Archive for January 2011

Barking up the Right Tree

January 29, 2011

In winter I’m always reminded  – once again – what an important design function the right deciduous tree can play in a garden. In the spring and summer they provide shade and do their photosynthesis thing; in fall, if we are lucky, we get a glorious  cascade of multiple red, orange and yellow hues as their leaves depart. In between there may be berries and flowers.

Come winter, though, what counts – besides the branching structure – is the bark. So when I design gardens for year-round interest (always an important goal), I find myself turning again and again to some personal favorites in that department.

In my own yard, I have a majestic American beech tree, Fagus grandifolia. It is a difficult tree in terms of getting anything to grow under it other than groundcover plants (although I have one large ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta that seems to be holding its own, right up against the trunk). But its smooth gray bark and enormous branches reaching to the sky make my heart sing whenever I see it as I return home.

Fagus grandifolia branches, American beech

The upper reaches of my large American beech, in the fall after its leaves have dropped.

Fagus grandifolia bark, American beech

A closeup of the bark of an American beech at the National Arboretum. Note the smooth gray color.

Often I find I want a tree for a client’s garden that won’t “eat the house”  – something that will grow relatively slowly but have an arresting winter presence from the outset. One frequent choice is the Kousa dogwood, preferred by many landscape designers in this area over the admittedly lovely flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) for its greater resistance to anthracnose (a disease often fatal to the native dogwood). Kousa dogwoods, which flower a little later than the native variety, have gorgeous exfoliating bark.

Cornus kousa bark, Kousa dogwood bark

Bark of a Kousa dogwood at the National Arboretum.

The Persian parrotia tree (Parrotia persica) has similar bark, although somewhat more muted in its palette.

Parrotia persica, Persian parrotia tree, exfoliating bark

A Parrotia's exfoliating bark shines even in the dead of winter.

As you can tell by now, I have a thing for trees with exfoliating bark (and both the Kousa and Parrotia have lovely flowers and great fall color as well). For my last entrant in this particular subcategory, here’s a tree with a little more heft in its eventual dimensions: the lacebark elm, or Ulmus parvifolia. These trees can reach a height of 40-50′ with a spread of 40′ if given room to grow. This is the tree I would choose for my own garden if anything ever happened to my beloved beech.

Ulmus parvifolia bark, lacebark elm bark, National Arboretum

A prime specimen of the lacebark elm showing off the reason for its common name, at the National Arboretum.

Since I’m so keen on bark, I will close with a photo I took of the bark of a Bottle Palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) in a conservatory at Longwood Gardens several years ago. Sorry, unless you live in Florida or some other place where it never gets below 30 degrees F., this isn’t for your garden! But isn’t the bark great?

Hyophorbe lagenicaulis, bottle palm bark

The bark of a Bottle Palm at Longwood Gardens.

Congratulations! It’s a (Lens)baby

January 22, 2011

Several weeks before Christmas, I splurged on a new lens for my Nikon D300. Unlike the two lenses I purchased after the first of the year (a new tax cycle), this one didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Yes, I’m the proud new mother of a Lensbaby.

This one is called The Composer, and is supposed to be the easiest to use, although truthfully I’m still trying to get the hang of it. I bought it primarily for use in photographing gardens for clients, as a counterpoint to my sharpest lenses (the 24-70mm f/2.8 and my macro 105mm f/2.8, both ridiculously fast pieces of glass). But I think most gardeners will appreciate the first image I took with it, to wit:

Lensbaby Composer

This little garden plaque tells it like it is.

(Thank you, Pauline, my Australian friend, who sent the plaque. I roared with laughter when I saw it.)

As you can see, a Lensbaby (or at least this version of it) has a very, very small area of sharpness (which photographers call the “sweet spot) – deliberately. Its sweet spot can be angled manually, so you can create the sharp area of the photograph you want to create in the center, in any of the corners, or any where in between. As I’m discovering, it helps to have very good eyesight since you have to focus manually (there is no autofocus with these lenses, unlike my others). So, here are some other sample shots, almost none of which is tack-sharp anywhere, although you can see in each instance what I was aiming for. Needless to say, it helps if you can use a tripod, which I wasn’t able to do with any of the following images.

Lensbaby Compose; poinsettia, strobilanthes leaf

Poinsettia and Strobilanthes leaves at Brookside Gardens Conservatory.


Orchid spray at Brookside. I was trying to get the center of the middle orchid sharp but wasn't entirely successful.

What appeals to me in all of these images is the “falling away from the center” feeling. It creates a somewhat dreamy, romantic feel, which I hope will be perfect for selected images in garden shoots.

Lensbaby Composer

An unknown annual in the Conservatory at Brookside Gardens. Only the top portion of the blossom is sharp.

Last, but not least, is an image I took on my way to work yesterday, of some vibrant Ilex verticillata (winterberry) fruit on a group of shrubs near my neighborhood. I like the way the spray fades away to the right and top of the image.

Ilex verticillata, Lensbaby Composer

A spray of Ilex verticillata berries.

For more information about the variety of different kinds of Lensbaby lenses and  “kits” (I bought the macro kit but there are also wide-angle accessory kits, wide-angle kits, and on and on), or just to see some fascinating images that have been made by photographers using these lenses (including portrait and landscape work), you can visit the Lensbaby website. And wish me luck bringing up my own Lensbaby!

The Gotelli Collection – Hidden Treasures at the National Arboretum

January 15, 2011

Years ago, while enrolled in a landscape design program, the first set of courses I was required to take involved learning about 300 trees and shrubs that are well-suited to planting in the mid-Atlantic area. The courses were called (innovatively enough), Fall I, Fall II, Spring I, Spring II, and Summer.  They were taught primarily at the National Arboretum on weekday mornings, rain or shine. When “Spring I” rolled around, it was January. What in the world, I wondered, would we be shown that could possibly be interesting? How many hollies could the world hold? Would winter’s cold be the only thing keeping me awake for three hours each Friday morning?

