I’d never heard of Tillandsia

airplant4At our February garden club meeting we were treated to a talk and hands-on workshop on Tillandsia. These little guys are popularly known as “air plants.” I’d heard the term before but somehow they didn’t seem like serious plants to me. They brought to mind the little animals parents are talked into buying on the boardwalk. Just as hermit crabs and goldfish are real animals with specific needs, so are Tillandsia real plants that need specific care.

It’s a genus of around 650 species of evergreen, perennial flowering plants in the family Bromeliaceae. They are native to the forests, mountains and deserts of northern Mexico and south-eastern United States.  They range through Central America and the Caribbean to mid- Argentina. We can’t grow them outside, but they can be lovely houseplants and summer porch additions to planters and wreaths.

Catherine Winkler, owner of Roots Landscaping (Great Gardens Start at the Roots) brought samples and showed us how to plant and care for our “air plants.”

In Catherine’s opinion, theTillandsia family is underused by gardeners. As their name indicates, they do not grow in soil. They have minimal roots that anchor them to their growing surface. They are not poisonous to little mouths. Think toddlers and puppies. They are super clean, requiring a water spritz two or three times a week. This mimics the showers they would get in their native habitat. Outside, on the Eastern Shore, the summer humidity would take care of their water needs. The broader their leaves, the less water required. The more yellow in their leaf color, the more light they require.

I’m looking forward to the workshop Catherine promised this summer on creating a TIllandsia wreath on a grapevine base.


We made these little guys.

Roots is a full service landscape and garden center in Selbyville, Delaware.

The February Garden is Spelled A N T I C I P A T I O N

“One of the most delightful things about a garden

is the anticipation it provides.” W.E. Johns.

My sister-in-law sent me this quote this morning. How true it is. Thinking about spring is fulfilling in February.

seeds2The basil seeds sprouted in seven days. The chives appeared a few days later. In fourteen days cilantro was pushing up. Then came sage. Little parsley heads were the last to poke through.  Every morning I follow their progress, wishing them onward and upward. I may have been too quick to anticipate. I can’t put the basil out until the middle of April. But the sage, chives, cilantro and parsley, I’m sure, can hit the ground sooner.

My refrigerator is holding perennial seeds taped in packages to the underside of the shelves. I’ve been introduced to a new concept – cold stratification. I’ve planted many perennials, but they always came in pots from the nursery. I never thought about giving seeds a deep freeze before, but I’ve been told, if I seek germination, I better replicate nature. It makes perfect sense. So milkweed, butterfly weed and Echinacea are vacationing for six weeks with the milk, eggs and orange juice. I tried an outdoor method with the hellebore seeds. In January I planted them in peat pots outside where I want them to grow. The pots are dug in at ground level. Hopefully they will sprout in early spring and occupy that real estate for years.

Kevin Lee Jacobs Lifestyle website  gives a comprehensive list of perennial seeds requiring cold stratification.

So I’ll spend these cold, dark days indoors with my overwintered begonias, the tete a tete daffodils from a friend and the amaryllis that’s ready to pop.


Amaryllis Extravagantly Popped 

seeds1 It’s almost time to plant the flower seeds.

We Went Far Afield

The desert of Palm Springs, California is about as far as you can get geographically and ecologically on this continent from the watery world of the Eastern Shore. It is pure desert and dryness. Still, it’s part of our country and the versa to our vice.

We visited two gardens there, one a stylized, man-made, plant-sculpture garden and one created by the breathtaking long ago forces of nature. Both were impressive in desert beauty.

PS2Sunnylands Center and Gardens was the estate of Walter and Leonore Annenberg, now a retreat center for the study of media, politics and society.  It’s called an “art garden.”  The video explaining the thought behind its creation is worth looking at. It shows a peaceful, lush desert garden with plants carefully selected for color and structure. There are 10 acres of native, drought-tolerant plantings arranged in single- species gardens to compliment the Annenberg collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Art reproductions are seen throughout the house, as the original works now reside at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

PS6The Coachella Valley Preserve was our other garden visit. This 20,000 acre oasis sits smack on top of the San Andreas Fault.  Sulphur-laced water bubbles up through the fault line and fills the pools with milky water. California Fan Palms grow around that water and create the quiet magic of the preserve. Fan Palms are the only palms native to the south-western United States. They never lose their dried palm fronds, giving them another name – petticoat palms. Their long grass skirts form a complete ecological system, housing snakes and rodents downstairs, insects, birds and bats on the upper levels. Coachella docents refer to these palms as “critter condos.”

PS9The fringe-toed lizard lives in the preserve and nowhere else. We never got a look at him, but we did meet other creatures on the trails. On one sun bleached path we met up with an insect about one inch long. For his size he had very long legs. So long that he could toil across our path with a small stick efficiently tucked under his legs. When he dropped it, he carefully circled around , scooped it up and marched on his way. We were on holiday, he was at work.

Coachella must have been a sacred spot for the native people of the desert. The palms bring shade to an otherwise parched landscape. Walking among them, even with other hikers nearby, felt like we’d stumbled into a place of worship.

