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: Kate Blairstone, Illustrator and Print Maker

In a twist of fate, I had not realized that the Kate who had waited on our table during my February trip in Portland was a talented artist herself! Only a month later did I happened on her floral prints in her Instagram account. Her webpage is as colorful and cheerful as her personality, and Kate recently launched her online shop selling a few prints (I particularly like the Euphorbia print).


IMG_4173Please introduce yourself.

My name is Kate Blairstone – I’m 33 and live in beautiful North Portland, Oregon with my husband, dog and two cats.
Summer pink on pink: herbaceous peonies swim among rock rose (Cistus), a combination feasible in climates like that of Portland where Kate is fortunate to reside.

Summer pink on pink: herbaceous peonies swim among rock rose (Cistus), a combination feasible in climates like that of Portland where Kate is fortunate to reside.

The arts or horticulture? 
Both! I find that my many creative outlets inform and pollinate one another – it just depends on how much time there’s left in a day.
The 'Beware of Wisteria' should probably replace 'Beware of Dog' sign', and the juxtaposition, intentional or not, speaks a certain cheekiness, which Kate expresses somewhat in her work.

The ‘Beware of Wisteria’ should probably replace ‘Beware of Dog’ sign’, and the juxtaposition, intentional or not, speaks a certain cheekiness, which Kate expresses somewhat in her work.

Did your interest in gardening develop simultaneously with your professional development in art? 
Yes, in that they developed next to each other – it’s only recently that they’ve really overlapped. I’ve always been an artist, but it’s only since I’ve become a homeowner that I’ve been able to call myself a gardener. You have to have a garden to garden, right?
Like most creative types, you have a full time job at the Portland institution Besaw’s that pays your bills while you are able to produce your artwork, namely prints. How do you juggle the demands of a full time job that can limit creative output? 
When I first started at Besaw’s, I used to feel like the work depleted my creative energy available for my own outlets. In the last year I’ve been focusing more on my creativity as a practice, which really means that I can compartmentalize my output in proportion to the activity I’m working on. I’m much better at allocating only a certain time frame to a work project. I’m more efficient.
I’ve been successful at building my art practice at home by creating parameters for my work: a consistent format, process, and schedule. I feel the same way about my garden – it takes ongoing maintenance. It’s always evolving, and if you don’t stick with it it can get away from you. My husband is also an artist, so we’ve made our studio time something we do together.
Creativity can be capricious – funneling it into a productive and lucrative endeavor is always a challenge facing creative types. It’s all too easy to elapse into a dilettante when priorities divert commitment. Do you set aside blocks of time closed off to interruptions and obligations? 
I try very hard to limit my social obligations, which has been a funny transition as I’ve come out of my 20s. I used to worry over not having enough time to do everything; now I’m just much better at scheduling my time. I’d love to build my practice into a sustainable career, but at this point I’m happy to be able to create consistently. It’s gratifying to be able to see your own progress and track it over time, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike.
Artists sometimes take years to refine their techniques before they are almost confident of them. At the same time their styles evolve with age. Sometimes mastering a new tool that can bring a new dimension to your work can add to the development process. What did your education in printmaking teach and did not? 
I have a funny relationship with art school. I’ve always been someone who’s taken to lots of interests, so in some ways my choice of Printmaking as a course of study was a bit arbitrary. I transferred to art school because I wanted to take more art classes. I started out in Photography but decided I didn’t like that because it wasn’t hands-on enough, and the Printmaking department at the time had the most agreeable faculty.
I didn’t use any printmaking in my work for years after college, and still don’t print my work myself, but I think it shaped my way of image-making. I tend to think in terms of surface design and flatness; I love textiles and folk art, the way craftspeople have been interpreting the world around them for hundreds of years.
A solitary Coulter's Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) peeks forth from the chartreuse Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae; such surprise combinations inspire Kate's graphic prints.

A solitary Coulter’s Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri) peeks forth from the chartreuse Euphorbia amydaloides var. robbiae; such surprise combinations inspire Kate’s graphic prints.

