Monthly Archives: June 2011

Change is Good, Part One



Sometimes a landscape feature seems to have such permanence, that in our minds we can’t visualize something else. Whatever tree, rock, garden is there has “always” been there and we don’t even see it any more.  Or, in my case, I see it, but can’t begin to imagine changing it. Luckily for me, there are some folks here with more vivid imaginations than mine! The out-of-control hedge along the west side of the greenhouse and the junipers casting substantial shade over the same greenhouse have been in place at the Botanical Gardens for a long, long time. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed…

The picture above gives a sense of  how big that hedge really was. The greenhouse next to it was losing out on sunlight. At the end of the alley between the greenhouse and the hedge were five junipers, also casting long dark shadows over the greenhouse.

First to go was the hedge:

west garden

And then the junipers, all except one:

last juniper

Often there are features that should be preserved, such as our  1940 WPA-built walls. The beautiful stones create a framework for the Gardens and remind us of our history.  Our large old trees can serve the same purpose, and I love them for that! But the Botanical Gardens are for the most part a “dynamic” garden,  an ever-changing place, as opposed to a “static” garden which reflects a certain time period and is held there. Change can be a little jarring at first, but after a bit of adjustment  it is like taking a deep breath and straightening up your shoulders after being hunched over a task. It feels good!

mike in tree


Long Hours, Low Pay

deadheading peonies       Summer help! What would I do without them? I guess I would try to do the work of 5 people…but it sure is nice to have strong young men around! In exchange for all that heavy lifting, digging, lots of weeding, and everything else, I’m trying to make their summer job a great hands-on experience.

We have edged beds, weeded, and top dressed with our compost. We’ve deadheaded and staked. Earlier this week we renovated an area between the water garden and the main garden  which had been trampled into a path. “The Boys” moved plants and shrubs. They found large rocks from a secret stash and planted those too, creating a garden with no evidence that it had been walked on all semester. It looks great!

The Conservatory and greenhouses have been cleaned and organized, making room for lots of new plants. The Gardens have been touched up for two weddings so far, with another this weekend and more to come.  Hedges trimmed, low branches pruned, more rocks moved. In other words, all the things a crew can do that an individual can’t do alone. I am thrilled to have the help to make the Gardens look their very best. It’s only June, but I hope by the end of the summer that Mike, Kyle, Chase, Giles, and Ryan will say it was worth it!

summer crew 2011


sunny border


The Queen of Flowers

It was all about the rhododendrons and azaleas in May, but now comes the glorious reign of the Queen of Flowers — the peony.

Peonies have been cultivated for thousands of years.  In China they are known as the “flower of riches and honor”.  In ancient Greece,  they were believed to have been obtained by Paeon,  physician to the gods,  from the mother of  Apollo on Mount Olympus. In the European and American “Language of Flowers”, which emerged during the Victorian era, they symbolized happy marriage, compassion, and bashfulness. I think of them as anything but bashful!


I think it’s the fragrance that wins me over. Like roses, but somehow better than roses…sweet and smelling of summertime.  Of course the blossoms are spectacular too! Most of the herbaceous or garden peonies grown today are hybrids of either Paeonia lactiflora or Paeonia officinalis. There are hundreds of cultivars. The flowers can be single or double. The colors range from white to pink to red and even to yellow.  The newest innovation in peony breeding is a cross between  herbaceous and tree peony types. Herbaceous peonies die back in winter, regrowing in spring, while tree peonies lose their leaves in winter, but leave woody stems. The cross “Intersectional” peonies have the leaf and flower form of the tree peony but die back, and have a bush growth habit like herbaceous peonies.


A frequent comment from visitors leaning in to admire the peonies is about the ants climbing busily all over the buds. Why are they there? Are they bad for the plants? And less frequently: Do they help the plants? Here’s an answer from the Heartland Peony Society based in Kansas City, Missouri :

“Peonies and ants: Talk about ‘Old Wives Tales’ ! Peonies in general do NOT attract ants, but some peony flower buds do. Do not try to get rid of the ants on your peonies. This is a natural and temporary activity. It is believed that peonies produce small amounts of nectar and other ant attractants to encourage ants to help in opening the dense double flower buds found in many peonies. The ants may be found covering certain varieties and avoiding others, this is totally normal.

Once the buds have opened the ants will disappear – also normal.Some people think ants are REQUIRED to open the flowers, but this does not to appear to be true.It seems a debatable question whether ants are beneficial or harmful. I think they are neutral.

Should you spray a pesticide to get rid of the ants? That is a definite no.  Since the ants are not harmful and some pesticide residues are harmful, why endanger yourself, the plants or the peony’s pollinator (good insects) with poisonous sprays? Instead just enjoy the unique interaction of ants and peonies; an evolutionary effect thousands of years in the making and posing no problems in the long run.”

ant on peony

These beautiful plants are easy to grow. They are hardy from USDA zone 8 to zone 2. They do best in full sun, and prefer soil rich in organic matter , with an ideal pH of 6 to 7. That said, they are tolerant of a wide variety of soils as well as drought tolerant once established. Once they are established, peonies prefer not to be moved, and can go many years without being divided.

Saturday evening as I left the garden, there were two peony buds beginning to open along the walkway into the greenhouse. This morning when I looked, there were 22 fully open flowers! Like many things in the garden, peony time can be fleeting, depending on the weather. They don’t mind the heat, but rain beats them down rather quickly. The peonies here are mostly the old fashioned double varieties that need to be staked–the flowers are huge, too big to be supported by the stems. So I have them all staked, a labor of love, and they are beginning their spectacular display. In addition to the walkway, they are on the stage, along the west side of the Rose Garden, and behind the CE Outreach Center in the Kathy Mallon Garden. Come and see them, breathe deeply, and let summer begin!

peony and iris