Chesterton Tribune

November is for vacation memories

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Wonders and Weeds by Paulene Poparad


November is for …. vacation memories, and a renewed commitment to the garden I will have someday.

In 1934, famous American composer Cole Porter wrote the following lyrics for his hit Broadway show “Anything Goes,” whose revival CD I play often in the car. If you see my lips moving at a stop light, I’m not having a nervous breakdown; I’m probably singing:

And there’s no cure like travel

To help you unravel

The worries of living today

When the poor brain is cracking

There’s nothing like packing

A suitcase and sailing away.

We did just that recently, sailing 2,200 miles in the Oldsmobile to North Carolina. There’s nothing like seeing fantastic gardens to inspire us to do something new in our own back yard. Even a little greatness goes a long way, and I certainly saw jaw-dropping gardens on this trip.

Biltmore. Need I say more? For the 14 of you who have never heard of it, it’s the largest family-owned private residence (250 rooms) in the United States. Built in Asheville at the foot of the Smoky Mountains in 1889-1895, George Vanderbilt acquired 125,000 acres for his country home and bought the nearby town to house the workmen and artisans who brought famed architect Richard Morris Hunt’s plans to life.

Yet it was landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who gave Biltmore its soul.

Olmsted designed New York’s Central Park and the U.S. Capitol grounds. His goal at Biltmore was to enhance the natural beauty of the land and to hide the scars of construction. By late 1893 nursery superintendent Chauncey Beadle had purchased 209,925 plants, some from famous arboretums here and in Europe, and collected 366,527 locally. In all, 2.8 million plants were installed on the estate.

One area alone of the 250-acre wooded park and pleasure gardens surrounding the house had 43,382 plants of 669 different varieties. To replant the woods felled for Biltmore construction, the first managed forestry program and school in the U.S. was begun there.

Without seeing Biltmore, it’s hard to wrap your senses around how vast it and the grounds are. Or how unbelievable are its treasures. There are two Renoir paintings in the Chippendale bedroom alone.

The winding three-mile Biltmore driveway, which starts surprisingly near a busy Asheville intersection, is closely planted to impart an air of seclusion. Today the estate --- a working farm and winery --- contains 8,000 acres. According to The Biltmore Company, the home hosts about one million visitors a year, has 90 rooms open to the public, and employs 1,000 people in the house and gardens, on the farm, and in the gifts shops, restaurants, winery and Inn.

This winter I’ll share more about the inspiring Biltmore gardens, or as much of them as I saw in two hours and 45 minutes. I considered the whole experience a celebration of the talent and vision of thousands of craftsmen and women who helped build a monument for the ages. At $34 per adult admission, Bernie thought Biltmore was a monument to excess and greed, and he couldn’t wait to get out of there.

If you want to learn more about Biltmore for free, log on to for a cybervisit. I highly recommend the softcover Guide to Biltmore Estate.

The whole purpose of this vacation was to get me to Raleigh, N.C. for Oct. 12 to join about 25 other avid gardeners who accompanied Plant Delights Nursery owner Tony Avent on a two-hour tour of his Juniper Level Botanic Garden. It was 83 degrees, sunny, and I was in heaven.

Avent’s enthusiasm is contagious. He promised to send us on plant (and Latin) overload, and he did. I came away energized, ready to look at my garden with a more critical eye, and enthused about trying early-blooming tropicals as annuals next year.

A well-known hosta hybridizer (‘Elvis Lives,’ ‘Tatoo,’ ‘Hillbilly Blues’), Avent also travels the globe searching for rare and unusual plants, shrubs and trees gardeners can use to expand their horticultural horizons. His botanic garden is a winding, crazy-quilt trial bed for these found, shared and hybridized plants, some of them endangered species.

Hostas generally were not featured in this area. Avent said genetically, hosta and agave, the latter spiny sun-loving desert plants, are the two closest related and some want to breed them to give hostas more drought and sun tolerance. “We’ll call them hostaves.”

Avent believes the No. 1 problem with gardening in America is that the “experts” have taken the fun out of it. “We’ve been taught that you garden with hedge shears and a sprayer, that you have 12 different plants and that anything more, your garden looks junky and weedy, and that you have to plant in huge drifts. And you can’t buy something unless you know where you’re going to plant it. You get the plant because you enjoy it.”

