Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Changeover Magic of the Historic Terraces

By Sarah Leach Smith
Photos by Cecilia Xie

Horticulturist Jan Watson installs new plants.
If you have ever visited Sarah P. Duke Gardens, you probably took a photo of, or maybe a selfie in, the photogenic Historic Terraces. Even if you have never been able to visit the Gardens in person, it is highly likely that the photo that popped up in your Google search was of the Terraces.

Since 1939, the Terraces have been a widely recognized icon of Duke Gardens. Designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, an American landscape architect, the Terraces have remained largely unchanged since their creation over 75 years ago. Seven levels make up the garden, which was built into a naturally occurring slope. Curator Mike Owens is currently preparing for the twice-a-year display changeover and has offered an inside scoop into what this process is like.

Each June and October, Owens and his team of horticulturists (Jan Watson and Heather Seifert) begin the changeover. The new planting designs, however, are created as many as six months in advance! Each design is based on a theme, and the designs that Owens comes up with have only gotten more complex over time. 

A Terrace bed awaiting new plants.
“We used to use just tulips, and it would be a tulip show. Now, we probably have around 15 different bulb species – Crocus, Narcissus, then the tulips, and later in the spring you’ll see the Allium coming up.” Throughout the bulb display there is a variety of herbaceous material, including pansies, Dianthus and foxgloves. Owens likes using combinations like this, as well as techniques like bulb layering, to help extend the display season. 

The changeover of the Terraces does not happen all at once. The roughest-looking plants will be removed and replaced first. For the fall changeover, Owens, Watson and Seifert will begin in mid-October and wrap up with the bulb installation by Thanksgiving.

October’s changeover is designed to last until after Duke’s spring commencement, which occurs in mid-May. To keep the plants looking happy and healthy until then, Owens has several successful methods. Each bed has its own pop-up irrigation system that ensures the plants stay quenched. The beds are fertilized almost exclusively with feather meal, which is made from poultry feathers and is rich in nitrogen. “I think it has really helped ‘pump up’ the display,” Owens said. 

Horticulturist Heather Seifert hard at work!
Keep an eye out for this talented team in the Terraces this fall. As the weather warms up in the spring, make sure to come back for a visit – and a great photo in an iconic part of Duke Gardens!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

“I Need a Plan: Envisioning Your Garden”

Do you envision a garden full of dramatic shapes and colors like
 those found in the Terrace Gardens? Duke Gardens'"I Need a Plan"
series can help you make it happen (photo by K. Webbink).
By Sarah Leach Smith
Duke Gardens photos by Karen Webbink
Additional photos courtesy of Suzanne Edney

Are you intimidated by the term “landscape design?” You don’t have to be! Our upcoming “Envisioning Your Garden” class, part of the “I Need a Plan: Garden Fundamentals” program, will boost your confidence and inspire the DIY-er in you to start designing!

We are excited to introduce to you the teacher of this great class, landscape designer Suzanne Edney. Suzanne has been teaching since 1969 and has incorporated her passion for teaching into her business, Custom Landscapes: Landscape Design for Do-It-Yourselfers.

Landscape designer & instructor Suzanne Edney
“My mission is to design for homeowners’ needs and desires and to present opportunities for them to incorporate practical and easy techniques into their gardening practices,” Edney says.

Edney’s business mission makes her the perfect person to teach this class and help YOU envision your own garden design plan, whether your hope is to attract butterflies, create sculptural borders, grow food to eat, or tackle a challenging topography.

Would waves of pink muhly grass look great
in your landscape?
Perhaps your dream is to design a garden
to serve creatures great and small, like in the
Blomquist's Wildlife Garden.
Or maybe you aspire to grow vegetables....

...or build a dreamscape for butterflies. 
We recently talked with Edney about landscape planning and her goals for this class.

Q: What are the benefits of having a landscape design?
A: Landscape planning is very much like creating a floor plan for building a home. Most homeowners now realize the endless choices and potentials for use of their entire properties beyond the four walls of their houses, but they may feel unqualified to put the pieces of the puzzle together to allow them to make informed and cost effective decisions. Luckily, they have been exposed to the previously mysterious world of designers through TV and the Internet and realize the value of design plans.

Q: What can we expect from your “Envisioning Your Garden” class?
A: I will be explaining the design process from beginning to end to allow people to move forward with a viable landscape design for their property. Students can choose to elect designing ideas for either a front or back and will learn how to evaluate their space and begin the design process.

