The Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Plants and Memory



A memory can be triggered by many things.  The smell of lilacs in the spring.  The fragrance of a rose.  A mass of daisies, blooming.  Plants that bring memories flooding back to me mostly have to do with my mother’s garden.  Roses-oh yes, so many roses.  A gingko tree, grown from seed to a spectacular size.  Tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs in pots.  Orchids, hanging from the trees. And the zinnias she grew from seed.  I never see a zinnia without thinking of her. 

But my memories of her aside, the big old evergreen trees that it has been my pleasure to meet make me feel zero at the bone.  Zero at the bone?  A feeling which is primeval.  Elemental.  For me, giant old trees evoke memories that are not tied to specific events.  They may provoke memories of which I am only dimly aware. 

I am sure this sense of belonging to the primeval forest is why it is so difficult to take down a big tree.  Even a damaged or sick old tree.  This client was very attached to a pair of old and weary Norway spruce planted just a few feet from the foundation of the house.  Taking them down was not an option.  Planting more of them at the road, a fitting tribute.  I always admired her reluctance to interfere with with a chain saw.  The landscape had an aura that would not have been possible without those old trees.     


These trees may be many years away from  evoking a memory of the primeval forest, but the impulse was there to plant them. 

Giant old trees whose life spans many gererations of people are as rare in urban areas as they are revered.  Old large properties that have never been clear cut to make way for neighborhoods provide homes for old trees.  The steward-gardener who takes great pains to look after them is a person for whom those trees evoke a memory.  In my area, there are old cemeteries whose old trees are spectacular.  Many cities have parks, and for good reason.  Exposure to an old, natural or archetypal landscape is comforting, and thought provoking.

The Estivant Pines nature sanctuary on the Kewenaw Peninsula in the upper peninsula is a protected home to many old pines.  Pictured in the Michigan Nature Association blog, this is the trunk of one of the largest and oldest of those pines. The preservation of these old trees is the result of the work, patience and determination of many-all of whom have a memory that is important to nurture. 

This post is but one of many featured at the Garden Designer’s Roundtable today on the subject of memory and plants.  My special congratulations to Andrew Keys, whose book   Why Grow That When You Can Grow This   has just been published on this very topic.  If the book is as exuberant and sassy as he is, it should be a great read!    

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Genevieve Schmidt : North Coast Gardening : Arcata, CA

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Thomas Rainer : Grounded Design : Washington, D.C.

Rochelle Greayer : Studio ‘g’ : Boston, MA


Danger Garden Part 2: White Nose Syndrome


white nose syndrome in bats

Though many people abhor the thought or the presence of bats, gardeners and farmers know that bats in North America are our friends.  They consume many many times their weight in insects-insects that devastate garden plants and crops.  I am sure they have been a model for many a horror film character, but they actually are great friends of the garden.   

white nose syndrome

 A fungal disease first identified in New York in 2006 infects the skin of bats-all species of bats.  In the final stages of infection, the fungus grows on the muzzles of bats-thus the name White Nose Syndrome.  The origin of the fungus is unknown, but it is known that it thrives in moist places, and cannot tolerate temperatures above 68 degrees.  This means that the fungus is active and irritating to the bats when they are hibernating.  During the hibernation period, bats “wake up” periodically just to do a systems check-and then the quickly fall back to sleep.  The energy it takes to rouse them from their torpor and power up to make this check comes from their fat reserves.  The fungus makes them wake up much too often, as it is an irritant, and a wakeup call to their immune system. What should be an intermittent check gets to be a life threatening event.

 From a radio program on Stateside, “It wakes bats up from hibernation too frequently, once every week.  In order to go from a hibernating temperature of 45 degrees, raise their body temperature to 99 degrees, and go back down to 45 degrees takes as much energy as they would use in 60 days of continuous hibernation.  Because they wake up frequently, the run out of fat by early February, and die of starvation.

I have read about this in some detail. There is disagreement about whether our Michigan bats have been affected yet, but it is known that the mortality rates in infected caves can be as high as 95%.  A bat who has run out of energy, whose fat has been entirely used up fighting this fungus, may be forced to wake up, and fly.  On the fly in February, there is no food available for them.  Our landscape is usually blanketed with snow in February.  The opportunities to eat are few and far between.  Bats that come out of hibernation too early-enormous danger, dead ahead.

The danger faced by any living thing in a natural world- an ordinary event.  A disease that is known to kill vast numbers of bats may be ordinary, but it is alarming.  Many of the bats in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan hiberate in the caves created by mining in the west.  Those caves are remote.  One can only hope they will escape what poses a very serious threat to all species of bats that live in North America.

