Felder Rushing in Syracuse, April 5

Felder's flamingosFelder Rushing will headline the Men’s Garden Club of Syracuse 14th annual spring gardening seminar. The the always entertaining author of Passalong Plants and much, much more will speak on ‘Slow Gardening’ and ‘How a Bird Feeder Can Save Your Sanity’. Also speaking will be Dr. Laura Deeter from Ohio State.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Felder was a big early inspiration. He gave me permission to do any damn thing I please. And I love his take on designing with form and texture in mind: “It all boils down to ’roundy/spiky/frilly’ don’t it?”

Non-member tuition is $45. More info: 315/420-6369.

Should be a hoot.

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Book review: Tulipomania

Semper augustusTulipomania
The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused

Mike Dash
1999, 274 pages

I wasn’t sure I could read a whole book on the history of a flower. But Tulipomania engaged me to the end.

Most of the history takes place in what we now call the Netherlands. The first tulips arrived there in 1562 in a shipment of fabric from Istanbul, a few bulbs tucked inside the cloth as a kind of surprise gift. The merchant didn’t know what they were and ate half of them. The rest he planted, and later when they flowered he realized that he had something special.

The story climaxes in the winter of 1636-1637, during the height of speculative trading known as tulipmania. High-end bulbs such as the Semper Augustus (above) sold for as much as 40 times the average annual salary, and even common bulbs rose to incredible prices. Paintings are all we have left of many of the finer bulbs because the streaking of their petals was caused by a virus, which eventually weakened them and killed off the line. There is a nice collection of watercolors of these flowers — basically a bulb catalog — at the Norton Simon Museum. (Page through the picture-not-available pages. It’s worth it.)

During the mania, the bulbs seldom left the ground. What was traded was merely pieces of paper promising delivery at lifting time. Most of the trading took place in bars and taverns (along with much feasting and drinking payed for by a levy on each trade) until one day the traders just stopped bidding and the whole house of cards collapsed.

One of my favorite passages describes Jan Breughel the Younger’s Allegory upon the Tulip Mania, a detail from the painting below.

Allegory upon the Tulip Mania

Two dozen simian florists are portrayed indulging in all the rituals of the bulb trade. One points at some flowering tulips; another holds up a flower in one paw and a bag of money in the other. Behind them, a group of monkeys fight over who should pay for the now-worthless bulbs, and one speculator is carried to an early grave. On the right-hand side of the picture, a pair of apes share one of the florists’ traditional banquets while another is hauled before a magistrate for defaulting on his debts. In one corner a particularly disgruntled monkey urinates on a flower bed full of tulip bulbs.

Equally compelling are the author’s descriptions of the tulip’s early history, moving from wilds of central Asia into the pleasure gardens of the Middle East, particularly Turkey, where the obsession was mostly among the royalty.

I have to admit that tulips aren’t my favorite flower bulb. They are deer candy around here, which is why I prefer daffodils, alliums and spring ephemerals. So while I never buy tulip bulbs, I always have at least a few in the garden through my tulip rescue program. I make note of anyone who has a pot of forced bulbs in their office (our student horticulture club at Cornell always sells a bunch) and drop by when they start to fade and ask, “Are you just going to compost those? If so, I’ll take them off your hands.” You can read more about their fate here.

rescued tulips

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Blog Action Day: The Thrill of the Grass

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

ornamental grasses
Let me share an environmental allegory with you. It’s one that I think is important, especially at this moment where many of us hang our hopes for the future on helping the banished prince return to power.

The bottomline of this story: Leaders don’t lead. They jump out in front of the parade that’s already marching ahead. The power lies in us.

The Thrill of the Grass is a short story from a collection of the same name (published in 1984) by Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella. Kinsella’s most famous work is Shoeless Joe, which served as the basis for the movie Field of Dreams. This story has inspired me since I first read it nearly two decades ago.

The story takes place during the 1981 baseball strike. The narrator, a locksmith and fan of the game (not just the hometown team) decides one evening to drive out to the stadium. He finds a hidden door, pulls out his tools of the trade, and let’s himself in.

The field sits breathless in the orangy glow of the evening sun. I stare at the potato-coloured earth of the infield, that wide dun arc surrounded by plastic grass. As I contemplate the prickly turf, which scorches the thighs and buttocks of a sliding player as if he were being seared by hot steel, it stares back in its uniform ugliness. The seams that send routinely hit ground balls veering at tortuous angles are livid, grey as scars.

I remember the ballfields of my childhood, the outfields full of soft hummocks and brown-eyed gopher holes.

I stride down from the stands and walk out to the middle of the field. I touch the stubble that is called grass, take off my shoes, but find it is like walking on a row of toothbrushes. It was an evil day when they stripped the sod from this ballpark, cut it into yard-wide swatches, rolled it, memories and all, into great green-and-black cinnamonroll shapes, trucked it away. Nature temporarily defeated. But Nature is patient.

