Monday, April 18, 2011

Make planters with flowers, herbs & succulents

Learn how to create a living carpet from sedums
in a class at Duke Gardens

Photo by Jason Holmes

By Lauren Sims
One of the perks of the spring gardening season is having fresh cut flowers in your home – a small gathering of blooms on the coffee table, a fragrant mix of flowers and blooming branches in the entryway. Such arrangements bring the outdoor garden indoors. But no matter how diligently you tend them, within a week or so that perfect arrangement will have wilted and died.

Floral arrangements need not have such a short life, says florist and gardener Jay Stolz, who will lead several courses on living designs this spring at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Instead of relying solely on cut flowers this season, consider a more natural design strategy, Stolz says. His living flower baskets combine differently shaped plants and flowers with blooming branches, sticks, stones and even live grass.

“I hope to be able to create something like a natural setting outdoors and move it into the home in the form of this arrangement,” he says.

The key to creating an appealing live display is to pay close attention to the patterns and boundaries of nature, Stolz says. Look for how a plant grows out in the garden and notice what it requires of the environment in order to thrive. If your arrangement does not reflect the needs of and relationships between your plants in nature, then whatever you will create will look false or unbalanced. Respect the information that the natural world provides, and your plants will be more likely to survive and flourish.

Such live indoor designs are not restricted to flowers and grasses. Indoor herb planters are another way to bring the outdoors in, and they have the added benefit of being useful in the kitchen. Again, Stolz cautions us to be mindful of the needs of these plants. For one, it is a mistake to crowd a bunch of herbs into a small space. The fullness of your planter may look nice, but your plants’ health will suffer. Each plant needs about 6 inches of unimpeded space in a deep planter. Herb roots grow down, not horizontally, so a shallow or crowded container will hold them back significantly.

In the end, planting live arrangements is a matter of aesthetics and attending to nature. When you’re designing, combine and rearrange plants until you like what you see. Then ask yourself, will these plants grow well together? Are they useful to me in such a way that I will be invested in helping them to thrive?

Learn how:
To work with Stolz’ guidance on your own planters, consider taking his spring Duke Gardens classes: “Spring Flower Basket,” April 21, 3-5 p.m.; “Herb Planter,” May 5, 3-5 p.m.; “Create a Living Carpet: Sedums and Succulents,” May 19, 3-5 p.m. To register or for more information, please email registrar Sara Smith at or call 668-1707. Please also see our full class and events schedule (PDF) online (or a brief roundup on our blog).

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on April 16.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Plant Sale Preview: celandine poppy

Photos & text by Lauren Sims

With the Sarah P. Duke Gardens Spring Plant Sale just three weeks away, I sat down with curator Stefan Bloodworth to find out more about this year’s plant offerings from the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants.

This year, the Blomquist will feature a wide variety of woodland perennials. Among them, one great option to consider is the celandine poppy. Its sunshine-yellow blooms are reason enough to bring this plant home. But Stefan says that this plant has more than looks to recommend it. The celandine poppy is a naturalizing woodland perennial, which means that it spreads by seed very readily. So you could plant a couple of these poppies this year and, within three or four years, you could have quite a collection of them. This is a great way to fill out a garden bed. “You get more bang for your buck,” Stefan says.

If you’d like to see these flowers in their element, they’re blooming right now in the wildlife garden of the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. That's the garden just to the right of the Blomquist's gate house entry. Come on out and take a look!

The Spring Plant Sale is April 30 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free. Duke Gardens members may attend a preview sale from 5 to 7 p.m. on April 29. You can sign up for membership on site or in advance. For membership info, call 684-5579 or write to

Stay tuned for more preview videos and blog posts.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Author lecture: "The Founding Gardeners"

Author interview roundup by Lauren Sims

When UK-based author Andrea Wulf first visited the United States in 1987, she found the caricatured nation she had heard about—full of big cars, huge malls and endless billboards. As she explained in an interview with Kirkus Reviews, “In America, I believed, I was more likely to see someone driving a riding-mower than pruning roses.”

But Wulf also found much more than that caricature. “At its roots America is a gardening nation,” she said in the same interview. She explores those roots in her new book, The Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature and the Shaping of the American Nation, which she'll discuss in her appearance at Duke Gardens on April 14 at 7 p.m. The book looks at America’s founding fathers (Jefferson, Washington, Adams and Madison) and how their lives as gardeners and farmers influenced their political sensibilities.

For the founding fathers, gardening was intrinsically linked with revolution and the new America. “They not only created the United States in a political sense, they also understood the importance of nature for their country,” Wulf told Kirkus Reviews. “Golden cornfields and endless rows of cotton plants became symbols for America’s economic independence from Britain; towering trees became a reflection of a strong and vigorous nation; native species were imbued with patriotism and proudly planted in gardens, while metaphors drawn from the natural world brought plants and gardening into politics.”