The danger this fungus poses to bat populations is terrifying.  I have read some articles that suggest it could wipe out entire species of bats.  These little creatures rarely bother anyone.  If I am outside on the deck in the summer after dark, I see them flying around-feeding on those bugs that would otherwise bedevil my garden.  Bats cannot really protect themselves from disease.  They do not have internists with whom they can make an appointment.  This plague on the bats has been on my mind for the better part of two days.  As for the fungus, it has a life and a niche too.  Passing by the blackspot on the roses, or the mildew on the phlox is not that tough.  However a world without bats-not good.  It is not only dangerous to garden, it is dangerous to live.

  I so hope someone will be able to help the bats.

Spring Frost

frost damage

There may have been little in the way of winter weather in my zone, and the 80 degree days we had in March were disturbingly unusual-but the winter weather we have had this spring has been devastating.  Every bloom on twelve magnolias in my yard-and lots of other yards- was summarily frosted off at the end of March.  OK, no flowers this year.  But a week ago Sunday-24 degrees overnight.  The new leaves pushing out past those dead blooms were hit hard.  You can tell from my picture, this Galaxy magnolia does not look good. 

The new growth on the boxwood at the shop-pushed out too early due to an abnormally warm March-was thoroughly damaged by frost.  24 degrees in midwinter-all of the evergreens have gone dormant, and are laying low.  They can shrug off this kind of cold.  Evergreens which have broken dormancy, and are actively growing, are vulnerable.  New growth is soft-as in very tender. A very hard freeze in April-devastating. That extremely cold night proved fatal to every new shoot on this boxwood.   

frost damage

Deciduous material suffered as well.  The leaves on these hops-too pale green, and burned brown.  This plant has cold burn.  I am seeing this damage everywhere-on maples that have leafed out.  Japanese maples planted in open areas have been partivcularly hard hit.  One grower I know feels he has lost a lot of trees.  Terrible, this.

The flowers on our espaliers dropped.  Those espaliers that had already shed flower petals will bear no fruit. Though these fruit trees have leafed out, any chance of fruit was frosted off.   I hear from friends in the gardening business of hostas 8 inches out of the ground, turned to mush.  This old rosemary, just a week out of storage, was hit hard.  The damage is everywhere-so discouraging.   The fruit tree growers in our state-devastating, the losses.    

Finally, the rain we needed so badly in April is falling in early May.  I do think the very dry conditions contributed to the frost damage.  A healthy and juicy plant is better able to fend off trouble than a stressed one.  Water stress-try working in the garden all day without a drink of water when it is hot as blazes.  Big stress.  I welcome the rain.  Rain drops on large foliaged plants is so beautiful.  These Chicago figs are loving the bath. 

Creme Brulee coral bells

Many perennials hold those rain drops.  This Creme Brulee heuchera is looking good. Though its leaves are struggling with the cold, the rain looks like good medicine. 

Water is life giving.  Miraculous, that.  No matter that I had to change my sopping wet socks twice today-I am grateful for the rain.  The difficulty I am having dealing with plants damaged by frost-soothed by the big rains. I am happy about the rain.   

This red lettuce is growing like crazy.  It is somewhat cold tolerant-the brutal frost passed it by.  The fresh leaves soaked with rain-do they not look delicious?  That gardening is not for the faint of heart is abundantly clear this spring.  The tulips bent over to ground encased in ice-this was painful to see.  The rain soaking my dry garden and landscape-a little respite from bad news.  Always, there are those good things, and those bad moments.

As delicate as a pansy bloom appears, pansy plants are very sturdy and cold tolerant. They duck down in inclement weather; they survive.  They are the mainstay of spring-along with the spring flowering trees, the early planted vegetables, and the wildflowers.  Not one pansy or viola sustained any frost damage at the shop.  They are the perfect plant for a season marked by tumult.   What to do about plants damaged by frost-wait.  Be patient. Make no moves before their time.  Many plants will releaf-many plants will handle the killing frost in their own way.  Don’t intervene until you really need to.  Survival is a primal instinct.  Like you, plants have the instinct to survive and prosper.   Give them space. 

 These yews had all of their new spring growth frosted off.  But I am seeing new shoots-they are re-leafing.  The spring rain helps fuel that.  Nature has a way of bringing any gardener up short.  But the will to live is a very strong one.  Should you garden, that natural force is more your friend than your foe.  Enjoy the rain.