For any plant, Avent believes soil is the key. Organic matter is liberally used for his plants, many growing in raised mounds to improve drainage, the importance of which gardeners often underestimate, he said, especially in winter. No 10-10-10 in this garden. “Our rule is, if it doesn’t benefit the microbes, it doesn’t go in here.”

Despite their longer Zone 7 growing season, his garden will rest for the winter, a time when Avent said the bones of a garden will show its true structure. His plants are grown in blazing sun, under a canopy of trees and in a bog, each appropriate to its cultural requirements, even down to the gravel mulch some enjoy and actually need to reseed.

”There’s never enough bold textures,” Avent tells us as we pass a big-leaf alocasia or Elephant Ear. It seems every other plant is one of his favorites. Bees and butterflies abound, and he often comments how important fragrance is in the garden.

Avent wants to push the plant envelope. He grows one from China native to the much warmer Zones 9 and 10, yet it has survived trials in Minnesota. “We really can’t judge where a plant comes from is how winter-hardy it will be. That’s what a garden’s about, wishing and hoping.”

As anyone who has read a Plant Delights catalog knows, Avent likes oddballs, both people and plants. One plant’s trunk instead of growing up grows into the ground, some to more than five feet down. Avent – who’s pictured in the December issue of Horticulture magazine recommending DecoColor Permanent Markers as the perfect holiday gift – also laments that many of our unusual native plants and trees are under-appreciated and under-used.

Seeing Avent’s garden, which surrounds a private residence, gave me the courage not to apologize for anything I do in my garden, and not to feel guilty when I plant in drifts of one. It’s what we have in our gardens, not how many of each, that counts.

And I won’t let the words “Not hardy in Zone 5” scare me off ever again. If Avent can cut his banana down with a chain saw and fill a wire cage around it with crushed leaves to overwinter it so it will fruit again next year, I can try to find a way to protect something new and special to me, too.

Wasn’t October the pits? I’ve put off sooooo many garden tasks that need to be done, like spraying Wiltpruf on the rhododendrons to help prevent moisture loss from drying winter winds; picking even MORE hickory nuts out of the beds before I lay down shredded leaves; and planting tulip bulbs.

I’ve lost the coleus and geraniums to frost, but many plants are still holding their tattered heads high. The bush fuchsia ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ wilted while I was on vacation, but when cutting it down I saw green wood inside the stems. I whacked it back, dug it up and planted it indoors. It’s sprouting new leaves.

It’s near a south window with a group of tired houseplants I recently repotted. The Christmas cactus is already budding out, and I took starts of a fantastic flowering plant I still don’t know the name of to share as holiday gifts. When repotting, be alert that the new soil may have different water retention properties and you may need to water more (or less) than before.

Outside, I’ve been keeping my eye on what appears to be two baby canna plants that apparently self-sowed in a space between two concrete pads near the basement door, adjacent to a downspout and somewhat sheltered. At first I thought it was a weed.

Was it last year or two years ago (three?) that I planted a canna nearby? Maybe it was someone else’s over-sexed canna, although my neighbors’ yards are pretty far away.

The five big leaves on the 17-inch tall canna have turned to mush, but the 8-inch canna still looks fine. Both are encircled with staked clear plastic empty mulch bags to protect them. Cannas can grow 5 feet tall from tender rhizomes, their fan-like leaves sometimes streaked or colored, topped with bold flowers in yellow, red, pink or orange.

My dilemma: if the baby canna has started making a rhizome (a lumpy, swollen root), how do I get it out of the space between the concrete slabs? I’d love to winter the canna over on the porch and put it out to flower next summer; in the fall, I’d dig up the rhizome, clean it off and store it like I will my dug-up dahlia tubers this week, in crushed leaves in a cardboard box on the porch.

Speaking of dahlias, whizzing by on the highway while on vacation I saw a woman standing beside what must have been 100 dahlias, each grown in perfect precision in a grid pattern on tall stakes lined up like soldiers at attention. The colors just leaped out at you. I admired her foresight to use such study stakes. Maybe it was a cash crop and she sold the flowers.

If you need to garden this month and it’s really cold, your best friend might be a helmet liner for a construction hard hat.

Wool or cotton on the outside and heavily-lined on the inside, it has flaps to cover your neck, ears and some even a flap to cover the forehead. Gals, you’ll look incredibly stupid like I do, and talk about a bad hair day, but you’ll be toasty warm and able to stay out longer to pound in stakes before the ground freezes for burlap windbreaks around special shrubs, like tree peonies.


Posted 11/18/2002