Jan 30, 2010

Less is Less

Morocco:  Courtyards and Gardens
By Achva Benzinberg Stein
Book talk at the Horticultural Society of New York
I went to see pretty pictures of gardens. There were none.  Yet, I was not disappointed.  Less is really less and less is really a lot more was the true subject of Achva Benzinberg Stein's talk at the Hort Society on Thursday night.
Stein used Morocco, Iran, Spain as places to explore the idea of what a garden is.  Looking back at ancient gardens and the remains of these gardens, Stein's thesis rested on the concept of oasis.  Oasis defined as a place of respite and reflection.
O A S I S = G A R D E N 
In defining a garden as any place that provides quiet and calm, the garden can be an orchard, a simple reservoir, or a public fountain.  Stein threw down the gauntlet:  Does a garden have to contain plants?
A garden can be any place that brings together people and animals (as in the case of a public fountain) or a garden can be courtyard with a simle potted plant or architecture that provides enclosurer from the outside world.

For me, the most challenging part of Stein's talk was a garden devoid of nature.  As she passionately pointed out the world of climate change, scarcity of water and other natural resources is here.  By looking back at the gardens of Morocco we can see "gardens" that were created and still function in arid places, and crowded urban environments.  

Even the concept of privacy has changed.  We all wear headphones, creating our own mental landscapes.  These may be the new "gardens of the mind."  Perhaps, we are no longer dependent on going into a space to be within an insulated realm.

Stein gave an example of a project she gives her students:  make a garden from a degraded piece of land.  I can imagine making a garden from a trashed out piece of ground (at Randall's Island, we often do) but I find it hard to imagine a garden devoid of plants.  But Stein, may be right, a garden is a concept, not defined by its content. 

Jan 29, 2010


Photos from top to bottomt: Conservatory Garden, Central Park designed by Lynden Miller, Emory Knoll Farm owned by Ed Snodgrass, Margaret Roach's hideway in Columbia County, New York.
Plant-o-rama (Horticultural Trade Show & Symposium)
presented by Metro Hort and The Brooklyn Botanical Garden

Plant-o-rama, the annual meeting of the garden mafia of the Metropolitan area gathered together several Godfathers of the gardening world, their respective "families" and a few interlopers (of which, I consider myself one).  And like all families, rivalries, jealousies, and love co-exist.

For the event, an all-star line-up was assembled.

Lynden Miller was up first.  An irrepressible cheerleader for public parks, Lynden "threw out the first pitch."  She is a doer, not just a talker.  "Make something beautiful and they will come.  Make it interesting all year round and they will come back."  Miller believes in the power of gardens to transform the city.  And over the course of a long career, she has designed great public spaces, cajoled wealthy individuals to support public parks and maintained them in pristine order.  All of this stems from a conviction, that creating beauty in a public setting telegraphs a message to people:  you are worth it.  And for Miller, we are worth it!

Ed Snodgrass was up mext.  Ed is a doyen of the green roof world.  Growing up on a farm may not make you a straight-talking realist, but Ed certainly is.  He stayed away from all the cliches associated with green roofs.  The word sustainable was never mentioned.  Instead, Snodgrass focused his attention on an analysis of what plants worked where, and under what conditions.  What the pay back was for a functional green roof vs. a designed green roof.  The take away:  Be careful what you wish for, OR if you create a green roof, know what you want.

Margaret Roach, spoke last and possibly the best was saved for last.  Self-taught (and boy, has she done a good job), Margaret concentrated on the piece of property she has gardened on since leaving Martha Steward Living.

Roach was the leader of the plant pack.  My attention was drawn to the species peony, "Molly The Witch" (P.mlokosewitschii).  The minute I got home, I googled and found a nursery that sells "Molly The Witch", for a very princely sum.  Celandine poppy, (Stylophorum diphyllum) made Lynden Miller wince.  Margaret admitted it was a thug, but... a beautiful thug.  Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), Japanese Poppy (Hylomecon japonicum) and interestingly, Red Lungwort (Pulmonaria rubra), with its coral-red flowers in early Spring.  As Margaret pointed out, when do you see red in Spring?

Humility, with a touch of the evangelical, Roach's talk had an overarching message:  L O O K...
look at what's under your feet
look up at the sky
look out the window
just keep looking and observing the natural world.

A day spent with a "family" of gardeners is a day well spent.  It reinforces my belief that gardeners are most generous people in the world.

Jan 24, 2010

It's All About Me

St. Augustine Moi  Errol Flynn  Augustin Burroughs  Moi   Jean Jacques Rousseau  Cellini

The New Yorker, January 29th issue
But Enough About Me by Daniel Mendelsohn 
What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?
A review of Memoir: A History by Ben Yagoda

Daniel Mendelsohn's review blew me away.

