Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Since I lacked a more appropriate picture, here is one from New Orleans two months ago that at least helps me forget about the brutal cold outside.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Due to all the renovation chaos, our tree is a bit more modest this year...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Just in Time

The forsythia branches that I brought back from the Michigan garden to begin forcing on Barbaratag are just beginning to bloom. For almost two weeks they did not seem to do anything in my relatively cool sun room and then suddenly all the buds began to swell and soon the first specks of yellow appeared.

The whole straggly, sprawling bouquet

Some of the first buds to open fully

In other good news, we had our heating system checked out and now all the radiators - including the one in the sun room - are working properly, which should make for more even temperatures throughout the apartment and benefit both its human and vegetal inhabitants. We are also in the process of getting many of the windows replace, which will make the place look much nicer but also hopefully help with insulation and bring the heating costs down a bit. However, the really big home improvement project we are currently dealing with is the building of a new kitchen, which my dad is undertaking pretty much by himself. Always the engineer and serious do-it-yourselfer, he has completely redone a number of kitchens - as well as bathrooms and pretty much any other feature of a house - before but of course there are new and unforeseen challenges in each new project. I really consider myself very lucky that he is always willing to tackle these things.

Monday, December 16, 2013


My collection of coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides) is currently quite a bit smaller than it used to be in my old apartment, where these shade-loving foliage plants were one of the few truly colorful things that would grow reliably. However, of the remaining three varieties, one is doing particularly well right now.

Pink coleus selection (Solenostemon scutellarioides)

Unlike the other two surviving selections, whose ancestors came from cuttings, this one originates with a chance seedling in a pot of something else on a windowsill at the house in Michigan. It was not very vigorous, but the extremely vibrant coloring of an almost chartreuse light green, deep crimson, ghostly creamy white and a screaming neon pink prompted me to take cuttings and grow it on. Two generations later, with a big pot, plenty of fertilizer, and a bit more sun than I usual give my coleus, it is really coming into its own on.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

'Tis the Season...

My Christmas cacti (Schlumbergera cultivars of the Truncata Group) are quite punctual this year, having just begun to open their blooms in the last couple of days:

The red one...

... and the white one...

... and a close-up of the red one.

Perhaps I should add to the collection with varieties with light pink and garishly magenta blossoms. They are such grateful little plants.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


I have previously written about the feast day of St. Barbara here, here, here, and here. In the German-speaking world, there is an old custom of cutting branches of spring-flowering fruit trees or ornamental shrubs on this day in order to force them into bloom for Christmas. Branches of sweet cherry (Prunus avium) are most traditional where I come from, but unfortunately I do not have access to a cherry tree from which to cut any. However, while home for Thanksgiving I was able to cut a good bundle of branches from the forsythias in the Michigan garden. They, too, look nice and should actually be quite a bit easier to coax into unseasonal bloom.

My Barbarazweige for this season

For a more general discussion of forcing flowering branches, I would refer you to the relevant chapter in Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd's Our Life in Gardens. Their writing is exquisite and never fails to inspire me, regardless of how often I re-read a piece.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Happy First Advent Sunday!

This year's Adventskranz or Advent wreath, courtesy of my mom

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Precious Blooms

The garden here in Michigan has for the most part gone dormant already but for one little plant its annual time to shine is beginning just now. My winter heath (Erica carnea) is opening the first of its crystalline white buds, delicately flushed in shades of lilac-pink. It has been growing ever more vigorously since a weedy nearby maple tree has been removed and it thus receives much more water. This year the whole little bush, about a foot (ca. 30cm) across, is densely studded with buds in a way it never has been in the eight or so years I have had the plant.

Winter heath (Erica carnea)

Considering how carefree and resilient this little plant has been and how well it grows now that it enjoys more adequate conditions, I am surprised that it is not more commonly planted around here. Leafy evergreens and plants that strongly prefer acidic soils such as most heathers generally do very poorly in this part of Michigan but that does not seem to deter landscapers and home gardeners from sacrificing thousands of rhododendrons and hollies every year. All the more odd then that this hardy plant has not gained more of a following.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just a little sample of my family's turkey- and pumpkin-themed Thanksgiving paraphernalia

Wishing you all a peaceful day full of warmth, family, and food!