Then I visited the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifers at the Arboretum, and my ideas about evergreen plants changed forever. The variety of colors (greens, blue-greens, variegated-tipped species, and every shade in between the basics) and textures was overwhelming. Many trees and shrubs were unusually shaped – spreading,  stubby, rounded. Planted with grasses, crape myrtles, Japanese maples, star magnolias and other deciduous plants, they created gorgeous contrasts for the eye. In snow, they were even more arresting.

National Arboretum, Gotelli Collection

View of part of the Gotelli Collection from the gazebo, at the National Arboretum

Since then, I have returned many times – for design inspiration, to take photographs, and to see the collection in every season. I’ve also learned a little bit about how the Collection came into being. In 1962, a New Jersey businessman, William T. Gotelli, donated his personal collection of conifers to the Arboretum so that it would not be dispersed. It consisted of over 800 varieties of conifers, 600 varieties of rhododendrons and many Japanese maples. At the time, Mr. Gotelli estimated the collection’s worth at over half a million dollars. The USNA’s acquisition of the collection led to its staff developing a deeper interest in the area of dwarf and slow-growing conifers.

The Collection is now recognized as one of the finest of its kind in the world. According to the Arboretum’s website, the climate there allows it to grow conifers from widely varying climates, including some that are native to areas near the Arctic Circle and others that are almost subtropical. In my program, we tended to study the less exotic species, but even those can be breathtaking when grown to full size (a cautionary lesson for a garden designer).

Cedrus atlantica glauca 'Pendula,' weeping atlas cedar

A mature weeping blue atlas cedar in the Gotelli Collection. Not for the typical suburban front yard - give these babies room to grow!

If you visit the Gotelli Collection on your own, allow for plenty of time if you want to see it all, as it is spread out over a large area on the New York Avenue side of the Arboretum. There are grass paths between the beds that allow for easy wandering, and at the far end of the collection is a small pond with one of the highlights of the Collection – a bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) with knobby “knees” peeking out of the water’s surface. (Like the dawn redwood, or Metasequoia glyptostroboides, shown below, bald cypress is one of the very few conifers that sheds its needles during the winter.)

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, dawn redwood, National Arboretum

Near the Gotelli Collection, one can find a grove of dawn redwood trees grown from seedlings discovered in China in 1942, at a time when the species had been assumed extinct for many years. Note the color of the needles, about to drop as fall advances.

National Arboretum, Gotelli Collection

Another part of the Gotelli Garden, in late summer.

For additional information about the Gotelli Collection, visit the Arboretum’s website ( or see Dwarf & Unusual Conifers Coming of Age: A Guide to Mature Garden Conifers, by Sandra Cutler (Barton-Bradley Crossroads Publishing Co., 1997)

Capturing Beauty from the Garden

January 8, 2011

When I started Garden Shoots, I wondered if anyone would read it. Lo and behold, I got lucky. And one of my first readers, Liz Reed, has become an unmet-as-of-yet friend. She is a fellow landscape designer who lives in Pittsburgh. More importantly, however, she is a photographer, painter, and an artist with a scanner. Consider the beauty of “July Tapestry,” created with blooms from her garden, an artist’s eye, and her first scanner, an Epson CX4800.

Liz Reed, July Tapestry, scanography

"July Tapestry" by Liz Reed.

She sent me this image in her first e-mail and I nearly swooned. It’s mysterious, moody, and begs to be examined closely. Composed of Platycodon, Asclepsias, blueberries, and Nicotiana blooms, carefully arranged for balance and texture, “July Tapestry” is a wonderful piece of art.

Liz began experimenting with scanning as an art form after she sold her gallery (Gallery in the Square, which is no longer in existence) and turned to landscape design as a second career. (She designs gardens in Pittsburgh and Long Island at the present.) But she still draws, paints – and has branched out into scanning beauty from the garden. Recently she opened Garden Capture,  a virtual store on Etsy, where you can purchase her images.

Liz Reed, Sunflower Mandella, scanography

"Sunflower Mandella" is the most-often viewed of Liz Reed's images on her Etsy site, Garden Capture.

What she loves about this art form, she told me recently, is the limited depth of field that the scanner creates; the parts of an object next to the scanner glass are sharp, but the rest  fades off quickly into the distance. The lighting is a constant (unlike in regular photography), so repetition and patterns are important. Over time, she has learned the “vocabulary” of how the scanner will read items, so she has become more adept at arranging her materials.

In late summer, I encouraged Liz to enter Gardening Gone Wild’s October photo contest – but it was open only to bloggers, whose company she has yet to join. If you’re interested in how to try this art form yourself, check out this link to GGW’s contest announcement for that month. For some other superb examples of scanned  images (botanical and otherwise), look at Scannography Artists’ website.

Some of her personal favorites  include “Glory Mirror,” “Green Texture Corsage,” and “Glory,” shown below.

Glory Mirror, Liz Reed, morning glories, scanography

"Glory Mirror" by Liz Reed

Green Texture Corsage, Liz Reed, scanography

"Green Texture Corsage" by Liz Reed

Glory, Liz Reed, scanography

"Glory" by Liz Reed

Liz now creates her scans with a new Epson scanner and some updated software. She had a show of many of the images in her Etsy store at Gallery in the Square before it closed. I’m contemplating redecorating my guest bedroom soon, and I can just picture some of her images, framed on the walls, as wonderful additions to the room. So check out her art at Garden Capture – I know you’ll enjoy it.

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