Bold words spoken by a bold guy, Fergus Garrett, CEO of Great Dixter and rock-star of the horticulture world. Garrett was the keynote speaker at the Perennial Plant Association National Symposium this past week. Almost as famous as his mentor, Christopher Lloyd, Garrett composes pictures with plants; he can talk faster than most people, especially about plants. Fergus always uses the pronoun “we” never “I”. “We break the rules, believe in every imaginable and unimaginable combination of colors; we allow the landscape to come into the garden”.
For the last thirty years, Garrett has been experimenting, taking risks, learning…mimicking what what goes in the woods, creating a laissez faire style, which he is the first to say is not everyone’s cup of tea. “A handshake with the wild” is how Garrett likes to think about the gardens at Dixter.
Fergus plays with the exotic, to the dismay of many visitors. “The joyousness of plants, that’s Dixter.” When asked if he keeps records of all the experiments at Dixter, he answered “Should I write this or should I go to work. I go to work.”
For me, the real superstar of the conference was Annabel Renwick. Riches in Ditches is the title of an article Renwick wrote for the Duke Garden newsletter Flora. The title of this article correctly characterizes how Renwick collected seed and selected plants for the Piedmont prairie at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
“From an ecological perspective, I had been asked to help build a representation of an almost vanished Piedmont ecosystem whose modern day remnants represent only a shadow of that ecology’s former grandeur.
At one time, the Piedmont Prairie was a natural landscape where scattered trees sheltered billowing grasses grazed by large herbivores notably absent from the modern Southeast.
It is not only the bison and elk that are missing, but also many species of native grasses and wildflowers that once co-inhabited these natural systems.” RenwickWhat to do? Renwick became a plant hunter. But where? roadsides, ditches, those abandoned, neglected, mowed areas. People ask Renwick why bother chasing down all these seeds? Answer: “We want the prairie to contain the progeny of plants whose parents populated the roadsides of this region before there were roads.”
For three years Renwick and her team found 100 species of wildflowers and grasses collected from local communities within 30-50 miles of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. 12,000 were grown into plugs by Hoffman Nursery and the remaining 7,000 wildflowers were grown by Blomquist Garden staff.
Renwick consulted James Hitchmough and Darrell Morrison on the “design” of the prairie. The design used an “ecologically-based planting design” approach. “This involved forming matrices across the site, into which each species would be planted according
to its environmental requirement for factors such as light and moisture, its growth habit, reproductive spread and how the species associate with each other in the wild.” Renwick
One takeaway: What is natural? Natural is not random. There is a reason plants grow the way they do in nature. In a bizarre way this was the tie that bound Fergus Garrett and Annabel Renwick.
From native to the artificial: Amazon Spheres. I don’t think much about the corporate culture of Amazon. Apparently Jeff Bezos does. The Spheres, took six years to plan, and is suppose to be a space where employees can collaborate and innovate. Ron Gagliardo, senior manager of horticultural services at Amazon explained it was a place “to think differently.” Some of us might remember that phrase from a previous corporate campaign.
What’s the point? Plants have been proven to improve human health: lower blood pressure, reduce stress, improve memory and increase the ability to concentrate. This supposedly is the rationale for the Spheres project.
The Spheres contain 40,000 plants known as the “cloud forest” with plants from 30 countries. The temperature inside the Spheres range from 68 to 74 degrees and 60-65 percent humidity during the day and 80 to 85 percent at night. The plants were selected to thrive in these conditions. In addition, Amazon’s horticultural team can adjust the light spectrum inside the Spheres
“The 4-story living wall is planted with 25,000 plants. The largest specimen on the site a 55 ft. tall Ficus rubiginosa. There are many YouTube videos you can watch about Spheres, to get an idea of what’s like inside the Spheres.
One could be cynical about this project. I prefer to be surrounded by plants in the garden, but not everybody has this luxury. Many of the corporate volunteers who come to Randall’s Island consistently say “I would do anything not to sit in front of a computer all day.” Maybe, Amazon’s tree house is one answer to the craving for nature, even at work.