5-10-5: Ben Stormes, Curator and Horticulturist for the UBC Botanical Garden’s North American Collections

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Ben Stormes, Janet Davis, and Eric Hsu

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Please introduce yourself.

I am Ben Stormes, and I am currently the Curator & Horticulturist for the North American Gardens at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The arts or horticulture.

Arts-y horticulture, is that an appropriate answer? Given my career choice and strong personal passion of all things plants, I suppose I’d have to say horticulture. That said, I have a great appreciation for the arts in all forms, and see countless examples of where these two come together with tremendous synergy.

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Jeffersonia diphylla, the native twinleaf that captured Ben’s young heart.

 

What is your earliest experience with plants?

I grew up on a working farm outside a very small town in rural Ontario, and my earliest experience with plants was likely running through wheat fields or getting lost in corn fields. However, my first horticultural and botanical experiences with plants would have been spending hours upon hours in the wooded “back 40” of the farm property, exploring the beech-maple forest throughout the seasons. I remember being captivated by the spring flush of Erythronium, Sanguinaria, Trillium, Claytonia, and other spring ephemerals that grew profusely in the rich understory. Later in the summer the beautiful light that filtered through the high canopy is a vivid memory of my childhood experiences with this particular forest.  I used to bring woodland treasures back to the farmhouse and grow them in beds that, reflecting on it now, were less than ideal growing conditions. I quickly filled beds with plants not only from the forest, but from the ditches, railway corridors, hedgerows, and creek edges in the rural agricultural landscape. My mother was incredibly accommodating, allowing me to bring home all manner of plants, and my older brother to do a similar thing with all the fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians from these varied habitats as well. Between the two of us we had a rather eclectic assemblage of elements from the landscape that was our playground as young boys.

 

That passion led to a job working in a plant nursery when you were 14. Do you still have fond memories of this first job?

Absolutely! It was a great environment to be a young gardener keen to learn new plants, familiarize myself with botanical Latin, and have ready access to a steady stream of staff-discount plants! My mother would drop me off at this little nursery when she went grocery shopping in the next town over, and since this ritual happened routinely on Saturday mornings they offered to pay me to water when I was there. It escalated quickly from there to a steady job I maintained through high school and most of my undergraduate years. I had a really supportive and kind manager who saw my sincere interest in the plants, and he really encouraged me to bring in and grow as much as I possibly could. I was overseeing the herbaceous plant side of the business within a few years, and had free reign so long as I could keep the stock in good health and maintain customer interest in our offerings. This flexibility enabled me to bring in all kinds of new plants that I wanted and could not find in the area, but I had to be able to sell them to others. Working in customer service in horticulture was a rewarding experience, and this face-to-face experience with other gardeners allowed me to share my passion with other gardens while learning from some seasoned garden veterans. It was a great opportunity for a budding horticulturist.

You studied landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Landscape architects sometimes are criticized for their limited plant vocabulary and a predilection for hardscaping. The divide now is becoming smaller as garden designers will collaborate with landscape architects to maximize the projects’ potential. What was your perception as an undergraduate in landscape architecture?  

While I had always been focused on plants, I have strong interests in design, geography, and ecology. When I finished high school and left for university, landscape architecture seemed like the logical fit to blend these interests. The endeavor was met with mixed feelings as I carried on in my studies, much of what you mentioned about the profession I was finding to be true. It was hard for me to see where I was going to fit into the world of practicing landscape architecture, or to identify an aspect that allowed me to pursue my passion. By the time I was halfway through my undergrad, it wasn’t a career path I intended to seriously pursue. However, I saw it as an opportunity to learn a set of skills that do have relevance to my career interests, and remained most focused on these aspects throughout the rest of the program. I had a few great professors who understood this, and strongly supported me in making the program relevant to my interests. I’m very grateful to Dr. Nate Perkins, Dr. Karen Landman, and Sean Kelly for this.

All that said, landscape architecture as a profession is often met with hostility and potentially disdain by horticulturists. While I can see where these feelings may originate, there are some really incredible landscape architects doing tremendous work. We need to do a better job of understanding that landscape architecture is about the build environment at large, and not strictly about plants. In certain instances, a botanically rich and intensive planting may not be the most suitable given the demands on the site, or the intended programming. We can be better about being open to realizing what landscape architects do really well, while still demanding horticultural sensitivity and excellence where it is required.  As you noted, bringing in outside expertise for the latter is becoming the norm, which is great.

What did your undergraduate thesis reveal about the value of botanical gardens as a societal and professional benchmark in environmental design?

My undergraduate thesis explored the multiple layers of value and utility afforded through the diverse programming at botanical gardens, and was a very interesting endeavor for me personally. Prior to undertaking this project, I had only worked with a single botanical garden as a student in an applied horticultural training program. The undergraduate thesis allowed me to explore more comprehensively the range of activity currently (and historically) taking place at botanical gardens. It really opened my eyes to how different one garden can be from the next, and the direct involvement some gardens play in addressing socioeconomic issues, community health, and gaps in plant-based curriculum. We hear a lot about botanical gardens being “modern day arks” and crucial players in contemporary issues of plant conservation. While this conservation aspect is without doubt a very noble and crucial part of what we do collectively, and an area I care about deeply, as a community we are working in other important arenas as well. This project helped me understand these other areas of involvement, as my previous exposure was primarily with ornamental horticulture and plant conservation.

The project helped me solidify my commitment to working with botanical gardens, as what I was exploring resonated with me on a number of levels. Previously I was impressed with the collections or aesthetic of individual gardens, but had given little thought to the collective role we play when the sum of our efforts begins to be tallied.

NYBG School of Professional Horticulture and Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program are only US programs that can be favorably compared to Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. You were a graduate of this three year program. Can you give a brief overview of what this school offers to prospective candidates?

The Niagara Parks School of Horticulture is a three year training program that is delivered as 36 consecutive months of integrated theoretical and applied horticultural experience that take place within The Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. The program has a standard curriculum of academic programming that all students complete, with classes running year-round. Students take on progressively more responsibility and leadership as they move through the program, and are given experiences in leadership and supervisory aspects as they move into their senior year. The program offers the opportunity to work directly in the horticultural operations of a 100 acre botanical garden while also completing diverse academic classes covering aspects of horticultural theory, landscape design, plant identification, arboriculture, plant production, and a number of other related topics. The program accepts about 12 students a year, with the first and second year students living on-site in a residence building located within the botanical garden. I always said it was probably the most spectacular front yard I’d ever had, looking out over the 3 acre formal rose garden and associated parterre. The personal relationships and interpersonal growth that happen as a result of living and working with 24 individuals is a tremendous experience in and of itself. It is in some ways an experience that defies explanation.

 

Botany is becoming less integral and significant in college programs, and this trend is unfortunate because skills in botany are crucial in this era of ecological uncertainty. You worked as the botany intern at the Royal Botanical Garden, a position not common in public gardens. Do you see botany becoming irrelevant or simply becoming emerged as professions become interdisciplinary?

I don’t think that botany will ever become irrelevant. Plants are such fundamental components of life on earth, and are involved in countless aspects of our daily life. Because of their significance, I feel that their continued study will be necessary. However, the way these studies are carried out, their focus and methodology is what will (and has) drastically changed. The “pure” study of botany has indeed suffered, although botany is becoming more integrated as an interdisciplinary study.

One way the needs are being addressed due to a shortage of trained botany is enhanced reliance on “amateur specialists”. While by no means an adequate replacement for an army of formally training and practicing plant taxonomists, botanists, or otherwise, the skill and passion of these amateurs does help to bring some reprieve. It is important to give credit to the countless individuals who have made it a personal life goal to dedicate significant time and resources to their botanical interests, and the generation of shared information that comes from these concerted efforts. Are they rewriting the treatments for the new volumes of Flora of North America? No. Are they publishing books, blogs, or otherwise that share their botanical pursuits. Certainly. Are both of use to those of us working in the fields of botany, public gardens, horticulture, etc.? Indeed.

Throughout your career, education has been an underlying theme that has guided your jobs. You developed and executed public education programs on sustainable urban landscapes for the city of Guelph and taught courses at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture. Finally you left to enroll at Cornell’s public garden management program. Although curatorial work will be your primary role at UBC Botanical Garden, I suspect that education will still be part of the big picture. How did you come to realize the significance of education in gardens? 

I’ve always been keen to share my excitement and passion for anything with others, and feel that this sharing is a natural human inclination. Plants and gardens at large, are fascinating on so many levels. Both seem easy to turn the right audience on to given the right situation and approach. I attribute much of my educational work to those who asked me questions, be it in a formal learning environment or in a more passive and casual situation. Teaching and learning are reciprocal situation through which the one who is teaching imparts knowledge, but also realizes how much is yet to be learned.

In some ways it is the responsibility of everyone to teach and share knowledgeable it in formal situations or in more casual circumstances. This sharing of knowledge is one of the cornerstones of human culture and growth. Who doesn’t like to share their passion, and get others interested and engaged with this passion, whatever it may be?

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The beauty of plants, like Jeffersonia dubia here, is their power to educate visitors about the plants’ importance.

 

Although educators have embraced technology in numerous ways, they have pointed out its shortcomings. Attention spans are shorter and fickle due to dependence on social media, library research and skills are deficient, and cyber bullying has escalated. How can the tactile and ‘tech-resistant’ beauty of plants be conveyed through technological tools?

A tricky subject, to be sure. Technology is something to be embraced, and it brings some really powerful tools to botanical gardens. The way we manage our collections data, and share that data with other is a profound change that has been brought about by technological advancements. Digital tools have helped bring communities together to share information, industry concerns, trends, etc. Social media is even being used to assist in the identification of new plant species.

With respect to how to best preserve the tactile experience of a personal encounter of the botanical world, we could be using technology to garner interest in our collections, while still promoting the direct experience of them as being irreplaceable. Using social media, websites, or other digital communication tools to highlight the important work we do, special or unique portions of our collections, specific garden spaces, or other exceptional qualities of our gardens to targeted audiences can help garner interest in visiting in person. We could probably do a better job of ensuring the message of “it has to be seen to be believed”, or “the experience of seeing this plant in the context of the garden itself is not to be missed” is repeatedly projected in our promotional material. Highlighting the garden EXPERIENCE is tremendously important, and can’t be accurately translated into a digital format.

Latching on to tactile experiences that our audiences may be looking for and using them as a “hook” to get new audiences interested is another way to get past the tech blockade. If people are willing to come and get their hands dirty for vegetable gardening only, then use a program around this topic as a way to get people to you garden. Then, once you’ve got them with their hands dirty, be sure to show your incredible Podocarpaceae collection, explain why it is important, and tell them what they can do to promote it (and your brand) within your community. It’s a lot easier to extend interest from one thing you are doing to another, rather than try to generate interest from a static point.

 

Public gardens connected to universities often develop student outreach programs. Scott Arboretum offers a houseplant clinic for incoming freshmen and Cornell Botanic Gardens offers student orientation tours. Will you be taking advantage of your association with University of British Columbia for student programming?

It takes some time to get to know a garden, and university gardens are often especially complex in their structure and relationships within the greater university framework. I do not yet feel that I know how to best answer this question, as much of my first half year has been getting to know the garden site itself, and has been less focused on the greater university contest. I do know that there are a number of classes that utilize the collections, and I have already received requests for material from my areas to support research and teaching within the biological sciences. I would like to continue to build relationships with the faculty, and ensure that the garden is seen as a valuable contribution to the university’s mission. However, this early on it is difficult for me to articulate just how this will take place.

 

The North American gardens at UBC Botanical Garden comprise BC Rainforest Garden, Carolinian Forest Garden, Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland Garden, and Pacific Slope Garden. Can you highlight the differences between these gardens?

Three of the four represent an ecological continuum, largely coastal and near-inland, highlighting vegetation that stretches from British Columbia to northern California. These gardens are the BC Rainforest, Garry Oak, and Pacific Slope.

The BC Rainforest Garden is one of the original gardens from UBC Botanical Garden’s current location, having previously been the BC Native Garden with plants from across the province’s floristic communities. It went through a long period of abandonment during which many of the accessions gathered from further regions of the province did not survive in the local climate. Thus, it is not more representative of the rainforest biome that naturally occurs in the lower mainland of BC. The BC Rainforest Garden  contains a high canopy of secondary growth mixed conifer forest with a moderate understory of various woody and herbaceous taxa. I’m actively wild collecting material to develop this garden space, and very much looking forward to seeing it develop.

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The Garry Oak Meadow in Spring – blue camassias (Camassia leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii) and pink sea blush (Plectritis congesta).

The Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland is an informal garden space that represents an endangered ecosystem in British Columbia. It is a highly seasonal landscape, with a pronounced spring flush of colourful blooms followed by a more reserved savannah-like aesthetic during the summer months. This is a relatively new garden, having been begun in 2006. It contains almost exclusively wild collected taxa from the local remnant garry oak meadows.

The Pacific Slope is as much an idea as it is a garden space right now. It currently is represented by a few dozen plantings of various woody taxa wild collected from western Oregon and Northern California underneath existing conifers in an open lawn setting. The hope is to create a garden area that showcases some of the incredible plant diversity that can be found on the western slopes of the coastal mountain range, from the subalpine to sea-level. In particular, there are a number of interesting gymnosperms that grow in this region that we are excited to get growing. Patience is a virtue.

The Carolinian Forest Garden is the one that really stands out as the odd-ball step child, as the other three represent a western coastal continuum. However, it is an important garden in highlighting Canadian plant biodiversity. The Carolinian forest zone is restricted to a very small area in Southwestern Ontario, but contains about half of our national flora. It also contains about a quarter of our country’s human population, so there are serious pressures on the remaining forests and its numerous rare species contained. The garden is well poised at UBC Botanical Garden to tell the story of this forest, and to raise awareness of the diverse forest types that can be found in Canada. It’s also important in referencing Sino-American plant disjuncts, and is well suited to complement UBC’s impressive Asian plant collections. A young garden having been started in 2006, it is now at a stage were understory plantings will be important in establishing the character of this eastern deciduous forest model. Very exciting times ahead!

 

Of these four gardens in the North American gardens, the Carolinian Forest Garden is probably the one you’re most familiar with. How knowledgeable are you with the other three, given their western ranges?

 

The western garden collections are certainly an exciting opportunity for me to sink my teeth into new vegetation communities and ecologies that I do not have a great deal of experience with. There is always something a little daunting about the unknown, and when it represents 75% of your collections it could be easy to feel a little overwhelmed. I am fortunate that the staff at the garden, including not only horticulture but also research and education departments, are very open to collaboration and information sharing. I’ve already learned a tremendous amount, and have been fortunate to have been able to travel to intact ecosystems that some of these western gardens are focused on representing.

It’s also important to remember that what we are developing at UBC Botanical Garden are garden spaces, and not necessarily self-sustaining and fully representative vegetation zones. This view allows for some freedom and interpretation of these natural areas, and a translation of this interpretation into a garden spaces that honors them with integrity, but may not be complete representations.

Lastly, the “Carolinian” forest zone in Ontario is a very small area, but incredibly diverse with respect to plant species. Growing up in such an environment, and familiarizing myself it with over the years, I have come to welcome the challenge to learn new plants. It also forced me to come to peace with determinations to a generic level from time to time. This acceptance helps when you are learning new floristic regions, and knowing how to read the landscape at large is as (or more) important than recognizing esoteric infraspecific taxa growing upon this landscape.

 

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Quercus garryana and Holodiscus discolor in a remnant meadow near Victoria, British Columbia.

When I visited British Columbia in 2012, I grew to admire and love the garry oak meadows, which reminded me of the wizened oaks in England’s Wistman’s Wood (Dartmoor National Park). These meadows are considered one of the most endangered habitats since only a surprisingly 5% of them are extant. The Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland Garden is a relatively new addition that still sees continual development. How do you plan on overseeing this garden through its subsequent phases?

Meadow landscapes can be a curatorial nightmare! In essence, they are extensive herbaceous plantings of a number of accessions seeding everywhere. This is a plant records horror story, and the sort of thing that can keep curators up at night.