"...The greatest outpouring of personal narratives in the history of the planet has occurred on the Internet; as soon as there was a cheap and convenient means to do so, people enthusiastically paid to disseminate their autobiographies, commentaries, opinions, and reviews, happily assuming the roles of author and publisher."

"...And it may well be that the answer lies not with the genre (memoir) - which has remained fairly consistent in its aims and its structure for the past millennium and a half or so - but with something that has shifted, profoundly in the way we think abut ourselves and our relation to the world around us."

Inspired by Mendelsohn's in-depth analysis of memoir: I had to start blogging about the act of blogging.

The blog is the world of the self, this much is obvious.  In the blogosphere, there are two distinct kinds of blogs.*  Blogs which are primarily informative and blogs which focus on narrative.  And sometimes, those of us who are like ping pong balls bounce back and forth between the two forms.

In the garden world, the informative blog, runs the gamut from info on plant cultivators, new tools, reviews of books,  postings of lectures, visits with noted plantsmen, itineraries of garden trips, etc., etc., etc., and of course, most importantly, the promotion of self.

In the narrative blog, the blogger becomes something like a writer, in the sense that he/she builds a story.  And in building that story, enhancement, embellishment and distortion become the norm.  Does it matter?  The notion is essentially the same - if afternoon becomes evening, if boyfriend becomes husband, if vacation becomes business trip, if jelly becomes preserve.  When we change these facts - we change the truth, but do we expect the truth from a blog.

"...The gist is that a seemingly inborn desire on the part of Homo sapiens for coherent narratives, for meaning, often warps the way we remember things."

As Mendelsohn points out the evolution of talk show confession to reality TV to blog is barely a hop, skip or jump.  It's a nano second in the world of narcissism.  When I started this blog, my mind was snowed in.  I have found that a blog builds your ego.  You begin to think better of yourself and I would argue you think better, in general, because blogging what's on your mind, organizes your thoughts (sort of) and that brings a certain amount of clarity to an otherwise pretty big muddle.

Putting together one sentence after another is definitely an art form.  If I can learn to string two or three words together as well as Daniel Mendelsohn, I will be a happy camper, no a happy gardener.

*My notion of what blogs contain is based solely on the blogs I read:  gardening, landscape and art.
**The photos across the top are noted memoir writers, with the exception of myself.

Jan 22, 2010

They Might Be Rock Bands...

atmoic red carrots, lunar eclipese squarsh, humdinger peppers, queen of sheba basil, rosalita lettuce,  erbette chard, lacinato kale, osaka purple mustard greens, ameliore dandelion greens, imperial star artichoke, jersey knight asparagus, fin des bagnols  bush beans, matilda pole beans, dominator brussel sprouts, gigante cardoon, iznik cucumber, india paint eggplant, sugar baby watermelon, charentais melon, king richard leeks, walla walla sweet onions, big mama tomatoes, speckled hound winter squash, swedish peanut fingerling potatoes, and dancing spirits hot peppers.

By the names, you might think these are rock bands, but you would be wrong.  These are some  of the thousands of vegetable seeds available for purchase.  Even if you narrow it down to organic and heirloom, you are still looking at hundreds of varieties.

I can't help myself.  The names get me.  My desires are bigger than my garden.  I am entranced by the names, but also by the packaging.  Either its my training as a graphic designer or my belief that the medium is the message, these little envelopes are good salesmen.

This Christmas, I was given a special gift.  A package of seeds from The Hudson Valley Seed Library.   Never heard of it. I quickly googled. 

"The Hudson Valley Seed Library strives to do two things:
1.  to create an accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring gardeners; and
2.  to create gift-quality seed packs featuring works designed by New York artists in order to celebrate the beauty of heirloom gardening.

Our Art Packs are each designed by a different artist from the greater New York region (this includes upstate New York, the Hudson Valley, the City, Northern New Jersey and Connecticut).  Each pack celebrates the beauty inherent in heirloom gardening.

Our Library Packs contain seed that was grown by member farmers and gardeners.  For 2010, the majority of the seeds were grown here at our farm in Accord, New York.  In the coming season, we hope to offer seeds grown by a network of participating farmers in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York, each of whom contributes one or two varieties of heirloom seed to the library."

Rock On! and Spread the word!

All photos from The Hudson Valley Seed Library.  Some of the Art Packs are featured in this blog.

Jan 21, 2010

A Series of Meringues - A Lecture by Dan Pearson

Speaking for 2 hours, hardly taking a breath, rattling off the names of  plants in every other sentence, Dan Pearson's lecture at The New York Botanical Garden on January 21 concentrated on BIG themes:  reading the landscape, sculpting the land and connecting to the environment.

