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Speaker Review – Excerpted from the Winter Issue AGCBC Bulletin. For more info see Alpine Garden Club of BC.
Howard Wills – AGCBC – December 9th, 2015
Report by Jo Turner, photos by Howard Wills
Attendees of the December meeting had the distinct pleasure of hearing UK plantsman Howard Wills talk on Semperivums and Related Plants. Mr. Wills is a long-time expert grower of Sempervivums and Jovibarba. Howard runs Fernwood Nursery, in Peters Marland, near Torrington, Dorset, UK. He holds the NCCPG collections of Sempervivum, Jovibarba and has also held the Phormium collection until not long ago.
The genus Jovibarba is closely related to Sempervivum, and, as Howard noted, some experts say they are too similar to warrant a separate genus designation. The main differences are displayed in the floral structures. While the flowers of Sempervivumsare open, Jovibarba flowers are cupped, and have fewer petals, joined at the base. Unlike Semperivum flowers, which are most commonly found in shades of red, pink or purple (some species are yellow or white as well), often with a dark stripe in the center, Jovibarba flowers are usually yellow, though they can range from almost white to a deeper yellow shade.
Howard has participated in many of Britain’s most prestigious garden shows, and won Gold medals at Chelsea in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Howard, with his wife, Sally, wrote a book, ‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’, which he had a few copies of for purchase. It is chock full of information about all aspects of growing and displaying these plants. I would highly recommend it.
Mr. Wills’ enthusiasm for the genus he has specialized in for many years is infectious. Throughout his talk, his passion for all aspects of this genus shined. Over the course of the evening he shared tips on their cultivation and propagation, a variety of cultivars, history, including medicinal uses, how they relate to Fibonacci series, and how to display them to best advantage, along with a mass of stellar photos illustrating his points.
Sempervivums (common name houseleeks), are members of the Crassulaceae family, and have been grown in the UK for centuries, although (strangely), there are no species native to Great Britain. Native to higher elevations, in Morocco and Central Europe, across the Balkans, Caucasus and Iran, they are found nowhere else in the world. Howard stressed that although Sempervivums have succulent leaves similar to many more similar genuses, they are much hardier than most. Subsequently they are not nearly as tender as Echiverias, Agaves, Aeoniums and other succulent plants. He noted that Sempervivums are actually very tough and relatively easy to grow, with their only essential requirements being sun and good drainage. Snow and cold seem to not present any lasting problems either. Regarding possible predators, Howard displayed his love of wildlife when he mentioned that should blackbirds occasionally dig up his plants (often looking for vine weevils), he will check the roots, remove any larvae he finds, replant and leave the larvae nearby for a tasty meal for the birds.
Sempervivums reproduce mainly by producing offsets, the proverbial ‘chicks’ when we see a clump of hens and chicks. He noted that to encourage even more offshoots you may remove the monocarpic flowers, which usually appear in the second or third year of a plant’s life. A cautionary tip he passed along is that, as Sempervivums do die after flowering (being monocots), one might not want to purchase one in flower, although, with the presence of offsets on many plants, only the actual flowering portion would be affected. Regarding the leafy offshoots, a new set of babies should appear each year, on the periphery of the original plant. He illustrated with a photo how you can easily distinguish each year’s new stolons, which are easily removed and potted up. If new plants are desired, late summer is the best time to make cuttings. Of course one can also just let the clumps get bigger and bigger, filling a pot or area in aplanting, which happens quite quickly. Howard stressed that growing from seed is also very easily done, although cultivars won’t come true, and so aren’t usually propagated that way.
Having entered Sempervivums in many garden shows over the years, Howard really knows how best to arrange a planting for maximum interest. He shared his enthusiasm for creating patterns with red/green rosettes, geometric arrangements, tighter/looser textures, and a variety of designs with us, in a series of stellar photos. He also told us about his fascination with the mathematical repetitions created by the spirals and rosettes of these genera, and made reference to their affinity with Fibonacci spirals. The Fibonacci spiral is described as the ‘Golden Mean’ and describes a pattern made when certain numbers are repeated in sequence. Here is a link showing some Fibonacci spirals in nature: http://www.goldennumber.net/spirals. The Fibonacci sequence is where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.