Friday, November 22, 2013


My order of vegetable seeds for next spring from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has arrived! Somehow there is something very satisfying about stacks of seed packets, filled with so much promise of things to come.

Fun with seed packets

My order included three Indian eggplant varieties (two from Tamil Nadu and one from Kashmir), two varieties of melon (one Afghan and one Uzbek), an Iranian winter squash, an Iraqi water melon, an Indian chili pepper, Portuguese kale, mâche, and two varieties of rice. Of course, I will not be able to grow proper quantities of all of these on the modest garden plot that belongs to my apartment, so further selections may have to be made. The  rice is entirely an experiment; after spending much of my childhood desperately wanting to grow rice plants - I know, I was weird; but I was just mesmerized by all those pictures of rice paddies in travel magazines and glossy coffee table books, and I still think that the rice plant (Oryza sativa) has some of the most beautiful shades of green in the plant world - and not being able to buy rice that was not hulled and polished anywhere, I simply could not resist the opportunity to buy these seeds.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Spoils of War... Or Rather My Lovely Weekend Trip to New Orleans

As I mentioned in my last post, my visit to New Orleans also included quite a bit of plant shopping. We visited Urban Roots and Harold's Plants, and there may also have been a quick trip to Home Depot and some digging for saplings and divisions in the beds in front of my friend's house.

My luggage on the way home

I ended up bringing back the following as my carry-on luggage, through two flights and a layover in Atlanta:

1 Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus)
1 Bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis)
1 Frangipani (Plumeria cv.)
1 Desert rose (Adenium obesum)
2 Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi)
1 Rose glory bower (Clerodendrum bungei)
3 Cast-iron plant divisions (Aspidistra elatior)
18 Freesia bulbs (Freesia cv.)

Many of these are experiments for my new sun room; the Australian tree ferns (Cyathea cooperi) unfortunately are not doing so well thus far, probably because the humidity is not as high as they would like. The sapling of rose glory bower (Clerodendrum bungei) also might not make it. It dropped all its leaves, which is perhaps not surprising, but new growth has yet to set in. The freesias are sprouting, though, and the other new plants appear to be doing ok so far.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Places to Visit: Longue Vue House and Gardens, New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

A little over a week ago I visited one of my best friends in New Orleans, where she has been a teacher for the past two years. I would have written about the trip earlier, but for the past week - in fact since the morning after I got back - my computer was out of commission. It was a wonderful weekend get-away. The weather was lovely and we whiled away most of our time catching up and enjoying the city's great culinary offerings. In between eating and laughing and eating some more we also visited a nursery or two - more on the haul from that shopping spree later - and a historic house and garden. Long Vue was the home of Edgar and Edith Stern, local business magnates and philanthropists, first begun in 1924. From 1934 onward famous landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman worked on the estate, and in 1939 the current house, designed by William and Geoffrey Platt, was begun to better match the gardens she had laid out. The exterior of the Classical Revival mansion itself is actually rather restrained, at least as far as early twentieth-century estate places go, though it does have four rather different façades designed to match the portions of the garden they look out upon. Meanwhile, the interior is sumptuous as can be, having actually been designed around much of the antique furniture. Apart from individual antiques, there are the rather typical room interiors bought wholesale from European estates being liquidated, ancient wood paneling and all. More surprisingly, perhaps, there is also an interesting collection of modern art.

The front entrance to the house as seen from the Forecourt

The intimate Pan Garden off the dining room and breakfast nook

The fountain in the Pan Garden

The gardens feature a series of distinct spaces around the house. On the northern side of the house, a shaded, flower-fringed terrace known as the Pan Garden sits just outside the dining room, the bay window breakfast nook of which used to open directly to this space. The eastern side of the house overlooks the golf course of a country club across a narrow terrace, while most of the gardens stretch out from the south side of the mansion. Most prominent among them is the Spanish Court, which features a long panel of lawn running from the house towards a loggia and a long canal with fountains, all framed by clipped boxwood, further Moorish-style fountains, and brick walls draped in flowering shrubs. Wedged between the house and this majestic space are two smaller gardens, the Portico Terrace Garden consisting of a boxwood parterre and the Yellow Garden, a small space planted monochromatically in shades of that color and featuring a modern fountain. 