Looking into Dan Pearson's garden in London from inside his house 
I characterize Pearson sensibility as typically English, but not his point of view.  He has a deep knowledge of plants, reverence for sense of place (see his new book featured on the right hand side of this page) and most importantly designs "gardens" so they appear to be non-designed.  He is part of the new wave garden mafia: Piet Oudolf and Ulf Nordfjel.  But his work is distinctly different.

Every designer composes space and uses the interplay between hardscape and garden to their advantage.  For Pearson, the hardscape is recessive and uncomplicated, forming the bone structure for the garden, and the garden overlays this simple structure.  A garden in England where the old garden walls were covered with lichen, was one of the most interesting projects Dan choose to talk about.  For this designer, the old garden walls, became a road map for an evolving series of two garden rooms.  One of these rooms was sensual, dynamic and ephemeral.  The other was devoid of a perceived order.  It was "empty."  It was a series of landforms (convex & concave), created by Dan, with mowed paths.  It was a place to connect with the sky and the air.  The clients had requested a place to lie down and watch the stars and they got it.

Acres of trees, a forest overgrown with bamboo from prior cutting, open areas with no plants, a restaurant:  all set against a background of mountains: this is the setting for a large project, Pearson is continuously working on.   It is not a garden, but a sustainable "park"  in Northern Japan, where the climate is rough:  Winters snow covered and cold:  Spring and Summer short and rainy. Studying the forest floor, how plants volunteer, self-seed, grow next to each other and into each other, crowd each other out, succession, regeneraton, and survival became the basis of the "created garden space" Dan designed near the restaurant.

The plant palette Pearson used is extremely interesting, but that is the topic for another blog. I want to touch briefly on Pearson's idea for the planting scheme.  Dan developed 19 different planting combinations, with 5 or 6 plants in each combination, which began to look like a complicated sequence of DNA. The drawing reminded me of a chart from one of my chemistry classes. Visually the space seems "uncontrolled," more meadow-like then planned garden. This is the genius of the design, you feel overwhelmed by nature, but nature thoughtfully planted.

In the flat baren area, Dan sculpted the land, bringing an 18th century British tradition to this rural Japanese landscape.  These landforms imitate to a certain degree the mountains that surround this landscape.  At the site, Dan built a small model using sand, of the landforms that would be created; this enabled him to play with the relationship between the forms and the mountains.  And interestingly, the landforms magnified the acoustics of the place. Making sound an important element in the space.

In one of the final slides, Dan showed the landforms covered with snow, and he elegantly called it "a series of meringues." For me, this lecture was a meringue: light, delicate, magical and  rich.

Jan 17, 2010

Making A Garden in Haiti

BLOG IN PROGRESS....  This blog will combine the thoughts presented in Kenneth Helphand's amazing book, Defiant Gardens and the work of those people who have created programs for refugees in the United States: making gardens to bridge a cultural and psychological divide.  I welcome all garden bloggers to work together on this project.

Please email me at: podessey@gmail.com

Jan 16, 2010

My Next Time Around

Copyright Phyllis Odessey.  No usage without permission.

An 80-year-old woman, foreseeing her own death, makes preparations.

In an interview on NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio), Joan Graham, working with a land conservancy has taken steps to have her own body, become sustenance for a tree.  "I just like the earth.  I like the smell of it, and I like green and, I like trees."

Joan makes her choice:  oaks have deep taproots.  "Wouldn't it be nice if that oak tree wold reach my remains, and the tree would take nourishment from that?  And it's kind of like I never died, really.  I just morphed into a tree or something."

Joan's journey to convert her land to an environmentally sound burial ground is documented in David Baron's excellent story for NPR.

I tend not to dwell on death.  As a gardener, I am  aware of the lifecycle of all plants: it's part of growing things.  I've "put to bed" many a perennial.  The question naturally arose: Where would be my final resting place?

One of the most famous cemeteries is Montparnasse in Paris.  Located in the 14th arrondissement, Montparnasse is in every guidebook and on every tourist route.  An oasis in the city, and a window into history: Alfred Dreyfus, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Pierre Rampal, Jean Paul Sartre, to name a few, are all there.

I treasure these places dedicated to famous and ordinary individuals.  I enjoy meandering around old cemeteries.  I especially like looking at the arrangements of plastic flowers (YES! I really do).  In my travels, it is only in Norway that cemeteries provide watering cans for keeping flowers alive at grave sites.

Copyright Phyllis Odessey. No usage without permission.  