The Fibonacci spiral: an approximation of the golden spiral created by drawing circular arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling; this one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34. All in all, a fascinating and highly informative presentation by a man whose enthusiasm for Sempervivums is definitely contagious…
‘An Introduction to Sempervivum and Jovibarba: Species and Cultivars’ by Howard and Sally Wills. Published 2004. IBBN 0-9547533-0-5.
The nursery and garden are open by appointment. Fernwood offers a full mail-order service.
It’s a coldish (2C) clear, sunny day in Vancouver. We had an ever so slight dusting of snow overnight. Snow around here is a very ephemeral phenomenon, usually only around for few days at most..It does however, totally alter the landscape, however briefly, creating silhouettes on roofs and branches, painting the world with a frosty brush. The ground is hard, unyielding, and in the garden, bronzed leaves display their ragged silver fringes…
I jumped, (well maybe tiptoed), into the world of blogging last autumn, and somehow the landscape in my world shifted as well… The observations, interactivity, and general thoughtfulness and humanity of those blogs I encountered, (and followed) encouraged me to aspire to join in…The community on Twitter, some who blog, are an amazing and wondrous bunch who mean alot to me. A few more experienced bloggers kindly offered very useful advice (you know who you are), and I will always be grateful. There are a few things I plan to write about this year in particular.
The news every day is full of how nature is being attacked, seemingly on all fronts, from bees threatened by hive collapse and neo-nicotinioids, to oceans filling with plastic, which in turn is devoured by marine animals/fish, then becoming present in the flesh of, guess what, the tasty morsel on your plate. Meanwhile governments around the world seem to have blinders on when it comes to understanding the potentially devastating consequences of processes like fracking. In British Columbia, Canada where I live, our government’s enthusiasm for LNG is only surpassed by the folly of issuing a permit to allow the headwaters (source of the town’s water supply) above Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island be used as a toxic waste dump. How is this even possible??? But enough gloom…
Every day I encounter examples of individuals and groups who are deeply commited to upholding and protecting the natural world. Some are gardeners, or designers, or plant propagators, others work to save species or habitat. Still others study and educate communities about beneficial insects and pollinators. Some work with young people to introduce them to the natural world. Their approaches are quite diverse, yet there is a commmon link – the idea that mankind is not the be all/end all of this planet. These ongoing efforts provide a much-needed sense of hope that people can make a positive contribution, within communities, in schools, in gardens, conservation projects, and in countless other initiatives. I hope to highlight some of these projects, books, and people this year.
I also plan to write about some public gardens, introduce some new (and old, but stellar) garden books, and share some horticulturally related events and lectures with my readers. Plus, perhaps a bit of serendipity, just to mix it up a bit.
And so, onward to a new year…. May it bring resilence, a renewed sense of wonder, and the joy to be found both in making and experiencing gardens, (along with the achy muscles), and also by connecting with the wild mysteries of this natural world we call home.
On Monday evening (Nov.16th) over a thousand lucky Vancouverites had the rare pleasure of attending a talk by one of the world’s most influential garden designers, Piet Oudolf, for this year’s Paul Sangha Lecture. Mr. Oudolf is also the author of several books, with his most recent, ‘Hummelo’ published this year. Part of SALA’s (School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture) Fall 2015 Lecture Series, with additional assistance from the Consulate-General of the Netherlands in Vancouver, around 850 of Vancouver’s gardening and design community attended. The original venue was changed when a groundswell of interest made it obvious a larger one was needed to accomodate the numbers hoping to attend.
After a warm welcome and introduction by Ron Kellett, Director of SALA and Assistant-Professor Kees Lokman, Mr. Oudolf began his talk… He looks like an outdoorsman, and has a relaxed, sure way of speaking that puts people at ease. He began by telling the story of how his home garden, (and nursery) called Hummelo, in the Netherlands, evolved. Piet and his wife Anja bought a 3 acre piece of land in the early 1980’s, with a couple of older buildings on it. They decided to begin a nursery, including many borders to show how the plants grew, and which, he reminded us, took several years to become the well known garden it is today. The nursery would specialize in perennials that until then had not been frequently used in gardens, such as ornamental grasses, North American prairie species, tall plants that hold their shape into the winter, and many Umbellifers, such as Angelica gigas, as well as Astrantias, Eryngiums, Helianthus. etc.