Having said that, meadow landscapes can be tremendous assets to a garden, particularly when they represented a threatened ecosystem and demonstrate a little-known ecology.  The Garry Oak Meadow at UBC Botanical Garden presents a great opportunity not only for plant conservation, but also huge potential for public education about plant conservation, ecology, ethnobotanical knowledge and management, and sustainable behaviors. Many of the threats to the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia are directly related to human activity. If the Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland at UBC Botanical Garden can help communicate these threats, raise public awareness, and guide individuals in making informed decisions that directly impact the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia, then we have done a great service in meeting our educational mission as well. An interpretive program is currently in the works for this garden are, and I’m excited to see this project move ahead in the near future.

From a curatorial and horticultural perspective, managing the aggressive turf grasses and other perennial weeds that are prone to invading these meadows both in the garden and in the wild is paramount. I am currently working on a management plan for this area that will hopefully identify primary and secondary concerns in this regard, and allow for early detection and consequent timely management of such treats to the meadow. Setting priorities and timelines is crucial if issues are to be kept to a scale that is manageable. This is especially true given that UBC Botanical Garden operates without the use of chemical herbicides.

There are a few key species that are endemic to the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia, and I’m keen to target some of these taxa for enhanced representation within the garden. I am fortunate that there is institutional support for collecting trips and enhanced collections development with respect to the Garry Oak Meadow at UBC Botanical Garden, as this will be key to increasing not only the rare and endemic flora, but also the species composition of the meadow overall.

Lastly, there is tremendous opportunity for partnership with external community groups, non-profit organizations, and other bodies that are very active and interested in the Garry Oak ecosystem. Building these relationships to foster information sharing, broad approaches to genetic preservation, and collaboration on education and outreach are aspects of the Garry Oak Meadow that I’d like to work on in the coming years.

North America and Canada may share the same border and language, but they still have perceptible cultural differences. What attitudes have you discerned to be different in American and Canadian horticulture?

Not much, to be perfectly honest. We are a smaller community, but we cover a huge geographic range with very different growing conditions. I moved from a Zone 5 to a Zone 8/9 garden without crossing a national boundary. Another new transplant to UBC Botanical garden moved from a Zone 3 to our Zone 8/9 after only a 14 hour drive. This may be something that is somewhat unique.

With respect to public gardens, there is not the long history of philanthropy and estates left as public gardens with sizable endowments to support them here in Canada. Most of our public gardens are either university associated or branches of local government. There are always exceptions, and I realize that vast endowments may not be the norm in the USA either, but in visiting a number of American gardens it struck me how very different this aspect was than my experiences in Canada.

Over the course of our correspondence, you have professed a love of woodland herbaceous perennials from east Asia and North America. It’s a fitting love as both regions share floristic similarities. What are some of these plants you cannot be without in your garden?

Herbaceous Berberidaceae, all of them! I know some aren’t necessarily from the regions noted, but the vast majority are, and they are all of interest to me.  Epimediums are of particular interest, and were responsible for starting this landslide. They were great in that they were 1) large enough and hard enough to get that I wouldn’t get them all easily, 2) small enough that it was a manageable group while working and/or going to school full time, and 3) enough new discovery and information that the reading was interesting. It branched out to the rest of the herbaceous Berberidaceae, and I really enjoy them all.

Increasingly I’ve become more interested in the ferns. Dryopteridaceae and Polypodiaceae in particular, but this is largely an itch yet to be scratched. It’s hard when you don’t have your own garden, and your work spaces are restricted geographically….

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Actaea cimicifuga (syn. Actaea foetida)

Actaea are all such lovely plants, and while all are superficially similar, there are some distinct and truly wonderful selections. I love them, and have for a number of decades. These plants just get better with time, and one of my original A. cordifolia (bought as A. rubifolia) plants that has been moved around a few times over the last 20 years and now resides at my parents’ house is easily 7’ across and 7’ tall when flowering. A favorite, and truly incredible!

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Anemonopsis macrophylla, a Japanese woodland perennial that requires moist-retentive soil to flourish and produce these pendent pale pink flowers in late summer.

There are lots and lots of others: Anemonopsis, Trillium, Disporum, Polygonatum, Cardamine, Carex, etc etc etc., but I won’t go on any further.

Okay, okay, a little further: Hamamelidaceae and Hydrangeaceae are others that I’m particularly fond of, though not herbaceous so I won’t go into length.

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Corylopsis sp., a woody member of Hamamelidaceae.

A generous benefactor gave you a plot of land. What kind of garden would you create?

How big is the plot of land? What’s the soil like? Am I building the garden for myself, or the benefactor?

I’m pretty accommodating, so if the generous gift came with a specific aesthetic I’d be happy to make it work, so long as I could get creative with the plantings.

If it were purely my garden, it would probably be a space that is constantly under active development and change. I’ve never been content to call any garden space “done”, and am constantly digging, dividing, discarding, adding, etc.

My style is somewhat erratic and eclectic, though always lush, full, and layered. There is little that I enjoy more than seeing layers of interesting plants arranged skillfully. Though I’m fonder of organic and a fairly uncontrived style, I do enjoy the occasional display of formality peppered throughout the garden. This may be a clipped hedge among lush and varied perennial plantings, or a Doric pillar standing in a woodland garden. These sorts of elements need to be carefully done, but when done well can be breathtaking.

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Ben’s Epimedium nursery bed where desirable and unusual taxa are bulked up before transplanted elsewhere – the variation of leaves is evident here.

I compulsively propagate plants, so the garden would also need to include a “back of house” area I could use for controlled pollination, division, growing on, and trials I really enjoy seeing these types of areas in other’s gardens, too. It’s a sneak peek at things to come, and I always find it very exciting.

One day, you’re stranded one of the islands off Vancouver Island. What is your desert island plant?

Am I going for successful cultivation, or selfish indulgence?  Do I have greenhouse spaces, or are we talking strictly local-climate adapted?

For successful cultivation, Arbutus menziesii. It grows extremely well on our coastal rocky outcrops, and has some lovely attributes. The dense evergreen canopy might afford some relief from all the winter rains, too!

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Phragmipedium ‘Court Jester’ belongs to one of Ben’s favorite orchidaceous genera.

If I were to select based on personal indulgence and I had access to greenhouse space, I’d say Cypripedoiodeae. Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium specifically. As a teenager I had a thing for orchids, this group in particular, but gave it up years ago. Given the right conditions, space, and budget I could probably get back into them pretty seriously.

If it had to be local climate adapted but with some horticultural support, I’d say the entire genus Epimedium. A couple/few clones of each species so I could work on some breeding lines (they are self-sterile) and I’d be happy for years to come. Interspecific hybridization could be fun too, but I’m more drawn to species level taxa generally.

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Epimedium brevicornu

 

If your passion for plants and gardening can be conveyed through music, what vinyl albums would you single out and why?

I should start by stating up front my musical tastes have been described as everything from “weird” to “horrible”, with most comments falling somewhere within this spectrum. I prefer eclectic. That said, here we go:

Jungle Brothers – “Straight Out The Jungle” LP – 1988  – Warlock Records

I grew up on hip-hop (strange for a white kid in the late 80’s-early 90’s in rural Ontario, I know). This one is mostly selected for the title and artists name, rather than content. Content is good, though.

Kangding Ray – “OR” LP – 2011 – Raster-Noton Recordings

Subtle at times, overpowering at others. Lush and rich in sound, yet minimal and unassuming in aesthetic. I feel like it’s reflective of a streak of my approach to horticulture and my general garden aesthetic. There are a number of releases on this label, and/or by this artist, that would have fit well.

Hidden Agenda “Keep Pressing On / Get Carter” 12” Single – 1995 – Metalheadz

It’s not a full album, but rather a 12” single release typical of the genera. The B side of this single, “Get Carter”, is really the one that I think relates to the question. Hidden Agenda were a well-respected, yet little duo known for general disregard for the “flavor of the month” style production. They generated a unique sound that fused disparate influences: Drum and Bass/Jungle of the mid-90’s, funk, soul, and rare groove to create music not necessarily targeted for the dancefloor like much of their contemporaries. The result is something that I feel translates to my approach of gardening: a montage of various influences that can be pulled together in interesting and unique ways that do not always conform to the norm, but are not so far removed that they don’t relate at all. Most of all, they remained true to their influences and interest, and paid little attention to fads.

W.A Mozart – Horn Concertos Nos 1-4/Wuintek K452 – Herbert von Karajan & the Philharmonia Orchestra with Dennis Brain on Horn – 1998 EMI (remaster of a 1973 release, with original recordings coming from the 1950’s).

Playful and fun, but menacing and haunting from time to time. Catchy, and easy to enjoy. Something very translatable about them for most people, but also something here and there that may only be noticed/appreciated by another avid practitioner. Leaves you tapping your toes.

Outside of work, what inspires you?

Gardening. I could do it in all of my free time. Honestly. I’m also a big music lover. A wide variety of a variety of styles, but I also love dance, so there are some logical connections there. I really enjoy beer, and craft beers are plentiful here in B. It’s a wonderful thing. I enjoy being out of doors, particularly in forests, and not botanizing if I can manage it. It’s hard, but it’s a great experience to just be in a forest and relax. I also love food, and lots of it. Because I like to eat a lot of food, I also have come to enjoy cooking out of necessity. Good friends and strong personal connections are also vitally important to me.

5-10-5: Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley Garden

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matthew Pottage

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Please introduce yourself. My Name is Matthew Pottage, and I am the Curator of Wisley Garden, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

The arts or horticulture?  Horticulture.

What is your earliest memory of plants or gardens?

Making a den under a huge Hypericum bush with my brother, and the smell of it! (of the bush, not my brother!)

Any terrible gardening mistakes you wish to admit during your incipient gardening experimentation?

Planting a large Dracaena draco outside at my parents house in Yorkshire where it promptly died in the first frost! (I was around 12 at the time…..)

Conifers have become unfairly unfashionable and may be due for a resurgence in popularity. What are some of their qualities you admire about them?  

I love the value they add to a landscape, especially in winter. I love a garden that is a tapestry of colour, texture and form and find a landscape very bleak without evergreen content in winter so I find conifers really useful. I also think many of them are full of character and in the right position can be a real talking point.

How do you plan to proselytize them to the greater public?

By showing them off at Wisley to our 1.3 million visitors per year, and online through my twitter account @matthew_Pottage, that in a mixed planting, they can look really fabulous!

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Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’

Two conifers, Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir) and Araucaria araucana (money puzzle and Chile pine) appear to be your favorites. Why these two taxa in particular?

I really love the cultivar ‘Aurea’ of the Spanish fir because it is so tactile, colourful and is of great garden ornament. The monkey puzzle is a childhood love – I had a teacher in primary school who was really creative and artistic and she had some branches of a monkey puzzle tree in the classroom. I was fascinated by them and immediately started to research the tree, and then started spotting them all over the place! It became a complete geeky hobby.

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One of Matthew’s memorable trips was seeing the monkey puzzles in the lower volcanic slopes of the Chilean Andes.

Several years you were given a RHS bursary to travel to Chile where Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle or Chile pine) can form pure stands in volcanic mountain slopes at 600 to 1,800 m. As the experience of seeing plants in wild haunts often trumps seeing them in gardens, what did you take away from hiking among the trees?

It was an unforgettable experience, so much so I returned there in 2016 to visit them. It is like a prehistoric landscape of these giant pieces of living architecture. Seeing plants in the wild really helps the gardener understand the plants’ growing conditions and why plants behave like they do in gardens.

Another interest of yours is variegated plants, which can inspire polarizing opinions. At work, a variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’) is either admired or vilified by visitors. However, I imagine that variegated plants work well in UK’s grey skies – being beacons of light. What variegated plants can you not be without? 

I just couldn’t be without Pittosporum ‘Irene Patterson’ which has beautiful white, variegated leaves, or the exquisite Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Snow Bird’

What is a plant you desire to grow, but have not succeed despite repeated efforts?

Lapageria rosea. I love it, but need to admit defeat, it’s just impossible for me.

quercus-rubra-aurea

Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’ at RHS Wisley.

Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley has approximately 43,000 accessioned plants and 25,000 taxa. It lists the following groups as its special collections: Orchidaceae, Epimedium, Colchicum, Galanthus, Hosta, Rheum, Cyclamen, Narcissus, Daboecia, Erica, Calluna, Rhododendron, conifers, heathers, Mediterranean and Near East bulbs, and apples. Outside of conifers, are their specific plants you find close and personal at Wisley?

We have many fine trees at Wisley, and they add immense character to the gardens, each with its own personality. Some of these fine trees include Quercus robur f. fastigiataPinus coulteri, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’, and Eucalyptus dalrympleana. In total contrast, I really love the cacti and succulent collections in the glasshouse.

Within a short time, you have risen up from the ranks of trainee gardener to become the Curator at Wisley. You have held different positions that ranged from Glasshouse Supervisor, Team Leader to Deputy Curator. What did you take away from each position that informed your current role?

Always the same lessons, but with each step, a huge dollop more responsibility! Work hard, do your best, have a ‘glass half full approach’ and try to be fair and effective as opposed to always trying to be liked. Also, nothing is served to you on a plate, you have to make it your business to get things done, and all of the above has helped my journey to this role today.

rhs-wisley-garden

Wavy patterns in the mown turf next to the Canal at RHS Wisley.

I have not been to RHS Wisley since 2007, but it has been exciting to witness the development of garden areas (Tom Stuart Smith’s Bicentenary Glasshouse Borders Landscape, James Hitchmough’s steppe garden meadow areas, and Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, designed by Robert Myers). What exciting projects should we see on the horizon under your tutelage? 

We are currently working with Christopher Bradley Hole to completely redesign our entrance landscape and how you arrive at the garden. It’s a big undertaking, which will see the creation of a new shop and plant centre, and arrivals building. Within the gardens, we are creating a new Exotic Garden, due to open Summer 2017 and in 2018 we will be refreshing and redesigning the heather garden. However, generally, across all garden areas I want to build on, and improve attention to detail and plantsmanship.

Within the last few decades, the Royal Horticultural Society has expanded beyond its original flagship at Wisley to Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor, and now Salford, securing its representation throughout Great Britain. How do you see your role as the Curator of RHS Garden Wisley in relation to other curators at these satellite gardens?  

As part of the curators’ team of the RHS, we meet quarterly to view each other’s gardens, share best practice and learning and in recent days I have been spending time with the Curator of the new Salford garden, talking him through the way I am leading things at Wisley, to help him get off to a quick start.

alternatives-to-box-display-planting

Box alternatives are showcased in a pleasing loose parterre style at RHS Wisley.

Great Britain’s tenure in the European Union dismantled bureaucratic and economic barriers to trade, hence the more porous borders ushered in an influx of plants and horticultural goods from continental Europe. The downside of this economic free trade has been the introduction of pests and diseases, such Asian box caterpillar and oak processionary moth, not seen previously in British gardens. How do you address these challenges at RHS Wisley and elsewhere in you work?

We are very much here to share the best in gardening, and support the gardening public, and through our science work, work closely to look at control, elimination or management practices which we can then share with our members and the gardening public. For example, box tree caterpillar very quickly appeared at Wisley, and while our science team can advise on control, we have laid out a planting of Buxus alternatives which we are trialing as we are finding many of our members are having problems with both the caterpillar and box blight and are eager to learn what else they can plant.

Much has been lamented about the waning interest among millennials in gardens and ornamental plants. The nursery industry in US has struggled to capture the attention of young people at a time when food, fashion, and design sectors successfully have done so. Much interest in ornamental plants have been primarily houseplants for urban dwellers and specialty cut flowers from young people seeking to diversity from edibles in farms. What do you see the horticulture industry heading in UK?

I really hope (and the RHS is trying to promote this) that people will start to understand that gardening and greenspaces is good for your health and well being, and people actually benefit from having plants in their lives, and that gardening can be accessible to all, whether through houseplants, window boxes, or just a simple planter by the front door.

A number of trainee programs in the National Trust, RBG Kew, RBG Edinburgh, and Cambridge Botanic Garden are now well established, and it is positive to see the number of young faces enrolled in these programs. How is the trainee program at RHS Wisley structured?

We have two programmes, a two year programme of intense study, coupled with a rotation through all the garden teams. It is a fully accredited course which is still very ‘hands on’ and is a fantastic, comprehensive, offer. In addition, we have a two year apprenticeship programme, which has a focus around introducing people to professional gardening, and grasping the basics. Many of our apprentices go on to the student course to continue their development.

Can you single out any of your peers whose work at other gardens, public and private, excites you?

