Boaz Walks Into a Room of 300 Plant Lovers
Pollinator graphs, chlorophyll sob stories and a VW bus covered in succulents
There’s something exhilarating about sitting in a room full of 300 people who love plants. At the Perennial Plant Association’s National Symposium in Lancaster, PA, I could strike up a conversation with anyone and excitedly chat about recent garden trends or a good plant-related book or share a fun fact about soil structure. It felt like summer camp for botanical enthusiasts.
I could talk for days about the fascinating folks I met, great presentations I watched and incredible gardens I toured. But instead, I’ll just share five takeaways from the conference that I’ve still been thinking about a few weeks later.
Data-Driven Pollinator Gardens
West talked us through the process of creating a pollinator and bird garden for the Arboretum at Penn State. She started by introducing us to the concept of “habitat heterogeneity,” which refers to diversity in terms of types of habitat. She wanted to cater to the largest amount of birds and insects possible and she did that through creating a range of environments. She also dove deep into a variety of research studies to ensure that she was attracting and feeding as many species as possible.
Through West’s research, she learned that specialist bees prefer generalist plants. That is, bees that are pickier about what plants they visit tend to visit the plants that are less picky about where they grow. West shared a chart filled with what looked like a huge quilt made up of tiny colored blocks. Down the left side of the chart was a list of plants. Along the bottom of the chart was a very, very long list of bees. A colored square represented that the bee visited that plant for pollen and/or nectar. Using data like this, West began to choose her species list. West wanted to do more than just make sure she had a representative of every genus – she wanted to make sure she had multiple species from each. Once the project was installed, she had used 351 species and cultivars. With so much research about insects and songbirds out there, it’s inspiring to see a designer lean so heavily on this data to create a better garden.
West and her team worked to create a garden that was not only appealing to pollinators but also to humans, with the hope human garden visitors would leave with a stronger connection to plants and wildlife.
Plant People are Punny
I was standing with a dozen other conference attendees on a green roof at Swarthmore College. A fellow plant-enthusiast walked over and started a conversation with me, “Green roofs are amazing but you don’t often get to sedum.”
If you hadn’t guessed already, this green roof – as many are – was planted with a mix of sedums. I laughed in response and added, “I feel like you came prepared with that joke.”
He nodded and said, “Sure, I’ve got to have my ground covered.”
Photosynthesis, Chlorophyll and the Dangers of Variegation
There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who love variegated plants and the ones who don’t. I’m the latter. In case you’re not familiar with variegated plants, they’re the ones that have leaves with unusual color patterns, usually some sort of white edging or streaking. In his presentation titled The Botany of Design, Bill Cullina, executive director of the Morris Arboretum, made me reconsider variegated plants and also made me feel sorry for them.
Cullina explained that variegated plants are less photosynthetic. Maybe we should brush up on photosynthesis before we get any further. Here’s an excerpt from a National Geographic article to refresh your memory:
Chlorophyll’s job in a plant is to absorb light—usually sunlight. The energy absorbed from light is transferred to two kinds of energy-storing molecules. Through photosynthesis, the plant uses the stored energy to convert carbon dioxide (absorbed from the air) and water into glucose, a type of sugar. Plants use glucose together with nutrients taken from the soil to make new leaves and other plant parts.
Variegated plants have less chlorophyll, which not only gives them their unique coloration, but it also makes it harder to create their own food through photosynthesis. The more variegated a plant is, the more challenging it is to sustain themselves. Cullina asked if anyone in the crowd had ever planted a “White Feather” hosta – a variegated hosta that’s nearly entirely white – in their garden. A few folks raised their hands. He followed up with, “Did it come back the next season?” All the hands in the crowd abruptly came down. Life’s not always easy for variegated plants.
If you’ve liked this post so far, then this might be a great time to subscribe to Rootbound:
Selling Plants With Personality
I’d heard of Groovy Plants Ranch but I didn’t know too much about them until I attended a presentation by co-founder/owner Jared Hughes. Jared fell in love with plants while working for a greenhouse while he was in college. He soon realized that he had a knack for growing succulents and as he developed his horticultural skills, he got more interested in rare and unusual houseplants.
In 2015 Hughes and his wife opened the Groovy Plants Ranch in Fargo, Ohio and created a space packed with botanical oddities, a Potting Saloon – where you can repot your newly purchased plant – and a VW bus planted with succulents. Hughes even bought an old airplane a few years back and planted it up too. He said that a playground would have cost just as much and kids liked climbing on an old airplane more. Now the ranch has become a horticultural destination and people come from across the region for their limited plant releases and full calendar of summer events.
Groovy Plants Ranch is not your standard nursery and it was inspiring to see this family who built a plant-based business by leaning into their personalities.
Two Ways to Explore a Garden
Two of the highlights of the week were visiting two incredible gardens: Longwood and Chanticleer. I wrote about both of these gardens’ impressive restroom facilities a few weeks back. Though they’re both impressive and inspiring, they couldn’t be more different. Longwood is massive – 1,100 acres of gardens – and it’s full of massive fountains reminiscent of Versailles, never–ending ornamental borders, hidden treehouses, an Italian water garden and the biggest meadow I’ve ever seen.
I thought the three Joe Pye Weed plants in my backyard were nice. Then I saw the 3,000 Joe Pye Weed plants growing in Longwood’s Meadow. Walking into Longwood they handed me a map and I consulted it regularly throughout my visit as I searched for another treehouse or found my way to the orchid greenhouse. That map also helped me find the many striking light installations that were installed for the season.
They handed me a map when I walked into Chanticleer too and, at first, I referred to it as I walked on a path into a wooded area. But then I reached a fork in the path. Did I want to take the path by the creek or head to that wooden bridge or walk towards something that looked like an ancient ruin on top of a hill. Within a few minutes, I tucked the map into my pocket and I never took it out again. Chanticleer seems to have been created to be discovered organically.
It’s also only 48 acres, which may sound small compared to Longwood, but it felt huge with a seemingly endless array of paths that took me through a gravel garden, transporting me to the hills of the Mediterranean, before leading me past a series of ponds packed with fish and giant lotuses. Along the paths were multiple small seating areas – a few benches here or a single chair there – inviting me to sit and appreciate a turn in the creek view or a wooded hillside. I did that a few times and I basked in the magic of this garden.
The many paths also encouraged these wonderful moments where two routes would converge and I’d find myself chatting with another plant enthusiast as we walked together for a few minutes before we’d be called in opposite directions at the next fork in the path.
It’s amazing how these two impressive gardens – both incredibly experiential – demanded to be explored in such different ways. It made me think about how every garden might be subconsciously instructing its visitors how it wants to be explored. Even our garden, which clocks in at a humble .1 acres, must be subtly guiding all its visitors.
Have you ever noticed a garden guiding you in a certain way? Or do you try to do that in your own garden? Or do you have strong feelings about variegated plants? I’d love to hear about all these things!
And one more thing: While we were in Canada the other week, we took a tour of a tunnel that used to funnel water from the power plant into the pool at the bottom of Niagara Falls. While walking through the 2,200 foot tunnel, we kept seeing these odd white and yellow smears emerging from a seam about 15 feet up the wall. On closer inspection, we realized that these were mushrooms! It’s always amazing to see the wild places that fungi show up.
Thanks for reading Rootbound! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.