Later he returns to the stadium with a local business leader he invites to share his secret. He knows the businessman to be a fan who regularly sits several seats away from him on the first-base side. The locksmith, carrying a pizza box, walks to to the left-field corner where the foul line and the warning track meet, opens the box and lays down a square foot of sod.

“That’s beautiful,” [the businessman says], kneeling beside me, placing his hand, fingers spread wide, on the verdant square, leaving a print faint as a veronica.”

The locksmith cuts away the evil plastic turf and replaces it with the real thing. The two plot to return, each bringing a new friend each time on the promise that each of those friends will bring another friend each night.

They wonder what they should do with the old squares of artificial turf.

“We could mail them anonymously to baseball executives, politicians and clergymen.”

“Gentle reminders to them not to tamper with Nature.”

Night after night, an exponentially growing cadre of men sneak from their beds to take back the field.

Toward dawn, I watch the men walking away in groups, like small patrols of soldiers, carrying instead of arms, the tools and utensils which breathe life back into the arid ballfield.

Row by row, night by night, we lay the little squares of sod, moist as chocolate cake with green icing. Where did all the sod come from? I picture many men, in many parts of the city, surreptitiously cutting chunks out of their own lawns in the leafy midnight darkness, listening to the uncomprehending protests of their wives the next day — pretending to know nothing of it — pretending to have called the police to investigate.

Finally, their job is done just before the strike ends. The locksmith reflects:

What will the players think, as they straggle into the stadium and find the miracle we have created? The old-timers will raise their heads like ponies, as far away as the parking lot, when the thrill of the grass reaches their nostrils. And, as they dress, they’ll recall sprawling in the lush outfields of childhood, the grass as cool as a mother’s hand on a forehead.

Cut sod from your own lawn. Show up at the ballpark at improbable hours. Water the newly laid sod until its roots are well established. Let the thrill of the grass fill your nostrils once again.

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Slow news day: Turnips bring Europe out of the Dark Ages

Louis XIV at Maastricht (1673)Slow new day — what with only commutations of felony sentences and such to report on. So the NY Times reports on a new 708-page tome about the modernization of Europe: The Pursuit of Glory – Europe 1648-1815. (Europe’s Rise to Power? Thank Better Roads, Revolutions of All Sorts and Turnips.)

Turns out turnips can share in the credit for bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages:

While everyone likely to read this book has heard of the scientific revolution, brought about by people like Isaac Newton, and the industrial revolution that began toward the end of the period (both well covered here), the agricultural revolution occurring at the same time was equally important. In 1648 European agriculture had not changed much since medieval times. But enclosure, manuring, crop rotation, new crops like turnips and clover, and improved breeding brought forth a large increase in food production.

One result was a golden age for the landed gentry, whose rent rolls increased sharply, and their conspicuous consumption along with them. (Robert Walpole employed 50 people just to weed his gardens.) Another result was the freeing of manpower to work in the factories that were beginning to spring up in the English countryside. The industrial revolution came about because of turnips as well as steam engines.

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Pub preview: Site Assessment for Gardeners

site assessment coverMost good gardeners have a well-developed sense of place. They are observant. They know their soils. They know their weather and climate. And they’re good at matching plants to the conditions they find where they garden.

We may take all that for granted. But there are many folk out there who want to garden (or want to be better gardeners) but really don’t have a clue. They need help understanding where to start when it comes to assessing their site.

If you know someone like that, here’s a publication that might help them out: Site Assessment for Gardeners. (Full disclosure: I work for Cornell and am a friend and co-worker of the author.) It the 56-page manual won’t be available in hard copy until fall, but there’s a pre-publication version online.

It’s been field-tested and is undergoing revision. Charlie Mazza, the author, has been working with Master Gardeners in 5 New York counties. The MGs have held workshops to introduce ‘regular’ gardeners to the site assessment process and the publication. He told me today that a good sign is that most of the gardeners who took the workshop intend to follow-up and do a thorough site assessment of their own yards this season.

That’s no small commitment on their part. The 11-step, how-to process includes:

  1. Garden or landscape area
  2. Obstructions above and below
  3. Sun and shade
  4. Hardiness and microclimates
  5. Wind
  6. Compaction
  7. Drainage
  8. Soil characteristics
  9. Wildlife interference
  10. Existing plants
  11. Putting it all together

When you complete the process, you’ll have:

  • A sketch of your yard with information you’ll need to make important planting decisions for years to come.
  • A list of existing plants and how they fit into your future plans.
  • A checklist of other physical factors that you have discovered during your site assessment.

Final revisions will take place in June. If you have a chance to look it over in the next few weeks and have suggestions for making it better, you can leave comments here or email Charlie Mazza directly: cpm6@cornell.edu

I’d be especially interested to hear if you think the publication would be valuable for gardeners near you. It was written with Northeast gardeners in mind. But I think the process itself is widely adaptable.

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