I have a friend called Robbie Blackhall Miles (www.fossilplants.co.uk) who is growing different Proteaceae which have been collected as seed at very high altitudes, and could have hardiness potential for the UK climate. Robbie is a great planstman, and it’s always fascinating talking to him and hearing about his work.

What gardens outside of RHS, private or public, you find yourself visiting again and again?

I’m a huge fan of the National Trust gardens, two in particular, Bodnant in North Wales, and Sheffield Park in Sussex. Both have magnificent trees and have a wonderful atmosphere.

london-garden

Matthew’s London terrace is full of container plants, including a variegated clivia, arranged to highlight their foliage textures and colors – the only caveat is that pests flourish year round in London’s microclimate!

On top of your busy career, you manage to garden outside of work in London and Yorkshire. I imagine that London’s unique microclimate enables you to grow plants usually cossetted in glasshouses, but Yorkshire is no banana belt, being northern and colder. What are the two gardens like?

The garden in Yorkshire is very tough – heavy and poorly draining clay soil, constantly windy conditions and near the coast, so salt laded winds. However, the clay soil can be improved and when cared for, we get great results once things establish. My tiny London is great fun, and is full of plants we’d usually consider as houseplants, like Adiantum, Clivia and Platycerium. However, the drawback is everything is full of pests year round, typically aphids and red spider mite!

yorkshire-garden

Matthew’s beautifully-tended garden at his parents’ Yorkshire home.

What are you looking forward the most in the future?

I’m really looking forward to the coming years at the RHS while we deliver some projects at Wisley that will really help take it to a new level. The RHS is full of brilliant people and while each day can be incredibly busy, it’s always fun, productive and dynamic.


Thank you Matthew!

5-10-5: Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder at Longwood Gardens

Peter_Zale

Please introduce yourself.

Peter Zale, Ph.D. Plant breeder, horticulturist, and botanical explorer.

The arts or horticulture?

For me, horticulture, but I certainly appreciate the undeniable relationship between the two.  At the time I became interested in plants, I was also very interested in drawing and would render botanical illustrations of the plants that interested me most.  This soon changed after I began growing and propagating plants in my first garden, and my interest in drawing and the arts diminished as I became enthralled with the plant science. I have been on that path ever since.

Some people attribute their love of gardening to their parents or grandparents, others their neighbors or teachers. How did you initially become interested in plants?

As a freshman in high school, I was assigned a leaf collection project in a freshmen biology class.  We were to identify, collect, press, and create herbarium specimens of native and cultivated trees of the greater Cleveland, Ohio region.  The project was meant to teach us the fundamentals of taxonomy.  Certain tree species, such as Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) and Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) were part of a large list of rare taxa considered difficult to find, and were worth extra credit if included in the final project.  Finding these rare plants became something of an obsession for me, and my family supported my fledgling interest by taking me to places like Holden Arboretum and the numerous metroparks in the Cleveland area to search for these plants.  In the end I found most, but not all, of them and for my final grade I received something like 300 points out a possible total of 100.  Even after the project ended, I still wanted to find those that I couldn’t find during the course of the assignment, and started going to nurseries, buying them, and planting them. It wasn’t long before my Mother’s yard was filled with these plants and many others.  In many ways I am still working on this project!

 You spent 6 years managing a large commercial nursery before deciding to enroll in higher education again. It is always hard for people to leave the workforce and become students again (needless to say, plenty of career changers have gone through this journey). Although one never stops learning during their jobs, how did you become motivated to devote yourself to the scientific discipline of horticulture and botany?

I had wanted to go to graduate school after completing my Bachelor’s, but I think one of the problems with graduate school is that most students tend to enroll right after finishing a bachelor’s degree.  For purely academic disciplines, this is the best thing to do, but horticulture is different, and academia is just one facet of a huge array of opportunities that exist.  I also had a chance to be part of an industry experience that I could not pass up, so I put grad school on hold and went to work.

My industry experience started while I was still an undergraduate at Ohio State.  My college roommate’s father had been in the restaurant industry most of his life and was very successful at it, but had always wanted to start his own nursery.  When I was two years away from graduating, he sold the restaurants, followed his passion, and decided to start the nursery.  My experience was totally unique.  From its inception, I was involved in every phase of the operation.  I helped choose the land where the nursery was started, was involved in the planning and development phase, and ultimately managed operations on the entire farm.  This was a tremendous experience, but over time I started to plateau in my daily routine, and I knew that some of things I wanted to do with my life, such as plant breeding and exploration were just not going to happen if I had stayed there.  So I left the nursery to explore other opportunities.  I was immediately offered another, similar job at the largest production nursery in the Cincinnati area, but during my senior year at Ohio State I did a study abroad trip to England, and made a good connection with the faculty advisor of the trip.  He happened to be a well respected member of the OSU horticulture department, and told me at that time that if I ever wanted to enroll in graduate school, that there would be a place for me in his program.  So, six years after he told me this, I went back and had a conversation with him and the place was still there for me.  So, after much deliberation and many sleepless nights, I went back to school.  Transitioning back to the student lifestyle wasn’t easy at first, and I specifically remember taking my first exam in grad school and having a mini-panic attack.  I remember thinking to myself  “what the hell am I doing here?  I’m too old for this!”  Ultimately, going back to school was one of the best decisions of my life, but for those in a similar situation, my advice is this.  Go back to school with a well-defined plan for your future.  Don’t go back with the thought that your future will just work itself out because you are a grad student and will ultimately have an advanced degree.  Scientific discipline is no substitution for passion and enthusiasm, but it does help temper and direct it.

Plant breeding can be carefully controlled or spontaneous – surprises still can happen despite biotechnological strides. To what extend does control ends and nature’s will begins in your work?

Personally, I think the breeding process begins with nature’s will, and becomes more controlled as advancements are made. I approach all of my breeding projects this way; collect as much raw germplasm as is possible, emphasizing wild collected material, and some key cultivars that might exhibit characteristics you are interested in, and go from there.  This ultimately provides a broad template, but over time, the success and failures of certain germplasm accessions become evident and help shape different breeding avenues; this method does also provide a few surprises along the way!  Not only does this method ensure that my breeding efforts remain novel and unduplicated by others, but it also allows me to refine the process in unique ways.

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’.  A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’. A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

This seems to be the opposite of what many (or most!) commercial breeders do. They often begin with a limited genepool, and a ridiculously narrow range of genetic variation, and rely on advanced breeding techniques to generate new variants.  Sometimes this works, sometimes not.  Hence, you get 100’s of new introductions every year that are basically the same as their competitors.

For example, there are many people starting to breed Phlox right now, but basically all of them use plants that are available in the trade as the basis of their breeding programs. Before I even began hybridize phlox, I developed a large (probably the largest in the world) germplasm collection of Phlox by collecting new forms of widely cultivated species, and poorly known, rarely cultivated species.  I also brought at least 3 species into cultivation.  By doing this I was able to see a cross section of the total variation in the genus, and make informed decisions about where to begin the breeding process.  It also allowed me to differentiate my efforts from those of everyone else breeding Phlox.  Many of these hybrids are based on taxa that have never been cultivated to a large extent, but I would never have known this if I did not initially seek to understand the breadth of variation in the genus.  Because these initial hybrids are immediately different from what is being done, we are starting to employ some of the cutting-edge breeding tools that can further advance breeding lines, and further contribute to a unique, adaptable, and reliable product.

Do you see or liken plant breeding to an artistic process? Certain colors and shapes must be preferable over others, and plant breeders do seem to develop a particular style.

I think it depends on the breeding objectives and personal interests of the breeder.  In something like phlox, many people want to breed for resistance to disease.  In this case breeding may be more pragmatic and defined by rigorous scientific objectives and protocols rather than flower color, plant form, or novelty.  However, the artistic license may come later after the initial goals are met.

However I do think there is an artistic side to breeding, and that this is closely tied to passion for certain plant groups, especially for those that work in genera that are “off the radar” of the typical plant consumer.  One genus of great interest to me, that exemplifies this, is Trillium.  I personally find them to be among the most simplistically elegant and distinctive of all plants. Although they have tremendous importance as native plant species in the U.S., I also see tremendous opportunity for breeding and enhancement, especially given the diversity seen in wild species.  Most people don’t realize the range of flower colors, leaf variegation patterns, and breadth of plant sizes and habits that exists here; new species are still being described from the southeastern U.S.  I am not the only one to think this; In New Zealand, there is a small, dedicated group of Trillium growers and hybridizers that have begun to develop this variation and some of the results are astounding.  There is even a small business there that breeds and sells Trillium stems for the cut-flower industry!  So yes, there is definitely an artistic side to the breeding process, but like my breeding philosophy, it starts with the plants.


The foliage of Magnolia virginiana "var. ludoviciana"

The foliage of Magnolia virginiana “var. ludoviciana”

Your M.S. dissertation ‘Studies on the Optimization and Breeding Potential of Magnolia virginiana L.’ beautifully bridged the ecology and horticulture on one of our beautiful native North American flowering trees. How did the topic come about and what did the subsequent research discover?

When I talked with my advisor about coming back to graduate school, he mentioned numerous projects that I could work on.  I knew I wanted to get involved in plant breeding and botanical exploration, and the only project that fit this category was a project involving the enhancement of Magnolia virginiana for increased landscape usage.  This project was also new to his research repertoire, so it also gave me the opportunity to help develop a research project, rather than just plug-in to a more established, ongoing project.

The most important part of this research, in my opinion, was what I didn’t publish in my thesis!  From 2007-2009 I designed and performed collection expeditions to study M. virginiana in the wild and obtain germplasm.  During that time I was able to collect seeds from throughout the range of the species and develop one of the most comprehensive germplasm collections of this species in the world.  This work taught me the value of collecting, not only for plant breeding, but also conservation.  Most of the M. virginiana cultivars on the market are similar to one another, but when we started growing these wild collected accessions, I started to see horticulturally useful variation that could lead to real breakthroughs in the breeding and selection of this species, but also the uniqueness of certain populations that might one day garner conservation priority.  Some of these unique collections have been passed on to the U.S. National Arboretum and have become part of their collection.


Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation.  It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa.  It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky.  It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle.  This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation. It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa. It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky. It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle. This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

Native plants became the focus again when you tackled your doctoral dissertation ‘Germplasm Collection, Characterization, and Enhancement of Eastern Phlox Species’. It is always interesting to leaf through old horticultural books and find Phlox paniculata popularized by Europeans when other Phlox species have tremendous future in gardens. We are finally seeing selections of these species, such as Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’ and Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’, established in gardens. Anything interesting in the pipeline from your doctoral research? 

Yes! I have about 20 or so selections, of both species and hybrids that are being trialed for introduction.  That may seem like a lot, but because I dealt primarily with species and germplasm accessions that had not been previously used for breeding, there is quite a bit of novelty among these selections.  I have had numerous plant breeding companies look at these plants and they have all been blown away by the results.  This is very exciting and I hope to continue with this work as I move into the next phase of my career.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas.  Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas. Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.


I imagine that your work takes you to unique ecosystems. What are some of your favorite natural areas in North American to explore? You seem very partial towards the pine savannahs and bogs.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky.  The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky. The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

I designed and executed 16 different collection expeditions throughout the eastern U.S., and while I do love the pine savannahs and pitcher plant bogs of the coastal plain, there are a couple of other areas that I favor slightly more.  First would be the state of Kentucky.  I suppose that may sound strange, but Kentucky is a state of extraordinary physiographic diversity, this in turn translates into often overwhelming plant diversity within a small geographic region.  While I did not cover the entire state, some of my best botanical discoveries happened there, primarily within the rugged hills of interior low plateaus of the central part of the state.  This area has historically been poorly botanized, so the herbarium record is incomplete, so plant-hunting there is rife with new species and unknown variants of well-known species.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

Another favorite was the shale barrens of the valley and ridge province on the borders of Virginia and West Virginia.  This region in well-known for harboring rare, endemic plant species, but is also one of the most diverse plant species regions of the eastern U.S.  Again, the extraordinary physiographic and geologic diversity in the area has contributed to this proliferation of species.  This region also fulfills my love of being in the mountains, and is relatively remote, so it allows for a good escape from the city life in Columbus without having to drive too far.


Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama.  Does it get any better?  Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans.  One of my all-time favorite plants.  I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard.  This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum.  This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation.  Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama. Does it get any better? Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans. One of my all-time favorite plants. I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard. This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum. This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation. Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

Novelty drives the horticultural industry. Unfortunately the rush to fulfill the public’s demand for novelty has led to disappointing duds and caused older selections or simply good garden plants to fall out of favor. We risk discouraging the public from gardening because the ‘new plants’ fail not to horticultural ignorance, but simply their poor performance outside of the greenhouse. How long do you trial your results before they are deemed ready for introduction?

I think any new introduction should be trialed for at least three years before introduction.  More importantly, the trials should be held in a diversity of different climates, environments, and garden conditions to accurately gage the overall adaptability of a particular selection.  Of course, by doing this, someone else might usurp your efforts, but I feel like what I’ve developed is unique enough to withstand the time needed for proper trials.  I think it is also important to determine the ultimate market. For example, the Phlox introductions are likely to be on the mass-market, but a special form of a Trillium may just be distributed to plant collectors interested in amassing unique forms of a particular genus or species.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’.  My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio.  It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’. My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio. It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

Some people might argue that the search for novelty does not need to involve exotic destinations overseas when our backyards can still provide interesting germplasm. For example, in an effort to safeguard its natural heritage, New Zealand has imposed strict legislation on importing exotic species, if not introducing stringent quarantine requirements, causing plant breeders there to lament the ‘tighter lids’. Although your graduate research tackles native species in North America, exotic species overseas still draw your attention. What is your philosophy on developing a balance between protecting our natural biodiversity against introduced pests and allowing for plants of possible economic significance to be imported?

There are two parts to this.  First, I have tried to focus in areas where there has been little previous collection in climates quite different from my own in central Ohio, and the majority of the eastern U.S.  Most of what I have seen and collected there is not going to be hardy here, but might have value in to the industry when marketed as an annual or container crop etc.  However, I have sent collections from these places to a few select friends in the Pacific Northwest, where many might be hardy.  In this case, I collaborate with knowledgeable plant people that have a sense for what might be a good garden plant, and what could potentially be an invasive species. Serious plant people are uniquely attune to the dangers of invasive species, and just as much as I don’t want to be responsible for introducing a potential problem plant, they don’t want to be growing them either.

My overseas collecting efforts have been very targeted, and I have purposely avoided generalist collecting which might result in the introduction of a potentially invasive species.  In Vietnam I specifically wanted to find the recently described Lilium eupetes, an epiphytic lily closely related to the rare Lilium arboricola, which was my target in Myanmar.  These are rare plants with exacting cultural requirements that are not likely to be great garden plants, but they are botanically interesting and make good stories for botanical gardens or private growers that might succeed with them. Obviously these areas are rich in genera that have invasive potential such as Euonymus, Berberis, Lonicera, etc.  While these plants are interesting and ornamental, I do not collect them because of their invasive potential.  Other genera such as Quercus, are also quite common in these areas and have broad appeal, and although there is no previously described invasive potential, the opportunity for importing unknown pathogens is huge.  The USDA still allows for the importation of acorns with some special treatments, but even with such precautions I think the risk is greater than the reward.  As I watch all of the ash trees in Ohio die off, I cant help but think what would happen if the oaks were to become infected or afflicted by a new disease or insect pest.  So as tempting as it is, I do not collected Quercus when abroad, and choose instead to focus on collecting and promoting our native species.

If the pine savannahs and bogs of Southeast US exposed an interesting flora for you in our backyard, the lure to traverse across oceans for different plant life was still irresistible. How did your overseas expeditions fit with your graduate research? 

Lilium was one of the priority genera for the OSU/USDA Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center where I did my PhD work.  Even though I did not work on Lilium for my dissertation research, it is a genus I am personally interested in, and I often collected native species when I was in the field collecting Phlox.  As I developed these projects and a comprehensive native Lilium collection, they culminated in presentations and publications.  A British friend suggested that I travel to Vietnam to study the recently described L. eupetes in the wild.  Even better was the fact that he offered to pay for it! So off I went.  Not only did I find L. eupetes, I found more of it than had ever been found previously.  Riding this momentum, I wrote a grant to the North American Lily Society and they funded an expedition to Myanmar the next year.  While these experiences didn’t directly benefit my dissertation work, they complimented my domestic plant hunting experiences and have helped me gain greater perspective in plant collecting and diversity.  Understanding plant diversity is like understanding cooking; you need to travel and experience different climates and ecosystems to gain a complete appreciation of the greater picture.