How often do you play around with colors and spacing until you are satisfied with the resulting print? I find it overwhelming to pick out colors that really complement or scream the personality of the plant whenever I set to depict it in paintings. 
I usually start out with a realistic color portrayal, and then stray from there. It’s funny – some pieces are much easier than others. Sometimes I get the color relationships where I want them right away, and sometimes it takes hours. It doesn’t help that I tend to like unexpected color combinations. I love the filters in VSCO – I like to play with screen shots of my work on my phone. Sometimes the filters will tweak colors in interesting ways that I hadn’t considered. Placement is much easier, as I try to work within the same format every time.
Kate's ceramic vessels play host to enthusiastic, unrestrained bursts of floral arrangements.

Kate’s ceramic vessels play host to enthusiastic, unrestrained bursts of floral arrangements.

You enjoy collecting antique Asian ceramics. I detect a similarity between the floral motifs on these ceramics and those of your work – sometimes the juxtaposition of colors recall Asian pairings rather than Western ones. They seem lurid in the mind but they always turn out beautiful and contemporary. The Austrian-born Swedish artist and designer Josef Frank’s work comes close in the Western world. 
I love both those comparisons, thank you so much! I work often in ink, so I look at a lot of Asian porcelain, which often has a very similar line quality. I also find that the flowers and foliage depicted are often of actual plant species, rather than imagined ones. As I get to know different plants through both horticulture and drawing, I feel that I’m connecting to a long history of botanical surface design. I enjoy recognizing the plants others have drawn as well – peonies, dogwood, bamboo, chrysanthemums & bonsai – especially on antique pieces.
Josef Frank’s surface design has a similar feeling of flatness and layering, partially because we both use similar production methods. I love love love his overgrown and colorful aesthetic.
Lately I’ve been digging 60s and 70s illustration and surface design – the psychedelic color relationships remind me of golden hour in the garden.
The Swedish-Austrian designer Josef Frank's graphic botanical prints have a lot in common with Kate's work, and it isn't surprising to discover how she enjoys their playful feel.

The Swedish-Austrian designer Josef Frank’s graphic botanical prints have a lot in common with Kate’s work, and it isn’t surprising to discover how she enjoys their playful feel.

Do you have a preferred medium or media in which you render your prints? Are graphic design programs or digital printing part of the process?
I love working in ink – that’s how much of my work starts. It can be loose and heavy, or light and scratchy. I build up parts of each plant in layers of ink on tissue paper. Then I scan each layer, and colorize them in Adobe Illustrator. It’s instant gratification, but also keeps my work hands-on for much of the process.
Bright colors always tickle Kate's aesthetic senses - her photograph of these red chairs against the green foliage of cosmos reflects that preference.

Bright colors always tickle Kate’s aesthetic senses – her photograph of these red chairs against the green foliage of cosmos reflects that preference.

Retro prints are enjoying a revival as people crave bright colors as an antidote to our modern, monochromatic styles. Have any of your prints been reproduced for wallpapers and home decor? 
I’ve sold work for home decor, and would love to produce a line of wallpaper. That’s my dream! If I could have wild prints everywhere I would.
Unexpected sights, such as swags of red roses gracing the front facade of this modest house, always inspire Kate to pause and take photographs.

Unexpected sights, such as swags of red roses gracing the front facade of this modest house, always inspire Kate to pause and take photographs.

No plant seems to escape your attention – orchids, succulents, euphorias, and even temperate woody plants have been immortalized in your bold and colorful patterns. Where are you likely to seek plants for floral and botanical inspiration? 
I help with social media for the Hardy Plant Society of Oregon, so when I get a chance, there are many fabulous open gardens throughout much of the year here in Portland. I also take tons of pictures everywhere I go. I often pull off the road when driving to take pictures of plants!
Irises are a favorite of Kate who favors their brilliant colors and sword-like leaves.; here a few iris flowers really steal the scene here.

Irises are a favorite of Kate who favors their brilliant colors and sword-like leaves.; here a few iris flowers really steal the scene here.

Portland has a vibrant horticultural community that benefits from its ideal climate for plants. What are some of your favorite gardens and nurseries to visit in Portland? 
I love to visit Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose and Cistus Nursury on Sauvie Island. On a sunny day, that beautiful drive (plus free chocolate chip cookies at Joy Creek) is my favorite day trip. This year I went two weekends in a row to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. I am now a huge huge fan of iris. I love getting to see a huge variety of the same species all together like that. I also love the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden and Pacific Bonsai Museum outside Seattle. So good.
Any advice you wish to impart to those seeking to blend their artistic ambitions with plants and the greater natural world? 
For me, making art is about seeing, observing. It is also a practice. Going out and looking at plants, working with plants, studying their structure and growth season all contribute to understanding how they might translate artistically. I favor illustration and printmaking as well as folk art when looking for inspiration (and comparison); it’s not about realism, it’s about style and mood.
An unlikely combination made possible in the maritime Pacific Northwest climate: Tetrapanax papyrifer with Cornus.