In the Portico Terrace Garden

View along the Spanish Court towards the house

The lovely brick work around the Spanish Court

 One of the many smaller fountains

 In the Yellow Garden

Beyond the Spanish Court is the Canal Garden, a shady space centered on a narrow rill flanked by pots of snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), purportedly inspired by a garden near Lisbon in Portugal. It connects a more naturalistically planted Gold Fish Pond and the Walled Garden, a square formal space that features various varieties of Citrus and lots of herbs arranged around a central sunken fountain.

View of the Canal Garden

Around the Gold Fish Pond

In the Walled Garden

Beyond the Walled Garden lies the Wild Garden, which apart from  Louisiana native plants, including a large collection of Louisiana iris, features camellias and a pigeonnier or dovecote.

Entering the Wild Garden

Early camellias

The pigeonnier

Finally, there is the Discovery Garden, a later addition with flowers, herbs, and vegetable plots and whimsical informative displays aimed primarily at children. For more information, you can visit the website of Long Vue House and Gardens here.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!

In the neighborhood...

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Roses of Fall

Perhaps because sweltering heat often sets in relatively early for us here just as spring is changing into summer, it always seems to me that some of the most flawless, pristine roses are produced not in May and June but in the cool last days of autumn.

One of many roses still blooming along my daily walk to campus

Their cheerful perseverance sweetens the ever shorter days and chilly mornings, and makes me a bit more forgiving of the pumpkin spice and foliage fueled fall madness all around me.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


With the many new gardening possibilities my new domicile offers, I am of course already hatching plans for all sorts of plant-related projects. One of those is to grow some small tropical waterlilies (Nymphaea sp.) in nice containers, to adorn the balcony in summer and perhaps even the sun room in winter. I have seen a lot of this done in South and Southeast Asia, for instance in Thailand as I described here, or in Malaysia and India in the pictures below:

A white one at the royal museum in Klang, Malaysia...

... And some pink and purple ones in the same garden

Another one found last January in the roof garden of a guest house in Varanasi, India, a bit bedraggled by winter cold and perhaps neglect, but still producing flower buds

Obviously I will have to go even a bit smaller than at least the first two examples, but hopefully that will not be a deal breaker. Now, if anyone has experience with this, I have some questions:

What species or varieties of Nymphaea should I give a try? My online research so far suggests that Nymphaea x daubenyana, also known as Nymphaea x daubeniana or Nymphaea 'Dauben', is my best bet, since apparently it will adapt to different pond or container sizes, can grow in very shallow water, and will still flower under less than ideal conditions, such as in a bit of shade or cooler temperatures. Does anyone have other suggestions? Something showier in terms of flower color and shape, perhaps, but still as small and tough?

Secondly, from where should I order my plants? I found a number of potential purveyors online, but would love any recommendations or warnings from anyone who has experience ordering these sort of plants in the United States.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Bigger and Better Things

I finally moved this weekend, a step long in the making. The move itself was grueling, with my parents and me up and working almost non-stop from early morning to late a night in a four-day marathon of lugging suit cases and heavy furniture, cleaning, painting, trips to Home Depot and IKEA, and assembling oh so many shelves, beds, and tables. However, the new place is glorious - spacious and bright, and fully ours! There is a southwest-facing sun room of sorts, a large balcony, and even a little plot which I might be able to claim in the building's communal garden. So there is room for a lot more plants and a lot more books - room, that is, to grow.

One corner of the sunroom-like glassed-in porch

Lots of space for the collection

The hardy succulents from my outside window sill in their new home on the balcony

Now if only Verizon could get our phone line and Internet connection to work as they should...

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Eid Mubarak!

