Why We Need Biodiversity

Few people feel personally threatened by the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity losses are a clear sign that our own life-support systems are failing. The ecosystems that support us – that determine the carrying capacity of the earth and our local spaces – are run by biodiversity. It is biodiversity that generates oxygen and cleans water, creates topsoil out of rock, buffers extreme weather events like droughts and floods, pollinates our crops, and recycles the mountains of garbage we create every day.

And now, with human-induced climate change threatening the planet, it is biodiversity that, if given half a chance, will suck that carbon out of the air and sequester it in living plants. Humans cannot live as if they are the only species on this planet. Why? Because it is other species that create the ecosystem services that are so essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction, we are encouraging our own demise. Despite the disdain with which we have treated it in the past, biodiversity is not optional.

Contemporary Gardens

In the 20th century, modern design for gardens became important as architects began to design buildings and residences with an eye toward innovation and streamlining the formal Beaux-Arts and derivative early revival styles, removing unnecessary references and embellishment. Garden design, inspired by modern architecture, naturally followed in the same philosophy of “form following function” and resulted in focus on the many philosophies of plant maturity. In post-war United States people’s residences and domestic lives became more outdoor oriented, especially in the western states as promoted by ‘Sunset Magazine’, with the backyard often becoming an outdoor room.

Frank Lloyd Wright demonstrated his interpretation for the modern garden by designing homes in complete harmony with natural surroundings. Taliesin and Fallingwater are both examples of careful placement of architecture in nature so the relationship between the residence and surroundings become seamless. His son Lloyd Wright trained in architecture and landscape architecture in the Olmsted Brothers office, with his father, and with architect Irving Gill. He practiced an innovative organic integration of structure and landscape in his works.

Subsequently Garrett Eckbo, James Rose, and Dan Kiley – known as the “Bad Boys of Harvard”, met while studying traditional landscape architecture became notable pioneers in the design of modern gardens. As Harvard embraced modern design in their school of architecture, these designers wanted to interpret and incorporate those new ideas in landscape design. They became interested in developing functional space for outdoor living with designs echoing natural surroundings. Modern gardens feature a fresh mix of curved and architectonic designs and many include abstract art in geometrics and sculpture. Spaces are defined with the thoughtful placement of trees and plantings. Thomas Church work in California was influential through his books and other publications. In Sonoma County, California his 1948 Donnell garden’s swimming pool, kidney-shaped with an abstract sculpture within it, became an icon of modern outdoor living.

Vanilla Planifolia

Vanilla comes from orchids of the genus Vanilla. While the major species of vanilla orchids are now grown around the world, they originally came from Mesoamerica, including parts of modern-day Mexico and Guatemala. The vanilla orchid is a vine-like plant that grows up trees and can reach thirty feet in length.

The most widely used orchid to produce vanilla is the Vanilla planifolia, or Flat-Leaved Vanilla, and is the only orchid used for industrial food production.

The plant part that is used is the pod and is frequently referred to as the bean. The pods are picked when they are still not ripe, and then plunged into hot water and laid out to dry for anywhere from two to six months. These pods contain thousands of tiny black seeds.

Vanilla extract comes from macerating vanilla beans and mixing them with water and alcohol. It’s the most commonly purchased form of vanilla and much cheaper than vanilla beans.

Vanilla can only be grown ten to twenty degrees north and south of the equator. Seventy-five percent of vanilla on the market today is derived from vanilla plants in Madagascar and Réunion. It is commonly known as Bourbon vanilla, named for the island Réunion, which was formally named Île Bourbon.

The remaining world’s vanilla crop comes from Mexico and Tahiti. Vanilla from these countries is much harder to get obtain for use. Mexican vanilla is supposed to be smoother, darker and richer than vanilla from Madagascar, and Tahitian vanilla is said to have more floral notes.

Like saffron, vanilla is very labor intensive to produce. Vanilla is the second most-expensive spice, after saffron.  In order for vanilla orchids to produce pods, the plant must be pollinated by hummingbirds or a specific species of bees native to Central America. Furthermore, the flowers are only open for a short period of time. In order to harvest vanilla commercially, therefore, the plants must be hand-pollinated.

Egyptian Garden

Gardens were much cherished in the Egyptian times and were kept both for secular purposes and attached to temple compounds. Gardens in private homes and villas before the New Kingdom were mostly used for growing vegetables and located close to a canal or the river. However, in the New Kingdom they were often surrounded by walls and their purpose incorporated pleasure and beauty besides utility. Garden produce made out an important part of foodstuff but flowers were also cultivated for use in garlands to wear at festive occasions and for medicinal purposes. While the poor kept a patch for growing vegetables, the rich people could afford gardens lined with sheltering trees and decorative pools with fish and waterfowl. There could be wooden structures forming pergolas to support vines of grapes from which raisins and wine were produced. There could even be elaborate stone kiosks for ornamental reasons, with decorative statues.

Temple gardens had plots for cultivating special vegetables, plants or herbs considered sacred to a certain deity and which were required in rituals and offerings. Sacred groves and ornamental trees were planted in front of or near both cult temples and mortuary temples. As temples were representations of heaven and built as the actual home of the god, gardens were laid out according to the same principle. Avenues leading up to the entrance could be lined with trees, courtyards could hold small gardens and between temple buildings gardens with trees, vineyards, flowers and ponds were maintained.