An unlikely combination made possible in the maritime Pacific Northwest climate: Tetrapanax papyrifer with Cornus.

If you do have a garden, could you say that it is an extension of your personality you confidently exhibit in your prints? I imagine a garden full of graphic architectural plants paired with softer romantic ones – such as the dogwood with Tetrapanax you posted on Instagram. 
My garden is two years old, and started as a very weedy patch of grass. Much of it is still that way (we’re gradually working on that), but it’s now much more colorful. My husband and I got married in our backyard last August, so I spent a lot of time last year creating my “wedding garden”: brugmansia, Yucca rostrata & lots of kniphofia. As Mexican as possible! I think you’re right, though, my favorite combination is my Tetrapanax and white Japanese anemone. As my friend Kate Bryant says, they’re gonna fight it out!
Your desert island plant? 
Can I lump all the poppies together as one plant? If not, I’m in love with Lewisia. #OregonNative!
We creative types never cease to have something coming along shall our interests flag. What projects do you have in the pipeline? 
My husband and I recently went to Croatia for two weeks! I saw and drew as many unusual Mediterranean plants as I can. After that, I have plans for some limited run screen printed editions and hopefully some wallpaper!
Select 6 prints and explain briefly their inspiration behind them. 
Peony & Wisteria
Peony & Wisteria: Honestly I was surprised that these bloomed together this year. Am I crazy? I was looking at vintage Uzbek Russian Trade Print Cotton fabric at the time – which is loud and bright and floral and retro: a fun eBay search when it pops up.
ItohPeony
Itoh Peony: My Coral Charm bloomed, and it was amazing! I was playing with grass textures, and enjoyed the juxtaposition. One of my favorite design challenges is “Vintage 70s Tea Towel.”
Poppies
Poppies: I often work in flat, digital color, so I’m always looking for ways to imply texture. This was another 70s Tea Towel Challenge- but maybe somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Aeonium
Aeonium: For a while we didn’t have a scanner, so I was taking pictures of my ink drawings with my phone, emailing them to myself, and then manipulating them in Photoshop and Illustrator. A pain in the ass, but an unintentional, happy result is the way the layers are offset. I like that hand printed, vintage feel. I studied this aeonium for a long time while drawing; it’s great meditation.
Euphorbia
Euphorbia: This Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ was one of those plants I thought hadn’t made it – there’s a good amount of neglect in my garden – and it suddenly reappeared this spring. I love that bright center; the huge clump of it at Joy Creek is one of my favorite things in their display garden.
PeggyAnne
Peggy Anne:  I love illustrating variegated plants. It’s a way to gradually convince myself that they’ll be cool in my garden. I spotted Peggy Anne on my visit to Schreiner’s. Adelman Peony Garden is just down the road, which made for a fabulous nursery trip. Those splotchy Itoh peonies were a natural pair – I wish my yard were that adventurous!

 Thank you Kate!
~ Eric
 

5-10-5: Mark Veeder, Plant-Obsessed Gardener

I have known Mark Veeder for some time when I first worked for him at his upstate New York garden a few years ago. When Mark isn’t busily running his NYC public relations, marketing, and event design firm VP+C during the week, he gardens actively while looking after his young family of two daughters with his partner and country singer Cooper Boone. ~ Eric


Please introduce yourself.

First off, you need to know that I am a TRUE Gemini and therefore I can be: Weekend “Obsessive Gardener” and Weekday “Serial Entrepreneur” 

The arts or horticulture?

Why do you separate the two?  For me, horticulture is art — it’s how I express my artistic energy.  My garden is a live performance and my monologue that is ever-changing and that never ends.  The cast is not only me and the plants, but the people and wildlife that interacts with us — the stories that evolve from each individual moment — the emotions that are immortalized in every vista or tiny vignette — and the memories that are married to each and every plant in the garden.

Pinus strobus is a familiar tree that marks the treeline at Stone Arches.

Pinus strobus is a familiar tree that marks the treeline at Stone Arches.