A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

Due to its political repression and hermit reputation, Burma (Myanmar) is relatively unexplored for its biodiversity awaiting to be tapped and catalogued before modernization sweeps into the country. Earlier plant explorers Frank Kingdon Ward and Richard Schultes did manage to document some of the botanical riches there, and modern plant explorer Dan Hinkley has made a few forays there, giving us horticulturists a glimpse of its floral potential. Of the world’s bio hotspots, you chose to travel to Burma. What led to that choice?

Myanmar was not a place I had ever really thought of going to until I started to focus more on Lilium. Truth be told, I had never even thought of traveling to Myanmar, but when I returned from Vietnam in 2013, I was hungry for more international exploration.  My experience gave me some “street cred” among the world’s comparatively few plant collectors and I was invited by a contingent of British plant explorers to explore the region.  In a way the opportunity just kind of fell into my lap, but it gave me the opportunity to search for the long lost Lilium arboricola, so I went.

The cloud and subtropical forests must yield endless plants, such as gingers. orchids, magnolias, and bladderworts. What are some of the promising plants you saw in Myanmar?

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern Myanmar

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern Myanmar

One of the most beautiful and promising plants encountered was an impatiens, tentatively identified as Impatiens aff. stenantha.  Everyone who sees the photos wants it!

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Another group of plants I think is worth more interest from horticulturists are the vining gentians in the sister genera Tripterospermum and Crawfurdia.  On both of my trips to Southeast Asia, I have seen them in flower and fruit at all elevations and always think, “why aren’t these grown in gardens more than they are?

Quercus lamelloseQuercus lamellosa was one of the most interesting trees found on the trip and the unique acorns that littered ground always amazed us at each encounter.

Lilium aroboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

Lilium arboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

I went to Myanmar with the specific goal of finding the long lost Lilium arboricola.  This epiphytic lily was originally found by Kingdon-Ward and described by Stearn.  It flowered once in cultivation in 1962, promptly died, and has not been seen again since that time.  Even before I left, I was doubtful about finding it, as it was the proverbial needle in a haystack.  But, while hiking a narrow ridge through a pocket of cloud forest, I stopped to rest, and there it was. Without a doubt it was one of the finest botanical moments of my life.

There are so many others.  How much space do you have?!


It is easy to glamorize plant hunting afar – the threats of landslides, unfriendly natives, inclement weather, and a subsistence diet on stale biscuits or unrecognizable cuisine never seem to loom largely in the public’s conscious when murmurs of admiration and envy are elicited from audience members at seeing the pics of beautiful landscapes or plants. Any harrowing experiences or near-misses in your plant hunting exploits?

I am happy to report that I have not had any near misses while abroad, although the geographic isolation and rugged topography in these regions certainly sets the stage for it.

The strangest and most nerve-wracking experience I have encountered was in northwest Arkansas of all places.  My traveling companion and I were following a gravel road and stopped briefly to admire one of the many turquoise-colored, spring fed rivers in the region when out of nowhere, an unmarked police vehicle drove up, slammed on its brakes, and came to a sliding stop behind our vehicle. Two plain-clothed police officers got out of the vehicle and immediately started harassing us about our intentions and repeatedly asked us if we were planning to drink beer and kayak down the river.  When we started to explain the reason for our trip and started talking about plants they became immediately disinterested and eventually left us alone.  We didn’t even have kayaks with us and I wondered what prompted their investigation.  Then I remembered the two large coolers in the backseat of the car!  They probably thought they were filled with beer, but much to their dismay they were only filled with the plant germplasm we had collected.  They had thought they were going to make a big bust, and were immediately disappointed when they realized we had a legitimate reason for the being where we were.  Needless to say, we were mortified after the experience, but glad that it did not proceed any further.


Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in  batch of seedlings.  You can imagine my surprise and excitement.  This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in batch of seedlings. You can imagine my surprise and excitement. This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

Imagined that you’ve been shipwrecked, but permitted to select one plant to breed. What is your desert island plant?

How about one genus?  Lilium.  It has extraordinary diversity within and between species.  I don’t want to imagine being confined to a single species!  This probably sounds rather conventional, but many lily species are rarely cultivated, and there exists such a great amount of diversity within and between species.  There is enough room for experimentation for several lifetimes, even though there has already been a tremendous volume of work in the genus.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides.  One of my desert island plants.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides. One of my desert island plants.


I always wonder what kind of garden plant breeders have. Is it a garden full of rare plants? Or gardening at home is restricted to vegetables and edibles? What kind of garden do you tend at home?

I am steadfastly dedicated to growing plant species of known provenance, and plant collecting is one of my life’s passions.  Private gardens can serve as a tool for plant conservation, especially when there is a well-executed plan for collection, propagation, and dissemination.  Currently, I cultivate a collection of about 2000 taxa, and most of these are my own collections or the collections of some of my plant hunter friends.  When I come home at night, I don’t take off my “horticulturist hat” and switch to a different hobby, rather I switch genera!  This collection also serves some of my personal plant breeding interests and endeavors.


2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery's garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter's repeat visits.

2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery’s garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter’s repeat visits.

Your career certainly puts you in touch with the international community of gardens and plantspeople. What gardens, private and public, have inspired you? Individuals?

As previously mentioned I did a study abroad trip to England for my last semester as an undergrad.  During this time we visited many gardens, public and private, but two stand out in my memory and I still think about them with frequency. First is the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE) in Scotland. This place was an epiphany for me.  With over 50,000 taxa in cultivation there, I couldn’t help but study every nook and cranny of the gardens.  In fact, after the study abroad had ended, I was traveling with friends on the continent, but kept thinking about RBGE. So I left my friends and went back to Scotland and studied the garden for the few final days of my trip.

Also, while there I had the opportunity to visit a small public garden in Lake District called Holehird Gardens.  This may be my all-time favorite garden. Nestled into a mountainside, there grew many of the plants I could only dream about in the Midwest: flowering Meconopsis, Pleione, Primula, etc.  I hope to go back there someday.

I should also mention the gardens at Heronswood.  I made five pilgrimages there in the early 2000’s over different seasons.  I was amazed at how much the garden changed from season to season and the phenomenal complexity of the plantings.  I’m glad to hear that it is open to visitors again as it sure to influence generations of horticulturists to come.

Four individuals that have vastly inspired my career are Jim Archibald, Edgar T. Wherry, Mary Gibson Henry, and my friend Dr. Warren Stoutamire.  I will never forget the first Archibald seed list I ever received.  It was a revelation. Although I had been earlier influenced by Dan Hinkley’s collecting forays into southeast Asia, Jim Archibald’s work was concentrated primarily in eastern Turkey and Iran.  Collecting in those regions had never crossed my mind and the seed lists opened up the flora of an entire region to me. Traveling to and collecting in Iran is still one of my life goals.

Anyone who has studied Phlox knows the name Edgar Wherry is synonymous with the genus.  What I admire most about him is his dedication to botanical clarity, persistence as an author, and indefatigable disposition.  He mortgaged his life to study Phlox and wrote down seemingly every thought he encountered.  He was also a gardener, which seems rare among modern day botanists and evolutionary biologists.

In my opinion, Mary Gibson Henry is one of the most under-looked and underrated American botanists.  Despite her privileged life, she relished intensive fieldwork, described new species, and endeavored to create a world-class garden at the Henry foundation.  She found and described one of my all-time favorite plants, the mythical Lilium iridollae – the pot-of-gold lily.  I think part of the reason I cherish this species so much is because of the passionate way she wrote about it in her original description of the species.

Lastly, my friend and mentor Dr. Warren Stoutamire.  In many ways I have modeled my own career and interests after him.  He was among the first to propagate native orchid species from seed, tended a personal greenhouse full of botanical rarities from around the world, and was a professor at University of Akron.  Some of my most treasured interactions with other human beings were with him at his home and greenhouse.

What messages or goals do you aim to project through your work? Some plant breeders aim for enhancing or improving the efficiency of the food supply, others beauty, and few the twin joys of monetary and posthumous gains. I remember reading about plant breeders and chefs who collaborated to identify and improve flavors and other traits that make vegetables more delicious.

I want to be known as an innovator in the fields of plant breeding and botanical exploration. In ornamental plant breeding, it seems like good good ideas come along relatively rarely, but are rapidly adopted by everyone out there and beat to death.  Look at genera like Heuchera and Echinacea.  The people that initiated breeding in these genera are true innovators, but subsequent efforts are by others that have just jumped on the bandwagon and essentially repeated the same thing over and again.  This is exactly what I want to avoid.

Plant collection is vital to plant breeding and provides a means for botanical gardens to contribute to conservation and differentiate themselves.  In my opinion it is more important than ever, and while it may seem like every place on earth has been visited by humans, there still remains a plethora of places where plant hunting has been limited.  This was a big part of the reason I went to Myanmar.  I hope to continue with this and visit some of the world’s remaining botanical treasure troves.

Any advice for those interested in diving deeper into plant breeding as a career?

It’s harder and harder to find good training in ornamental plant breeding in academia.  I feel exceedingly lucky to have had training in ornamental horticulture.  Training in vegetable or crops breeding can provide a solid background, but because of the laboratory intensive nature of those breeding programs, there exists a disconnect between them and traditional breeding techniques.  Many of the breeders coming out of these programs have more in common with molecular biologists than traditional plant breeders.  So if you want good training, my suggestion would be to seek out the right academic institution and try to get experience through internships at breeding companies and botanic gardens.

Follow your intuition and be individualistic.  There are too many people working in ornamental plant breeding that are repeating what has already been done.  Don’t be afraid to promote yourself.  This is a competitive field, just because you might produce fantastic plants, that doesn’t mean they will make it big or your accomplishments will be recognized.

Don’t be afraid to make crosses when you have a good idea and the plants to make it happen.  It’s easy to romanticize about using sophisticated techniques like embryo rescue or mutation breeding, but basic principles of plant breeding are still responsible for some of the best new plants out there.

Cheers to those interested future plant breeders!


Thank you Peter!  Check out his blog at http://www.botanicazales.com


5-10-5: Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matt Lobdell

 

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Matt Lobdell taking notes on a clipboard during the 2015 plant hunting expedition in Alabama.

Please introduce yourself
Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum


The arts or horticulture?
I appreciate the arts, but I’d have to say horticulture!


How did you become fascinated with plants?

My fascination with plants grew as I became more aware of their diversity. Through high school and my early undergraduate years I was generally aware of the differences between oaks, maples, and other trees, but my interest was really piqued when I took an ecology course during my sophomore year that involved a tree survey as a final project. I was fascinated to learn that there could be as many as 20 distinct tree species in a small transect and became curious about the characteristics used to diagnose one from another. This survey led me to take an internship at the Polly Hill Arboretum in Martha’s Vineyard, where I would learn even more about tree diversity.


Martha’s Vineyard is better known as the affluent summer playground, but it has a year-round resident community comfortable with island life. I imagine that growing up on the island enabled you to partake recreational activities outdoors. Can you single out natural areas that were impressionable?

I remember the area around my parents’ house, which was only about a half mile away from the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. When exploring the area, I encountered both oak trees and seemingly impenetrable bear oak thickets, as well as the occasional sassafras, pitch pine, or beetlebung (our regional common name for Nyssa sylvatica). I found the ecosystems at some of the beaches interesting, particularly at Lambert’s Cove Beach where I’d often pick something I called “beach plum”, but would later realize was just Rosa rugosa. At least I got the family right.


Margaret Mead the distinguished anthropologist once remarked: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” How did you find your anthropology degree applicable to your methodology towards plants?

What I found most rewarding about studying anthropology was the integrated approach the field takes to studying and understanding a topic. As a Curator, I try to also take an integrated approach to studying and learning about plants. I strive to both understand what make a plant significant from a botanical perspective, as well as understand its historical utilization in order to assist with the interpretation of its significance to the visitor.


Eventually your minor in environmental studies influenced you to pursue opportunities to intern in public gardens. Polly Hill Arboretum was the first public garden where you interned in 2005 as its garden intern and 2008 as its first collection management intern. What were several invaluable skills at Polly Hill you took away?

During my initial internship there I learned some basic horticulture and grounds management skills which I was able to build upon in later positions. As a collections management intern I gained exposure to plant records, accessioning, evaluating plants within the collections, and some other basic skills that would cement my decision to pursue a career as a curator.


Your experience in public arboreta makes it clear that woody plants are your forte. What is it about woody plants that you find appealing? Their sense of permanence?

I think that definitely has something to do with it! However, I think the size of trees in particular also provides shade, stability, and other services that allow one to interact with it in a manner they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with other types of plants.


For two years you had worked as a horticulturist for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy which transverses Chinatown, Financial District, Waterfront, and North End neighborhoods in Boston.This position is more community-oriented and amenity-centered rather than the collection- and scientific-focused of your current job. What lessons did you take away from being a public parks horticulturist that other experiences did not provide?

The Greenway was the only position I’ve had that put me in a true urban area, so it was interesting to learn just how many challenges trees have to face when growing in those conditions, and truly impressive that some are able to grow there at all.


Your masters dissertation at University of Delaware examined Styrax in cultivation. How did Styrax, as opposed to other woody genera, come to become the focus of your research?

I was looking for a group of ornamental woody plants that might benefit from a general survey-type study, and was looking for something that hadn’t already been overdone. My advisor, John Frett, suggested either Itea or Styrax and I chose the latter. We were both surprised to learn the genus had approximately 130 described species, so we chose to focus on those with some history of cultivation in order to keep the study manageable.


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Styrax hemsleyanus (Hemsley Snowbell) native to central China.

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are commonly represented in cultivation. What other members of the genus would you wish to see more grown in gardens?

Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are probably the most cold hardy and suitable for a variety of landscape conditions. I’m also partial to Styrax americanus, a southeastern US native. It’s a shrubbier species with pale green leaves and though the flowers are small, they have an interesting reflexed form. Styrax hemsleyanus is also a favorite, which is similar to S. obassia but most of them I’ve seen have slightly smaller leaves with prominent venation which can look interesting while vegetative.

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Stryax americanus showing its small reflexed flowers.


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The Morton Arboretum’s Malus ‘Dolgo’ whose fruits are considered suitable for making crab apple jelly.

 

You currently work as The Morton Arboretum’s head of collections and curator, which brings tremendous responsibilities for a 1,700-acre arboretum. What does your daily day look like?

I’ve found it to be a bit different each day! I’ve been involved with everything from selecting plants for the collections, planning wild collecting trips, applying for funding to assist with infrastructure improvements, and assisting with development of BRAHMS, a plant records database. I’ve never found there to be a shortage of projects to work on, but do try to carve out a bit of time each week to walk the grounds and check on the performance of the plant collections.


The Morton Arboretum is one of the few arboreta that actively engages in scientific education and research without the appending university affiliation (i.e. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Morris Arboretum of U Penn, University of Washington Botanic Garden). How does your role/relationship fit with the science and conservation section, such as the ArbNet, the Center for Tree Science, and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative?

I remain available to share my knowledge of the collections with our science and conservation staff, and particularly encourage them to carry out research within our collections when possible, assisting with logistics as necessary.


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Magnolia collection in full flower at The Morton Arboretum.

The Morton Arboretum’s living collection contains approximately over 200,000 living plants which represent 3,925 taxa. The collection is arranged in three groups: geographic, taxonomic, and special habitats. Do you have specific areas in these groups you find yourself revisiting? 

The Magnolia and Oak collections are personal favorites as they are groups of my interest. I also like to explore our Plants of China collection which boasts a diverse assemblage of material due to our history of collaborating with NACPEC (North America-China Plant Collecting Exploration Consortium).

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Magnolia ‘Elizabeth at The Morton Arboretum’s magnolia collection.


If you were to take a friend or a family member around Morton Arboretum, what would be some of the outstanding trees you would take care to point out?

All depends on the time of year! However I would make sure they saw some of the large Acer miyabei on the Arboretum’s west side, as well as the Abies nordmanniana in the Central and Western Asia collection.


Most people see the Midwest as having prairies, not woodlands, and may be surprised to encounter the Morton Arboretum’s trees. What are the natural woodlands in Illinois that people can visit?

