Friday, April 13, 2012

Free drop-in programs for families

Making music with "sound sandwiches"
at Family Fun Day

By Kate Blakely

Looking for a chance to enjoy the Gardens with your family? We love to see families visiting, learning and wondering together. Below are three activities for families coming up soon. From reading a story to performing a science experiment, kids and caregivers alike can learn together and create lots of good memories and maybe even a craft to take home and enjoy.

None of these activities requires registration. All are free.

Nature Storytime
1st Saturdays: April 7, May 5, June 2
3rd Thursdays: April 19, May 17, June 21
10:30-11:30 a.m.

Do you love curling up with a good book? Nature Storytime is a chance for children and their caregivers to come and hear a story read aloud outside in the Gardens. We’ll follow up the story with an activity that matches the theme of the book. Take advantage of the gorgeous weather and special seasonal splendors to enjoy some good learning and good literature. Visit the front desk of the Doris Duke Center to find out where to meet. You can find out the book and activity in advance on our website.

Nature Ranger Cart
Friday mornings in April, May and June

Young visitors to the Gardens can enjoy free activities at the Nature Ranger Cart. The cart is usually parked out by the dawn redwood tree near the foot of the Terrace Gardens, but visitors can always check in at the front desk of the Doris Duke Center to find out the exact location each Friday. Cart activities include books to read, nature-related crafts, even some do-it-yourself science experiments.

Family Fun Day
Sundays: April 15, April 29, May 6, May 20

Want to make some slime? On Family Fun Days, activity tables with science experiments and nature-related crafts are set up in the Gardens. Create seed bombs, grape catapults or even “flying hoopsters.” You can probably guess what the first two are, but “flying hoopsters”? Come to these free events to find out how to make your own slime and just what “flying hoopsters” are!

Please dress appropriately for the weather. Don’t forget a hat or some sunblock, and maybe a water bottle. Also, please chaperone your youngest Gardens visitors. We love seeing families visiting together. Your visit will be so much more fun and rewarding that way.

Please read more here about new and returning programs for children and families.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New & Returning Children & Family Programs

By Kate Blakely

This time of year, inchworms seem to dropping from trees everywhere you look. Do they make you exclaim with excitement or shiver with fear? In a new class for kids, “Heroes and Villains,” we will learn about the ways these critters and more interact in nature.

“Heroes and Villains” is one of several exciting classes in the Children and Family series this spring. Most classes are new, but we will repeat some favorites, says Kavanah Anderson, education and programs coordinator. The topics will rotate seasonally.

When you are surprised by a spider, do you stand your ground or does it send you running? The argiope garden spider can be a formidable sight, with its size, striking yellow and black pattern, and zig-zag web. Beetles, earthworms, ticks, centipedes—these creatures all play a role in the natural world. Do you ever wonder what relationships they have with each other? Do they help or hurt each other? Come to “Heroes and Villains” and find out. The class is on Wednesday, April 25, from 2:30-4 p.m. It's for children ages 9-11.

A favorite from last year is “Drip Drop: Be a Raindrop for a Day,” coming up Saturday, April 28, at 10-11:30 a.m., for ages 7-9. As they say, April showers bring May flowers. From showers to flowers, water makes an incredible journey. Children can join us for a trip around the Gardens as we learn about the water cycle. We’ll study how and where rainwater travels, how gravity affects water’s journey, and how water drains through different types of soil. We’ll also conduct scientific experiments to study water’s movements.

Participants will learn how to make “rain in a bag,” a miniature water cycle they can take home with them. So get your imagination running, and come on out to the Gardens. We’ll all be raindrops for the day! Please don’t forget to register in advance.

Caregivers, make sure to come along for our family classes. We ask adult chaperones to accompany our youngest Gardens visitors. There’s an important reason behind this.

“One of the main motivations in our request for adult participation is to help caregivers develop a relationship with nature alongside their children so that they’re exploring nature together,” Anderson says. “Our hope is that this relationship continues beyond their time in the Gardens.”

All Children and Family programs are $6, or $5 for Gardens members. To register, please call 919-668-1707.

To read about all our educational offerings for adults and children, please see our website. To be added to our email list for classes and events, please email us with a request.

Facebook Photo Contest: Buds & Blossoms

As spring unfolds, beautiful buds and blossoms are everywhere. Do you have a favorite Duke Gardens photo of a bud or blossom? We'd love to see it, and share it for others to enjoy in our Facebook Photo Contest. Please don't be shy. This exhibit & contest is open to photographers at all levels and all ages. It's just a fun way to share your love for the Gardens with others who love it here, too.

For this contest, the buds and blossoms can be of any sort and from any season, as long as the setting is here at Duke Gardens.

Here's the scoop:

TOPIC: The topic for April is buds and blossoms.

HOW TO ENTER: Email up to 3 photos for each contest to At least 5x7" or larger at 72 ppi is best, but if you don't know how to resize photos, feel free to send them as is, 1 per email. We will post them in an album on Facebook, with your Facebook name in the photo description. You can then add more information about the photo if you like, and encourage your friends to come see it and vote by clicking "like." You may also post the photo on our wall, but be sure to email it as well, so that it's officially in the contest and album. Only "like" votes on the album photos will count in vote tallies, though (polite) comments are welcome, too.

DEADLINE: Photos must be submitted by noon April 30. Voting will end at 10 a.m. May 1. (Voting extended until Thursday, May 3, at 10 a.m.)

HOW TO VOTE: It's simple. Just click "like" for all your favorite photos.