The ancient Egyptian garden would have looked different from a modern garden. It would have seemed more like a collection of herbs or a patch of wild flowers, lacking the specially bred flowers of today. Flowers like the iris, chrysanthemum, lily and delphinium (blue), were certainly known to the ancients but do not feature much in garden scenes. Formal bouquets seem to have been composed of mandrake, poppy, cornflower and or lotus and papyrus.

Due to the arid climate of Egypt, tending gardens meant constant attention and depended on irrigation. Skilled gardeners were employed by temples and households of the wealthy. Duties included planting, weeding, watering by means of a shaduf, pruning of fruit trees, digging the ground and harvesting the fruit.

Love is much like a wild rose, beautiful and calm, but willing to draw blood in its defense. – Mark Overby

Grass Warm Or Cool

One thing you need to know before cutting back the dry, dead stems of ornamental grass is whether the grass is a cool season or warm season grass. If you don’t know what particular variety of ornamental grass is in your yard, observing its growth habits will tell you whether it is a cool season or warm season grass.

Cool season ornamental grass begins to produce its new growth quite early in the spring, soon after temperatures begin to stay above freezing. Cool season grasses flower by early summer, making them good additions in the short growing season of a northern garden.

Warm season grasses begin to grow much later in the spring, sometimes so late that you may begin to wonder if they made it through winter. Warm season grasses begin flowering later in the summer and into the fall.

Some of the cool season ornamental grasses are fescue, ribbon grass (Phalaris), feather grass (Stipa), northern sea oats and tufted hair grass. Warm season ornamental grass includes both little and big bluestem, Japanese blood grass, maiden grass (Miscanthus), fountain grass (Pennisetum) and hardy pampas grass (Saccharum).

The spent flowers and seed heads of ornamental grass, along with the dried foliage, can add interest to the landscape throughout winter. Although the dead foliage of either cool season or warm season grasses could be cut back in late fall, many gardeners enjoy the beauty of the foliage throughout winter.

Unless the plant becomes too shabby over winter, trimming back the dead stems of cool season ornamental grass can wait until the first balmy, late winter or very early spring day. As soon as any snow melts and the ground begin to thaw, cool season grasses should be cut back. Waiting too long may risk damaging the new shoots that will begin to emerge as soon as the weather begins to shift toward spring.

Cut back cool season grasses so about a third of last year’s growth remains. Be careful to not cut back a cool season ornamental grass too far, as this can seriously harm the plant. Resist the temptation to burn off the dead foliage of a cool season grass, as this will also damage the growing tips. Don’t worry that these remaining dried stems will be unsightly, because the bright new spring growth will soon hide it nicely.

Warm season grasses can be left standing later into the spring while you take care of more urgent gardening tasks. Providing you don’t wait so long that the new foliage is already emerging, warm season grasses can be cut back to the ground. If you can already see some new green growth emerging as you prepare to trim the plant, just cut above it, being careful to not damage the new growth, otherwise all season long the plant will look like it has a crew cut.

Caryopteris Not Spiraea

It is unfortunate that Caryopteris has the common name of Blue Spirea for it is not a Spiraea and it’s just plain confusing. How this came about I do not know as they are not even in the same family; Spiraea is in the Roseaceae family while Caryopteris is in the Verbenaceae family.

The genus Caryopteris is comprised of roughly fifteen species, most being native to Asia. Only are few of these species are grown in North America as ornamentals. The majority of the ornamental selections sold here are hybrids; Caryopteris x cladonensis (pronounced Cary-op-ter-is clan-don-en-sis) which is a hybrid between Caryopteris incana and Caryopteris mongholica. Unless otherwise noted, the following information here after refers to this hybrid.

Caryopteris is a fall flowering shrub with rich blue to purple-blue flowers. While it is hardy to USDA zone 5, it is typically a die-back shrub in the North, behaving much like a Buddleia. While the plant makes woody stems, they are tender and die back during the winter. As the plant grows back quickly in the spring and its flower buds (and flowers) are formed on new wood so the plant does not miss a beat.

Culturally there are three things necessary to grow a nice plant. First off, it loves full sun. It will grow in partial shade but it will not look happy or flower nearly half as well as a plant in full sun. In addition, the yellow leafed cultivars have much better color in full sun. In partial shade the leaves will appear a dull, washed out green. The next thing to know is that Caryopteris needs well drained soil. It will not tolerate heavy, wet clay soils, or at least not for long. People often blame the plant for not being winter hardy because their plant did not make it through the winter, but the real culprit is wet soil. Well drained soil is a must. Once established Caryopteris is very drought tolerant and requires even less water. My final bit of cultural advice deals with pruning – as the plant typically dies back in the winter, you should only have to prune the plant once and that is in the spring after the plant starts to grow. Simply cut the plant back to wood with active sprouts. If you wish you can give the plant a slight shearing in early summer to bulk of the body of the plant. Fall pruning is not recommended, as it stimulates the plant to grow when it should be going dormant – the result can be a dead plant the following spring.