Below are some examples of Edney's garden designs.

An inspiring after & before comparison

Dry streambed drainage

A front courtyard

An attractive approach to a gravel driveway

A mountain slope garden

There are still spots available in this class, which is sure to be informative and inspiring. For more information, visit our website. If you would like to register for this class, please call our registrar at 919-668-1707. Embrace your inner DIY!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Species Spotlight: Black-Necked Swan

By Erika Zambello

Walk into Duke Gardens any given day and you might hear an unfamiliar bugling reverberating around the hills and trees in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum pond. That unique call belongs to one of the Gardens' most notable residents, the black-necked swan (Cygnus melanocorypha).

Native black-necked swans hail from southern South America. Habitat-wise, the swans prefer swamps, freshwater marshes, lagoons, coastal areas and shallow lakes and ponds. Though they look big, the swans rarely grow to be larger than 14 pounds. Don't let their weight fool you, though; like other swans, the black-necked have large wings and tough bills and are not afraid to use them to defend themselves.

One of the most distinctive features of black-necked swans is a red, bulbous knob where their bills meet their heads. Both male and female swans have this knob, which enlarges in males during the breeding seasons. Their other distinctive feature, of course, is their long black head and neck; they are the only swans in the world with black heads.

While swans will eat a variety of different organisms in the wild, including pond plants, weeds, algae, insects, and even small minnows, Duke Gardens' swan subsists mostly on the healthy diet our staff feeds the waterfowl on a daily basis. If you want to feed our swan, feel free to purchase the healthy pellets from the Gardens' Terrace Shop!

For more information on Black-Necked Swans check out this great fact-sheet from the Sacramento Zoological Society.

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello recently graduated from Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment with a degree in Ecosystem Science and Conservation.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Duke Gardens Visitor Vignettes: #1

Welcome to Duke Gardens Visitor Vignettes, a snapshot view of who's spending time in the Gardens  and what's on their minds.

Our first gathering of vignettes is by Julia Gong, a local high school student and an avid fan of the Humans of New York (HONY) interview project. Julia loves Duke Gardens, so she was eager to set out into the Gardens, HONY style, and talk to other people about what drew them to Duke Gardens.

Here's Julia's collection from a recent visit:

“It’s really peaceful here, and I kind of needed it," said the woman in the photo above. "I’m just here for a research program, so I’m here for a few weeks. It’s in the department of Cancer Bio and Pharmacology.

"It’s really different from the campus back home, for me. I’m from Georgia Tech. It’s in Atlanta so it’s in the heart of downtown, and you come here and it’s just so much nicer.”

She had been photographing the turtles. “I was sitting here and I just saw them. They just came here, and…it’s perfect! They’re all different sizes, which is pretty cute. That one was in a perfect pose, too, and another one came up and opened its mouth, and it’s…just beautiful!”

“We come here all the time. This is a great place to walk dogs!”

Is there something that draws you back?

“It’s just beautiful. You can kind of always change the route and it’s always interesting. It’s never boring. There’s always something new to see.”

Any advice for someone who just came for the first time?

“See everything. Make enough time to really see everything. Especially right here. The Asian Gardens are my favorite.”

“He’s visiting for the weekend.”

“I’m from New Hampshire.”

“I’m local for the summer. I’m working for ADF."

"It’s nice here in the shade. It was cool to see some of the birds. The baby duckling and the mama over there, it was really cute to see it just skirt across the water. And there’s that turtle, just chillin’. He doesn’t even care. I have a pond at home and we have turtles, and normally if you even get this close to them, they’re like, 'Nope. I’m out!' ”

I asked them when they were last here. In unison, they said, “We were just trying to figure that out.”

She speculated, “Probably a year ago.”

“I think a little longer than that. A year, a year and a half, maybe two.”

When asked about their favorite aspect of the gardens, he replied, “Peacefulness.”

She added, “Quiet. I love seeing all the different flowers. We can’t grow a lot because the deer eat everything, and I don’t know how you manage to keep the deer out, so I like seeing stuff that I couldn’t do at home. I neither have the energy, time, nor money to do it at home, so I appreciate the fountains, and all the different types of plants.”

“And if you were a horticulturalist, this would be the job to have. This amphitheater is really symmetrical, the textures, the colors. It’s interesting to me.”

