Georgia.  When we married, I moved in with her.  The previous owners of this lake house had invested considerably in the landscape, but my wife had made several improvements before we were married including upgrading the irrigation system, replacing an old patio, removing pine trees, and installing ornamental shrubs and trees.  We decided to have our wedding ceremony on the patio overlooking the lake and a small pond and waterfall that I finished just a few days before the big day.  Over the next two years I added plants and landscape lights around the pond to make the area into a separate garden spot, complete with a bird feeder and a bench.

Patio lake garden
Patio lake garden

The new and expanded patio was a perfect place to add a container garden, so we began looking for interesting pots, such as the sculpted face pot and stand that we affectionately named Annabel — the face on the pot looks melancholy and reminds us of the subject of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee.”  The patio container garden was framed by a beautiful stand of Loropetalum shrubs that my wife had planted shortly after she moved into the house.  This garden was completed by a chiminea and a hot tub, which is just out of view at the lower left corner of the photo above.  The gently sloping grass of the yard and the view of the large cove beyond were a perfect backdrop to this little slice of paradise just outside the sliding glass doors leading from our master bedroom.

Front island garden
Front island garden

In 2013 we moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Georgia.  This part of the state is in a different plant zone than our previous location.  As such there are some semi-tropical species that we can no longer have in our yard, but other ornamentals that need cooler temperatures are perfectly at home here.  Our growing season is a week or two shorter also, but climate change is bringing earlier springs and extended autumns as the years go by.  The previous owners of this house did a fine job of building the “bones” of this property, with a large planting island in the front yard and a fairly deep shrub bed in front of the house.  We have made a few changes, such as adding some annual planting beds and thinning some of the dwarf Nandina on the side of the house.  We have also added to the plants in the front island (pictured above) and covered it all with a healthy layer of wood chips.  The greatest addition we have made to the property is the installation of an in-ground swimming pool with a waterfall, providing us with yet another opportunity to create a new garden oasis.  Although I did not build this “pond,” my wife and I did help with the design.  We have worked very hard over the last two years on the landscaping around the pool by installing a river rock border, bringing in new plants, and arranging container plantings around the decking. The sound of running water is such a pleasant feature of this space, which of course, is also a perfect area for enjoying my first passion . . . reading.

Pool waterfall garden
Pool waterfall garden

The Desert Garden

The title of this entry may at first seem like a mistake.  “Perhaps he really meant ‘The Dessert Garden,’ which conjures up images of fruit trees.”  Most people don’t associate gardens with deserts.  By definition, deserts are empty places.  They are barren, usually having sandy or rocky soil and little or no vegetation.  When we say a place is deserted, we mean it is empty or uninhabited.  By contrast, we often think of gardens as lush, green spaces teeming with life.  Until I married someone who had lived for almost two decades in the Southwest, I didn’t think I would like spending much time in that region of the country.  I don’t mind hot weather that much, especially if the humidity is low.  But green is my favorite color, and I love gardening.  Nothing grows in a desert, right?

Ridiculous.  The desert is full of life, and the diversity of plant species is staggering. There are about 2,000 different kinds of cacti alone.  The six cactus genera with the largest number of plants, and hence most likely to be encountered, are cereus, cylindropuntia, echinocereus, ferocactus, mammillaria and opuntia. In addition to cacti, there are grasses, shrubs, trees, and wildflowers.  One of the best places to get a clear picture of the desert’s splendor is the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.  With more than 4,000 species and approximately 27,650 individual plants, the Desert Botanical Garden is home to one of the world’s most spectacular living collections of the world’s desert plants.

Desert Botanical Garden
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

We spent some time several years ago during a visit to Phoenix to wander through the Garden.  Perhaps the most striking feature is the endless forms and shapes that the plants in the desert take.  They have evolved over millions of years to take full advantage of the limited resources available, and water conservation dictates so much of the characteristics of desert flora.  Flowers tend to be less numerous but so much more striking in color, shape, and size than those found in other environments.  The Garden offers permanent trailside exhibits, temporary art exhibitions, and seasonal activities too.