The eastern US forest extends into the Chicago region, though prairies become much more common as one travels west. Kankakee River State Park and Starved Rock State park are two must-visit sites in the area. Of course The Morton Arboretum also has an extensive restored woodland which is a must see as well.


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Subalpine meadows in the Tusheti National Park, Georgia.

Within two years of your job, you participated in your first overseas plant hunting expedition as part of the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), Given its geographical position between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and its two mountain ranges (Greater and Lesser Caucasus), Georgia has a floristic diversity that is beguiling for botanists and horticulturists alike. It is relatively underrepresented where plants are concerned in US plant collections, and has tremendous scope for woody plants like Crataegus pentagynaTilia cordata, and Fagus orientalis. What were some of the highlights in the trip?

Fagus orientalis, as you mentioned, is a spectacular tree and important component of the forests of the Caucasus. We were also able to collect from some of their oaks, including Quercus macranthera and Quercus hartwissiana, as well as two maple species I hadn’t heard about until I started looking into the flora of the region in detail: Acer ibericum and Acer velutinum. Overall, it was a fascinating country to visit and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn about their flora from the experts at the Georgian Institute of Botany who joined us for the expedition.

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Matt examining plants in Republic of Georgia.


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Acer ibericum in Georgia.

The Caucasus region is again the destination this year as planning is underway for Azerbaijan, one of Georgia’s neighbors. What would be the objectives of this expedition that would be different from those achieved in Georgia? 

My main objective in Azerbaijan would be to collect some of their endemic taxa, particularly those such as Acer hyrcanum and Parrotia persica found in the Hyrcanian forest. This would allow a different portion of the flora of the Caucasus to be collected separate from that in Georgia.


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Magnolia pyramidata, one of the big-leafed magnolias native to eastern US.

What is your desert island plant?

If I could choose just one it would be Magnolia macrophylla. I often accuse it of being the tree that got me into horticulture. Once I saw the size of the leaves and flowers and learned it was something that could be grown outdoors in New England, I found myself really curious about plant diversity and wanting to learn more about trees.

 


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Matt preparing a herbarium specimen of a magnolia collected in Torreya State Park, Florida.

Do you have advice for those aspiring for a career in public horticulture, especially in the curation and collection-based areas?

I  found it helpful to work at a variety of botanical gardens in order to learn both a diverse assemblage of plants, as well as several different ways to approach curation and plant records techniques. I’d also encourage those to seek out someone with a job that sounds interesting to them and ask them how they got to where they are. I’ve found most people are generous with their time and more than willing to share their experiences.


Thank you for the interview, Matt!

5-10-5: Justin Galicic

Interview by Eric Hsu and Justin Galicic

Photography by Justin Galicic (except for the profile pic by Michael Siegel)

Justin is one of those rare individuals whose chief profession isn’t horticulture, but music education, although it has not deterred him from being an avid gardener who has willingly transformed his parents’ garden into an one with subtropical touches. He has the enviable advantage of residing in the maritime Pacific Northwest where mild winters and moderate summers permit a wide range of plants to be grown. I have long heard about him from my other friend Riz Reyes, another keen plantsman, and finally had a chance to meet him at the Mahonia Summit in Seattle in February 2015.


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Justin Galicic with his ever tolerant parents Caroline and Al in their garden (Image courtesy of Mike Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times)

Please introduce yourself.

I am Justin Galicic


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Morning light lights up the lupines and Kniphofia in the Galicic garden.

 

The arts or horticulture?

Horticulture


What is your first gardening memory?

As early as I can remember, each year my dad would rototill the vegetable garden in the spring and give me a section to grow whatever vegetables I wanted to. I always wanted to grow every seed packet we had!


You’re somewhat unusual among the people we profiled here on the blog that your chosen profession isn’t in horticulture or landscape architecture, but rather music education for young children. Have you found yourself feeling a bit of an outsider or a spectator?

No, I definitely feel like an active participant in the horticultural community. I am on the board of the Northwest Horticultural Society so I think that officially qualifies me as an insider. As far as my career goes, this past year was my last teaching music and as of right now I’m a full-time student getting a tech degree in front-end web development.


 

Garden designers and landscape architects frequently refer to music terminology to describe the feelings or emotions of their work. Do you have specific musical vocabulary that would describe your style of gardening?

There are a lot of similarities between the two because I think the end goal with a musical composition is virtually the same as designing a garden: to create an experience that transports you to another place. All the great composers juxtapose contrasting elements in their music: high vs. low, loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow, etc.  In the garden, I like to put big, loud, scary and dangerous right next to small, quiet, happy and safe. A musical composition is also moving – slowly building a crescendo, retreating from a climactic peak, modifying a previous theme, etc. In the same way a well-designed garden pulls you toward some feature or echo colors and textures that establish a sense of overall harmony.  It’s always moving and compels anyone in it move with it.

 


Because you currently reside in an urban condo with no gardening space, you have creatively appropriated your parents’ home in Normandy Park to create an impressive garden. While parents are generally supportive of their children’s interests and endeavours, did they have any inkling of what they had set themselves up for when you started the garden there? I imagine that there were some concerns especially with what your parents favored.

They definitely had concerns! When I was building the pond, it took all almost all the intellectual energy I had to convince them that the waterfalls should be 7′ tall instead of 3′ tall.  They wanted the design on paper, but I wasn’t able to draw anything resembling what I had in my mind.  But little by little, they gained confidence in me. My mom still vetoes some things I want to do. I’m not allowed to grow Equisetum or Cannabis (it is legal in Washington!) but other than that I’m pretty free to plant whatever I want.


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Visitors admire the koi and waterlilies at the Normandy Park Garden Festival.

Your parents must have tremendous patience as they were willing to consent to hosting an annual horticultural fair. How did the idea come about and has the community response been positive?

It is a big undertaking but always rewarding. The idea actually started as I was trying to think of an environmentally friendly way to get rid of the ginormous stacks of black nursery pots I had been accumulating over the years.  I figured the best way to get rid of them would be to repurpose them by selling new plants that I propagated in the old pots at a plant sale.  I e-mailed Dan Hinkley to see if he would be interested in giving a talk in our garden to accompany the plant sale. He said yes and we got about 200 people in attendance that first year. After five years, it has helped bring the gardening community in the neighborhood together and I know more than a few neighbors who have gone from intimidated to over-the-moon-excited about their own gardens.

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Plant sale at the Normandy Park Garden Festival.


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The new growth of Metapanax delavayi, a temperate member of the Araliaceae.

 

Like other serious plant geeks, you have a limitless interest in all plants. However, are their specific genera or horticultural groups you seem to gravitate towards?

I’d say my interest is centered around palms, agaves, and much of the aralia family.


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Hardy palms (Trachycarpus) give a subtropical feel around the central fountain in the Galicic garden.

Bold foliage and shapes from bananas, scheffleras, hardy cacti, and palms are emphasized at the Normandy Park garden. Was it a subconscious fantasy to have a bit of tropics in the Pacific Northwest?

No it was entirely conscious! For a while I was only interested in tropical and subtropical plants. The idea of creating a jungle in my backyard was always a fantasy.  Perhaps if I grew up in the tropics I’d be more interested in hardy plants, but tropical plants have been forever imprinted on my heart.

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Waimea Canyon, Hawaii.


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Schefflera taiwaniana rapidly becoming a large shrub in the mild climate of Seattle metro region.

Except for Schefflera delavayi, most of the scheffleras are not hardy for us in the East Coast. For our Pacific Northwest and mild climate gardeners, what scheffleras have been successful and hardy?

S. taiwaniana is probably the easiest to find, but S. fengii and S. alpina also make appearances at plant sales in the NW from time to time.

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The dramatic new growth of Schefflera delavayi


Justin's economical method of building fake rocks for his garden.

Justin’s economical method of building fake rocks for his garden.

 

Not only has your plantsmanship served you well in the garden’s diversity, but also you have a knack for building as evidenced as your ‘fake’ rocks that add some hardscaping to the garden. Were you largely self-taught where these projects came to mind?

Yeah I learned how to make the fake rocks from watching You Tube videos and studying how they were made at places like the zoo and Disneyland.  It’s not as difficult as it looks but there is definitely an artistic touch involved.

The final result - it's hard to imagine that these rocks were facsimiles constructed reasonably quick from concrete and chicken wire.

The final result – it’s hard to imagine that these rocks were facsimiles constructed reasonably quick from concrete and chicken wire.


I like how you keep the budget-conscious gardener in mind during the construction project as you outlined the cost per fake rock in your blog. It’s a change from the usual gardening or lifestyle magazines that assume its readership having unlimited funds to buy or build high quality features outdoors. What other budget-friendly projects do you wish to tackle and demonstrate online?

Probably the most budget-friendly project a gardener can do is propagate their own plants. I do it on a scale that gives me enough of the plants I want to fill my garden while also having some extras to sell at plant sales.  I also started building my own arbors when I ran out of things to grow vines on.  They have the added benefit of acting as “doorways” to different areas of the garden.  I painted them a creamy color, the same color as the house’s trim, and they help to visually tie the house in with the rest of the garden.


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The propagation master bench!

You demonstrate a knack for propagation – and the basement setup seems within the reach of an average hobbyist. Any tips on what to do and avoid?

Taking plant cuttings had always mystified me, and for a while I thought I would never be good enough to be successful at it. But with some persistence and determination, I can say I’ve now gotten over 100 plant species to root.  There are a lot of great how-to videos on You Tube and of course countless books on the subject.  Definitely invest in a heat mat and propagation dome (in order to maintain humidity).  And avoid doing it in a place where bugs are going to interfere. I find the garage is a pretty good place to root cuttings. If you take 20 cuttings and 10 of them root, that’s a success.  If all of them fail, that’s a success too because now you know not to do it that way.

 

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Bulbils forming at the cut leaf base of Eucomis ‘Rhode Island Red’.


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Justin’s acquisitions from Far Reaches Farm – Paris polyphylla var. yunnanensis, Schefflera fengii, and Berberis malipoense/hypoxantha.

Gardeners in the Seattle -Portland metro region can count themselves fortunate to have specialist nurseries and sophisticated garden centers for plants. What are some of the nurseries and garden centers you often turn to when you seek to satiate your plant addiction?

My top three are Cistus Nursery in Oregon, Far Reaches Farm in Washington, and Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. All offer mail order, and between those three there is enough of a selection to fill any sized garden with an incredible variety of plants.


In addition, the region is accessible to majestic national parks. What natural areas do you like to visit when you wish to escape the horticultural haze?

It’s always great to see how plants like to grow in their native environments. Mother nature is the best garden designer, and no one has ever been able to even approximate the horticultural wonderment found in nature.  The most beautiful spot within driving range for me are the wildflower meadows in Mt. Rainier National Park.


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Watermelons, a rare occurrence, forming during one of Seattle’s abnormally hot summer.

A lot of us are envious at what the relatively temperate climate of the maritime Pacific Northwest can accommodate and foster while we battle extreme heat and humidity, invasive Asian tiger mosquitoes, and floral displays that go over too quickly. It’s harder to reconcile our horticultural aspirations with the continental climate in North America. Are there any plants you see elsewhere in your travels that you wish you can grow better or successfully in your area?

Oh yeah I’d love to be able to grow more palms, proteas, bananas, bromeliads, citrus, echiums, agaves, cacti, and other tropical and subtropical plants. We usually can’t get beefsteak tomatoes, cantaloupes or watermelons to ripen.  But I’m always discovering a new appreciation for plants I can grow in my climate that I might not have discovered if I could grow anything I want.


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The exterior hardscaping of the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle.

Seattle is one of the fast growing cities due to the influx of tech companies moving upwards from Silicon Valley. Is there a growing disconnect between public space plantings and companies who are building campuses, but not aware of the climatic possibilities?

Thankfully conventional urban landscape design is moving away from turf grass accented by gaudy colors toward more natural and sustainable landscapes. But there is the unfortunate reality of heirloom turfgrass and flower beds leaching runoff fertilizer and pesticides into nearby lakes and streams. Self-sustaining urban landscapes are the answer.  The alpine wildflower meadows on Mt. Rainier are an example of a beautiful, completely self-sustaining landscape.  If we can create urban landscapes that don’t require additional resources after the initial installation and strike a balance with nature, the air we breathe will be cleaner and we will leave more water in our lakes and streams for wildlife to flourish.

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Holboellia coriacea, Beesia deltophylla, and Adiantum venustum at Amazon’s corporate campus where plantings were done by Seattle plantsman Dan Hinkley.


If you were to create a new garden from scratch, would that garden resemble the one at your parents’ home? Sometimes our tastes change and evolve over time, and some people begin to simplify their gardens.

If I designed a garden from scratch it might very well look similar to how the one at my parent’s house looks right now.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way that I’ve gone back and fixed so it would certainly take a lot less time!  When I eventually buy my own house and start my own garden, I hope it will have many of the same elements – tropical jungle with roaring waterfalls, sunny Mediterranean border, shaded woodland, zen garden, a veggie patch, and plenty of space in between for growing whatever my latest obsession happens to be.


Your desert island plant?

Artocarpus altilis aka breadfruit. It is a beautiful tree and has the added benefit of being edible and life-sustaining.


 Any nuggets of advice you wish to pass along to your peers who have just bought homes, but are intimidated about their gardens?

Home builders (at least here in the Pacific NW) are really good at putting dense clay soil on top of the native topsoil when they excavate, leaving little room for plants to develop strong root systems.  Bringing in some loamy topsoil before planting goes a long way toward helping plants get established and reducing the need for future watering.  Even if something dies or doesn’t do what you want it to do, don’t get discouraged.  Keep trying new things.  If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.


Thank you Justin!

 

5-10-5 : Eleftherios Dariotis, the Greek plantsman

Interview by Eric Hsu

Photography by Eleftherios Dariotis and Eric Hsu

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I first became acquainted with Efeftherios Dariotis on Facebook when I began to notice that he was answering the majority of plant identification queries for difficult-to-recognize taxa. Only by coincidence and luck was he to join me and two other colleagues on my work-sponsored (Chanticleer) botanical expedition to Turkey and Greece. Efetherios Dariotis brings serious clout as a sharp-eyed finder of taxa easily overlooked in the wild, as well as being a competent driver of those treacherous, unpaved mountain roads. His patience and good sense of humor stood us in good stead whenever the usual travel challenges came in our way.

Efeftherios will be heading to United States this fall 2016 to lecture for the Salvia Summit (more information can be found here) and the North American Rock Garden Society meetings.

~ Eric


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Eleftherios admiring a colony of Asphodelus aestivus with a canine friend in Greece.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Eleftherios Dariotis, albeit many people know me as Liberto Dario, a facebook name I invented some years ago which has almost overshadowed my real name!


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A caudiform Centaurea pumila on the Cretan seashore – growing what appears to be pure sand.

The arts or horticulture?
An abstract art for me. A constant and irregular movement and expression of images, textures and colours under constant testing of growing techniques and experimentation. The plant world is too big to confine it.


How did you become interested in plants?
I remember as a little child expressing the desire to become a horticulturist and people in my hometown (small town of Peania next to Athens, Greece) looking at me strangely. I usually say it’s something I was born with. But I think what sparkled the flame in me was a trip to Chicago, IL when I was eight years old and made me realize how dramatically different plants could be in contrast to what I was used in Athens.


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The typical posture of a botanist peering closely at cliffside plants.

Nothing surpasses the power of observation where plant identification is concerned. Did you develop an early routine of botanizing in Greece before you gardened?

Up until quite recently, 6-7 years ago, I hadn’t developed an affection for the Greek flora. Hence, although I’ve travelled extensively around Greece when I was younger, the real botanizing trips started only recently. But that wealth of images in my mind of the world flora – much of it coming from my own gardening, really helped to track down the minute differences that separate one species from another in our native flora.

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Obstacles are always expected during botanizing trips – a lot of goats, stubborn ones, call Evia their home.


There seems to be a divide in the strength of the horticultural and botanical communities in northern and Southern Europe – Northern Europeans appear to have well developed outlets for disseminating information and plants but Southern Europeans depend on a more disparate network although the Mediterranean Garden Society has readdressed this imbalance. How has social media like Facebook or Instagram helped you close the north south gap?