I have been told that dirt is what gets picked up by a vacuum cleaner, and soil in a medium in which to grow plants.  Semantics aside, I prefer the word dirt.  What is under my fingernails, and inside my socks is dirt.  That dried material on the end of my spade or on my trowel is dirt.  What cakes the floormats in my truck is dirt. What the dogs track in-dirt.  What provides a home for my trees, shrubs, and perennials, and my container plants-dirt. 

Dirt is a big word.  Some dirt is cream white, and grainy-do not count on it to retain water.  Sand is a type of dirt whose particles do not stick together.  Water drains right through it. On the beach off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia-sand.  It drains and dries within seconds of its exposure to waves.  A sand beach on the ocean-one of life’s great pleasures. What grows there?  Tufts of grass.  Those tufts always look stressed, and tired, I might add.  Sand is a lean medium.    

Some dirt is an iridescent colored and greasy material that sticks to everything-shovels, hands-and roots that are gasping for a little air.  Clay is a very heavy water retentive dirt.  Once it dries out, it is hard-bone hard.  Terra cotta pots are made from clay dirt.  The word terra cotta, literally translated, means fired earth.  Very heavy clay dirt is loath to give up its water.  Farmers use clay to line the bottom of ponds built to provide water for livestock.  I have only built one pond that was lined in clay.  I had a client who was game.  12 inches of clay lined her pond.  Once all of the air was compacted out of it, the water level in the pond stayed fairly constant. The heavy clay soil pictured above-like the bottom of that pond.  

Both sand and clay-dead dirt.  I don’t mean this, really.  Both are composed of minerals-natural elements.  Silica, iron, manganese and the like. A ball of clay that I have squeezed all of the air out of-rock like. My clay rock is not so different than a granite rock,  in theory.  Granite is just harder than clay.  Formed clay, like granite, has been a building material for centuries.  Drain pipes, chimney flues and floor tiles-made of fired clay. Natural rock may be inert, but it is has a history that one could call a life.  Some geologists think that rock is a living organism.  This may be true in the abstract, but would you expect a columbine to take hold in a stack of quarry tile?  Not likely. 

Good dirt, the kind of dirt that encourages vigorous growth and health, is loaded with organic material.  What does this mean exactly?  Plants grow and prosper.  Once the seeding, fruiting and blooming is done, they die.  Even the biggest and the oldest trees enentually die. When living things die, they decompose.  They become compost.  Compost is the decomposing residue of the lives of many.  In undisturbed forests, lichens and moss colonize the surfaces of rocks.  Those colonies catch the debris from falling leaves-and trees.  This lean dirt, these natural and shallow pockets of decomposed plant material, provide a medium in which plants can take hold, and thrive. 

 Clay dirt, and sand dirt mixed together makes a leavened soil.  The sand particles help break up the clay.  This means water can be supplied to a plant, and then drain away before the roots rot.  But leavening is not enough.  Great dirt is loaded with organic material.  compost.  The remains of other plants.  Organic material further leavens dirt-dirt great for growing is loose, friable.  Air is a big part of the party.  Roots need air to survive, and thrive.  Who knows what other nutrients in decomposing plant material contribute to the next generation of plants. 

What else from that organic material?  There is plenty of controversy.  There are those who say compost feeds the soil.  There are those who say all compost does is promote an even absorption and slow release of water.  Water retention, if you will.  There are those that say organic material fuels the next generation of plants.  That organic material,  unsullied by any human intervention, makes for healthier, better lives.  Purely organic soil, organically grown plants-whenever I hear this, I swing back to some straight dirt talk.  Good dirt is essential to a garden.   

 good dirt

Great dirt is crumbly, friable.  It holds moisture to a point, then it drains.  A high compost content makes soil rich-I cannot really explain what I mean by rich, but I can smell it.  It has a certain feel.  It falls off  the spade and trowel. Great dirt running deep will endow your garden.  Dig a big scoop of your soil.  Pick up what your hand will hold.  If it sifts out between your fingers, add lots of clay, and lots of organic material.  If it sits in your hand like a heavy lump, add some sand, and lots of compost.  Aim to amend your soil. Your treasured plants need air, minerals, and compost. Thinking to plant a garden, or install a landscape?   Cook up some really good dirt.

good dirt

I could not cook a dinner for friends if my life depended upon it.  But I can make, or amend, or tweak dirt-cook dirt- such that plants grow.  I do what I can to provide good dirt for every plant on my property.  Could I teach a class in soil science-no. This is by no means a scientific discussion of soil. This is a fairy tale about good dirt.  A story-no more.  Take this story where you will. But I will say that the dirt under your nails will help your garden prosper.