Air Plants

Tillandsia ionantha

I just returned from my more-or-less annual visit to my folks in Naples, Fla., and after six days in the sun, I’m ready to face down the rest of winter.

The weather this winter has been cool in southwest Florida, just like the rest of the country. You can see marks of it on the edges of leaves that clearly were nipped by frost. Many blooming plants are behind their usual schedule as well. Despite that, it was great to see the tropical hibiscus, palm trees, blooming bougainvillea, and the lush pots of annuals that are everywhere.

During a trip to a small farmers’ market near Estero, my mom and I happened upon a vendor of air plants, which are more formally known as epiphytes. These tropical plants do not require soil to grow. After my mom mentioned that I edit a garden magazine (hey, she’s my mom!), we got a short tutorial on these unusual plants, which are part of the large bromelliad family. According to the vendor, there are 10,000 varieties of bromelliads, divided among many genus and species. The air plants belong to the genus Tillandsia.

Unlike other plants, they absorb water only through their leaves and are able to gather nutrients from the air itself and from the dust and other particles carried in air. The plants have roots, but they are strictly used for latching on to trees, logs, and other anchors. The plants come in a wild assortment of leaf shapes, colors and forms. They are native to Mexico and other parts of Central America. It’s only in the past few years that breeders have gone into the jungles to collect some of the more unusual varieties. Because of growing interesting in tropicals, breeders are developing new types all the time now.

After our talk with the vendor, my mother mentioned that air plants were incredibly common in her neighborhood. Sure enough, on a walk later that day, I spotted dozens of air plants clinging to branches, pruning cuts, and trunks, drinking in the warm Florida air, just as I was.

Fall Color Combos

This past weekend, I drove from Northfield to Chicago and back to visit my college-age daughter. It was a lovely trip, and the colors were vibrant throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin and in Chicago itself. On the way home, I stopped at the Rotary Botanical Gardens, one of the loveliest small botanical gardens in the Midwest. It’s in Janesville, Wisconsin, about five minutes off of I-90.

While walking through the gardens, which include an elegant Italian formal garden — which really reminded me of the one I’d visited in Rome this spring — a large pond with plantings around it and a number of beds featuring All-America Selections, I was struck by how well the gardeners here combined plants for fall beauty. This combination of several ‘Autumn Brilliance’ seviceberries near the Leonard Messel Magnolia was especially striking. (Unfortunately, my photo does not do it justice.) Interestingly, both of these plants are also vibrant in the spring, with early flowers and have distinct shapes, making them year-round beauties and a dynamite combination.

Garden Tour Take-Aways

Containers add whimsy and a focal point.

This past month, I have been really lucky to attend several garden tours. I started with tours around the Quad Cities in Iowa as part of a Garden Writers Association event, then hit the Northfield Garden Club tour, followed by my trip to Buffalo, N.Y. for three days of nonstop garden visits. In the past two weeks, I’ve been to three more tours. First, the North Oaks Garden Tour, followed by an MSHS event at the wonderful garden of Soni Forsman, water gardener extraordinaire, and this past weekend the Tangletown Garden Tour, which is one of the Twin Cities’ premier tours. Whew!

After seeing so many — and such diverse — gardens, the question becomes: what applies at home? The style of home and neighborhood is a big factor in what kind of garden you grow. I don’t have a small, urban, fenced-in yard where you can hang a mirror on the wall to make things look bigger, like they do in Buffalo, and I don’t garden on several acres where big expanses of lawn are part of the aesthetic.  Still, the gardens I toured shared some characteristics that can be applied in any setting.

Dense shrubbery, nectar plants, water sources and feeders were beautifully combined in this wildlife garden.

They had a theme. Maybe theme is the wrong word. It’s more like a focus or a vision. One of the gardens I loved in North Oaks was a certified wildlife refuge and you could tell that the goal of being a home to birds — there were dozens, even in midday — was a guiding principle in the gardener’s mind. A garden we toured in Buffalo reflected the owners’ love of hosting parties with wild, joyful plantings and a covered cantina-like area in the back corner. One step in that garden and you felt like whooping it up.  I’ve written earlier about the idea of naming a garden, but having a theme is what those names reflect. And, themes must come from the gardener’s own aesthetic and sensibility.

Containers provide texture and a pop of color.

They used containers well. Containers can nestle a seating area, provide a greeting at the front porch, or brighten up empty or dull spots in the garden. For a strong impact, use larger containers and keep the plants looking healthy with regular fertilizing (every two weeks, according to one of the gardeners), and plenty of water. Don’t be afraid to change containers with the season. They make great seasonal accents.

