Gardens That Work

Every January, the San Francisco Botanical Garden co-sponsors a two-day design symposium with Horticulture Magazine. I attended Day Two of this year's symposium, Gardens That Work, described thusly in the Botanical Garden's course catalog:
Flowering herb knots, productive potagers, home orchards ripe with fruit – these are some of the joys of gardens that function as more than superbly designed and meticulously maintained spaces. These are gardens that pay back hard work with fresh food, cut flowers and sustained enjoyment.

The trend in garden design has been focused on these workhorse gardens for some time, but beautifully executed gardens that produce for our vases and tables are classics that will always be in fashion.

Join us for an exciting and inspiring day working through the design principles and horticultural techniques as well as sharing in some of the delights of beautiful, bountiful gardens that work.

Our speaker line-up features Jennifer Bartley, author of Designing the New Kitchen Garden, SFBGS Curator and "workhorse garden" expert Don Mahoney, and McEvoy Ranch Head Gardener Margaret Koski-Kent. Rounding out the day will be Garden to Vase author Linda Beutler.

Unfortunately, the lights were kept very low which made it nearly impossible to take any notes. I should have insisted they be turned up, but I did not detect much support for that idea.

My only other criticism--why not get it out of the way--was a prominent local arborist--we'll call him Head Tripping--who, judging by his frequent, obnoxious interjections, must have thought he was at a CalHort meeting. I wanted to blow spitballs at the back of his head but I doubt that would have made him shut up. At any rate, he volunteered for duty on the projectors which he performed competently (for the most part).

Now then...

Bartley went first. A landscape architect based in Columbus, Ohio, she went to Europe and studied potagers, or kitchen gardens, which found their highest expression in French monasteries. Even if she hadn't told us, I would have recognized Bartley as an architect from her crisp and engaging academic rigor. What can I say...I enjoy architects. And I see she's been blogging now and then since April.

Under Henry VIII, England destroyed its monasteries and subsequent English landscape traditions devalued working gardens. Bartley noted the results were disastrous for English cuisine. Happily, things went differently in France. Bartley explained how the monastic potager, surrounded by high walls and hedges, can serve as a design template for small urban gardens in cities like San Francisco.

She advocated "stacking functions" (i.e., using plants that serve many purposes such as calendula--cut flower, edible, medicinal), bringing children in to the garden (her nieces have tea parties in her potager), and year-round planting. In California, especially on the coast, there is no excuse for not planting all year. Even in Ohio, Bartley plants garlic in the fall and harvests it in the snow. She showed us pictures to prove it.

She gave us slide tours of several Loire Valley monastic-style gardens including Prieure d'Orsan, Bois Richeux, Chateau Saint Jean de Beauregard, Potager du Roi, and Chateau de Villandry which she called the most famous vegetable garden in the world. Not content with France, she also gave props to Texas garden-blogger favorite, Antique Rose Emporium there in Brenham.

([In]sincere regrets for being lazy with accent marks.)

Until now, I've been tolerant of people who say that vegetable gardening "isn't pretty" even though I disagree. But after seeing Bartely's pictures today, I see no reason for tolerance. People who say vegetable gardening "isn't pretty" don't know what the eff they're talking about and should be disregarded.

And if Bartley's pictures weren't enough to convince me of that, Margaret Koski-Kent's pictures of McEvoy Ranch certainly were. Even for someone like me who knows nothing but California gardens, I found it hard to keep my jaw off the floor during her presentation. McEvoy Ranch, 550 acres in Petaluma an hour north of San Francisco, broke with wine country tradition by growing Tuscan olive trees (dozens of varieties, but mainly eight) and "over 800 combined varieties of flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees". They've been on my radar for a few years since I met one of their gardeners in my Plant I.D. class. Garden and orchard tours are available by reservation beginning in March, but I haven't visited there yet.

Typically Californian, Koski-Kent advocated away from the rigid structure of the formal garden and emphasized a naturalistic style. She said not enough designers are capable of working with a naturalist's palette. And she wasn't talking natives because I didn't see any natives in her slides besides wildflowers in the spring garden and some oaks in the distance. There were over 200 slides and I took very few notes.

Walls and enclosures were an important part of Bartley's potager talk. Koski-Kent joined that with her 7-foot-tall walls of Tithonia rotundifolia, Asteraceae. Sunset Western Garden says it's good in all zones, needs full sun and regular water. Perennial, grown as an annual. "Native from Mexico to Central America. Husky, rather coarse plant with velvety green leaves, spectacular gaudy flowers. Grows rapidly to 6' by 4'. Blooms from summer to frost, bearing 3-4-in.-wide blossoms with orange-scarlet rays and tufted yellow centers. Use as a temporary screen in summer. Hollow stems. Sow seed in place in spring. Tolerates intense heat, some drought. Attractive to butterflies, hummingbirds."

She grows several flowers just for their names. About Love In A Mist she said, "Love is almost always in a mist."