In the Moroccan Garden, Taman Botani, Putrajaya, Malaysia

عيد مبارك

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Losses and Gains

It has been quite a while since I have flat out lost a plant to a pest but it appears that the drumstick tree or murungai sapling (Moringa oleifera) that I have been tending for the past year has succumbed rather rapidly to the predations of spider mites. The speed at which this has happened is astonishing; until about a week ago the spindly little plant was doing better than it ever had, rapidly putting out ever bigger new leaves. Then the mites appeared, and within days all the leaves turned a sickly yellow and dropped. Luckily all the surrounded plants seem to be unaffected so far - fingers crossed that it will stay that way. I will give murungai another try once I get a hold of another batch of seeds.

Drumstick tree sapling in its spider mite-induced death throes

Meanwhile, a new generation of basil plants is growing on my bedroom window sill, including both bush basil (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum) and holy basil or tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum), the latter protected against cold and drafts - and maybe spider mites - by a little miniature cloche made out of an inverted vase.

Bush basil babies (Ocimum basilicum var. minimum)

 Tulsi (Ocimum tenuiflorum) under cover

I continue to be surprised that the fine-leaved bush basil is not more popular outside of southern Europe - I can say from personal observation that it is quite common in Portugal, Spain, and Turkey, and the seeds I use are imported from Italy, so clearly it is grown there as well - despite its great fragrance and basil taste and the fact that it is naturally bushy and wonderfully adapted to windowsill culture. The much more common 'Genovese' cultivars are downright prissy by comparison, and not nearly as ornamental.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fall Colors

On the way to the supermarket

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Summer Travels 2013 - Part 3: Floria 2013 in Putrajaya, Malaysia

This post is really overdue by about three months - which might just be a personal record - and I contemplated not putting it up at all, but that would have been an all-around waste. Besides, beautiful orchids and lush tropical greenery are always a good thing, and perhaps even more so now that fall is starting to settle over these parts, with chilly mornings, leaves everywhere changing to red and yellow, and shops touting an ever-growing barrage of pumpkin-themed food products that seriously verges on the psychotic. So here I go with my report on the Floria 2013 Flower and Garden Festival which I attended at the very end of June. The theme of the festival this year was "Orkid - Khazanah Tropika" or "Orchid - Tropical Treasure" and almost all of the displays embraced it wholeheartedly. There were orchids everywhere, in huge numbers; it is hard to make something as beautiful and varied as orchids become monotonous but this event sure came close. There was an orchid competition in its own right, but they definitely predominated in the variously-sized display gardens that took up most of the festival and were front and center amongst the entries in the flower arranging competition. Only in the vendors' section where visitors could buy plants and garden supplies did they take somewhat of a backseat to fruit tree saplings and flowering shrubs.

Some colorful carpet bedding near the entrance

Obligatory bonsai

In the display of an orchid nursery

The state of Perlis was represented by miniature rice paddies... and a lot more orchids!

Orchids coming at you from all sides


Landscaping around a pool shaped like an orchid

The myriad display gardens were sponsored by all different kinds of entities, from nurseries and other businesses to government ministries, state governments, universities, and schools. They ranged from the tacky and shoddily executed or just plain weird to the stylish and gorgeous. Since we went on the last day of the week-long event, it was also interesting to see which design ideas held up better to tropical heat and throngs of visitors and who was putting more resources into maintenance.

One of our favorites

Another angle in the same garden

One of the miniature gardens designed by students from a secondary school

This garden was the best in my opinion - a riot of orchids, bromeliads, foliage plants, and fruit and vegetables (!), interspersed with water features and meticulously maintained

Pineapples, lettuce, and tomatoes among orchids and bromeliads

Flowery outlook

A tunnel of flowers!

In the display area for the entries in the amateur orchid competition photography was somewhat hindered by the greenish tint given to everything by the netting used to shade the precious plants. The lighting in the cut flower arrangement pavilion was somewhat better.

Orchids competing

Now for some (orchid) variety...

 Tall beauty

Colorful cut flower displays...

... very colorful!

Lovely lights in the evening

On the whole, an impressive event and a ton of fun for any plant junkie like me - even if there could have been a tad more floral diversity, given Malaysia's natural and horticultural abundance.