She had some advice for prospective visitors. “I would try to get a little bit of each of the different ones, the formal gardens, the Asian gardens, the naturals. And I think it also depends on season, and when you need the shady pads.”

“Like this week.”

“Versus the sunny, like in the winter when we come, it’s nicer to stay out where you get the sun. And whether you have little kids that need to run around in the field.”

I wondered if they had brought their kids here before.

“Well, our kids are pretty old, but yes, we have.”

“We brought them here when they were little.”

“Yeah, we did, when they were growing up. And now we come back here with their spouses.”

“And if we ever get a grandson, he’ll come here.”

And they’re also proud locals. “We live ten minutes away, which is ridiculous for not coming more often.”

Do you have a photo of yourself in the Gardens and some thoughts you'd like to share in our Visitor Vignettes? If so, we'd love to see them. Please email them to Thank you!

Friday, May 8, 2015

New Teen Workshops: Herbal Spa and Sizzle & Sauté

Learn how to use fresh herbs for cooking and spa products

By Kaitlin Henderson
Who can resist the scent and taste of fresh herbal teas, or the unrivaled flavor of just-picked veggies sautéd to perfection? In Duke Gardens' new 3-day workshops for teens and tweens aged 12-16, participants will have a fun, in-depth experience making their own garden-sourced products and meals. Each workshop will give teens specific knowledge and skills, plus the independence of being able to create something useful from start to finish.

Fresh herbs and vegetables Sizzle and Sauté in the Gardens may use
The first workshop, Sizzle and Sauté in the Gardens, focuses on cooking. Participants will learn how to use local, fresh and seasonal vegetables and herbs in a variety of cooking methods. We will prepare fresh and fermented pickles, salads, salsas and more, experimenting with baking in solar ovens and of course stovetop cooking as well. Along the way, they'll plant some of their own favorite veggies to take home, and harvest from the abundant produce of the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Sizzle and Sauté in the Gardens will take place June 30 – July 2 (Tues.-Thurs.).

Learn to make balms made with herbal ingredients such as rosemary

Later in the month, Girls in the Gardens: An Herbal Spa for Young Women will show teens how to make a variety of herbal self-care products. This workshop will provide a supportive environment for teen and tween girls to refresh, rejuvenate, and empower themselves by harvesting and preparing fresh herbal remedies. Participants will make salves, oils and teas from Gardens plants to take home with them. Girls in the Gardens will be July 14 – 16 (Tues.-Thurs.).

For information or to register, please see our Nature Adventure Camps webpage and scroll down to the Summer Garden Workshops. You can also call 919-668-1707 or email

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"The Artful Garden" with W. Gary Smith - an anticipatory stroll

Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum)
in the Page-Rollins White Garden.  
By Kaitlin Henderson

Inspired by W. Gary Smith's upcoming lecture at Duke Gardens on Thursday evening, and his award-winning book, From Art to Landscape: Unleashing Creativity in Garden Design, I took a walk through Duke Gardens today with the idea of "artfulness" in mind.

To me, artfulness in the gardens means the careful but ever-present interplay between nature and human design. It wasn't something I had deliberately looked for throughout the entire gardens before, and I found myself seeing artful things with every step I took.

As I began my stroll in the Page-Rollins White Garden, I noticed the wonderful interaction of textures around the Chinese snowball viburnum (Viburnum macrocephalum) pictured above. The puffs of flowers are light and float above the leaves of the many green plants, and the different types of stone nearby add their own unique, contrasting texture.

I made my way into the Spring Woodland Garden (above) and looked at an area I've seen countless times, but with new eyes today. I love this view from the large wooden bridge down the small creek, and today I realized some of that is because of the wonderful glimpse you get of such a picturesque scene. But this photo doesn't do it justice. Actually standing in this spot, you get to experience the feeling of the light breeze and the sound of birds chirping as they flit among the trees.

As I walked into the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum, I was reminded that artfulness doesn't need to be big. It can involve just one plant, like this Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ssp. dissectum 'Ornatum'). The blanket of leaves has such exquisite draping, and there's a playful hide & seek of that external shell and the partially revealed internal branches.

Artfulness can even involve a dead piece of a plant, as I found a little farther on my walk. This cast-off branch makes a beautiful arch with the sun streaming down on it and a vine twirling up. I think it's a fantastic example of an artfulness that comes from working with the garden -- recognizing what this could contribute and deciding to leave it in the garden.