You were brought up in upstate New York where you helped your family with their Xmas tree farm. Raising Xmas trees is altogether a different endeavor than building a garden since one is an essentially a monoculture and the other a more personal statement. Then you worked as a flight attendant, a poorly paid assistant, then in public relations, and finally one of the founding partners behind VP+C, a PR and Experiential marketing agency in Soho, New York. The world of public relations is a fast-paced one, nothing like the slow, unforced pace of gardening. How did you become interested in horticulture?

I was always fascinated with the gardening process — that you can plant a seed and watch it grow and change and turn into something beautiful and impressive — and how plants can change the aesthetic of a property and bring a special energy to a place.  When I was a kid, on those cold winter nights, while my friends were looking at the Sears catalog, I was laying on the floor in front of the wood stove looking at plant catalogs.   We were poor so my mom would order me seeds or tiny bare root plants so I was forced to have patience and enjoy the process of gardening and growing.  When I finally had my first garden, I went through a phase of wanting to buy everything big — it was my “rebellion” phase and I wanted instant gratification!!   But now, I enjoy starting with small stock and watching the garden evolve and grow and change with each season.  Everything comes full circle…

The view from the perennial plantings towards the house surrounded by a woodland garden.

The view from the perennial plantings towards the house surrounded by a woodland garden.

How did you happen onto this rural property? It isn’t an obvious location, somewhat secluded from the commercial sprawl that marks Monticello and not necessarily within vicinity of other neighbors.

I believe properties have a way of waiting for their rightful owners.  I was renting a small cabin with some friends in Cuddebackville (about 8 miles from Stone Arches) that ended up being sold and at that point I decided I should buy something rather than rent (because I took such good care of the house and installed a woodland garden at my own expense, so why not do that for myself).  When I met with the Real Estate agent, she asked me to describe my dream property — a stone house, barns, a pond and no neighbors!!  She had a property that fit the bill, but it was way above my means, but she showed it to me anyway.  It was the first house I saw and I was in love and would go back every weekend to walk the property and sneak into the house and pretend I lived there.  I asked if the owner would finance and she stuck her nose up and said “there is no way” and “don’t waste my time”.  I told her that while I didn’t have much money, I had passion and drive and ingenuity and would write a proposal to the owner and all she had to do is present it.  She called me the next day and said with amazement…”he accepted your offer”.  The next day I ordered 1,000 daffodil bulbs and planted them on the hill before the deal was even signed to ensure at least some beauty come spring.  I was blessed on all levels to find Stone Arches.

Exbury azaleas, the only living evidence of the former nursery, are left to be incorporated in the garden.

Exbury azaleas, the only living evidence of the former nursery, are left to be incorporated in the garden.

What was the original garden like, if any that did exist on the property?

There were no real gardens on the property, just a grouping of ferns and laurel by one corner of the house and a line of day lilies at the base of the stone entrance wall but all had been neglected for years.  The property was previously a nursery for many years that specialized in growing Exbury Azaleas and there were still a trace of them left in the overgrown field.  The pond was indistinguishable with large white pines and brush growing in and around it.

Using simply sticks, a spray paint can, and a measuring tape, Mark nailed down the landform, inspired by Richard Serra, in front of the greenhouse.

Using simply sticks, a spray paint can, and a measuring tape, Mark nailed down the landform, inspired by Richard Serra, in front of the greenhouse.

Given how you don’t have professional credentials in landscape architecture, your grasp of spatial scale is remarkable. How did you go about laying out the arrangement of the various areas in the garden?

It’s all been intuitive and gradual.  I never started with a master plan, but rather, would concentrate on one location and dream it into existence — I am obsessed with preparing beds properly before any plants go in.  I would sketch out the space I was developing on paper — usually on a flight somewhere  as I was traveling a lot for work during the early years — then mark it out on the ground (I did most of my dreaming in the winter so would wait for the first snow and then draw out the garden in the snow).

Being one half of a couple who seriously gardens, how does your partner Cooper react to your horticultural interests?

He doesn’t garden AT ALL — but loves the magic that the gardens bring to the property.  He has finally come to realize what it all means to me and how the garden affects not only me, but all who encounter and experience it.  It’s a big part of who I am and who we have become as well.  Recently, he has started to test the gardening waters with vegetables and is now understanding the lure, but only wants to “grow what I can eat”.