In my neck of the woods, Oak (Quercus rubra L.)
trees are not particularly common.
Red Spruce (Picea rubens Sarg.),
Eastern White Pine (Picea strobus L.),
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis (L.)Carr.),
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera Marsh.),
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.),
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia Ehrh.), and
Ash (Fraxinus americana L.) people our woods.
Sometimes, you'll find a Locust (Robina pseudoaccacia L.) or Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana (P.Mill)K.Koch).

Joan's idea of combining land conservation with a burial ground is an idea gardeners can embrace (including me).  I began by taking inventory of the trees on my property and ranking them in order of most adored.  The White Birch has always been at the top of my list.  When I was in grade school, the poem, Birches by Robert Frost was one of  my favorites. The line "once could do worse than be a swinger of birches..." has always resonated with me.  Although birch is not much used for furniture or firewood, it has its place. Native Americans made canoes out of birch bark and up until a few years ago, there was a gentleman in New Hampshire still practicing the craft.

The birch has a special place in my heart.  For several years, my husband and I have written valentines to each other on birch bark.  With thoughtful consideration, I choose birch to lie under for its beauty, not its longevity.

"They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun"
Excerpted from Birches by Robert Frost

Landowner Calls On Death To Save Her Farm
story written by David Baron.
New Hampshire Pubic Radio
The story contains extensive information on how to conserve land as a green burial ground.

Jan 8, 2010

As Good As A Samurai Sword

The gardener's "tatoo": dirt under the fingernails and those ubiquitous red handles sticking out of your back pocket.  Felco pruners have been on the market for years and have been the gold-standard when it comes to pruners.  I would like to recommend a different brand of pruners, that I have been using for two years.

Ordered from the Japan Woodworker online, these pruners have "spring loaded blades that are angled in relation to the handles to create an easier cutting action".  Unlike Felco's you can not change the blades, you need to sharpen the blades periodically with a stone.  Using a stone,  the blades will be as sharp as day they were purchased.  "The cutting blade is forge welded from inlaid high carbon "white" steel.  A master blacksmith carefully tempers each blade for increased edge life and hones to a razon edge." - quoted from the catalog.

The maxiumum cut is 1 3/4.
Blade length is 2" and overall length is 7" (the pruners also come in 8" length for larger hands)

Like most things, Japanese, the packaging matters (see photo).  When you open the mailing box, your pruners are packaged for what they are: a gift for the gardener.

You can also purchase from the Japan Woodworker, the polishing stone and camilla oil ("used to protect the finest Samurai swords").  And of course, a tool I am never without a Hori Hori.

Reading books, planning new gardens, and buying new tools makes the snow melt a little faster.

7" professional pruning shear (product ID 16.100.25)
8" professional grade prunign shear (product ID 16.100.26)

Catalog cover from the current show at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.

Jan 6, 2010

A Rare Opportunity

Dan Pearson

From the Ground Up:  Gardens Re-Imagined is a lecture series at the New York Botanical Garden that begins on January 21 with Dan Pearson.  The following is an excerpt from the blog I wrote for the NYBG on December 17.

"The life of a gardener is filled with many "Aha!" moments.  But when I opened the NYBG Fall/Winter Catalog and turned to page 62, to the winter gardening lecture series lineup of speakers, it was not an "Aha!" moment, but rather a "Wow!" moment.  Three names jumped off the page:  Dan Pearson, Barbara Damrosch and Fritz Haeg.  From the Ground Up:  Gardens Re-Imagined is the perfect name for a series featuring this rabble-rousing trio.

In the forward to Dan Pearson's new book, Spirit: Garden Inspiration, Beth Chatto writes, "Dan Pearson shows how the most intimidating situations can be transformed.  It takes a rare mind and eye to break away from our traditional view of what makes a garden..."  Dan's also a great plantsman, as I wewll know, but that's not why I'm going to his lecturer on January 21.  I am going because I know that Dan will challenge my notions of order, color and texture."

It's rare opportunity to hear and meet Dan Pearson.  His appearances in the US are limited.  In the sixties, people took drugs to produce mind altering experiences.  Going to a Dan Pearson lecture is  like  one of those "trips:"  it alters your view of landscape, both cultivated and wild.

I also recommend Dan's new book: Spirit: Garden Inspiration.  From the preface, "Through lecturing and giving the images flesh with words, I came upon the idea of trying to pin down the spirit of place in a book.  It is a subject that has fascinated me since I was a child and today it underpins my work.  In the book I hope to reveal a way of seeing and how I have learned to understand and ultimately feel what for me gives a place its identity and character."

To read the complete blog about the NYBG lecture series go to:

To register for the series go to:  www.nybg.org (click on education/lecturre series)

To purchase Spirit: Garden Inspiration go to: http://www.amazon.com