She's a fan of Snail Vine, Vigna caracalla syn. Phaseolus caracalla sometimes sold as Phaseolus gigantea. Perennial in Sunset zones 12-24, H1, H2, annual everywhere else. Full sun, regular water. Intensely fragrant.

She said Magda squash is everyone's favorite at McEvoy, and the head chef Gerald Gass doesn't want her to grow anything else.

Koski-Kent grows mushrooms, and during the Q&A after her talk, that's all anyone wanted to talk about. There were at least five questions about mushrooms. She basically said her source is Fungi Perfecti in Olympia, WA and left it at that. I'm impressed with them just for having that URL. Master of Ceremonies Fred Bove mentioned the book Mycelium Running as essential reading on the subject of fungi.

We broke for lunch and after that the Botanical Garden's curator Don Mahoney spoke. Dr. Mahoney has an extensive fan club at the Botanical Garden and beyond; I number myself among his adherents. When I took Betsy Clebsch's salvias class last year, Don came up in discussion and Ms. Clebsch interrupted herself to rave about him for several minutes.

When he started gardening, he said his goal was to have 1/3 natives, 1/3 butterfly plants, and 1/3 food. Again, I didn't take very many notes, but he showed us pictures of anise swallowtail, tortoiseshell, gulf frittilary, and buckeye butterflies (and respective larvae). He gave a ringing endorsement of Buddleija salvifolia for butterflies, but said his best habitat plant of all is a Montanoa.

Montanoas are 20-ft.-tall, fragrant, frost-sensitive asters from the meso-American cloud forests. I doubt very many are grown in the North America outside the Bay Area. Even here, they are very uncommon. SF Botanical Garden has several and I think UC Berkeley has some. There's one in a protected courtyard in downtown Sonoma, and there should be some in southern California. Sunset Western Garden doesn't mention the genus at all, and Botanica gives three species a light treatment.

Don advocates the layered treatment, and from his slides I think he's taken that to the next level in his garden. Suggestions from his course handout: "Winter-blooming tall salvias can fill in under deciduous trees. Under an apple tree, they can be cut low in the spring and then be allowed to extend and bloom in the fall. Hummingbirds love them. Or plant lettuce, arugula, and miners lettuce in your tomato patch. Leave some to go to seed and they will self sow to give you abundant winter greens after the tomatoes are finished and the winter rains start to fall. With luck, this will happen year after year." (I'm collecting suggestions for vegetable companions. Pam Peirce recommends starting pea vines in your corn patch when the corn stalks are 18" tall.)

Besides salvias, Don grows Dahlia imperialis under his apple trees. He keeps the tree dahlias short until the apples drop their leaves. The structural framework of the apple tree branches keep the tree dahlias from blowing over in winter storms. He didn't lose a single stalk in the storm two weeks ago that defoliated my Brugmansia (R.I.P.) and tattered my Bartlettina.

Don doesn't cut back anything unless he sees a compelling reason to do so, e.g. new growth. So when a deciduous perennial goes to sleep, the dormant material provides cover for birds during storms and habitat for overwintering larvae. For slugs, he has chickens. And turtles and toads.

He spouted off several suggestions, and I can't include them all but my favorite was to grow gourds as ground cover. I'm laughing right now as I type this.

After Don, Linda Beutler had the difficult task of closing this year's symposium. Difficult, not least because the previous three speakers had already fried my brain with plants and flowers and garden ideas. Beutler told us right off the bat she's a woman of strong opinions, so I knew immediately that I loved her. Note to public speakers: Even when I'm tired, I find it easier to listen to someone talk when strong opinions buoy their rhetoric. Let me know you've got 'em, and keep 'em coming.

Beutler teaches in the horticulture department at Clackamas County College in Oregon and she wrote the book Garden to Vase: Growing and Using Your Own Cut Flowers. She says florists are not taken seriously in the world of horticulture. Like mushrooms, they're kept in the dark and covered with shit. Ha! I don't know much about floristry, and it did seem to me like there was a big, invisible wall between the horticulture and floristry classes at City College of San Francisco. Beutler seemed more fluent in the language of horticulture than most gardeners I know and as certainly as knowledgeable as many of my horticulture instructors.

Some interesting foliage plants Beutler recommended for cutting gardens: a variegated corn Zea mays 'Tricolor' (good luck finding it), totally fuzzy Ballota pseudodictamnus (I think she said the minor flowers fall away and leave behind calyces that looks like hollyhocks), all grassy elements make arrangements look garden-y (a good thing).

She said wholesalers are bringing in dynamic new hybrids of Hypericum, but they won't tell anyone the cultivar names ("Don't get me started!"). Hypericum 'Elstead' produces two crops of bold berries that are good for arrangements.

She grows leeks in two beds--one for eating, and one just for flowers and her leek flowers were huuuge--Allium porrum 'St. Victor', perhaps. Dark lecture hall, bad notes! All pollinators visit leeks, she said.