Non-horticultural spouses often wring their hands in despair at their partners’ surreptitious plant purchases – one person I heard of hid their plant purchases in the empty rubbish bin, only to forget them on the collection day, and another person shrugs the new plants as ‘gifts’ from gardening friends.  Set loose in a nursery, you’re like a child who goes on a rampage in a candy shop. Any tips on hiding purchases from spouses or maybe having a budget?

A budget???  What’s that?  I am a kid in a candy shop at a nursery — I can wander and dream for hours while designing in my head and imagining endless scenarios.  You (Eric) were my budget and voice of reason and restrain the few times we visited a nursery together.  My trick is to be sure to arrive home with my treasures when Cooper is either in the house or away — rush to unload and immediately set the pots out in the garden as if they were always there.  Cooper looks at the garden as one big tableau and never really saw the details — so it was easy to camouflage my obsession.

You seem to be a regular attendee of the Hardy Plant Society’s study weekends on the West Coast. What is it about the West Coast people and their gardens you find interesting? Any funny stories from these trips?

The West Coast is so rich with amazing plants that I long to grow — my visits teach me about what is out there and inspire me to try new and unusual plants, defy the USDA zone guidelines and meet some amazing gardeners that have become very close friends.  Since I essentially have gardened alone all these years, my trips helped validate my design style and sensibility and bring a sense of belonging to my obsession.  Each trip have funny moments etched in my memory — most of which include some antic with Dan Hinkley, Tom Hobbs (and Brent), Tom Fischer or the “Kilt Moderns”(aka Lisa + Dan) — and some form of plant smuggling.  One trip in particular — it was my Birthday weekend and I was at the Hardy Plant Study Week in Eugene, OR — Tom + Brent met me there and Helen Dillon was on the docket to speak and I met Lisa and Dan (quickly dubbed the Kilt Moderns because Dan was wearing his utilikilt) — we celebrated my birthday, then Helen, Tom, Brent and I drove up to Windcliff for dinner on the way back to vancouver — was a wild and zany birthday!!

You have no problems bridging the urban and rural environments – by weekday a high-powered creative director of a PR firm, by weekend a plaid-clad or t-shirt grubby gardener. You are still involved in the garden, despite hiring some part-time help to maintain the lawns and gardens.

That’s my Gemini nature — I love to bridge both worlds!  I will always be very involved and in control of my garden no matter how much help I have.  I have an incredible duo (josie and dodo) of very talented and knowledgable women that have helped me take the garden to the next level.  We collaborate and bounce ideas around and make decisions together — I think they have made me a better gardener and have helped me focus more on the detail while keeping an eye on the big picture.  It makes me happy that when they come to help, they stay in the guest house for a couple of days and stay in the garden to experience its magic and energy.

You are now a proud father of twin daughters. Will you raise them in the city or upstate to expose them to the natural world?

Proud doesn’t even touch the tip of the emotional iceberg  that these girls have launched — EPIC is the word that keeps resonating…We will be mainly raising the girls upstate as we both want them to be informed and influenced and developed by the natural world just as I was raised.  But, they will have “city time” to become well rounded and experience all the excitement, diversity and energy the urban world has to offer

Tell me more about Echinacea ‘Green Envy’. How does it hold up to the flood of Echinacea cultivars in the market?

There’s a flood of Echinacea cultivars in the market?  ‘Green Envy’ is a real gem — it’s sturdy, deep rooted, very hardy, easy to grow and is the only true bicolor cultivar out there.  Plus, it blooms true bright green when it starts then eventuates to a bicolor with the magenta emerging from the cone out — the other (green varieties)  look more pale and washed out.  But ‘Green Envy’ is more than just another cultivar for collectors and garden enthusiasts — it is my future.  I have developed a luxury skincare line that is “powered by GreenEnvy ™” that will be launched at Sephora globally and on QVC 3rd quarter of 2015.  

Paeonia obovata is one of Mark's favorite plants for its delicate white flowers and electric blue and magenta seedheads.

Paeonia obovata is one of Mark’s favorite plants for its delicate white flowers and electric blue and magenta seedheads.

What are some of your favorite plants?

