Traveling can be Bittersweet

A heavy fog shrouded the park this morning. In places it was thick, conjuring up images of England and a Sherlock Holmes mystery beginning to unfurl. In other areas, perhaps just on the other side of a tree where the sunlight had burned away the moisture the air was clear - it almost looked sharp- like everything was in fine focus.

I was late arriving at the park, distracted by packing for my trip to New York Thursday. There was no time to walk the grounds; a driving tour would have to suffice this morning. It will be many days before I see the park and my gardens again. I am anxious to leave, knowing much will happen in my absence and at the same time eager to explore the city and new gardens- finding new design ideas and plant options for my own gardens.

Traveling can be bittersweet.

A Day in the Life of a Landless Gardener

Mornings with coffee in one hand and a camera in the other I walk the grounds of the gardens at Ault Park to see what survived the night and what new blooms are making their appearance. I enjoy the early morning in the gardens when everything is fresh and the dew rests on the shaded lawn.

In the park I am not alone. I am greeted with familiar faces of the walkers and photographers who make the park part of their morning ritual. I notice when they are absent and I wonder if they notice my absence as well. It is not quite the same as walking the backyard garden in my jammies with a cat following me about. It is still solitude in the morning garden, like when I had a yard, just different. It’s solitude among kindred spirits. One thing is certain, it is equally difficult to say good-by to the gardens for the day and head to work.

Lunch is time to visit the local nursery where I browse with the best intentions of buying just one or two plants and leave with a flat. Landless or not, that is bound to happen! It’s easier to resist some plants as a landless gardener. The expensive plants stay on the shelf, for there is always the risk that a plant may ‘walk off’ from the park. And those plants that bloom at night or release an intoxicating scent with the rise of the moon are lost on me for admittance to the park gardens at night is forbidden.

After work I hustle home, a garden to-do list formulating as I battle the rush hour traffic. A hello and a kiss for my boyfriend and a change of clothes and it’s back to the car to head to the park. My garden tote is packed from the night before, ready in the trunk. I use very few tools in the gardens- you would too if you had to carry them to the gardens. When I arrive at the park I slip on my garden shoes and take the steps two at a time to see my new gardens at the top of stairs. Before I begin working I take a quick inventory of the other adopt-a-plot gardens including my shade garden and the third new space that is yet to be named.
I garden, letting my mind wander and drift helping me find my balance after a busy day. I chat with a few park goers who stop to say hello and thank all of us for our hard work. If I was home I would never be pulled out of my daydreams but on the other hand, I would miss the laughter of children, live music from one of the many weddings that take place in the park or a chat with a fellow park gardener. 

At the end of the day I walk the gardens to find tools I left behind in a distracted moment. I bundle them together and cart them to my car, rather than the garden shed. I am still horrible at cleaning my tools after each use- who wants to carry them into the house and then back out to the car each day? And my car's truck, which serves as my garden shed, could use a good cleaning out.With the sun setting I settle into my evening routine, garden book and blogs and quiet time with Darryl. In a few hours a new garden day will begin for this landless gardener.


I think it’s the German in me.

The weather the last few days has been brutal. Temps in the 90s and high humidity early in the season had me worried that many of the plants I installed this season would be stressed or possibly dead. I was away from the gardens for a few evenings when I have time to weed, water and prune and worried that my absence would show. Luckily, all was well. Early yesturday and this morning I ventured to the park in hopes of avoiding the heat and enjoying the park before it begins to bustle with activity.

Growth in the new sun garden astounds me. This is a new garden for me this year and already I have added about two dozen plants, mostly perennials. Luckily the garden had some well established plants- iris, three nice stands- which I fear will need dividing next spring- spider wort, daylilies and Russian sage. A few rocks that once circled the base of the statue that was recently stolen I have placed on end and sunk into the soil. I like the effect, possibly because it looks a bit like old cemetery stones.

The one negative about the garden is it is high maintenance. I do not care to see spent flowers in the garden. While there are some I will allow to remain in the fall for effect and to feed the birds, for me, it is way too early in the season to let expired blooms remain. Even plants that are self-cleaning I find myself pruning and deadheading- I think it’s the German in me- I like things in order. And while the sun garden has a wild, lush look to it, more and more each day, there is order. I cut back the bully of a plant Russian sage with zeal, the knock-out roses are pruned and guillardia constantly inspected for expired blooms. But perhaps the greatest battle comes from bind weed- I loathe that twining, chocking pest. I’ve been told the roots can regenerate into new plants, so pulling the plants is not terribly effective- with a few days new vine emerge. Pulling bind weed is a constant task.