Coachella and Sunnylands bear the imprint of man and nature. Coachella evolved over centuries, remaining in existence because people saw the value in preserving it. Someday the fault may remake it in one cataclysmic moment. Sunnylands evolved in one couple’s lifetime into a 10 acre painting of plants. Both give one pause as to the myriad ways to approach nature and gardening. Both could be created on our side of the continent with an appreciation of what nature has given us.

I Never Suspected – Germaine Greer Loves Gardening

the revolting garden                                      Winter

“How pleasant the lot of the gardener in these winter months! He whiles away the short days and long evenings, devising stratagems whereby he can trick the garbage man into using the path instead of tramping across the tulip and iris shoots to collect the plastic bag thrown to him by his colleague, knocking the buds off the Magnolia stellate as he hoists it onto his shoulder and demolishing the one fat red shoot which contains all that Paeonia mlokseiwitchi would have given this spring. ‘PLEASE DON’T THROW THE LIDS ON THE GARDEN’ is lost among the other graffiti.”

Looking for a winter read, I came upon The Revolting Garden by Rose Blight, a.k.a. Germaine Greer. Greer is a 1970s feminist, famous for her book, The Female Eunuch. Her surprising love of gardening is put forth in this little volume. Believe it, she brings a unique twist to garden writing.

“How cheering the thud of the seed catalogues on the doormat! Now all that you have wanted to know about growing spherical carrots, grey beetroot, turrets of indestructible lettuce that even snails won’t eat!”

 Here is just how and why London gardens are revolting.

“The London garden must be revolting, essentially because the cultural conditions are so very unfavourable to plant life that only the dreariest of plants will make do with them…”

 I thought England was bursting with lovely gardens. Maybe London is the exception.  First she outs privet.

“…Ligustrum ovalifolium, which can be relied upon to push its charcoal green leaves doggedly upward through the murk to a height of fifteen feet, meekly parting its grimy limbs to allow dustmen to crash through with their bins, catching up plastic bags and cigarette packets like some egregious scavenging dog.”

Aucuba is privets diseased companion.

“…Aucuba japonica or spotted laurel, whose pustular-yellow spattered leaves hang on unabashed when the rest of the garden has withered away under a pile of mattresses, rusting bedsteads, bottles, tin cans and disowned perambulators.”

A third shrub earns Greer’s distain.

“…Fatsia japonica, also accepts life in conditions of verminous, permanent semi-shade, because its thick stems and leathery leaves are so hideous that it is grateful to be cultivated anywhere.”

After thoroughly exposing the London garden, Greer goes on to describe the two types of revolting Italian gardens and the particularly revolting gardens of India. Plants would grow wonderfully in Bombay if people didn’t sit on them, sleep on them and erect shanties on them.

Rose Blight required a deep breath, an hour of yoga and a tranquilizing visit to a salt room. Then David Austin’s little fat Handbook of Roses 2019 landed in my mailbox. Take note, Rose, your namesake is the jewel of English gardens. Inspiring, abundant, tough, unrivaled in beauty and fragrance. The names alone inspire – Roald Dahl, Dame Judi Dench, Charles Darwin, Gertrude Jekyll, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Kew Gardens. Here are 174 pages filled with captivating photographs interspersed with a generous helping of rose information. David Austin is as inspiring as Greer is hilarious.

“Every day, I marvel at my good fortune to have been able to make a life out of breeding roses. My greatest satisfaction is to see the pleasure my roses give to gardeners and rose lovers worldwide.”

A Botanical Garden in the City of Mermaids


Crossing the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula through the engineering marvel of the Bay-Bridge Tunnel is one good reason to head to Norfolk from the Eastern Shore. Driving both under and over the confluence of the great Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Atlantic Ocean is exhilarating.  The other equally inspiring very good reason is to take a look at the Norfolk Botanical Garden  –  all 175 acres of it.

It started out as a plan to create an azalea garden to rival the one in a city to its south, Charleston, South Carolina. That was in 1939, the waning days of the Depression. 200 African-American women and 20 men were hired with a WPA grant to begin clearing the site’s 150 acres of undergrowth by hand. It was back-breaking work for twenty-five cents an hour. Now a statue stands in the WPA Memorial Garden to commemorate those who turned the first shovelfuls of dirt to create it but who were not allowed to visit as guests until 1965.

The azalea garden still explodes with color every spring. But now those beauties are joined by over fifty other gardens including a healing garden, fern glade, wildflower meadow, Japanese garden, renaissance garden, sensory garden, rose garden, colonial herb garden and a garden of Virginia natives.


Add in an arboretum for warming up among flowering orchids and other tropicals.


A walk through the Moses Ezekiel garden of seven foot painter and sculptor statues is just as inspiring on a winter day and probably a lot quieter.

Thinking ahead of a planned trip, one of the many classes taught at the garden might conveniently work out. Courses cover everything from winter pruning, moss gardening, gardening for songbirds, making kombucha or spritzes and sprays and garden yoga or T’ai Chi. A lot is happening in the Norfolk Botanical Garden.