I love plants that give you more than just flowers — I’m drawn to leaf size, shape, structure and color and plants that have great seed heads or berries.  Paeonia obovata and its variety japonica are amazing plants — and while the flower is demure and fleeting, the seed head grows and changes throughout the season and then explodes in late September into this other-worldly wonder of orange and blue seeds in an organic star shape.  The other woodland plants I can’t live without are Deinanthe, Vancouveria hexandra (an amazing ground cover) and Cardiandra alternifolia.  My Magnolia sieboldii makes me very happy as does my Aralia elata ‘Variegata’…the list just goes on from there

What are some of the places and things that have inspired you?

Dan Hinkley has inspired me the most — first with Heronswood and then with Windcliff.  He has been a mentor, teacher and amazing friend.  The Bloedel Reserve blows me away — The high line has inspired my wild garden behind the conservatory — Great Dixter and Fergus teaches me about color and combinations and Chanticleer fills me with wonder (and envy because the beauty and genius is endless)

What is your desert island plant?

Acer saccharum because it is stunning and regal in all seasons and it reminds me of my childhood when my dad, brother and I would tap them and make our own Maple Syrup.  One plant that give shade in summer, color in fall, structure in winter and dessert in spring.

Peeking through the trees, the light is caught against the facade of the handsome stone house surrounded by mature shade plantings, none of which existed when Mark first bought the property.

Peeking through the trees, the light is caught against the facade of the handsome stone house surrounded by mature shade plantings, none of which existed when Mark first bought the property.

Any advice for those approaching gardening later in life?

Are you saying that I am a “later in life” gardener? I will let you know when I reach that point 🙂

A stone path disappears through the lush growth of woodland perennials and trees at Stone Arches.

A stone path disappears through the lush growth of woodland perennials and trees at Stone Arches.

What did you look forward to the most?

My twin girls and all the moments and stories and memories and fairy tales they will create and inspire in our magical garden.   It’s the never ending, Epic story.. 

5-10-5: Ben Wagner, Graphic Designer and Illustrator

BenWagner_PortraitPlease introduce yourself.

Hi there! I am a freelance graphic designer, illustrator and brand consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. Since graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I have worked with Firebelly Design, Crate & Barrel, Poppin, Gap and Kate Spade New York. Outside the studio I am an avid instagrammer, novice chef, voracious reader and staunch Fleetwood Mac fan.

The arts or horticulture?

The Arts.

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What is your typical day (daily routine, I should say) around New York City?

Every day is different, because sometimes I work from my clients’ offices and sometimes I work from my home studio. Typically, I wake up before 8am and go for a run (if I’m feeling particularly ambitious). I enjoy a quick breakfast with coffee while checking email and scrolling through my social feeds before catching the subway into Manhattan. I spend the day either meeting with clients or running errands around the city: pitching a potential brand partnership, grabbing flowers for a photoshoot I’m styling later that day, or visiting MoMA for inspiration. A few times per week, I meet friends for dinner before heading home to work on personal projects, read a book or watch a movie. I work a lot—maybe too much—but I feel fortunate to be doing something I love.

BW_04You studied graphic design and business at University of Wisconsin in Madison. Graphic design, like gardening, is not always respected as a profession- a character in the British show Peep Show sarcastically mocks a graphic designer -“Hello, can I redesign your logo? Yes that would be 100,000 pounds for a squiggle”. Gardeners are perceived to have lower social and financial prestige, and being reduced to caricatures of lust objects for bored housewives hardly improves public perception. What led you to graphic design and what appeal does it have for you?

As a creative yet fairly rational person, I appreciate the balance of artistic expression and strategic problem solving that design provides. Additionally, I have seen the effect that design can have in legitimizing a brand or business—more so today than ever—and I enjoy being a part of that process. Many of my current client projects are more based in strategic art direction than in traditional design.

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Graphic designers are primarily concerned with the visual and spatial relationship of typeface and shapes, just like we gardeners consider our outdoor spaces for visual effect in 3-D. Plants and hardscaping are our ‘typefaces’ and ‘shapes’. For someone like you to make the connection through your images is unusual. How did you become interested in plants?

I have always been interested in and inspired by nature. I used to think I wanted to be a biologist and did a lot of drawing and painting of plants as a child. In my illustration work, I continue to draw inspiration from nature in terms of geometry, scale, color, pattern and proportion.

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You worked on product design (plates, seed packages, tea towels) using plant motifs for Crate and Barrel (In fact I have that cherry tea towel in the kitchen!). Gardening is a slower process than design and conception, although we still do plan on what to grow and how to combine! How long does the initial conception take to be refined and executed into the final product?