Desert Botanical Garden
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

Sometimes it’s difficult to look beyond the familiar and seek the undiscovered, and I certainly found that to be true about the desert.  There’s green everywhere!  I have visited the Southwest several times now, and I am always ready to return.  It is wild, rugged, and even harsh, but it possesses a charm that can be found nowhere else in the country.  The Desert Botanical Garden is not to be missed.

Desert Botanical Garden
Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona

In Living Color

One of the passions I developed as a fairly young man was ornamental gardening and light landscape designing. I have lived at four different houses over the last thirty years, from the most southern to the most northern sections of the 7b agricultural zone, and have had the opportunity to experiment with a wide variety of plants.  My wife and I currently live in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains where the Piedmont shifts into the Blue Ridge.  The southern Appalachian region is one of the most diversified botanical places on the planet, with rich soil and enough rainfall to support lush, thriving ecosystems.

Flower garden
Flower garden

We were fortunate to find a house two years ago with previous owners who were just as passionate as we are about surrounding the house with beautiful plants.  They had done a lot of work with the structure of the property, especially in the front of the house.  They had established two beds in front of the porch, split by a brick walkway and steps.  Short to medium-sized shrubs are spread out on either side to complete the dressing of the house, and a large island is positioned between the house and the street, which has a nice and expanding collection of trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, and perennials.  Among our own additions to that island is our favorite container, the large concrete planter with a “face” in full relief (visible in the background of the photo above).  We call her Annabel, named after Annabel Lee, the poem composed by Edgar Allan Poe, because she has a melancholy face reminiscent of the poem’s theme.  We usually plant something each year in Annabel that will make her look like she has hair growing from the top!

I am by no means a Master Gardener, nor am I much of a purist when it comes to plant selection.  I have a growing appreciation for native plants and received a book on native plants of the southeast as a Christmas gift.  I hope to incorporate more native species in our garden in the years ahead.  I love annuals and typically fill the front porch beds with New Guinea impatiens and coleus.  We have to be very diligent in spraying most of the plants in the yard with deer repellent, and non-native plants are much more susceptible to damage from animals.  Still, I love the big bang of color provided throughout the growing season by imported and hybrid annual cultivars.

For Father’s Day many years ago, my sons gave me a mortar-fabricated flat stone engraved with the following words: “Gardening comes second only to reading.”  The stone is still a permanent fixture in our garden, as it has been in every garden I have tended.  In many ways, this statement could easily be adopted as my philosophy, with the possible addition of family, music, and a few other passions.  I have savored countless hours in planning, designing, planting, and maintaining shrub and flower gardens.  It is another one of those activities that is so restorative for me.  It grounds me, with no pun intended.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “the earth laughs in flowers.”  What a wonderful way to express the joy experienced in nature’s palette displayed in the beauty of plants.

How Can You Not Love Ferns?

Of all the plants I see on my excursions through the forest, I think some of the most beautiful to me are among the most primitive — ferns.  With origins going back anywhere from 300 to 400 million years, ferns have been around as long as reptiles and were spreading across the planet at least 100 million years before mammals arrived.  By contrast, the primates only showed up about 60 million years ago, and the species we know as modern human beings have only been here for about 250,000 years.

Fern bed near gravesiteToday, there are literally thousands of species of ferns growing in various habitats all around the world.  They flourish mainly in places where flowering plants can’t grow because it is too wet or too shady.  In other words, they have evolved to take advantage of habitats that the more dominant seed-bearing plants can’t handle.  Instead of becoming extinct, they adapted. There seems to be a philosophical message there.

I think my attraction to ferns comes from the delicate fronds that are characteristic of so many of the species.  In America, they are often found in shady, moist places that are cooler then the surrounding area, and their lush, green color implies fertility and vitality.  The way they pulsate with the slightest breeze has such a calming effect on me.  Apparently, my interest in ferns is shared by quite a few folks in this country, illustrated by the existence of an organization devoted to studying the plants.  You can find out so much more information about ferns at the website of the American Fern Society.