Saturday, September 17, 2016

This Week (Edible Design and a Landscaping Tour)

Actually a picture from the Portland Rose Garden, because I forgot to take pictures at Blanchette. Don't tell anyone.

It’s been a packed week! I returned to my online teaching job, flexing my editing muscles as I get back into the swing of the semester. In between trying to sound approachable yet competent through my written words to students all over the US, I’ve found time to work on my memoir— so far I’ve drafted the story up to right before we hiked into the fire. The writing is incredibly rough, and still far too long, but I’m trying to block in the most important parts so I’ll have a smaller selection of stories to edit when I go through the narrative a second time. Slow and steady.

I’ve also been reading a lot lately. I just finished a book called The Edible Front Yard, which I’m reviewing here on Monday (spoiler: I love it), and my head has been full of plans for tearing up that pesky front lawn and putting in a gorgeous, productive landscape. 

Along those lines, I saw on Monday that the St. Charles Parks Department was offering a free landscaping tour of Blanchette Park with a horticulturalist the next day, so I jumped at the opportunity. Todd, who led the tour, revealed that he (and sometimes one other person) design and take care of every park in St. Charles— hundreds upon hundreds of acres! He runs on a shoestring budget (much less than many other municipalities), so he focuses on plants and designs that grow well and need almost no maintenance. At the end of the year, he takes a mulching push mower to all the beds, mowing them down to the ground and enriching the soil at the same time. 

The tour was supposed to be an hour, but it lasted much longer than that, as Todd was willing to answer a bunch of questions. I trailed behind the group of middle-aged and older women, trying to soak in everything our guide said as he pointed out the different plants in the garden and discussed how they fare in our climate.

I took particular note of catmint (purple-flowered and silver-leafed herbs, really beautiful) as a fail-proof perennial, hostas as a put-anywhere shade plant, and two ornamentals that stood out: blue-flowered plumbago (it’s a tropical perennial, hence an annual here) and melampodium, a yellow-flowered annual. Also, St. Charles is apparently a great place to grow hardy banana trees! You won’t get any fruit, and need to cut them to the ground every year, but the trees in Blanchette Park grew fifteen feet in a single season, producing tropical leaves as large as my torso. Talk about eye-catching!

On the tour, Todd also mentioned some interesting (and sometimes worrying) notes about the plant world. First, he said that a lot of weeds are becoming resistant, either partially or totally, to Roundup, which means that heavier and heavier applications are needed in the home garden. That’s why he encourages people to choose plants that will naturally flourish and block out the weeds.

He also talked about modern cultivars of plants— it’s become common to patent the hybrids, which means that the patent owner gets a royalty from every plant sold. The idea of patenting a living thing brings up worrisome issues: for instance, if you divide the root of a perennial and share it with a neighbor, does that make you a plant pirate? This idea seems to violate something about the gardening spirit, and also may lead to some interesting legal cases in the future. Learning about this made me more determined to choose heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, plants that exist to promote biological diversity and encourage gardeners to share and save seeds.

On that note, as we walked through the Rose Garden, Todd explained the roses are finicky— and becoming even more so, the more they’d been inbred. Modern rose cultivars are much more disease-prone than older varieties, leading to many parks and botanical gardens treating them like annuals rather than perennials. As we smelled a heirloom rose compared to a modern cultivar, the difference in perfume was profound; yet another motivation to try to encourage biodiversity in what we plant.

All in all, it was a wonderful tour, giving me both practical information and a lot of food for thought. Definitely one of the highlights of my week.

In the meantime, things have been quiet in my garden. The kale keeps growing, the pea sprouts are chugging along, a few carrots have sprouted, and the spinach is trying to decide whether or not it’s too hot to show its leaves to the sun. I’m getting to the point where I can see how much I’ve learned about gardening— both as a pastime and as a way to make the world a better place. I’m excited to start expanding my beds and putting what I’ve learned into practice.

Hope you guys have a good week! Fall is coming!



  1. I have two big Catmint plants in my front yard that I planted because of how beautiful they are at Blanchette! I just found this handy guide to dividing:
    It says Catmint divides easily in the Spring--you'll have to come get some then! I'd be happy to share ;)

    1. That would be really awesome— thanks! :D See you Thursday at the neighborhood meeting?