It really depends on the project. Because of production lead times and sampling, products take much longer to design than print or web pieces. Sometimes I’ll be able to repurpose an idea I’ve had bouncing around for a while, but usually I sketch/brainstorm in response to a specific brief, determine which style is appropriate and then execute. There are always a few rounds of iterations and revisions before both the client and I are happy with the final product, or until time runs out!

Hens and chicks at Sprout, Brooklyn, NY.

Hens and chicks at Sprout, Brooklyn, NY.

The British menswear designer Margaret Howell confessed in a recent interview with Mr Porter: “I’m not really into designing something for a show or just for decoration. Design is about aesthetic and usefulness.” Too often we are flooded with designs that are beautiful, but rarely functional or user-friendly. How would you reinvent some of the tools or accessories in gardening?

The form vs. function debate is a timeless one in the design world, but I would argue that most gardening tools already fall well on the “function” side of the spectrum. A little facelift wouldn’t hurt!

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The foundation for any creative individual begins with traditional pen and pencil, and you have not eschewed them completely. People have different media through which they prefer to work with – watercolors for their translucence, oil paints for deeper tone and more forgiving of mistakes, and graphite charcoals for monochrome renderings. What media do you like to work in?

I try to avoid the computer as much as possible, so much of my work still starts with pencil and paper. I pick the medium based on what is most appropriate for the project, depending on what texture, tone or feeling I am hoping to communicate, although I do have a soft spot for watercolor.

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Instagram has become the de facto visual social media tool. What do you hope to project to your audience via Instagram? I get a playful visual sensibility from you through graphic details like the chevron patterns of a coffee shop to the perfect spiral symmetry of an Echeveria discovered in a floral shop.

I use Instagram as a way to document and share details of my daily life, in an admittedly curated and aspirational way. As a designer, it’s also useful to show that I have visual sensibilities that can transcend a computer screen or printed page. I try not to take it too seriously, though!

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Some people argue that inspiration nowadays seems too accessible with the Internet, especially with Instagram and because we have become desensitized, creating an individual ‘style’ without referencing online and having the experience of the moment is lost electronically. A student at London’s Central Saint Martins, a major incubator for fashion professionals, remarked in Dazed: “We see so much online without even intending to that it’s impossible not to be influenced, but there’s more value in finding inspiration from something real.” What is your perspective as a creative person who uses Instagram and is visually attuned to experiences firsthand?

I think it’s very difficult to create something truly original these days. This is neither good nor bad; it’s the nature of living in a world where so much has been previously created, and information is so readily available. I would agree that desensitization, the acceleration of trends and aesthetic homogenization are clear negatives of the digital age, but they are far outweighed by the tremendous access to information and potential for exposure that the internet provides. As a designer, it’s important to diversify your influences (both online and offline) and be conscious of the line between inspiration and imitation. Also, seeking inspiration is all well and good, but ultimately you have to dedicate time to getting work done!

“Succ-u-LOVE.”

Gardeners are no different from style arbiters – we constantly edit – adding and subtracting what we like or dislike – to fulfill our ever evolving vision that is naturally dynamic. Whether through your graphic design, photography or illustration, how do you stay focused enough not to let superfluity overwhelm the original idea? We may visit a magical place or have an enlightening experience, but find ourselves overwhelmed to appreciate the subtle details, missing the overlooked that is actually the ‘big picture’.

In my opinion, one of the primary roles of a designer is to identify the main problem and keep that in mind throughout the duration of the project. An editing eye is one of the most valuable traits a designer can possess. When all else fails, follow the K.I.S.S. principle and “keep it simple, stupid!”

Sometimes we find ourselves in a creative blockade, unable to sustain the initial momentum that propelled our artistic endeavors. What is your secret to keeping fresh, not stagnant, and not veering into the well-trodden path?

I’m afraid I don’t have a secret solution for this, as creative motivation ebbs and flows for me. I try to keep a variety of clients and balance of types of work. I make an effort to do personal work without an end goal that is more experimental in nature. I also try to outsource or be as efficient as possible about administrative tasks so I can spend more time creating.

Judging from your images, it must be hard to shake off the urge to garden especially when you begin to see urban terraces full of container plants or tiny brownstone front gardens decked fully in greenery! What kind of garden do you see yourself having in the future?