Turning Colors in the Shade Garden

Summer must be here for my shade garden at Ault Park is changing its color. Early in the spring my Autumn Fern steals the stage with its copper colored foliage. Now, as summer begins to settle in the coppery tones are losing ground to the fern's summer green color. I think that is one reason why I love this fern, it does it backwards; fall colors in the spring and summer colors in the summer and fall.

The garden is now showing a stronger lean towards purple. Japanese painted fern, cimicifugia and Ligularia are all decked out in purple. Any gardener knows that a garden never stays the same for long; even a day can bring about great change. This change is subtle; the shift from copper to purple. I wonder if non-gardeners take note of the change.

One thing I see is a need for more contrast in color. Perhaps the addition of a variegated hosta- a tiny variety- space is very limited these days or some heucheras of oranges or yellows may help add a bit of pop to the summer shade garden. Back in the days I relied heavily on white impatiens to do the trick. But here, at the park which is a haven for deer, I fear the impatiens will be just too much of a temptation for them to resist.


Design Lessons - Earth, Man and Sky

The University of Cincinnati Horticulture class that toured the adopt-a-plot gardens last week is working on their final garden design. To help them prepare we spent some time with this established garden, first identifying the plants and then looking at the design.

This has always been a favorite garden of mine at the park. It is a wonderful example of how to design with color, texture, shapes and height with just a few plants and even fewer flowers. It is also a fine example of another design practice- the use of Earth, Man and Sky.

Earth, Man, Sky-  Varying heights in a garden not only add visual interest but also guide the eye to focal points. The sky element of a design can be such that it frames or focuses our attention to an area within the garden design. The sky element can act as a border, like the top of a picture frame keeping our attention within the garden, not allowing it to wander to the surrounding area or vista. The sky element can also anchor a garden, providing visual weight and a sense of space in an otherwise open, boundless area.

Imagine a large open area and in it, a great oak.The oak defines the area, acts as a focal point and the first perceived border of the garden vignette. In this case a pyramid design would come to mind with the tip of the pyramid, the tree's canopy and the two perceived borders running from the peak to the ground to create a 'triangle.'  

We can devote many posts to earth, man and sky as applied to tiny gardens to sweeping landscapes but for this discussion we focus on this shade garden. Here, the yews and the magnolia above serve as the sky; the tall hostas and iris work well as man and the creeping jenny and bugleweed- our obvious earth element. The garden builds up gradually from the pavement, not as a harsh vertical vegetative wall. The lines between garden and walkway are blurred and the eyes coxed to investigate further by the ground covers. A soft, wispy plant and the slender leaves of the iris gently turn our vision upwards, gracefully. The bold weight of the hostas gives the tiny garden substance against the hard pavement. The tall grass softens the interior corner of the garden- balancing the right angle of the pavement. And finally, the stone bench introduces a new material, visual interest in the winter and a mini vignette within an already tiny garden.

Here the elements of earth, man and sky work together to create a harmonious garden that works brilliantly within its setting.


I Just Cannot Say When!

At some point in the gardening season—back when I had a yard—I could say “when!” Now, as a landless gardener, I find the opportunities to add more gardens is limitless and I am having a very difficult time saying “when.”

Four years ago when I became a landless gardener, I never imagined that I would have more space to garden than I could shake a trowel at. Lately an area just outside the Adopt-a-Plot gardens has been calling to me: “Look at me! Look how much room I have for you to garden.” When a garden calls to you, how can you say no? I sure can’t. It’s a long, skinny bed with sun and shade, a few established shrubs and trees and a lot of room for improvement.

This weekend I pulled weeds, edged, mulched and began sketching a design for the shadier area of the garden. Earlier in the season I began working the deeper, sunnier section. I planted 15 coneflowers of three varieties, over two dozen Liatris (a mix of bulbs and potted plants), Brazilian verbena and a few shrubs including ‘Mount Airy’ fothergilla. With all that, the garden still looks simply “OK.” Gardening with perennials does teach me to have patience and to have faith in the promise of a two- and three-year-old garden. In my mind’s eye I see a wide band of coneflowers in bloom, spires of purple flowers and a light airy, wispy look of purple flowers from the verbena, which I am counting on to re-seed liberally.