Throughout Oudolf’s presentation he noted that he had made some mistakes, wasn’t always sure of how to proceed, and credited the role of circumstances, sometimes difficult ones, in effecting unexpected, but positive outcomes. Unspoken was his deep knowledge of perennials and how to grow them, his great eye for plant combinations, unique philosophy of design, and decades of dedication and work.
In these early days of the nursery Piet and his wife Anja were very busy, running their fledgling nursery, raising their family, and repairing their old house, with not a lot of money. As he mentioned, many of the plants they grew eventually were used in his designs, but ‘Nobody would hire me for design at that time’….
Around 1990 a publisher approached Oudolf about doing a book, since the nursery by then had a very good reputation for unusual, high quality plants, including several that they discovered or bred, such as Salvia ‘Purple Rain’, Echinacea ‘Fatal Attraction’, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and others. Piet enlisted a good friend and fellow plantsman, Henk Gerritsen, to undertake the project with him, titled ‘Dream Plants for the Natural Garden’. I bought a copy several years ago, and agree with Noel Kingbury, who in his forward to the book writes, ‘Above all, a love of the subject matter shines through. The book deserves to become a classic of garden literature, as well as one of those reference books that gets the greatest accolade of the genre – that of becoming dog-eared and grubby.’
Gerritsen and Oudolf favoured plants, including ornamental grasses, that were never or seldom chosen in gardens until then – large, wildish perennials that looked good even as they decayed, and created a naturalistic atmosphere, rather than being merely botanical ‘decoration’. This change in perspective has thoroughly permeated how gardens are viewed, with it now being acceptable to leave seedheads and stalks standing through the winter, to the benefit of birds and other wildlife.
In the nineteen-eighties, Oudolf observed, there was a minor explosion of small new nurseries in Europe and the UK. Plantspeople and nursery-owners shared plants, techniques, seeds, and comraderie. There was lots of visiting back and forth… Hummelo and other nurseries on the continent and in the UK held regular Open Days, where not only botanical knowledge but friendships grew. This is obvious in Oudolf’s photos from the time with nursery owners and plant breeders Ernst Pagels and Beth Chatto, designers, writers and plantsmen Dan Pearson, (writing for the Telegraph), Keith Wiley, Roy Lancaster, Ray Diblik, Rick Darke and others. He mentioned that around that time he made it a practice to seek out unusual perennials and trial them. Oudolf also had a close connection with Great Dixter, Christopher Lloyd’s well-loved garden in East Sussex which continues under the guidance of Fergus Garrett.
In the mid-90’s Oudolf published another book, ‘Gardening with Grasses’, co-written with Michael King. (Yes, I have this one too…a very inspiring book referred to again and again over the years for its cultural information and stunning photos…) As time went by, Oudolf’s plant choices and designs continued to favour naturalistic plantings that highlighted texture, habit, seasonality (especially fall colour), and plants that ‘died well’, such as Caliamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster, Miscanthus, Agastache, Monarda, Sedums and many others. Seedheads, skeletal stalks, frost-rimed leaves, transparent layers of statuesque foliage created a sense of being immersed in a garden, rather than just looking down at it. Around that time Piet and Anja planted yew hedges and pillars of silver-leaved pear at Hummelo that both contained and contrasted with these wilder perennials. Oudolf mentions that the yews were initially intended for sale, but ‘No one bought them, so we used them in the garden’. Yet another example of the serendipity that Oudolf said has been a factor in many aspects of his work.
Scrampston Hall, UK.
Oudolf encouraged us to really look at plants, especially perennials, in all seasons. He also observed that although many of his own designs are for large gardens, the plants can be equally effective and beautiful in smaller gardens. Rather than a drift of grasses, or tall plants such as Inula or Vernonia, a specimen or a few can be used to good effect.
The Oudolfs decided to close their nursery a few years ago, as Piet’s design work occupied more and more energy. He showed us how they took out the iconic curved yew hedges at Hummelo after more than one flood, and also removed the lawn area. Several photos from the past couple of years illustrate the dynamic nature of the recent perennial plantings. As he notes, ‘Every year it’s different’. Maintenance is minimal, as the plants are densely spaced, with layers of bulbs, perennials and grasses providing interest through the seasons.
The High Line, Manhattan, NYC.
The second part of Oudolf’s talk featured several of his projects, in chronological order, along with some of the challenges he encountered, beginnning with his first public park project in Enkoping, just outside of Stockholm, Sweden.