Leaving the Asiatic Arboretum, I came upon this scene of the creek running through the Hanes Lawn. It reminded me that artfulness doesn't need to be so subtle that it hides the human hand and imagination that created it. To me, this area is an incredibly successful instance of making a landscape design obvious and inviting. Other people clearly got the same message that this is an enjoyable setting, as it is a much-visited spot.

Deliberate artfulness can show itself simply in the horticultural structures, too, such as these subtle but unhidden guide wires for the new native wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) growing onto the pergola after the recent Pergola Restoration Project.

Entering the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, I was reminded of the artfulness that can guide your experience of a garden beyond the plants growing there. I took a tour of the Blomquist with curator Stefan Bloodworth earlier this year, and one of the many things he talked about were these new wooden signs. Everything used to make them, from the different woods to the font, was carefully chosen to create a cohesive experience of the Blomquist Garden. This balancing depth of thought that artfulness brings, which considers the natural space and how people design and experience it, can apply to all aspects of a garden.

In the end, though, my favorite examples of artfulness are the quiet, contemplative spaces that showcase a harmony between people and plants. In the spot pictured above, I love the balance of the gardeners' design of a sheltered resting place, the compliance of the Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) that encloses the space, and the enjoyment of those who come upon it.

It's fun to think about gardens we visit, and our own gardens that we tend, from an artful perspective.  You don't need to be a trained artist to appreciate and conjure artful flourishes all around you. But it's a special treat to have a trained eye such as W. Gary Smith's to get the creative wheels turning even more.

Join us for "The Artful Garden," on balancing the physical realities of your garden with your artistic imagination, on Thursday, April 23, 2015. Smith will be available after the talk to sign copies of his book. For more information and to register, please call 919-668-1707.

Kaitlin Henderson studies interdisciplinary engagement in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pursuing the Nature Photography Certificate

Photo by Leonard Beeghley
by Erika Zambello

I was on my belly in one of the Terrace Gardens paths, hoping I wouldn't get in the way of other visitors. My camera in front of me, I placed the lens as close as I could to a patch of delicate blue and purple pansies bordering the trail and reaching just a few inches above the ground. Sure, I could have taken the photo standing up, but I had just learned about the importance of different photography perspectives in "Learning to See in Nature," and I was already impressed with how interesting my image looked as I got down to the plant's level.

The photography courses at Duke Gardens have opened up a whole new world for me, changing the way I see the natural environment when I am photographing. I am pursuing the Nature Photography Certificate, which requires four core photography classes, 30 class hours of electives, and three Home Horticulture Certificate required courses. I am nearing the completion of my certificate, and the difference in the technical quality of my photographs as well as composition is obvious.

Beautiful redbud blossoms
As I learned about my camera itself in "Introduction to Digital Photography," and explored composition, light, focal point, and so much more in my other classes, I found myself in all sorts of interesting positions around the Gardens. I lay on my back along a stone ledge to take pictures of grasses waving in the wind above me, I bent and stretched with a reflector to diffuse just the right amount of light over a yellow poppy flower, and I got up on my tippy-toes to take a close-up shot of a cherry blossom overhead. Was it good for my photography? Yes. Was it also a ton of fun? Yes!

Monocot cells under the microscope in Basic Botany.

The largest surprise in my certificate journey has been how much I have enjoyed the Home Horticulture Certificate courses. Though I am an environmental student, I actually know quite little about gardening basics or plant identification, and it was a true joy to recognize plants in the Gardens after taking a tour with Education Director Jan Little in "Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens;" to look through the microscope with Duke professor Alec Motten, who taught the Gardens' "Basic Botany" class, as we differentiated a monocot from a dicot; to pull apart an onion plant as my first propagation practice in "Gardening 101." As an ecologist, I'm usually focused on the big picture - a forest, a landscape, a park - and it was really great to focus on individual plants, or even individual cells!

Learning tree identification in "Landscape Plants" class.
My last photography class will be "Macro Photography," a two-day course in which fine art photographer Les Saucier teaches participants the best techniques and practices for macro shots, photos that will get the most from your camera and lenses and create astonishing close-up images. I'm excited to finish my last photography class but sad that my certificate program is almost over. Lucky for me, I can continue to take as many photography class as I want, even if I have already earned the certificate.

As I near the end of my Nature Photography Certificate, I find myself recommending the courses to new and experienced photographers alike. There is always something new to learn, and I pick up helpful tips from both the skilled instructors as well as my fellow students!

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying ecosystem science and conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.