Friday, February 26, 2010

Learn about Conifers on Tuesday

This column originally ran in the Herald-Sun. We hope it's helpful to you as you plan your gardens.

Weeping Atlas Cedar (Cedrus atlantica 'Glauca Pendula')
Photo by Jason Holmes

By Jason Holmes
Many of my family vacations growing up were spent in central New York and traveling the northeastern U.S. As a gardener, I always enjoyed seeing the wonderful array of evergreen conifers that grow in the Northeast, such as the iconic blue spruce.

Conifers by definition are any gymnospermous trees or shrubs bearing cones. Now that you have a broad definition, here are a few examples: ginkgo, fir, pine, cedar, spruce, and arborvitae. This article will refer to evergreen conifers. These plants can serve multiple uses in the garden with textural contrast, color, architectural form and year-round interest.

Many of the conifers that we choose as gardeners give us great textural contrast when surrounded by deciduous shrubs and perennials. Most are finely textured because of their thin, needle or scale-like leaves. Such plants include the billowy dwarf Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Elegans’) and the thread-like foliage of the thread-branch false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera’). This texture contrasts really well with bold foliage and makes for a stunning scene in the garden. In fact, many conifers are being added to annual planting beds to help create this effect.

Color, one of my favorite characteristics of these plants, can add a totally new dimension to the garden. Evergreen conifers can range in color from yellow to bright gold, light green to dark green, and shades of blue-green to blue-gray. Many of the cultivated Chinese junipers have these variations of color, from ‘Angelica Blue’ to ‘Saybrook Gold’, and when used in the landscape, they give a welcome splash of color. One of my favorites for its color change is the Red Star Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides ‘Red Star’), which changes color throughout the season, turning almost purple-gray during the short days of winter.

The architectural form can really be the best attribute of all. Conifer form can be dwarf, weeping, tall and narrow, irregular and formal. In fact, I bet there is a conifer for every type of garden situation. Each unique form can help define a space and the very feel of the garden where it is placed. Some, such as Weeping Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’), fit well as a single specimen trailing over structures in the garden, while Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Yoshino’) make a great dense hedge. Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is very narrow and extremely upright, lending itself to a more formal look. The Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) has a more irregular habit and works well in a very informal setting.

Year-round interest is so important for the garden, especially here where we live. Conifers can be added to containers and to create a great winter display. Once you combine all of the desirable qualities of conifers, you will have eye-catching interest in your garden through every season.

If you’d like to learn more about conifers, consider signing up for Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ Conifer Trek on March 2 from 1 to 3 p.m., or the class “Conifers in the Garden: Adding Structure & Emphasis” from 7 to 9 p.m. the same day. Both will be led by Flo Chaffin, owner of Specialty Ornamentals Nursery in Georgia. For information, call 668-1707 or write to

Jason Holmes is curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens at Sarah P. Duke Gardens.

Duke Gardens March Events

Japanese Tea Gathering / Photo by Jon Gardiner, Duke Photography

Following is our March events calendar. Please call 668-1707 to register, or e-mail Please see our website for information on how to become a Friend of Duke Gardens.
We hope to see you here!

Tuesday, March 2, 1-3 p.m.
Conifer Trek
Meet a few favorite conifers as you walk through the Gardens with conifer expert Flo Chaffin, owner of Specialty Ornamentals Nursery in Georgia. Participants will learn about a variety of plants, their cultural requirements and tips for incorporating them into your own garden. $20; $15 Gardens Friends. Read more about conifers in this blog post.

Tuesday, March 2, 7-9 p.m.
Conifers in the Garden: Adding Structure & Emphasis
Flo Chaffin, owner of Specialty Ornamentals Nursery in Georgia, will introduce a palette of plants that is far larger and more varied than one might imagine.
"By virtue of the fact that they are evergreen, and also by virtue of the fact that there are many different shapes, sizes, habits, textures, colors, [conifers] can not only give you a basic structure or backbone," says Chaffin, "but also can enhance the structure" of anyone's garden.
Discuss these plants with Chaffin, see conifers in garden settings and discover unique planting combinations that make the most of each conifer's qualities. $15; $10 Gardens Friends. Read more about conifers in this blog post.

Wednesdays, March 3, 10, 17, and 31, 2-4 p.m.
Flowering Trees and Shrubs: Identification and Use
Each season has hardy plants that add delight to our gardens. Meet an expanded palette of trees and shrubs that will bring flower, scent and texture to your garden year-round. Class continues at the same time March 10, 17 and 31. $95; $75 Gardens.