Long-term Vision for Landscape and Garden Design

A few nights ago I met with a Horticulture class from the University of Cincinnati. They were touring Ault Park with their instructor, Jim Hansel. I took one of his classes at the university myself and he asked me to join them. I was rather flattered.

As we toured the gardens I asked the students to think about this space in five or ten years. What did they see? What could become a potential issue? The design of the adopt-a-plot lawn is elegant, formal and breathtaking in the spring when all the magnolias are in bloom...all the magnolias. That is the issue.

The magnolias are starting to show signs of stress and decline. One day we will lose them all; the anchor of the area's design. How can we as garden designers, managers of large parks and estates and urban planners take the desire for a formal plan such as this and incorporate a diverse planting to ensure that the crucial element of the overall design is not lost in short order to disease or age?

How do we manage the magnolias that remain in a way that will preserve the look of the area while we prepare for the inevitable; their decline? Do we harvest every other tree and install new magnolias of differing varieties? Do we begin incorporating different trees with the same structure, height and visual weight for a uniform, cohesive look?

Another issue of lesser importance but still a valid concern is the state of the gardens. One of my gardens is a shade garden and when we lose the older trees, the garden will perish if I do not plan now. I am already looking to install a small shade tree, perhaps a Witch hazel, to ensure shade for the garden when the older tree that now shades the plot expires.

I think one of the more difficult disciplines to adopt when planning garden spaces of any size is looking beyond the immediate plan to how the property will evolve 10, 15 even 30 years down the road.


Days in the Sun

Last year I had my eye on the sun garden at the top of the stairs. It is a generous garden, on a secondary walk path next to a stand of bottlebrush buckeyes and tall boxwoods.

Over the years most of my gardens were in the shade. Sun plants were carefully tucked into little spots here and there but overall, the gardens were ruled by the shade. The sun garden at the top of the stairs was new and exciting. It was drenched in bright light during part of the day and dappled shade in the early morning and late afternoon. I wanted to play in the space and experience the changing light.

After weeding and adding a few plants.
This spring the owners told me they were not coming back to the park; the garden was open for adoption! I had already passed along one of my gardens to a new gardener about two weeks earlier. At the time all of the gardens were spoken for and I didn't want to have to tell the new gardener no.  I had a new space to work on that is not part of the AaP and I felt it was time to let new hands work the area that had been mine for a few years. I was glad I did, for now I could adopt the sun garden.

This week in the sun garden.
I daydreamed about a simple design using three or four plants; perhaps roses, grasses and lantana. A design built on simple repetition. But as I began to weed and experience the space of the new sun garden first-hand my plans for simplicity flew out the window. The sunny isles of the garden store also plotted against my minimalistic design aspirations. How could I say no to all of these new plants I had never grown before? My mind was swimming with visions of lush border gardens overflowing with color, texture and continuous blooms. 

The garden is much fuller already. I have added more plants than I am ready to admit. I hope my repetition of a few foundational plants and colors will keep the garden from looking too wild and discombobulated.  Time will tell!


Up with the Sun

Visiting the gardens a few mornings before work is turning into my favorite way to start the day.   The sun is soft and warm, the gardens are quiet and the evening's rain and dew is still on the flower petals. 


Taking the Good with the Bad

Iris in the early morning sun.
I am not talking about weeds and invasive plants I am talking about people in the gardens; or more accurately people who visit gardens. A couple of weeks ago we had a rash of thefts at Ault Park. A statue that had been in the garden for many years was stolen from a garden and the copper kettle I installed in my shade garden several years back was swiped a week later. We even had a few plants stolen. Sigh

I was crushed, saddened and even questioned why I was doing this. Friends, that was a huge departure from my normal take on things! For about that long I questioned my time at the park.

Then something wonderful happened. I started visiting the park on my way to work. It is quiet, the early morning light is beautiful and the time in the gardens makes me feel alive.

As I pulled a few weeds (careful not to get dirty before work) and pondered what to add the shade a garden a lady stopped and asked if the garden was mine. I said it was.

“Walking here in the morning, seeing these gardens is the highlight of my day,” she said smiling and walked on. I needed that!

I will stop at the park more mornings, to enjoy our gardens and in hopes of seeing her again. I want to tell her just how much it meant to me what she shared that morning when I was feeling a bit defeated and sad.

Truth be told, we will always have a few bad seeds in the gardens, but we also have countless others who simply love our park and gardens and respect them.