Nothing has served as a better “welcome home” greeting this spring than my Suncatcher tulips. The tulips began blooming in mid-April and continue to dazzle my slowly-waking front yard with petals of brilliant yellow and cherry red. They are the first thing I see as I return home, sparking life into the southwest corner of my front yard where all passers-by stop to admire their rather optimistic cheerfulness projecting above the brown pine needles and hesitant green spikes of new spiderwort.
Last fall, when I hastily poked a dozen holes into the slope of my front garden, I gave little thought to the fat tulip bulbs that had just arrived from Longfield Gardens. Pressed for time, I covered the bulbs with soil and promptly forgot all about them until pops of color announced that winter was over. Even my young sons noticed the tulips after they first bloomed. “They should have named these ‘Rainbow Tulips’” decided my 8-year-old. “Because these tulips have the first three colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow.”
For those who live in the colder climes, where months of gray and brown prevail, a clutch of tulips planted along driveways or front entrances makes an ideal greeting. Returning from work at the end of the day seems like arriving at a little spring party (and shouldn’t it be that way this time of year?).
Our friends at Ball Horticultural invited me to attend their impressive Spring Trials for 2015 at their growing facilities in Santa Paula, California, last week. This is when plant growers and breeders show off their new introductions for next year—and I was given a sneak peak at cool new plants from Ball Flora Plant, Selecta, Ball Ingenuity, Burpee, Wave Pansies, Wave Petunias, PanAmerican Seed, Kieft Seed, Darwin Perennials, and Ball Ornamentals. Here are some of the highlights:
Here’s a sensational new macrophylla hydrangea, L.A. Dreamin’ Hydrangea (Ball Ornamental), the first macrophylla to bloom in blue, pink, and everything in between without any aluminum sulfate or special fertilizer.
This great-looking new Scabiosa Flutter Series (Darwin Perennials) boasts larger blooms, deeper colors, and a superior compact habit. This one is Scabiosa Flutter Deep Blue.
Double Zahara Series Zinnias (PanAmerican Seed) produce fully double flowers and a tidier habit in some really interesting colors, like this new Double Zahara Salmon Rose Zinnia.
Considered a designer collection of grandiflora petunias, the Petunia Sophistica series (PanAmerican Seeds) are a little out of the ordinary with large blooms in special one-of-a-kind colors and patterns. This is Sophistica Lime Bicolor Petunia.
I’ll leave you with a shot I grabbed of a hummingbird feeding on a leucospermum. So nice to spend time with friends Katie Rotella (Ball Horticultural), Jerry Gorshels (PanAmerican Seed), Karl Batschke (Darwin Perennials), and Anna Ball herself, the third-generation leader of Ball Horticultural Company.
Nature-themed books (along with positive outdoor experiences) can initiate a child’s life-long appreciation of nature. Whether employing alluring illustrations or placing wildlife in humorous situations, books can take the outdoors from the mundane into the magical.
Here a few of the titles, some old, some new, that appealed to my three elementary-school aged sons and helped them gain a new consciousness of what lies outside.
I Am a Bunny
By Ole Rissom, illustrated by Richard Scarry
(Random House, 1963)
All three of my boys dearly loved this book when they were toddlers and still regard it with tenderness. The story follows a small brown rabbit in red overalls as he experiences a year in nature. He picks daffodils in spring, reclines in the summer sun to watch the birds, and curls up in his hole in the tree while snow cascades outside. The book sets a charming rhythm to the seasons and the illustrations by Richard Scarry make this book timeless. My sons always lingered on the back of the book, where the bunny is depicted laying in green grass and gazing at a cricket while a variety of other insects gaze down on the bunny.
Children of the Forest
By Elsa Beskow
(Floris Books, 2001)
Though first published in Sweden in 1910, Children of the Forest seems very contemporary (especially considering the popularity of fairy gardens). The sweetly illustrated forest floor hosts a tiny family who live under the curling roots of an old pine tree. The father sports a pinecone cap and mother and children wear white-speckled red caps (so they can pretend to be mushrooms if in danger). This story follows the family through the seasons, richly illustrated with flowers and mosses and ferns. Drama occurs as the children taunt ants (and get stung) and the father battles a snake – the boys loved that scene. But mostly the family as they interact peacefully with the squirrels, bats, frogs, and owls who share their world.