March 4, 11 a.m.-noon
Tour: Walk on the Wild Side
Explore wild North Carolina in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. Join curator Stefan Bloodworth on the first Thursday of every month to see which plants are in bloom, learn strategies to design with native plants and discuss regional ecology and global environmental issues affecting native ecosystems, and your role in protecting the health of our home planet. $5; free for Gardens Friends. Registration required.

Fridays, March 5, 12, 19, 26, 1-3 p.m.
Beginning Ikebana Workshop
Ikebana is the art of beautifully arranged plant material in a container. This floral art evolved in Japan more than seven centuries ago. Instructor Muriel Roberts will teach you the principles through a series of four hands-on sessions, and she'll demonstrate the basic skills necessary to create these lovely arrangements. Each week students will complete an arrangement to enjoy at home. All supplies included. Class continues March 12, 19 and 26. $80; $65 Gardens Friends.

March 5, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Nature for Sprouts: Pond Walk
Explore our duck pond and learn what animals need to survive. Discover who lives here on our scavenger hunt. Make a creature who lives in the pond, and feed the ducks. For children aged 3 to 5. Children must be accompanied by an adult. $6 per child.

Saturday, March 6, 8 a.m.
Bird Walk
Enjoy an early morning stroll in the Gardens with fellow bird enthusiasts and Cynthia Fox, of Chapel Hill's Wild Bird Center. Cynthia will help you to spot, identify and learn more about the birds that call this region home, even temporarily. Don't miss this opportunity to experience that one remarkable bird sighting. Children are welcome if they are 8 years old or older. Please bring binoculars. If the weather is iffy, please call Alice Le Duc at 730-2503 to check the status of the walk. Free, but registration required.

March 6, 10:45 a.m.-noon.
Traditional Japanese Tea Gathering: Family Tea
As a guest to Tea, you will experience the patterns and poetry of Chado, or the Japanese 'way of tea,' while enjoying an enticing bowl of whisked tea and a seasonal treat. The practice of Tea is characterized by the phrase ichigo ichie, or 'one moment, one meeting.' The small class group of all ages will meet at the Doris Duke Center to be escorted by instructor Nancy Hamilton to the Durham-Toyama Sister Cities Pavilion in Duke Gardens for this intimate family-themed tea gathering. $30 per adult or adult with child; $20 Gardens Friends.

March 9, 6:30-8 p.m.
Durham Garden Forum
Forum meets monthly to learn from expert speakers and to troubleshoot. This month: blooming sequence with Jason Holmes, curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens. $10/ free for members. Information: 237-3376;

March 12, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Nature for Sprouts: Ants, Grasshoppers & Other Crawly Creatures
Explore ants, grasshoppers and other crawly creatures and discover what parts they have and how they change. Construct an insect to take home. For children aged 3 to 5. Children must be accompanied by an adult. $6 per child.

Saturday and Sunday, March 13 & 14, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Curator Basics
Discover the elements of a well presented portfolio and work on building your portfolio for showing. Instructor Bruce Dickson, of Dickson Images, will assist you with captioning, labeling, organizing and filing your photography. We will also identify potential markets and discuss how to submit work for publication. $75; $60 Friends.

Tuesday, March 16, 2-4 p.m.
Organic Vegetable Gardening
A bounty of delicious vegetables rewards the gardener who nurtures diversity in soil and plants. From starting seeds to mulching melons, instructor Ken Fager -- a researcher at NCSU's Center for Environmental Farming Systems -- will discuss production principles and guide you through practical examples of organic gardening. This presentation will focus on crop sequence and developing a calendar for your garden. $35; $25 Gardens Friends.

Thursday, March 18, 1-4 p.m.
Spring Pruning
Some plants simply must be rehabilitated occasionally through skillful pruning. Instructor Jonathan Smith, of Bright Leaf Landscaping, will demonstrate several pruning techniques to help you manage plants in your home garden. $25; $20 Gardens Friends.

March 19, 10:30-11:30 a.m.
Nature for Sprouts: Birds, Birds, Birds
Find out what makes a bird a bird. Go on a bird-watching walk and discover how birds behave. Make a bird feeder for your garden. For children aged 3 to 5. Children must be accompanied by an adult. $6 per child.