It’s magical how the internet social media have brought plant people together. When I was young it was just me, my plants and my books, nowadays I get to contact and exchange plant information with people all over Europe and the world, even people I’ve looked upon as plant idols as I was growing up. And if it weren’t for all those people I wouldn’t even consider taking the step from gardening on my backyard to leading plant tours, doing plant sales online and visiting abroad for plant lectures. And you’ve probably sensed it, plant people are a special group in general, there is a certain kindness and passion that characterizes them, and make me at least feel comfortable.


Greece has successfully promoted itself as the ideal Mediterranean getaway for its sun kissed islands, simple and tasty cuisine, and classical ruins (you know how a decrepit pile of rocks isn’t the same everywhere!). How well publicized are its nature treks or the biodiversity in the marketing campaigns?

Apart from some very well known landmarks like the treck up on Mt.Olympus or the one in Samaria Gorge in Crete, not much is well known. There have been some decent campaigns to promote the importance of Greece as a biodiversity destination but we still have a long way to go. Greece has always been known for its high plant diversity (highest in Europe actuallly) and many botanists of the previous decades have travelled around to describe it. However, ask a random person – even a plant person – if he considers the country a summer vacation or a plant exploration destination. Obviously the strength of the images of white washed island villages and fabulous beaches is quite stronger. Visiting the country in the blazing heat of August doesn’t help you realize what lies beneath those naked soils and dried up shrubs. But come in April and see how Santorini explodes with colour by pink stocks and yellow daisies and you’ll be amazed. In fact correctly timing your trip to Greece to perceive the wealth of its flora is key. And you don’t have to forget about the sea; add a small side trip in August to an alpine area of some of our highest mountains and you’ll be shocked at the variety of alpines flowering with a backdrop of the sea you’ve been swimming in 2.500m further down!


 

I recall you saying how Greece is a different country in spring after winter rains. Most people visit Greece for summer holidays but few come in spring. How would you describe a Greek spring in terms of the landscape?

Spring here is pure madness! You simple can’t take in what’s going on within those few months of the year. For me what characterizes it, is the the speed of how things are changing. You visit a hillside one day and you come back after two weeks only to realize that almost everything you see is different. You can ‘blame’ our weather for that. For an average site, a change from regular night freeze in February to temperatures in the 90’s in May is not unusual. So everything has to go fast. As soon as the bulbs dare to rise above the ground, the annuals come running above them, then the shrubs thicken and overshadow everything. Add to that the dramatic landscape of thousands of islands, mountains and cliffs dispersed throughout the country and you realize how abundant and diversified plants can be in this small country. I can’t remember a single time I’ve went through the same trail or dirt road for the tenth time or more and hadn’t found myself saying ‘ wow, this grows here as well? how come I’ve never noticed it?’.


 

The banks of Mt.Hymettus are alive with Centranthus ruber,  Phlomis fruticosa and Euphorbia acanthothamnos

The banks of Mt. Hymettus are alive with Centranthus ruber, Phlomis fruticosa and Euphorbia acanthothamnos.

Mountains are like islands in the air because they have endemic flora not seen elsewhere, and Greece, being a mountainous country, is therefore floristically rich. For an overseas visitor looking for a short botanical outing from Athens, where would you suggest as a starting point or introduction? I imagine that timing is important.

You don’t have to stray much from Athens to appreciate our flora. The city is built in a basin surrounded by three big mountains, Hymettus, Parnis and Pentelikon. They all have very rich flora – in fact Mt.Parnis has been turned into a National Park, but my favorite has to be Mt. Hymettus, the mountain I grew up looking up to from my village. Once covered by extensive Pinus halepensis forests, which are still present at the northern end of the mountain, it was severely burned by wildfires during World War I and II, only to reveal and strengthen the populations of bulbs and shrubs that were hiding underneath. Get ready to fill your camera with pictures of orchids. The mountain claims to have the richest orchid diversity in Europe. Some 40 plus species of mainly Ophrys and Orchis are to be found between its limestone rocks. And a walk through the ‘frygana’ (maquis shrubs) will lift your nose into mint heaven – Salvia, Satureja, Thymbra, Micromeria and more Lamiaceae genera occupy every space available. Or visit in autumn to enjoy the abundant displays of autumn bulbs – Cyclamen, Sternbergia, Urginea, Crocus and Colchicum – following the first rains.

Ophrys tenthredinifera, one of the many orchid species you   are very likely to come upon on Mt.Hymettus

Ophrys tenthredinifera, one of numerous orchid species found at Mt. Hymettus.


Scutellaria orientalis carpets the banks of middle  elevations of Mt.Giona in Central Greece.

Scutellaria orientalis carpets the banks of middle elevations of Mt.Giona in Central Greece.

What are your favorite mountain ranges in Greece you enjoy seeing again and again? Why?
The mountains of central Greece, an area known here as Roumeli. A series of never ending peaks, with a range between 2000 and 2500 meters, with a difficult to cross trail and dirt road network that hold a very rich plant diversity as they combine elements from the Peloponnese in the south and Northern Greece and the Balkans in the north. It is an area I’ve been traditionally visiting since I was a child for Easter vacation – the area is known to have the most traditional Easter celebrations in Greece – and learned to appreciate it early on. I never get bored visiting the slopes of Mt.Giona turning blue and yellow with Salvia ringens and Scutellaria orientalis in spring or the high valleys of Mt.Oeta – rich in streams and small freshwater lakes edged by Gentiana asclepiadea surrounded by Abies cephalonica forest.


 

Some endemic alpine plants like Campanula oreadum or Aquilegia ottonis ssp. amaliae highlight the joys of seeing them thriving in their natural habitats. Do you have a wish list of plants you are keen to see?

A really long one! With a current count of 6.600 species and subspecies and a 15% percentage of endemism in the county, it’s hard not to always dream on finding that special plant when I venture into the wild. Lilium rhodopaeum, a yellow lily growing near our northern borders; a number of our very rare fritillaries like the mainly turkish endemic Fritillaria elwesii only to be found in Greece on the tiny most eastern island of Kastellorizo,the endemic to the island of Chios, Fritillaria pelinaea, F.rhodokanakis from the island of Hydra and F. theophrasti from the island of Lesvos; Stachys pangaea only to be found on Paggaion mountain in northern Greece; a beautiful thyme, Thymus laconicus from southern Peloponnese; a beautiful pink Dianthus arpadianus from Samothrace; Cephalaria squamiflora, a really peculiar in the genus, endemic o some Aegean islands; Centaurea pseudocadmea, with bright purple flowers over a mat of silver foliage, found only on three mountain tops in central Greece; and the list goes on! I should stop now.


 

It was encouraging to see a large number of Greek youth hiking the trail during the EU budget crisis. Have outdoor pastimes typically been popular with the young Greeks?

This is one of the few sectors where the crisis has helped. Following a developing trend of reconnecting with nature – be it gardening, hiking or leaving city centers to find agricultural work i the countryside, young Greeks are slowly rediscovering the Greek mountains. Islands like Ikaria and Samothrace where hikes are a ‘must’ are in fashion and groups of young Greeks arranging to hike Mt.Olympus or the dragon lakes of Mt. Tymfi in northern Greece isn’t something you would normally hear about ten years ago.


Androcymbium rechingeri covers the ground of Elafonisi in  western Crete.

Androcymbium rechingeri covers the ground of Elafonisi in western Crete.

Mountains are like islands in the air because they have endemic flora not seen elsewhere, and Greece, being a mountainous country, is therefore floristically rich. For an overseas visitor looking for a short botanical outing from Athens, where would you suggest as a starting point or introduction? I imagine that timing is important. 

Surely not enough! Visiting the Greek islands in winter and spring when all the plant action is taking place, needs careful planning and plenty of time. I can say that I have quite a comprehensive view of the magnificent and highly endemic floras of Karpathos and Rhodes in the Dodecanesse, I’ve lived and botanized a bit in Lemnos and Lesvos in the northern Aegean sea but the island of Lefkada is probably the one where I can tell you what grows where exactly.

Paeonia rhodia, fills the forest of the central mountains   of Rhodes with its cinnamon scent

Paeonia rhodia, fills the forest of the central mountains of Rhodes with its cinnamon scent.

Definitely the Greek islands hold many phyto-surprises – smelling the cinnamon aroma of Paeonia rhodia as you walk around the cypress forests of Rhodes, walking along a strip of sand in January and getting blown over by wind to reach a big population of Androcymbium rechingeri on the island of Elafonisi in Crete, trying to find a trail in the thick mixed forests of Mt.Olympos in Lesvos to reach a full flowering Rhododendron luteum (the only Rhododendron species in our country), climbing on cliffs to get that perfect shot of the most beautiful and heavy flowering ssp. of Dianthus fruticosus (D.fruticosus ssp. carpathus), talking with tens of farmers in the mountain villages of Lefkada to find clues as to where the small populations of the two native peonies (Paeonia peregrina and P. mascula) might be, are some of the most vivid images I have from my island trips..

Dianthus fruticosus ssp. carpathus prefers to grow   vertically on the most unaccesible rocks of the island of Karpathos.

Dianthus fruticosus ssp. carpathus prefers to grow vertically on the most inaccessible rocks of the island of Karpathos.


 

It is easy to build a reference library of books on Greek flora in no time, although carrying them around isn’t convenient. Are there specific lightweight guides you like to trot on your botanical excursions?

I don’t go anywhere without two of my books. One is ‘Vascular Plants of Greece; an annotated checklist’ basically a list of species on the greek territory, but carefully designed to help you figure out what is growing where. The other is an older Greek book, ‘The Botanical Paradises of Greece’ by George Sfikas, in which each chapter refers to a particular plant diverse area of Greece, some info on access and then lists of most important plants to be found there.


Campanula incurva inhabits any crack available at the mountain of Pelion in central Greece.

Campanula incurva inhabits any available cracks at Mt. Pelion in central Greece.

The Campanulaceae is one of the largest flowering plant families in Greece. Do you have a reliable way to eyeball the differences among the genera in the field?

That’s true, Campanulaceae has its center of speciation around this part of the world, counting more than species, especially in the genus Campanula. Although some are quite obvious to key, for example Asyneuma giganteum is too big of an Asyneuma to confuse with the rest in the genus which all look similar or Campanula columnaris and Campanula incurva are simply too beautiful to forget. But the are many species, usually rock dwelling mat forming monocarpic species that need a very careful eye – if not a microscope. In fact botanists in Greece have been puzzled by those species for years and new research is currently taking place as to if some traditionally ones like Campanula celsii are sole species or many merged together. It is an exciting family.


 

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Myosotis alpestris, a forget-me-not also found in eastern Turkey.

Eastern Turkey shares similar flora as the region is part of the Mediterranean basin. What surprised you during your first visit to Turkey?

I was excited to find out that even though I could tell apart what genus is everything, the species found in the area were different. Although we share many plants with our neighboring floristically rich country, evolution has created a wealth of different species on each side of the Aegean.


In addition to leading botanical expeditions, you maintain two gardens, one at your parents’ and another at your uncle’s home in an Athens suburb. Besides water rationing and mosquitoes, what challenges do you face gardening in the climate?

Perhaps the most irritating gardening factor in our local climate is the constant northern winds, especially in summer. That means that your watering needs are multiplying; they were already high with a 5 month period of day temperatures between 30-43 degrees Celsius. Top mulching is usually blown in the air and nothing seems to be holding upright by itself. But as in all gardening situations you learn to live with it


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Your garden at your parents’ home doesn’t resemble a usual plant collector’s garden – plants aren’t jumped together like a hodgepodge in a curiosity cabinet. The view from the top terrace shows masses blurring together and you practiced restraint in having a central gravel patio whose space otherwise would have given over to more plants. Did you have an edict from your parents regarding the space or they instead entrusted you to the job?

The original garden was a fruit tree/vegetable garden with some lawn and the classic rose borders, that my father who took care of it was very fond of. So my ‘eradication’ plan had to be done step by step and it took years. One day a rose bush or two went missing, the other day a bit of lawn was removed to plant a Salvia. I’ve completely taken over the space now but you can still find some of the old lemon and oranges trees that I now appreciate for the shade they provide to my potted bulbs. The truth is that by August the garden is practically inaccessible in most parts, as many plants are left to do their own thing, despite my daily pinching walks around the garden. But that’s what I mostly love about this garden, those that are very confined and clipped into perfection are just driving me crazy!

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The range of plants sold in local nurseries or garden centers looks limited to the usual suspects, and it seems that specialist nurseries outside of Greece are the source of your plants. Do you have favorite sources you wish to share with readers?

Practically, vising one local garden center here is like having visited all around the country. They are packed with traditionally favorite shrubs and climbers like bougainvilleas, oleanders and gardenias, of course lots of petunias and other annuals for the spring gardening frenzy, which will be sacrificed by June/July to the heat and not much more. A couple of specialists have sprung up here and there but essentially if you need diversity you need to search outside the borders.

I’m very fond of the specialist nurseries in France and a number of them are specializing in Mediterranean shrubs and perennials that my mind is set on these days. Apart from the perfection of quality and variety you can find in Pepiniere Filippi (their catalog can turn you into a Cistus lover in seconds), I enjoy the specialized offerings of Les Senteurs du Quercy, Pepiniere de l’Armalette and Pepiniere botanique de Vaugines. And of course, if you love Salvias, you’ll have to get in touch with Elisa Benvenuti and her nursery Le essenze di Lea in Italy.


 

Olivier Filippi is one noticeable name associated with Mediterranean or dry climate gardening, and the number of plants listed in his book shows how limited the diversity of garden plants is represented as oleander, geraniums, and bougainvillea are used again and again. Does tradition have a restricting influence?

It certainly does in Greece, where people have cultivated the same garden plants for years and their vision is very limited. Also there is a lack of wanting to love things that look different. I’ll give you an example. Many people in the north of the country have problems keeping their Gardenias alive in winter with the freezes. Let’s say you present them with a single Gardenia that can be hardy for them. You’ll hardly get any buyers as the flower is simply not double, hence not beautiful enough. In addition to that, there is literally no gardening culture regarding to xeric or dry climate gardening here, so that hardens the case. Try to convince a person to plant the so well adapted Phlomis fruticosa in their garden. You’ll only get ‘ but this stuff grows everywhere around in the mountains, it is a weed!’ Thankfully there are exceptions and the Mediterranean Garden Society has done much to change it.


 

Salvia pinnata, one of the new mediterranean species in my   collection

Salvia pinnata, one of the new Mediterranean species in Dariotis’s collection.

The mint family (Lamiaceae) is a specialty of yours . What genera currently capture your interests?

There’s just something unique in the form of a Lamiaceae flower that attracts me. I’m still looking for that Lamiaceae member that I wouldn’t like! Even weedy things like Stachys arvense and Lamium amplexicaule can make me happy.

I’ve been collecting salvias for many years, although I’m slowly turning my attention towards the Mediterranean species and giving up on many of the New World species that just refuse to stay alive with the summer heat or when they do they stop flowering and look miserable. But the trio of Teucrium, Sideritis and Stachys is what I’m in love with these days.

Teucrium aureum, one of the new species in my  collection

Teucrium aureum, a newly acquired species in Dariotis’s collection.

As I collect new species, I am amazed at how different their foliage textures and scents are and how much neglect they can take.


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Oxalis perdicaria, one of the numerous geophytic Oxalis that form Dariotis’s extensive bulb collection.

Bulbs are another person obsession as I recall seeing several dozen pots of dormant bulbs in the propagation area.

A set of 50 mixed tulip/daffodils/muscari bulbs was probably the first plant purchase I did for myself when I was a child. I planted them all in pots, one by one, and then waited. Most did terribly. I was furious! Back then I dedicated myself to grow tulips beautifully, and I managed but that obsession lasted few years. It wasn’t until I grew again some Sparaxis tricolor bulbs some 10 years ago that it hit me again. It opened my mind towards South African bulbs. In our similar climate they can grow excellent, and they are so easy to multiply or grow from seed, which also gave me the idea of helping my income by growing and selling them online. I have now lost count of the number of bulb species and varieties in my pot area, probably around 1000. My favorite genus though is Oxalis, of which I grow around 150 species and constantly adding more. It is a pleasure to watch them filling their small pots and there are always some species in flower from September to May.

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The amazing bicolor flowers of South African bulb Geissorhiza radicans found in moist sandy or granite soils in the southwest Cape.