Living in the city has its perks, but I haven’t had a private outdoor space for almost 10 years. I actually miss mowing the lawn, if you can believe it! I do have a fiddle leaf fig tree and a windowsill garden with herbs and succulents in my apartment. In the future I would love to have a small yard and garden with flowers, vegetables and a hammock.

Through my friendships with people in the creative sector, I notice a collecting instinct – one friend goes after florist frogs, another interesting pebbles. Do you collect anything that could be connected to your work?

I’m trying to be more of a minimalist when it comes to possessions, especially while living in a New York City apartment. I do have a small collection of mid-century ceramics, but I try to make sure that anything I buy is functional as well as decorative.

Ivy clad facade of row houses in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.

Ivy clad facade of row houses in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, NY.

I see that Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a popular destination for you and your friends to break from the urban jungle. Do you have other favorite gardens or green spaces to escape as well as unplug from the virtual world (when you aren’t instagramming)?

I love Central Park and Prospect Park (thanks, Frederick Law Olmstead!). I have recently been taking more trips upstate to hike in the Hudson River Valley and hope to continue this year. There is also a great community garden a few blocks from my apartment in Park Slope where you can volunteer or just hang out with friends, takeout and a bottle of wine.

Growing one’s food has resonated well with us millennials, but growing for aesthetic enjoyment has yet to catch up. Speaking from an outsider’s point of view, how would you entice your peers to partake and participate in the joys of plants for beauty aside from cut flowers?

Art and plants are some of the best (and cheapest) ways to liven up your living space. If you’re cursed with a black thumb, get off your screen and go outside, go for a walk or seek out a public green space in your area. There are well-documented psychological and health benefits to being in nature.

Say that you are marooned on an island, what is your desert island plant?

Blue agave—I love its size, shape and color. Plus, I could make tequila if I happened to be marooned with some distilling equipment!

What creative individuals, living or deceased, have inspired you to pursue an artistic career?

My parents, Maurice Sendak, Roald Dahl, the team at Pixar, Matisse, Paul Rand, Charlie Harper, Ken Done, Ira Glass, Tom and David Kelley. To be continued…

Boston Ivy cloaked in red.

Boston Ivy cloaked in red.

What do you look forward to the most?

I’m still relatively new to freelancing and to New York, so I’m looking forward to being a bit more settled in my routine. I’m hoping to start an online shop to sell original work later this year. I can’t wait to travel and see more of the world. And I always look forward to summer!

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Any quotes or advice you wish to impart to our readers who desire to be innovators in their fields?

Work hard and play nice. Go after what you want. Be persistent. (Be more persistent.) If something isn’t working, change it. Don’t compare yourself to others. Experiment and take risks. Surround yourself with peers who challenge and inspire you to create great work. Stay optimistic.

Oh, and be skeptical of advice!

Top 5 5-10-5

Today we dive into the archives and revisit our most viewed interviews, otherwise referred to as 5-10-5 (our version of 20 questions). It’s a joy to interview such creative and inspirational individuals, that includes all of our interviews. Click on the orange or the images for links to the original interviews.

Under Fergus's direction, Emma begins to organize and design the front container display at Great Dixter.

Under Fergus’s direction, Emma begins to organize and design the front container display at Great Dixter.

1- Do you know what is Emma Seniuk’s desert island plant is? Genius choice. Seen above at Great Dixter, she is currently gardening at Chanticleer Gardens.  Get to know more about her…

Laura_Lurie2. Do you know what some of the challenges, Laura Ekasetya, horticulturist at the Lurie Garden, faces when maintaining a large public garden in an urban environment?

Stephen Crisp3.  Who is the wise English gardener, who works in the second largest private garden in London, (1st largest private garden being Buckingham Palace)? And why did he choose an Alexander Calder mobile as his desert island choice for a piece of art? Stephen Crisp, who is considered a London treasure himself.

Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill's inspiring natural areas

Talkeetna Mountains, Alaska, one of Quill’s inspiring natural areas

4. Why does Quill Teal-Sullivan,  a student of the Longwood Graduate Program, love the the wildflower meadows of the Talkeetna Mountain range in Alaska, even though she gardens at the breathtaking  Meadowburn Farm in northwest New Jersey?

MeDrawingBuckwheat5. And we round out this group with Preston Montague, the man who draws and paints in plein air, has an incredible talent for botanical Illustration and is an artist who designs experiences in the landscape? Need we say more….