Sunday, March 21, 2-4 p.m.
Successful Gardener Series
Attracting Bees and Butterflies to Your Garden

Curious about how to attract more bees and butterflies to your garden? Come learn what makes bees, butterflies and other insects beneficial pollinators in our landscape and what specific plants provide nourishment and protection during each stage of their life cycle. Durham County Master Gardeners Gene Carlone and Faye McNaull will also include tips and perspectives on the proper use of herbicides and insecticides in the gardens and lawns that we share with these valuable creatures. Free (registration required).

Thursday, March 25, 7-9 p.m.
Color in the Garden
All of us perceive colors a little bit differently from others. That makes color both interesting and useful in the garden. Jan Little, the Gardens’ director of education and public programs, will outline some basic strategies to use color as reinforcement for other garden goals. Then she will show some applications that will help you make the best use of color given your particular site situation. $15; $10 Gardens Friends.

March 26, 10:30 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Nature for Sprouts: Tree Home
Who lives in a tree? Discover what creatures make a home in a tree. Look closely at trees to see who lives there, find out the parts of a tree, and make a bark-rubbing. Make an owl puppet and a tree home in a bag. For children aged 3 to 5. Children must be accompanied by an adult. $6 per child.

Saturday, March 27,1-4 p.m.
Japanese Tea Gathering
Enjoy a traditional Japanese tea gathering and tea tasting to celebrate the early bloom of Japanese cherries. The event will take place rain or shine. But if the weather is nice, there'll be an additional guided stroll through the serene Culberson Asiatic Arboretum and the new Durham-Toyama Sister Cities Pavilion on the hillside above the Teien-oike Lake. You'll also see a display of Ikebana and Bonsai exhibits in the Doris Duke Center, where the event begins. $20; $15 Gardens Friends.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Your Natural Garden: mark your calendars

The Wildlife Garden in Duke Gardens' Blomquist Garden of Native Plants
Photo by Stefan Bloodworth

We hope you'll take advantage of the fantastic array of instructors and workshops at our 2010 Spring Gardening Symposium: Your Natural Garden, on Feb. 20. You can see the breakdown of offerings here and register at or by calling 919-684-4444. For more information, call 919-668-5309.

In the meantime, landscape architect Jan Little, our director of education and public programs, offers the following advice for developing your own natural garden. It was first published in The Herald-Sun's Homes & Garden section Feb. 6.

Urban, suburban, and rural residential areas occupy 94 million acres according to a 2002 USDA report. That’s roughly 5 percent of the entire U.S.

That is a lot of lawn mowing, weeding, fertilizing, pruning and clipping! Perhaps there is a better way of working with our landscapes, an approach that builds a partnership between homeowner, landscape and the natural world.

A place to begin creating this new approach is an understanding that we don’t live alone on this planet. There is an intricate web of life that helps support all living organisms by storing and cycling nutrients, slowing and storing water, shading and regulating the temperature of the planet.

There is much evidence that we are damaging this amazing system. From things we do on a household level to decisions made by corporations and governments, human activity has far-reaching effects. We can learn better ways to work with nature rather than against it. So why not begin at home?

First step: Native plants. Using these plants in our landscapes helps in countless ways. These are the plants that have grown and evolved here for millennia. As they have grown, they have attracted insects, birds and other life forms into their sphere. Plants are ground zero for environmental health. Over time the type of plant in a site impacts the soil, the insects, the birds and the mammals that can thrive alongside these plants. On a large scale, plants impact weather systems, including humidity, rainfall and average temperature. When we don’t include native plants in our landscapes we put an enormous roadblock in the natural systems.

Second step: Plan for wildlife
. Did you know that one of every three bites of food you eat was created by an insect pollinating a plant? Add plants to your garden that these critters will enjoy – it is time to pay them back a little bit. This can be a simple as landscaping with a variety of flower types and blooming times to keep pollinators occupied all season. You can then layer in seeding and fruiting plants that ripen at different times to help feed birds and small mammals. In the end, you can reap the benefits of watching the antics of birds, fireflies and others.

Third step: Keep the water on site
Most of our landscapes are designed to shed water rapidly into storm sewers. This slowly impoverishes our underground water sources and feeds a lot of nutrients and fertilizers into our streams and rivers, where they cause problems for the aquatic systems. Developing a rain garden on your site will delay water drainage and give it time to percolate and feed the underground water systems. Again, this can be a wonderful addition to your life, with the dragonflies and toads it attracts to entertain you.