Lush, yes, but each plant gets some breathing room.

They were well edited. Many of the gardens I visited were heavily planted. But, with one exception, I didn’t think any of them were “over-stuffed.” Sometimes the key to a well-designed garden is not so much what you put in, but what you take out. After the tours, I dug into one of my front beds and did some much needed editing — I pulled a tarp full of overgrown plants out of it, giving the remaining plants (and anyone who looks at the bed) room to breath.

I have at least one more tour to attend this year. What is the best tip you’ve taken away from garden tours?

Hosta in Pots

I can't read all the markers, but this display includes hostas 'Might Moe' and 'X-rated'.

One last post about my trip to the garden bloggers meetup in Buffalo, NY:

One of the highlights of the trip was a tea party/garden tour at the home of noted hosta authority Michael Shadrack and his wife (also a garden book author and expert on daylilies and iris) Kathy Guest Shadrack. Their home is build into a craggy bluff overlooking a stream, with part of the house straddling the stream bed. It’s an amazing setting, and in five years, these gardeners have filled it with tiered beds to display their extensive collection of hostas, daylilies and other plants.

A colorful pot with a larger hosta looks simple and attractive when grouped with other containers.

The Shadracks plant many of their hostas in pots, which is an idea more gardeners might want to emulate. While big swaths of large hostas are impressive, the newer, mini varieties are easily overwhelmed in a garden setting. Displaying them in pots gives the hostas center stage and allows the gardener to place them exactly where they will do best. The Shadracks are now developing a rock-garden type setting for some hostas, another great way to use hostas imaginatively.

The Power of Gardening in Community

Who wouldn't enjoy talking gardening with their neighbor in this setting?

If there is one thing I took away from my weekend in Buffalo with my fellow garden bloggers (other than a serious case of plant envy — which will be discussed at length later), it is the conviction that gardens really do have the power to bring communities together. We toured several gardens in different neighborhoods that will be part of the Buffalo Garden Walk the last weekend in July, when about 350 gardens in the area are opened to visitors. The tour is free, and any homeowner can put his or her garden on the tour.  Nearly 50,000 people take the tour each year, making it the biggest garden tour in the U.S.  The openness of the tour guarantees that the garden walk is not just a tour of show-places, but a tour of neighborhoods and the gardens and homes that give them character.

We spent most of a rainy morning in the Cottage District, an area of former workers’ cottages. It’s not a high-end neighborhood at all, and in fact, was considered something of a problem area with many abandoned or rundown properties. But, the neighbors began organizing, getting to know each other, and part of that involved sharing their gardens—with each other and with the larger community. Some of the gardens such as the one pictured at left are magazine-worthy places; others more modest, but still lovely and obviously a reflection of the homeowners pride in their place.

When you garden, you cannot help but notice your neighbor’s garden, too. That leads to questions, conversations, trading plants, grousing about weeds and critters and exchanging ideas. Before you know it, your neighbors are much more than just the guys or gals who live next door — they’re friends, people you care about. The presence of that sharing was evident in the Cottage District — many gardeners grew the same plants, though each garden reflected the aesthetic and interests of its owners as well as the unique site in which it was located. (Imagine gardening with a brick tower over looking your space.) There was a synergy in their gardens — and in their neighborhood.

In its most basic form, that synergy is the power of gardening in community, a power that residents of Buffalo are clearly harnessing.

Peeking into Other People’s Gardens

This was me all day today — camera stuck to eye, as I toured some fantastic gardens in Buffalo, N.Y.

As one of the organizers of the National Garden Festival said, “Please let people know Buffalo is more than snow and hot wings.” And, so it is. Buffalo has some of the cutest, most intensely planted cottage-style gardens I’ve seen, in several places whole neighborhoods full of gardens open to the public during the Buffalo Garden Walk.

This photo illustrates one of the ideas many of these cottage gardeners used: placing mirrors around the space to make it look larger.

Off to Buffalo!

I’m heading to Buffalo, N.Y., today to participate in the Third Annual Garden Bloggers Meetup, an informal gathering of about 70 garden bloggers. It’s the first one I’ve been able to attend, and I’m excited because this promises to be the best kind of conference — no business meetings, no presentations, no panels, just one garden tour after another punctuated by visits to garden centers and socializing with other gardeners who also blog.

Buffalo is a great gardening city, and while it’s a couple of zones warmer than Minnesota due to the influence of the nearby great lakes. I’m excited to see what’s growing in Buffalo.