Highline, New York City.
Other designs Oudolf shared with us included the Olympic Garden in London, in collaboration with James Hitchmough, Nigel Dunnett, and Sara Price, the Millenium garden at Pensthorpe, UK in 2000, Trentham, (at 1/2 hectares, his largest private garden, undertaken with Tom Stuart-Smith), Scrampston Hall, North Yorkshire, UK, The Battery and Highline in NYC, Lurie Garden, Chicago, Serpentine Gallery, London, and several others. A range of gardens in a variety of locations and contexts, all sharing the atmospheric beauty that distinguishes an Oudolf creation…Also included was the garden he designed for the Venice Biennale, the first garden especially commissioned for it.
Pensthorpe, Norfolk, UK.
A private garden Oudolf designed is located on Nantucket Island. He told us how the owners had bought a house with a few acres right on the ocean, then bought more adjacent land, ending up with a 14 acre estate to design. This project was another joint one, with Field Operations (landscape architects), and he shared some of the challenges, such as trialing prospective perennials to ensure those selected would be able to withstand the harsh coastal conditions.
Nantucket Island private garden.
The last project shown was Manhattan’s Highline. Built on an elevated rail bridge, Oudolf collaborated on this project with Field Operations (landscape architects) and architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The walkway, with benches and seating areas throughout, extends for 1.45 miles, and is a major tourist draw. Oudolf told us that to avoid too much repetition they created 25 individual landscapes/habitats, such as prairie, meadow, woodland, etc. He is planning a book project with Rick Darke about the gardens and gardeners of the Highline, to be published next year.
Just as we were totally transfixed with the range of gardens Oudolf had presented, the talk came to a close. He graciously answered several questions from the audience. A couple of people wondered about maintenance in these intensively planted gardens, and Oudolf emphasized the importance of ‘good gardeners’ vs ‘bad gardeners’ to carry on the original vision of a design. When asked the difference, he replied, ‘Good gardeners know and love gardens, bad gardeners just do it to make a living’. He also offered some encouraging words to the novice designer when he said to not be afraid, to have courage to go ahead and follow your vision. He said although there may be difficulties and mistakes, things often work out well… Certainly a colossal undertstatement in his case.
In all it was a very inspiring evening with a master of garden design…
Piet Oudolf’s books:
With Noel Kingsbury:
- Designing with Plants
- Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space
- Landscapes in Landscapes
- Planting: A New Perspective
- Oudolf-Hummelo: A Journey Through a Plantsman’s Life
With Michael King:
- Designing with Grasses
With Henk Gerritsen:
- Dreamplants for the Natural Garden
- Planting the Natural Garden
Last night the AGC of BC hosted a talk with Sue Milliken and Kelly Dodson of Far Reaches Farm from Port Townsend, Washington. Their nursery is well-known for its extensive and varied selection of rare and unusual plants, as well as many that are more well-known, but wonderful. Sue and Kelly have travelled extensively over the past couple of decades, collecting plants and seeds to propogate and share with their colleagues and clients. The subject of last nights talk was their trip to China in 2012. Their presentation was quirky and loaded with slides, offering observations, often humourous and self-deprecating, on plants, people, food, towns, the rate of development in China, and the wealth of flora to be found there. We saw towering Rhododendron rex, unusual vining Gentians, a gorgeous Disporum cantoniense with deep purple flowers called ‘Monk Gone Wild’, donkeys hauling sand up steep mountain stairs, many Bergenias and many other botanical rarities whose names I couldn’t record in the dark.
Kelly and Sue are planning another plant collection trip this October, and are looking for contributions to offset the expense. Their presentation showed their spartan accommodations and evenings (after long days out collecting in often difficult conditions) spent sorting seed and recording data. They often stayed in small, often unheated rooms or tents, with seed covering virtually every flat surface. As they noted, definitely not a vacation, but very worthwhile for a couple of plant nerds intent on discovery and conservation. To find out more, their website is: farreachesfarm.com. It was a great pleasure to hear these two, sharing the highs and lows of one of their expeditions as modern-day plant hunters. At the meeting a show of hands indicated that there is a fair bit of interest amongst those attending, in a field trip to Far Reaches in the next six months or so…Far Reaches indeed…