By Paige Braddock
(Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015)
Cecil the toad spends his days with his amphibian friends (and a reincarnating fly) at the pond until he discovers a freeway construction project aimed right at their homes. The creatures band together to try and thwart the project and save their pond in hilariously doomed attempts. My kids laughed out loud when the toad released his stinky self-defense mechanism and when the hawk swooped and dropped pebbles on the bulldozer. All three boys were thoroughly entertained by this comic book-style comedy of endangered wildlife who ultimately win.
Flowers Are Calling
By Rita Gray, Illustrated by Kenard Pak
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
Gorgeous watercolors depict the symbiotic relationship between flower design and the insects, birds, and bats that collect pollen. It invites appreciation for how plants lure their pollinators with a gentle rhyming text that gave my boys the “Aha!” moment, opening their minds to understanding why flowers look the way they do to attract certain insects and birds. The blooms on the cardon cactus, which are pollinated by nectar bats, particularly intrigued my boys, as did the moonflowers that “called” to the sphinx moths at night.
As the longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, Katherine S. White helped to shape more than three decades of American literature, discovering and supporting hundreds of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, and James Thurber. Her “favorite reading matter,” however, remained elsewhere: within the pages of garden and seed catalogs. Here, writes White, she finds the potential for a special kind of reading: “I read for news, for driblets of knowledge, for aesthetic pleasure, and at the same time I am planning the future, and so I read in a dream.”
New York Review Books Classics is publishing on March 17th a handsome new paperback edition of Onward and Upward in the Garden, which collects all of the essays White wrote on gardening for The New Yorker between 1958 and 1970, ranging from critical readings of seed catalogs to meditations on 18th century flower painting. Whether she is extolling the virtues of the lawn—“What pleasanter surface on which to walk, sit, lie, or even to read Tennyson?”—or deriding the modern extravagancies of the ruffled snapdragon—“an abomination,” she insists—White writes with the lucidity and poise of a sharp editorial mind.
In his introduction to the book—part love letter, part critical biography—E.B. White, Katherine White’s husband, writes that White “refused to dress down to garden,” and would often appear in Ferragamos and a “handsome tweed skirt and jacket” while among her plants—more the image of the literary editor then the green-thumbed gardener. As White notes in his introduction, “to write of Katherine simply as a gardener would be like writing of Ben Franklin simply as a printer.”
Onward and Upward in the Garden is the only book by Katherine S. White, who had intended to write one more essay—a reminiscence on the gardens of her childhood—before her death in 1977. If this classic is not already on your garden bookshelf, now is the time to order your copy of the book The New York Times once called “a bouquet, the final blooming of an extraordinary sensibility.”
Check out the newest bookazine from the team that brings you your favorite garden magazine, Country Gardens. Gardening for Birds & Butterflies celebrates the increasingly green-hearted spirit of gardening. Gardening for Birds & Butterflies will inspire you to transform your home landscape into a healthy haven for friends, family, and wildlife. From creating backyard bird and butterfly habitats, and organic vegetable gardens to nurturing prairie habitat and wildflower meadows and native plant collections, Gardening for Birds & Butterflies will help you find easy and practical ways to garden—and make choices—with respect for all living things. This issue is packed with helpful hints, inspired locations, easy weekend projects for the whole family, and profiles of community role models who are doing their part to leave this planet a better place, one backyard at a time. Look for it on sale now at newsstands nationwide.
There is a food blog, themediterraneandish.com, produced by a friend of mine who is really into, well, Mediterranean cooking. It was my good fortune one day to be a taster for a new recipe of hers. It was a particular breed of lamb (Merino) and it was outstanding! But what caught my eye were the colorful vegetables. Notice the carrots and beets in the photo. It reminded me of the philosophy of Matthew Benson, who operates Stone Gate Farm in New York. His attitude can roughly be stated as: If you’re going to grow something anyway, you might as well choose the pretty varieties. It is amazing how much more enjoyable a meal can be when it’s colorful—a visual feast as well as a gastronomic one. As you’re ordering your vegetable seeds this spring, choose unusual looking varieties. Almost any imaginable vegetable comes in a range of colors. Eggplant, beans, peppers, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash and on and on. Browse websites of reneesgarden.com, rareseeds.com, seedsavers.org, and other vendors of heirloom seed. You will be surprised and delighted!