Finally, see what others are doing. There are so many innovations going on to improve the environmental health of our land. Join us at the “Your Natural Garden” symposium to learn more. We have nationally regarded speakers and authors to address each of these topics, and we will end the day with a design challenge that will showcase an environmental landscape designed for a local home.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Nature Photography Through the Ages

The National Park System was prompted by -- and has since prompted -- the artistic vision of nature photographers. These photos of Oregon's Crater Lake National Park were shot by Duke Gardens' Alice Le Duc.

Duke Gardens work-study student Lauren Sims spoke with Jennifer Weinberg, owner of Jennifer Weinberg Photography, about what students can expect from her upcoming “History of Nature Photography” workshop.

The class will run Feb. 9, 16 and 23 from 7 to 9 p.m. In it, Weinberg will review the work of 10 of nature photography’s biggest names.

“I’m of the belief that by studying other artists’ work, you can learn so much about your own style, about different techniques, what you like and what you don’t like,” she says. Beyond technique itself, students will have a chance to see the impact that artists such as Ansel Adams have had on the American environmental and political climate.

“A lot of people don’t know that his career actually started because he was photographing the West in an effort to attract people to take the railroads out west,” she says. “… He wasn’t going out taking pretty pictures, he was trying to sell a product.”

Adams’ and others’ photographs helped lead to the establishment of the United States’ National Park System. (Here's one example)

So what makes for a good photograph, anyway? As Weinberg sees it, a perfect combination of technique and creativity.
A technical understanding, including composition and color, is important, but there are times when discarding the rules can be more effective than holding to them. The art of photography is about “learning the technique and then learning … how you can break the rules in order to start creating pictures instead of just taking pictures.”

The class is $75; $60 for Friends of Duke Gardens. Call 668-1707 or e-mail for more information.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Joy of Roses

Photo by Alice Le Duc

This column appeared in the Jan. 30 gardening section of The Herald-Sun. Please see our previous post for information about our Feb. 18 rose care class and other February classes and events at Duke Gardens.

By Chuck Hemric

You may not be thinking of roses in the depths of winter. But in fact if you are planning to have roses in your garden this coming year, now is the time to take action. With Valentine’s Day approaching, we naturally think about sending roses to the special people in our lives. Yes, this can be an expensive proposition! Why not grow your own? You can grow roses with a little planning, patience, persistence and preparation.

Now is the time to prepare your planting beds and select the varieties that you wish to have in your garden. Planting is best done now, while the plants are dormant. This will give the roses an opportunity to develop their root system prior to spring growth, which should appear by mid-April.

Preparation of the planting hole is very important – 6 inches of compost, cow manure and pine bark makes a good amendment for soils in Durham County. Dig the planting bed 18 to 24 inches deep to allow good root growth. Do not add fertilizer at the time of planting. This can be done later, as the plants break dormancy and begin to show growth. Fertilize with an inorganic slow-release fertilizer from mid-March through mid-August. A slow-release fertilizer can be added every four to six weeks during growing season.

There are certain necessities to grow roses successfully. First and foremost, you must have a willingness to spend time in your garden. Roses require a lot of care and attention. Locate your garden where the plants will receive six to eight hours of sun per day. Morning sun is desirable to dry the leaves from the nightly dew. This helps prevent black spot. Water is crucial, at least 1.25 inches per week. Roses do well in the clay soils of Durham County due to high mineral content. These soils must be amended with rich compost so that the soil is loose and well aerated. You should become a neat freak when it comes to the cleanliness of your rose garden; always keep the bed raked free of fallen leaves and petals, and remove all weeds.

You may be reading this and thinking that you only have a small garden space that gets the necessary sunlight and you want to grow other things as well. Companion planting is easy to do with roses. According to Louise Riotte in “Roses Love Garlic,” planting garlic with roses aids in flower fragrance and helps to fight black spot. Mincing the cloves of garlic and mixing with water produces a good pesticide.

In the Durham community, we are fortunate to have a local firm that specializes in rose care. Witherspoon Rose Culture is a great resource for all your rose gardening questions. If you are interested in learning more about roses, consider enrolling in Witherspoon president David Pike’s Rose Care and Pruning workshop at Sarah P. Duke Gardens on Feb. 18 from 1 to 4 p.m. To learn more, call 668-1707 or e-mail

Rose enthusiast Chuck Hemric is director of volunteers at Duke Gardens.