 

I can’t help test your knowledge of Greek mythology but what Greek deity do you identify the most with and why? It doesn’t have to relate to your interest in plants.

I’ll forget my constant Dionysian appetite for eating good and dancing and I’ll go with Hermes, due to his affiliation with travelling and moving fast, much as I like to do in my everyday life.


 

Thapsia garganica, a very attractive Apiaceae species that  could earn a spot in a garden

Thapsia garganica, a very attractive Apiaceae species that could earn a spot in a garden.

Umbellifers are very popular in today’s gardens for their loose wild feel and pollinator benefits. Ferula communis and Orlaya grandiflora from Greece are two species widely grown. Any potential species you would like to see cultivated more and not having an aggressive potential?

First one that comes to mind is Thapsia garganica, which looks like a dwarfed more refined version of Ferula communis. Watching it unfurl its umbels from its thick stems in spring is a joy. Then Malabaila aurea, a fast growing intense yellow annual species with the most attractive seed heads. And Seseli gummiferum ssp. crithmifolium for its beautiful grey foliage and fat flowerheads – you’ll just need a constant drying sea breeze to make it look perfect – good luck.


The flowers of Carlina tragacanthifolia reflect the had sun on an August day around the coasts of the island Karpathos in the Dodecanese

The flowers of Carlina tragacanthifolia reflect the had sun on an August day around the coasts of the island Karpathos in the Dodecanese.

What is your desert island plant?

It’s a very spiny one! Carlina tragacanthifolia, an endemic species of the southeastern Aegean islands, which I have seen growing magnificently around the coasts of Karpathos. Huge, lethally spiny, silvery grey cushions, dotted under the baking sun with big shiny yellow daisies, this is one of the few plants that can look amazing in that situation in the middle of August.


 

What do you look forward to the most?
More plants, more plants, more plants. Growing them, seeing them in the wild and talking about them.


Thank you Eleftherios!

Foreign Gardeners: Ryan, from California to Jordan


Ryan’s  studies and experience has taken him through Longwood Gardens and also the Jersusalem Botanic Garden, two places I know well and have been lucky to experience . So when I learned that Ryan accepted a position in Jordan, I knew that his experience in Israel at the J.B.G. would be a great benefit to him and looked forward to seeing what kind of work he was getting into. This series provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about Ryan’s work, what he is witnessing in the landscape and see how it is progressing. Enjoy his story and his stunning images. – James


 

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with Rheum palaestinum in the Badia Eastern Desert, Jordan

 Hello Ryan, would  you be so kind as to share with our readers your name and what is your current work position?

Hello, I am Ryan Guillou, the Nursery Manager at the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan.


 

A cross-section of life in California

Where are you from originally in the United States and when did you make the move abroad?

  I am from Venice Beach, California and I moved to Amman, Jordan in November of 2015 for my position.

Amman Sunset

Another Amman Sunset

What was it that spurred the big move halfway across  the world to Jordan?

I wanted to move back to the Middle East and I liked the idea of playing a role in a budding garden’s development.


“Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds….”


Nursery work in the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan (click on image for more)


What an exciting, and admirable, reason for your decision.  With that sort of role you must be responsible for some interesting tasks in the garden, can you give us some background on what those responsibilities include?

As you might expect my job is to grow native Jordanian plants for the garden (we only grow natives), but because horticulture as we think of in the West is not as widely appreciated, the role has expanded a great deal.  My staff are from the local community whose primary income before working at the garden was herding sheep and goats.  I spend much of my time working with my staff and teaching them about how to propagate and grow, where the plants come from in Jordan, and how we can use different methods and materials to expand production and make our facilities more efficient and organized.  Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds.

stunning views, camels and plants: details of past trips (click on image for more)


Another large part of my job is to go on collecting trips throughout Jordan.  All of our plants at the garden are wild collected, so I can be in the field 1 to 3 times per month for several days collecting with the botany team and bringing members of my growing team along when space is available.  Most of my staff have not seen much of the country, so it is vital that they understand where the plants we grow are from in order to take care of them properly in the nursery.


 

Carpets of native plants, Anemones and Lupines (click on image for more)


Tell us about a typical day for you in the gardens at work?

On average I spend most of my time checking on various growing and development projects between my two nursery sites, giving out money then threatening them (jokingly) for receipts,  and managing expenses.  I swear, we gardeners get into this profession to work with plants hands on, but as we rise in position we find ourselves more and more behind a desk!!!  We have hundreds of thousands of plants to grow, so we have many deliveries of various materials coming in to keep operations moving and expand facilities.  It is not very often that I get to actually plant anything anymore, but the staff are becoming more and more experienced and knowledgeable so it allows me to work on planning for other projects.


 

Plants of the Eastern Desert and Wadi Araba, Jordan (click on image for more)


Living in another country is a much different experience than visiting other countries.   What do you think are the benefits of living abroad and working in the horticulture field?

There is a great deal of habitat disturbance in Jordan, and gardening is not as developed here as in the West.  When I tell people what I do and then explain the role of a botanic garden, people are always shocked and smile.  I think the best benefit is the appreciation people give me for having such an unusual job in a country that is surrounded by such conflict.  Many people I meet tell me that it is refreshing to finally meet an expat in Jordan that does not work in the humanitarian field.

There must be some difficulties that you have encountered while adapting to  living in Jordan, what types of struggles would those be?

The two biggest would be the language barrier and a lack of openness to new ideas.  However, my Arabic is improving and I can function quite well with most day to day issues along with communicating ideas and directions with my team.  As for trying to get others to accept new ideas…… I have learned to adopt a more local method by ignoring and doing things the way I want them to be done.  When in Rome…..or the Middle East!

Were there any surprising changes that you didn’t expect but have welcomed and enjoyed?

Assimilating into the Jordanian society and my transformation into a local.  I love being able to just blend in and not have a taxi driver or a store clerk suspect that I am a foreigner.  I have caught my self starting sentences with ” In Jordan we…”, and even my American accent has changed when I speak English.  Whenever I visit the States people ask where I am from.


 

(click images for more)


You mentioned that there seems to be a lack of openness to new ideas there, so how has that affected you as a horticulturist?

The most direct struggle relates to my job.  I spend most of my time trying to find growing materials, otherwise we would spend a fortune to import everything from Europe.  We are so spoiled as horticulturists in the West with so many basic resources at our disposal such as ready made potting mixes, different types of containers and growing medias, and experts to ask for advice.  Despite the struggle, I have learned to become very resourceful and creative with what can be re-purposed or made from scratch.  As a plant nerd it can also be frustrating not to have the large variety of plants at retail nurseries like I had in California.  There are so many plants I would love to grow at my apartment, but I can not get my grubby little mits on them!

How did you find your current job in Jordan all the way from California?

     Oddly enough, Facebook.  My previous manager who hired me posted the position on the Group for Emergent Professionals page.  I responded, and here I am now.

What advice would you give to others who are looking to move from one country to another?

     Make sure you do your research about the city where you are planning to move.  It is vital to know if the position, cost of living, culture, and social seen  together can provide you with a life that is affordable and keep you sane.  Moving to a new country is a challenge and your overall happiness is most important to handle the stresses of the new environment.

Did you do anything to prepare yourself for this type of life change?

I had some long talks with myself  about whether taking this job was the right move for me, and I made a pros and cons list.  Once I decided to take the position I used different social media sites like couchsurfing.com to make friends before I arrived.  For me it is very important to have friends to see after work, and they have truly become my family here.


 

Wadi: a valley, ravine, or channel that is dry except in the rainy season. (click for more)


Immersing oneself in a new environment is always a sensory experience, there is so much to see and absorb. Tell us about a great memory you have had so far in your new environment?

Definitely the first time I entered Wadi Rum in the south of Jordan.  The massive sandstone mounts and sweeping red sand dunes still amaze me after visiting dozens of times.

What misconceptions do people usually have about what it is like to live and work in Jordan?

One of the largest misconceptions is that Jordan is unsafe due to the conflicts in the region.  Though presence of ISIS in neighboring Syria and Iraq are not to be taken lightly, Jordan is a very safe and stable country and I do not feel that my life is at threat.  Another misconception………. yes, you can find alcohol and drink in Jordan.  Amman has a variety bars and pubs, and Jordan even grows its own wine and produces a local craft beer.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice before this change, what would it be?

Nothing really.  Life is an adventure and you just need to accept all of the ups and downs that come with it.  I am glad I moved, and I can honestly say that my younger self never expected to end up where my current self is now.

Flowering bulbs and Ryan for scale with Urginea maritima

New country and new plants, do you have a new favorite plant that you can grow now that you weren’t able to  before?

     That is a tough one because I am from a Mediterranean climate and now working in another Mediterranean climate.  Probably many of the bulbs like Fritillaria persica which need some cold to flower.  Coastal Southern California is too mild for many commonly grown geophytes to flower properly, if at all.

Relaxing on the Balcony

It sounds like you have found your place and its wonderful to see you thriving and happy in your position there. If and when you return home to live, what horticultural or life lesson have you learned from your current country, that you will remember and take back with you?

     The importance of putting effort into your happiness.  Living here is not always easy and it especially was not in the beginning, but I put a great deal of effort into meeting friends, creating my community, and improving my work environment in order to create a life for myself that is fulfilling.  It is up to me to decide if I want to be miserable or happy, and I will take that mantra with me to wherever I move next.


Thank you for being a part of our Foreign Gardener Series, it has been a pleasure to look into your world and seeing the incredible experience you are having through horticulture.  If you would like to reach out the Ryan, please leave your comment or question below and we will happily pass it on.  To do some further reading, click on the link below. Thank you again Ryan. – James

Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan


Foreign Gardeners: Carrie, from the U.S. to the Netherlands


My introduction to Carrie Preston was through a mutual friend and other half of Plinth et al. Eric, when we were putting together a list of interesting candidates to interview for our Foreign Gardener series.  After seeing some of Carrie’s projects and learning that she was living in the Netherlands, I was even more excited and intrigued, having lived there myself. It’s an incredibly beautiful country to live in and experience so I was curious to see it from a different perspective and point of view and through the eyes of  Carrie. Her immense talent in horticulture is obvious, from which you will see,  and I found her openness and candor about her life there refreshing. Thank you Carrie. – James


 

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Contemplating the next project….


Hello Carrie, a pleasure to speak with you and get to know more about your work. I know what you incredible work you do but would you please share with our readers who you are and in what aspect of the horticulture world you work in?

Carrie Preston and I presently work as a designer of mostly residential gardens through my own design studio, Studio TOOP. I started the business 10 years ago.

a small cross-section of the landscape in New Jersey

Where are you originally from and where did you move to?

I am originally from New Jersey (on the Shore), USA and I studied in Pennsylvania, in the Delaware Valley. After a short internship here in 1998, followed by a year and a half of traveling, I moved to the Netherlands in 2000.

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early Dutch memories, already smiling among the plants

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to move to the Netherlands?

I could come up with all sorts of rational reasons why I wanted to go to the Netherlands – excellence in horticulture, urban design and planning, central location in Europe, left-leaning politics – and all those reasons would be valid and true. But the heart of the matter is, there was a girl in my kindergarten class who moved to the Netherlands with her family. We were pen pals for a while, but the letters faded. Still I was left with a fascination with the Netherlands and a desire to visit. It gained a sort of mythology for me, and so when the time came to travel and see the world after I finish my studies, the Netherlands was at the top of my list of places to go.


‘It is remarkable how life has crossroads and how powers outside yourself sometimes decide things for you.’


The move was meant to be temporary, but life has a way of happening. I originally came here for an internship. I then made a trip around the world before coming back to NL for what I thought would be masters study in Landscape Architecture (I have a bachelor’s degree in Horticulture and Sustainable Agriculture that I earned in the U.S.). I wound up not finishing the study but stayed in NL because of a relationship and before you know it, here I am, almost 18 years later. It is remarkable how life has crossroads and how powers outside yourself sometimes decide things for you.

Studio TOOP  Hof van de vierde sortie

Studio TOOP Hof van de vierde sortie

 Can you share with us some of the daily responsibilities that come with your job at Studio Toop?

I generally have between 8 and 12 projects going at once. Design work is an intense process and I spend a lot of time really getting to know my client and the location. Besides the design I also am involved during the build process and often do the planting myself. Over the years I have developed a great team of experts who I work with and rely on for different aspects of the job – from technical drawing to masonry to management of complex planting schemes after the garden is realized.

Studio TOOP  Hof van de vierde sortie

Studio TOOP Hof van de vierde sortie

There are always benefits to doing things outside of your comfort zone. What would you say you have found to be some of those benefits to living abroad as a gardener?

Living abroad forces you to challenge your assumptions, also in regards to landscape. Things like foundation plantings in the U.S. or the ubiquitous fence or hedge here, you question. Why is this done? Is it appropriate here? Because the default mode is different in different places, you become aware that it is a default mode and know that another solution is always possible. This allows you to think in solutions and to design with intention.

details of a Dutch life and landscape

 In addition to this, the Netherlands has very unique relationship to nature, being that so much of the land is man-made. This challenged a lot of my notions of the natural and made me see the make-ability of many landscapes. I have become more free in how I approach a space now than I think might I had not lived here. I am not afraid to radically change a space, if it has purpose. My view of the natural has become less romantic and more pragmatic – very Dutch!

Smalle_tuinkamer-Afb-10The flatness of the landscape here has taught me the power of tiny elevation changes and I have become a master of small spaces.

What has been wonderful about living here is the ready availability and affordability of plants. The Netherlands has an almost incomparable nursery industry. It has been possible for me, even with a limited budget, to experiment with plants in a way I likely couldn’t have elsewhere.

Inclusieve_Tuin_juni2013-Slider-04With the positive points there are always a few negative ones. What would you say are some of the difficulties you have encountered in your new country?

One of things I most underestimated is that when you move to a new country you completely give up your network. This might be less the case now than it was 18 years ago, but all those small contacts you make throughout the years — the person you know from that class you took when you were a kid, or that friend of your father’s or friend of a friend – all those small connections that can help you get things done, bring you clients, be your in, they are all gone. Add to that the language difficulty and your illiteracy with the subtleties of the culture and it is much harder to navigate many situations. The job you would have easily in your home country, you don’t get because you came on too strong, or worded things in a way that lacked subtly, or just aren’t familiar in a way that works.

There comes a point that this shifts. That you understand the culture and language well enough to navigate its subtleties and then your foreignness becomes charming and something that helps people remember you by. But for me that was an investment that took several years.

Specific to the Dutch situation in combination with my personality is that the Dutch tend to value the understated and a more reserved quality. I tend to be very “present” which is something that is very much encouraged in American culture but is frowned upon in Dutch culture. In Dutch culture the goal often seems to be to not to stand out. I am not good at that. Early on in my years here I struggled to tone things down. I think maybe I have, but now I know the culture well enough that I can successfully be bold and my own person without this being off putting like it was in the beginning.

Inclusieve_Tuin_juni2013-Afb-06What have some of the struggles been in the horticulture field while there?

In the Netherlands the distinction between public and private space is quite significant. There is a limited amount of space that falls in between smaller residential gardens and larger public space. Few companies have campuses and larger properties and estates are really the exception, at least in the urban west where I live. This means I have to work very hard to earn a good living. Slowly I am building enough of a reputation and and marketing myself differently so as to attract larger projects with larger financial returns. Out of a sort of idealism I think I waited too long with this. I believe in making gardens for more typical households, but doing so means I need to do a lot more assignments to earn enough. I am still trying to find the balance in this.

Studio Toop understands the importance and beauty of detail…

When I came here a sort of bare minimalism was very much in fashion. Coming from a culture with a much more romantic image of gardens and a much more romantic idea of nature, this was confronting and alienating. At first I really couldn’t relate to or appreciate the style but through the years it has grown on me. I understand the need for clarity in such limited space. The straight lines in the designs of gardens echo that of the landscape. It makes sense here. That said, I have never converted to the more extreme, starker minimalism that appeals to some of my Dutch colleagues. My designs have always maintained a sort of nonchalance and finding a way to combine this with the Dutch clarity has become something distinctive about the way I work.

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leisure in the landscape, the wonderful Dutch outlook on enjoying life

So, on the flip side what was a surprising change that you have welcomed and enjoyed outside of the realm you were used to?