Furthermore, founders such as James Madison spoke out early about the need for environmental preservation in this resource-wealthy nation. Tobacco had become an incredibly important cash crop in the colonial economy by the 18th century, Wulf explained in an interview with Unfortunately, it drained the land of nutrients within just a few years. In order to keep production high, farmers would simply clear virgin forests and begin planting on new fertile soil.

As early as 1818, Madison spoke out against these practices and warned that deforestation could not continue unchecked. This belief was radical for the time, but Madison understood that Americans could only benefit from their resources as long as they guarded and nurtured them. For Andrea Wulf, Madison’s preservation politics was eye-opening. “For me that was the greatest surprise in writing this book: he’s this forgotten father of environmentalism,” she told

For more about Andrea Wulf, you can read a short biography online.

TICKETS: For tickets to Wulf's April 14 Duke Gardens appearance, please contact the Duke Box Office at 919-684-4444 or

BUY THE BOOK: Duke Gardens' Terrace Shop has copies of The Founding Gardeners for sale.

Praise for The Founding Gardeners:

"This is a timely and passionate book, with resonances beyond today's legion of new gardeners, worrying about the cost in air miles of the food they eat. Wulf traces the birth of the modern environmental movement back beyond Thoreau and Muir to the founding fathers' passion for nature and plants, and in particular to a speech by Madison in 1818. Humankind, he said, could not expect nature to be 'made subservient to the use of man': man, he believed, must find a place within 'the symmetry of nature' without destroying it.

-Katherine Swift, The Guardian

“This book will fascinate anyone interested in gardening, agriculture or American history, offering new insights into four familiar lives and conjuring up the gardens of the new republic.”

-James Grande, Mail on Sunday

“There is a huge amount of fresh research in this valuable book, including the first proper examination of the gardening exploits of presidents James Madison and John Adams. The Founding Gardeners is a great achievement and deserves its place on the shelves of political as well as garden historians.”

-Tim Richardson, Country Life

More reviews

Monday, April 4, 2011

Class preview: Season-Long Bloom

Christmas fern

By Lauren Sims
Photos by Jason Holmes

Human beings are creatures of habit. This makes our lives and choices easier, when you know what is for breakfast, or look forward to the favorite TV shows, for example. But in your garden, repeating the same plantings over and over simply loses its appeal.

For people aching to escape the humdrum garden this year, Duke Gardens instructor Lauri Lawson, of Chapel Hill’s Niche Gardens, has some tips for creating a stunning season-long perennial garden.

First of all, think of your backyard garden as a year-round companion. Triangle gardeners can take advantage of an extra-long growing season that lasts well into the autumn months. Lawson urges people to make use of the full year of bloom, “from the little spring ephemeral bloomers that start the season off to the more boisterous blooms of summer,” and on into the oft-neglected fall plants which can significantly expand your color and texture palettes.
Hardy ginger lily

Lawson advises gardeners to keep in mind the nature of perennial plants when planning and planting a perennial border.

“I think the beginning gardener wants bloom, bloom, bloom, bloom all the time,” she says. But this is not the basis of a low-maintenance perennial bed. Instead, you’ll need to learn the growing times of your plants and plan for the sequence of blooms they display. That way, there will always be something interesting to see in the garden. Also, take note of the textural properties of your plants and incorporate non-blooming structural elements like ornamental grasses for added visual interest.

Finally, Lawson suggests that local gardeners take advantage of the horticultural knowledge and displays in the Triangle area. In addition to several excellent nurseries, Triangle gardeners have access to a variety of public botanical gardens, including Duke Gardens, and even private homes that hold exquisite garden tours.

“We live in one of the horticultural meccas, where there are almost too many gardens to tour,” she says.

Poke around area gardens and take notes of what plants and plant combinations appeal to you, says Lawson. Then take that inspiration home and transform your own backyard space.

If you’d like to learn more, consider taking Lawson’s Season-Long Bloom class at Duke Gardens on April 5 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. The class is part of the Gardens’ new Home Horticulture Certificate program, but anyone is invited to take it. For information or to register, please call 668-1707 or email See our full list of classes & events here. Also, mark your calendars for Duke Gardens' Spring Plant Sale, featuring Duke Gardens plants, other plants ideal for this region from Duke Gardens and other vendors, and other nature-related gift items. The sale is April 30 (9 a.m.-2 p.m.), with a preview sale for members on April 29 (5-7 p.m.).

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the April 2 Durham Herald-Sun.

Indian Pink