She wants people to re-think roses. With 30,000 roses currently in the trade, there is no reason to ever plant a rose that needs spraying. She mentioned a fragrant green rose (Viridifolia?) that's very popular in Hawaii for leis that she can't get anyone excited about. And she showed us what a bouquet of roses should look like. I hope that picture's in her book, because I won't be able to describe it for you. Suffice it to say, it's not the upright, long-stemmed affair you get at the grocery store where the roses don't touch each other. Her ideal bouquet was rather dense and compact, with some roses lilting downward and no imperative for perfect foliage. She loved Helen Dillon's dark red + red arrangement of Moss rose 'William Lobb' with Lathyrus odoratus 'Beaujolais' at a party last year. (Helen Dillon spoke at the Botanical Garden during the first day of the symposium, along with the head gardener at Prince Charles' place--unfortunately, I had another engagement.)

Don't be a snob about chrysanthemums. Double-flowering Cosmos 'Psyche' lasts longer than single varieties in arrangements. You can't have too many containers and vases--experiment with anything that holds water or can be made to. She thanked Martha Stewart for bringing back hydrangeas. Use whole branches of fuchsia in arrangements. Put cut tulips in large volumes of water because cells all up and down the stem can take in water. She's wary of current trends in flower arrangement that use the meniscus line as a design element.


This blog post must come to an abrupt end.

The blogger is beat.


Christopher C. NC said...

Excellent report. The next best thing to being there. Now off to the McEvoy Ranch.

Anonymous said...

Magda squash! In the time it took me to drive home I'd forgotten the name...

Of course I spent two hours last night pouring over my Seed Savers Exchange catalog, then to Territorial's website. I was madly jotting down all the stuff I wanted to get this year, and all the cool ideas I'd gotten from Jennifer and Margaret and Don and Linda. I actually have a note in my notes saying "ask Leland about the M squash".

So thank you for the pre-emptive blog mention. And the chuckle about "Red".

Gardener of La Mancha said...

Chuck, you are awesome.

Frances, said...

Absolutely as good as being there, to read your post. The idea of planting the veggies to grow up and on each other is brilliant. This year will be more food crops at Faire Garden! One bed is ready to go and the onions just germinated today!

Frances, said...

I have written a post about growing food in the garden , with a link to this post. Do I have your permission, before it gets published?

chuck b. said...

Frances, it's a general rule of the Internet that you never have to ask permission to link to anything. By putting something up, one gives the world tacit permission to link to it.

Permission need only be sought when you want to re-post something someone else wrote, although quoting small portions is fine (best practice to include a link).

But since you ask, yes, you may link! :)

Unknown said...

Wow... what a cool day of classes you had! (Sans Mr. Red.)

Why were you laughing at the idea of growing gourds as groundcover? There's a guy around here who grows pumpkins and squash like that and lets them grow all over his yard. He picks them up to mow, then rearranges them however he wants for the next week. I think it's a fun idea... and I admit, I hope he has one of those golf-green-lawn-loving neighbors so his antics drive them crazy. :)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I've been contemplating a potager garden ever since I went to Villandry.

I have been inspired to put up a post I've been thinking about for quite a while.

I went to Villandry last year and have just posted about potager gardens with photos I took at Villandry. The place is magical.

I've also linked back to your site here to this article.

Come visit at http://artofgardening.org/

chuck b. said...

Kim: I'm laughing because...if only I had enough ground to cover! One rambling gourd plant would easily overflow the confines of my garden. Thymes are the only viable options in my garden.

Jim: Everyone should go see your pictures! Those are great. I've never been much of a traveler so I'll have to see the world through your eyes.

Brent said...

What a wealth of information! I wish I had been there.

I'll need to add Magda squash to my vegetable interest list.

Judging by the pictures Jim took, mon jardin potager, isn't really up to the same high standards as the French, but I do manage some nice crops from it - Currently enjoying sugar snap peas (enjoyed the historical anecdote in one of your previous blogs) and waiting for mesclun, carrots, and lovage.

Deviant Deziner, aka Michelle said...

I'm sorry I missed this lecture , sounds like it was a good one !
As a designer I have always seen the vegetable garden as something that can be beautiful and functional .

Oh poor Ted Kipping, he just can't help himself !
I find his impromptu interruptions and commentary annoyingly amusing, if not downright educational - even if you don't care to know more about whatever he is talking about .
I love the guy to death, He IS Mr. San Francisco Horticulture, but I can see how he can get under some peoples' skin with his interruptions .

My partner does a hilarious pee your pants imitation of Ted after each Cal Hort meeting. Usually it is him arguing with himself over the proper name of some elusive plant that no body in the world except for him has seen.

chuck b. said...

He also sings. Well, in fact.

Unknown said...

Ah! :) Well, I can agree to that... lol.

Anonymous said...

Chuck! Thank you so much for this post - I felt like I was there and I learned so much.
By the way - I used to have a Montanoa! It was amazing - I bought it a a specialty nursery in LA which is sadly gone now ... they called it the Chocolate Chip Cookie tree because the scent of sweet chocolate was so strong. Unfortunately, 20 ft of daisies was too much for my little back yard. To this day, I regret pulling it out!