What we did see which surprised me were Camellia shrubs bursting with fat buds. Being from the north, I’m unfamiliar with camellias. Flower buds in December? That did not happen where I came from. The flowers captivated me so much that I went right home and ordered “Pink Perfection” for my garden. We just made it within the hardiness zone, so we’ll see what happens come spring.


The city of Norfolk joined Helsinki, Copenhagen and Warsaw in adopting mermaids as its symbol. Mermaid statues float all through the city in front of the schools, libraries and of course the Botanical Garden.

Why visit a botanical garden in winter? You won’t see much in flower. But you will get to walk in a lovely setting, with a clear view of the garden’s bones. It’s my humble opinion that no matter what time of the year you happen to visit a city, a trip to its garden is worthwhile. And this one is spectacular. At the very least you will make note of what you would like to return to in the spring or summer or autumn.

I Didn’t Know My Crabgrass was Really Millet

green thoughts


I learned so many things from Eleanor Perenyi. Her book, Green Thoughts, a Writer in the Garden is a beautifully written classic in alphabetic order. She starts with “Annuals and ends with “A Woman’s Place.”

In her essay titled “Naturalizing” she talks about plants that hitched a ride with the immigrants, some by chance, some by choice. Crabgrass was not always in America; it came with immigrants from Central Europe.

“The form most familiar to us is native to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, where the peasants knew it for a rapidly growing crop easily raised in many types of soil. They abandoned it eventually because corn and wheat were the staples of the new world they found, and fetched much higher prices. The millet seed was tossed away and in due time escaped to every corner of the country.”

Now that is good to know. Come the disaster, dig up the crab grass and pass the salt. What would that peasant from Poland think if he knew his pocketful of millet seed spawned a million dollar industry of pre-emergent herbicide? He would never believe it.

There is so much more botanical knowledge to be found in Perenyi’s book. She writes an essay on “Dahlias” which came from Mexico. Then she digresses into facts I had not known about European exploration in the Americas. In grade school we are left thinking that conquistadors were in search of gold. The Spanish were smarter than that. They knew vegetable riches might be far more valuable than minerals. In 1566 Spain banned all foreign plant-hunters and publication of the natural resources of Spanish America. Botanists were routinely part of their expeditions. Columbus regretted he hadn’t brought one, so he wrote himself of all the botanical wonders he found.

“There has never been a more knowledgeable group of botanists and horticulturists than the Spanish fathers in the New World. It is largely thanks to them that Spain’s American colonies were a flourishing garden at a time when England’s were mere specks on the map, constantly threatened with starvation…Not only did they discover the potato, the pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, maize, etc., they paid their debt to Amerindian agriculture by introducing wheat, peaches, grapes, olives, figs, lettuce, oranges, pears, barley, onions, and countless other crops to the New World that, in Anglo-Saxon myth, they ravished.”

The history of our vegetation is lost to us if not for writers like Perenyi. Take the annuals we see every spring in the garden centers of places like Home Depot and Walmart.

Continue reading

The Gardener’s Anatomy

I just finished whacking to the knees some kind of ornamental grass that grows about ten feet tall in the summer and waves its dry, feathery heads at me all winter. I don’t like it. Well, I do like it from a distance, I don’t like it next to my driveway where poison ivy can hide and stalks fall over to get in the way of cars. Its circumference ever expands while its middle slowly dies away.

But my personal battle with ornamental grass is another story. My subject here is my own anatomy and the anatomy of gardeners in general. It seems that evolution has not been on our side. I spent a couple hours bent over, shoulders hunched; I pushed my fingers to the limit hacking away with the garden shears. At the end of the session I brought the grass to its knees but I was a wreck.  If the fates were more considerate, gardeners would not have stiff backs that don’t bend very far. They would have backs like inch worms that can perform an effortless 360.

gardebers anatomy picture

Now that I think about it, there are a number of evolutionary developments that would greatly enhance a gardener’s life. To begin with, we should have wings. That would save a lot of unnecessary trampling on helpless plants when a gardener with only legs and size ten feet tries to reach the back of the bed. How lovely it would be to hover overhead, reaching down to pluck a naughty weed without disturbing innocent seedlings that have recently pushed up their bright green heads.

If wings are not an evolutionary option, I would vote for telescoping limbs, both legs and arms. Although not as perfect as the wing evolvement, it would enable swift and orderly handling of many garden chores, particularly if we were given more than two arms. Let’s say four. A gardener may be on the way to deadhead a bed of pelargonium, only to notice that the periwinkle is being choked by wild strawberries. One telescoping arm could pull up the nasty berries while a telescoping leg could hop on over to the pelargoniums to give another two hands the deadhead job. With one more hand ready to work, there is no telling how good that garden could look.

As it is, evolution has turned a blind eye to gardener’s needs by giving us only two clumsy feet and one stiff back. The current state of garden affairs leaves us lowering our head and hands as far down to the ground as possible and propelling our backsides into the air. That is not a pretty sight for the birds effortlessly flying overhead.