It’s always ironic how these things work, but the aspect of Dutch culture that I found most difficult at first has wound up being the thing that is probably the healthiest and best influence on me. Dutch culture is not ambitious or competitive in the same way that American, or more generally, Anglo-Saxon, culture is. There is much more a collective sense of things. If we achieve, we achieve things as a group. There are subtle discouragements and controls to make sure you don’t stand out or excel too much.

To a large extent this is a way of being I have difficulty identifying with – or did for a long time. It can definitely be a negative thing, not allowing people to grow and be all they can be. But it can also be positive in the sense that there is much more of a life work balance and much more enjoyment of what you do and have achieved, rather than constantly looking for your next goal and comparing yourself either with others or some unrealistic ideal of who you think should be. I am a recovering perfectionist and Dutch culture, and to a large extent, this aspect of it, have been instrumental in that recovery.

Holland is a forgiving place, where if you mess up, there are safety nets and second chances. I’ve had a couple of tough years for various reasons and NL has been a kind and forgiving place to fall apart and put myself back together – to learn to be kinder to myself and to know that I am more than the things I do or how I perform.

Tell us now how you found your current job?

I made my current job. I had come here right after graduating from college without having had any real valuable work experience yet in the US. Coming to NL really set me back. It was near impossible for me to find a job at first. All the niches seemed so well defined and it felt like I fell between the grooves and wasn’t qualified to do much of anything. I did  what I could: yard work, cleaning houses, working at at cafe. I tried working at a garden center but I was only allowed to work the register and forbidden to really talk to customers. I tried finding a job at a botanical garden and wasn’t even granted an interview. Frustrated, I earned a teaching degree with the idea that it would offer me some financial stability and the option to work part time while I built my own business. And that’s what I did. I taught school part time for 3 years before choosing to focus full time on my business.

DSC_1488I am very aware, from having lived there, that the Netherlands landscape is very flat compared to the U.S., how has this difference played out in your work, or affected your way of thinking while designing?

The landscape here makes you respect and value small changes in elevation. I causes you to think about space differently. Also the linearity of the landscape has very much affected my work.

What advice would you give to others in your situation, who are about to make this sort of transition similar to yours?

I think the world now is such a different place than it was 18 years ago when I moved. You can make contacts ahead of time before you move somewhere. You can build your network from afar. You can, and I think should, make use of these opportunities. I went into this transition rather blind, without a clear goal or strategy. I would not do this again, and while it has worked out for me, it has set me back some years. I can argue those “wasted years” fed and formed me in different and valuable ways and they have. Life in whatever form, always does.  It was a difficult route though.

Before this change took place what kinds of things did you do to prepare yourself for the Netherlands?

I read some books on Dutch culture and language but it was all fairly superficial and didn’t really prepare me for reality. But 18 years ago information was so, so much harder to find.

IMG_1208Now that you find yourself more settled, what is one of the greater memories you have so far of your experiences your new environment?

What I really love, and will never tire of, is the amazing diversity of landscapes in a small area. I hike and bike a lot and in one day I can find myself in expansive heather fields in the morning, biking through an agricultural landscape in the afternoon and then sitting at a cafe or visiting a cultural event in Amsterdam or Utrecht in the evening. And this isn’t a once in a while, what a great moment kind of thing. This is a normal lifestyle for me. I love and am thankful for that.

Vleuten-Afb-04Prior to the big move, if you could give your younger self some advice for this life change, what would it have been?

Don’t try too hard to adapt. Don’t overcompensate. You are not Dutch and that is okay. You can respect this new environment without losing sight of who you are and the strengths this offers you.

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A lived in garden is a successful garden, clearly Studio Toop knows…

Now, before you go, please let us know what is your new favorite plant that you can grow now that you weren’t able to grow before?

I think it is more the general lushness of the plants I can grow that I love. Lots of rain equals lots of happy plants.


Thanks for taking the time to be a part of our Foreign Gardener series Carrie, we appreciate the insight on the life of a gardener overseas.  If you’d like to ask Carrie a question or comment please do so below, and to read further about the incredible work Carrie and Studio Toop is creating please click on the links provided. Thank you again Carrie.  – James


Website: StudioToop: gardens with life

email: info@studiotoop.nl

Instagram: @studiotoop

Facebook: Studio TOOP

Pinterest: Studio TOOP

Houzz: Studio TOOP


Foreign Gardeners: Nick, from the U.S. to France


Longwood Gardens has been responsible for helping to shape many knowledgeable and talented gardeners along the way and Nick is one of them.   When I was a student studying at Longwood, I remember meeting Nick in the Idea Garden where I was working one summer month. It was one of the many areas he was responsible for and while working together he helped teach me how to maneuver and work in a large perennial border.  His horticulture knowledge, sense of humor and his pot displays were always a highlight when visiting this part of Longwood. Excited to see where your future and new opportunity takes you Nick.  – James


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Hello Nick, thanks  for agreeing to be part of the ‘Foreign Gardener’ series.  I know who you are but for our readers could you please introduce yourself and tell us what your profession is?

As you know, my name is Nicholas Tomlan and my current occupation is botanical director at Château de Chenonceau  in the Loire valley, France.


 

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Trading the beauty of Delaware to the beauty of France..

Where are you from originally and when was it that you made the move to France?

I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and went to the University of Delaware.  Not long after graduating I was hired at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA just 15 minutes from Wilmington.

After 15 years and diverse experiences at Longwood Gardens we packed up and moved to France in December of 2014, where my wife is from.  The move was to be close to my wife’s family and also because I’ve been dreaming about living here since we got married over 10 years ago.  I fell in love with the culture, the cuisine and of course the gardens.

Tell us a little about your previous experience at Longwood Gardens, including some of the responsibilities you had in the garden and what it was like to work there.

Back at Longwood I worked in many different areas of the garden.   I literally started cutting the grass, which I secretly enjoyed immensely, and then moved over to the main fountain garden.  From there I switched to the nursery for 3 years to help look after all the replacement trees growing there and to receive and plant out any new arrivals to the gardens.  After the nursery, I requested to work in the idea garden as there was an opening there.  I spent 4 years there in the perennial garden and the container garden which I loved.  Then I did a stint out on the visitor’s center patio and the front gate area.  Then  as luck would have it I spent my last year and a half in the idea garden again, this time in the perennials and the vegetable garden which was wonderful.

At Longwood I truly became a gardener and learned from so many of the amazing talented horticulturists.  At Longwood if you have a plant question, there is always someone who can answer it for you.  A truly amazing wealth of knowledge exists there and to be able to tap into it was quite formative.

So, as crazy as it sounds I gave it all up to try life in France which was calling me.  We packed up and moved without any job lined up but with some good leads.  I don’t know how to explain it but I just had a feeling that it would work out and luckily I was right.  I knew that’s where we needed to be at that point in our lives and it just felt right so we went for it.  We had the chance to stay with my wife’s family about 45 minutes south of Paris near Fontainebleau.  I knew the area pretty well since we had been visiting at least once a year since 2004.

That’s quite a leap to make. What has been a welcome change that you have enjoyed since moving?

Within a 20 minute radius from their house, you have the Chateau de Fontainebleau, Chateau de Courances and also Vaux le Vicomte.  These are some of the most well-known gardens in France and I remember seeing photos of them in my landscape design courses in school.  Even today it’s impressive to see them each time I get to visit and seeing those gardens years ago slowly changed my perspective on gardens and design.  Coming from America where formal gardens are so rare, these gardens were almost like alien planets until I understood the theories and stories behind them.

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“So, fast forward to today, and I’m working as botanical director at Chenonceau.”


 

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The immaculate upkeep of the garden of Chenonceau is apparent.

 

Congratulations on the new job Nick! Such a stunning place must have fascinating history, can you give us some highlights about some of its story?

The history of Chenonceau is quite long.  I’ll give you some of the basics though.  The castle started as a mill occupied by the Marques family.  The lone tower to the right of the castle as you approach is the only part that still exists.

The property was then purchased by the Bohier family.  Thomas Bohier was master of accounts of the city of Paris and financial administrator of Normandy, then secretary of finances of Italy, and eventually mayor of Tours.  It was his time in Italy that spurred the construction of the first part of the castle that we see today.  Very much inspired by Italian architecture, it was probably the first building in France to have a central hallway with the rooms organized to both sides.edition gaud-3124 copy

The Bohiers also started a garden that was mostly functional as were all the gardens in the late 15th century.  The main castle is built and then eventually would fall into the hands of the kingdom of France.  Henri II gave it immediately to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers, in 1547.  Diane went right to work constructing the large fortified garden we see today.  She also had the bridge built across the river but at that time it was just an open air bridge built with the arches we see today.

Her garden contained all the latest horticultural pleasures.  There were all the sorts of fruit trees, including apple, pear, plum, cherry and peach trees.  Hawthorns and hazelnuts were ornamental shrubs alongside willows and mulberries (used for silkworm production).  There were also flowers such as carnations,  daisies, lilies, ancient rose varieties, lavenders, rosemary and a new very strange plant called artichoke that was just being introduced into the regions around Chenonceau.  It was very much a mixture of function and beauty as the gardens of the time hadn’t yet separated the two aspects.  Diane held the reigns until the death of Henri II in 1559.

It was then that the somewhat jealous queen Catherine de Medici took the castle from Diane and started her own projects at Chenonceau.  Diane was given Chaumont-sur-Loire in exchange, which was oddly enough worth more than Chenonceau at the time.  Catherine started adding to the castle and to the gardens as well.  She added her own much smaller parterre to the opposite side of Diane’s.  She had created other fountains, grottos and gardens as well which unfortunately are no longer existing.  The organization of the two main gardens has changed over time but the overall layouts have stayed identical to when the two women originally laid them out.

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At work in the cutting garden…..

The gardens today are definitely more flower oriented than at the time they were created.  There is also an English type landscape called the green garden (le jardin vert) in between Catherine’s garden and the old orangeries.  It was installed during Catherine’s era but I don’t have a good history of how it was changed over the years.  We’ll be looking into the archives to figure out what the original ideas were there.  There is also a beautiful large potager that functions as a cutting garden for the florists and provides vegetables and herbs to the restaurant.

What are some of the challenges you look to address in the garden at this time? What are the future plans?

I’m here for several purposes.  One is to diversify the plant palette here.  Also, there are quite a few areas that we are looking to subtly improve for the guest experience here at the Chateau.  With 800,000 to 900,000 visitors annually, there are going to be some challenges to a beautiful garden and we are working through these one by one at the moment.

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There are some design enhancements in the works for projects small and large so I think in the next several years we should start to see some new additions in the gardens.

Also, something I’m excited to get underway will be our new accessioning system here at Chenonceau.  With the new system, we’re  working to incorporate plant labels into the garden and to catalog the living collection which has never been done here.

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One of the coolest things that I’m really looking forward to is to dig into the archives here to find out planting dates and also the history of the garden which dates back to 1551.  It’s actually one of the first true renaissance gardens in France and was heavily influenced by the formal gardens of Italy which were a relatively new style of design at the time.  So far I’m just scratching the surface here, and I think there are many more discoveries to come.

Having a new perspective on something can be an eye opener in many ways. Do you think there are benefits to living abroad as a gardener? What would you say those are…

I would say there are definitely benefits of being a gardener abroad.  I think we get too caught up in the fact that there are a lot of plants or cultivars that are different from where we’re from but you learn them pretty quickly if you’re observant.  I look at it as a challenge to use things that we couldn’t use before because of climate issues or availability of certain plants.  Coming in with a different perspective is not always a negative.  Also, I know here in France there is definitely a need for gardeners who are coming in with a lot of plant knowledge.

Growing up in America and working for a large garden like Longwood has given me a different background than other gardeners in France.  I think it would be fun to use those influences from my earlier career here in France.  I think that American style of trying new things just to try them is great and I think there will definitely be opportunities to mix it up a little here at Chenonceau.  Sometimes coming into a large historical garden with a completely different approach is beneficial and can lead to wonderful sort of hybrid style designs but I also think one has to show restraint and be sure the design works in the larger picture.

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With the benefits aside, there must have been some  difficulties you have encountered in France too? What would you say those challenges have been?

The move here wasn’t without its challenges and I could write a book about all the hurdles and adventures we’ve been through since December.  What a crazy ride!  The French love their paperwork and I have no idea how many documents we’ve compiled and signed since being here but it’s pretty impressive.  All in all it was totally worth it since now we’re really happy with the situation here and the region couldn’t be more charming.  I would say the biggest challenge sometimes is the language barrier.  I’m pretty fluent but there is a lot of technical vocabulary that you don’t really know you need until you try to tell a story or express an idea in depth or even just tell a joke.  But seriously, everyone here has been amazing making me feel like part of the team and I couldn’t have imagined it could work out as well as it has.  So just for that I am really grateful.

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Did you feel out job prospects before you moved from the U.S.? How did you find your current job at Chenonceau?

I found it to be too difficult to search for a job while still in America.  I had some leads thanks to the huge network of international gardens through Longwood.  But there were too many details with citizenship documents and so forth to really start applying to places before we moved.   So as soon as all the paperwork was straightened out and I could work legally in France, we started sending letters to all the great gardens of France and kept our fingers crossed.  After several great interviews we chose Chenonceau since it was a great opportunity to combine gardening with creativity and also to have the chance to dig into historical documents was really intriguing to me.

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Stone urns and borders overflow with stunning blooms and colors

What advice would you give to other gardeners that might find themselves in your situation?

I guess some advice I would give to other gardeners in my position is to be patient and to enjoy as much as possible what is all around us.  I try to feel like every day is sort of discovering something new here.  And I would recommend visiting as many gardens as possible in the area.  Even small gardens can sometimes inspire a plant combination or you’ll see something used in a way you hadn’t thought of.  I actually made a list and every time I see a photo or write up of a garden I don’t know I add it to the list.  Then I check them off each time I visit one.  And also visit the good ones more than once.  You’ll always see something new the second or third time.  When you’re visiting, it’s always an interesting exercise to ask yourself why you like something or not.  You’ll end up understanding the garden better if you know why something is pleasing to the eye and why it’s not as well.

If you could give your younger self some advice for this change, what would it be?

My advice to my younger self for this change would be to absolutely not ship a car to Europe!  It took 6 months and a lot of euros to get it to meet the French standards.  We love our car but it was not worth the headaches.  Just buy a car here and you’ll thank me later.  On another note I would tell myself to be realistic.

What should others do to prepare themselves for a move like this abroad?

It’s wonderful living here and I don’t regret a thing but living here and visiting on vacation are two different things.  Think about all the complications ahead of time as well, like being able to access bank funds from America in Europe, visas, citizenship documents etc.  It’s all very complicated so don’t save it for the last few months because you’ll run into problems for sure.  If you’ve made the decision to move, you already know you like it here so just enjoy as much as possible all the things that are different and live like you are on vacation!

A whole plant palette can be available when you switch countries. Tell us what your new favorite plant is that you can grow now that you weren’t able to grow before?

I’m very interested to try Gunnera manicata here as it was definitely not hardy at Longwood.  I saw it for the first time years ago on a garden trip through Normandy and Brittany growing in the French climate with colossal sized leaves.  It may sound cliché, but my interest in topiary has increased. The climate here suits many plants used for clipping a little better than the east coast of America.  When you see properly pruned topiary at Versailles and other gardens around you’ll be amazed at how dense they can be and the level of perfection is really incredible.  I see a lot of perennials that love the climate here as well that will be really fun to play with.Nicholas-87


Your story is fascinating, thank you. Can you share with us before you go, one great memory you have had so far in your new home in France?

My greatest memory so far I would say was when I accepted the position here at Chenonceau and we finally knew where we would be living for the foreseeable future.  Moving to the Loire valley has been really amazing and slowly discovering all the wonderful things to see, taste and do here has been so great.

We are in the process of buying a house so we’ve thrown another complicated adventure into the mix.  But I know it will be so much fun.  We will have a courtyard garden and I can’t wait to play with some ideas there as well.  There is a really cool plant nursery (http://www.simier.fr/) just down the road as well.  Next spring should be exciting for us.


Thanks again for agreeing to be a part of our Foreign Gardener series Nick. If you would like to ask Nick a question, leave a comment, or get in touch with Nick, please do so below, and we will gladly pass it on to him.  All the best of luck to you Nick. – James

For further reading on  the beautiful Chenonceau and Longwood Gardens  please click on the links provided below.  Merci.


Chenonceau

&

Longwood Gardens