PRIZES: We'll have prizes for most "like" votes, as well as judges' awards. First prize is a Duke Gardens 2012 or 2013 calendar -- your choice. 2nd prize: Duke Gardens greeting cards or a 75th anniversary T-shirt. 3rd prize: discount coupon for the Terrace Shop. Entrants may only win one prize per contest theme in each tally (top votes & judges' prizes). Top prize winners may opt for lower prizes.

SHARE: Even if you're not interested in prizes or contests, we'd love for you to share your photos just for fun, and share our contest photo album with your own Facebook friends. We look forward to seeing your favorites.

LEARN MORE: Please check out our education & event listings for photo courses that you may enjoy. We also have a Nature Photography Certificate program that may interest you.

Blog photo by Paul D. Jones.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Landscape Plants for N.C. Gardens: Spring

By Kate Blakely

As the last frost date approaches next week, our urge to plant is strong. But some plants fare far better in the Triangle than others, as gardeners often learn by trial and error.

If you’d like some guidance in selecting the best plants for this region and growing them successfully, we’ve got the perfect class for you. “Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens: Spring” begins this week and runs for four Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

Robert Mottern, Duke Gardens’ director of horticulture, will teach the class. He shared a few tips to help get you started with soil preparation and plant placement.

The soil in the Triangle area is almost all clay. Clay-based soils can serve as rich ground for gardening, Mottern says, but it has to be loosened to facilitate strong root growth. You must also incorporate organic matter. That means amending the soil with composts, manures and sometimes sand.

Clay does a good job of holding nutrients and water. However, the soil structure of clay can make these nutrients and water unavailable to plants. Adding organic matter and some sand helps break up the clay, releasing vital nutrients and improving moisture availability that encourages root growth. Worms like a loose, moist soil as well, Mottern says. Their natural processes amend the soil as they assist in breaking down organic matter.

Mottern likes composted manures like Black Cow, and other organic sources of fertilizer. Composted products have much of their nutrient base already available for plants. You never want to add fresh kitchen waste or lawn clippings to your soil. Add these to your compost pile and make sure they are already broken down at least half-way before amending your soil with them.

Organic amendments are preferable to synthetic, Mottern says. They generally carry a low nutrient load and break down slowly in the soil, keeping plants and soil microbes in a state of harmony. Synthetic fertilizer can overload the soil with nutrients, thus encouraging rapid, unhealthy plant growth. If overused, these nutrients pollute stormwater runoff and contribute to algae blooms in our streams and wetlands.

Be mindful of temperature changes and your plants’ exposure. Freezing temperatures affect many plants, and low-lying areas tend to act as cold air sinks during the winter. A lower space can be 2 to 3 degrees cooler than surrounding higher ground. That makes a difference to many plants when the thermometer approaches freezing. Boulders, paving and building walls all help retain heat. Help protect cold-sensitive plants by planting them near these features. Orienting them facing south also helps, for maximum sun during the winter months.

If you’d like to learn more about planting, and about dozens of plant species that will fare well and look fantastic in your gardens, consider signing up for “Landscape Plants for North Carolina Gardens.” The class is limited to 15 students, so there is plenty of time for addressing gardeners’ questions and concerns. The fee is $105; $85 for Gardens members. Mottern’s summer plant class in this series (focusing on different plants) will run on Thursdays from May 31 to June 28, also from 10 a.m. to noon.

To register for this or other classes, or for more information, please call our registrar at 919-668-1707, or send an email. For more information about other classes and public events at Duke Gardens, please go to

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.

Columnist Kate Blakely 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.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Local Flora: Spring - exploring landscapes

Echinacea purpurea
Photo by Jason Holmes

By Kate Blakely

One of North Carolina’s own has been working hard to help preserve some of the state’s natural treasures. Ken Moore, former assistant director at the North Carolina Botanical Garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, began working in native plant conservation in the early 1970s. He has been leading walking groups around the state since then. He’ll lead teach a field trip-focused course called “Local Flora: Spring” at Duke Gardens beginning this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and continuing for three more Saturdays.

The depth of Ken’s experience allows him to respond to each group’s questions and flavor the experience with information about their interests. For example, Ken has worked with fire as a management strategy and notes that fire is critical for the health of certain plant communities and species – from plants to birds, insects and other wildlife.

Some species are even “fire-dependent,” like the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or the blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis). Fire helps keep prairies clear of shrubs and trees. Otherwise, many wildflowers and grasses won’t get the necessary sunlight. Fires have regularly been set by people, from Native Americans to European settlers, in order to renew a landscape area and encourage foraging by grazing animals.

The story deepens as Ken outlines the underlying geology of our state. Using Penny’s Bend as an example (a site where he frequently leads field trips), Ken notes its unusual diabase rock under the topsoil, creating an unusually high PH or sweet soil.

“That’s where you find some interesting and sometimes rare plants like the coneflower and the Dutchman’s breeches,” says Moore.

Different hikers have different interests and expertise, and they bring those interests and information on the walks.

“We really share,” Moore says of his classes. “We might have some people thinking about birds. If we see birds, we’ll talk about the birds. ... It’s mainly just to help people see, help people learn to observe.”

“Local Flora: Spring” field trips will include observations in a variety of habitats, using a key to identify plants, and noting undesirable plants. The class will meet at a different natural area each week to hike and learn about plants, animals and the natural systems that impact them. Ken will weave together various threads in the story of plants, how to identify them, and then what they tell us about the area’s soil, hydrology and history.

With this information, and a little practice, you can go anywhere and “read the landscape,” knowing something about the systems at work from the plants you find. From your back door to the wildest part of Durham County, there is an amazing story to uncover, and this may be just the beginning of your journey.

To register, or for more information, please call (919) 668-1707. The class costs $120; $95 for Gardens members. Students will receive “Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves,” by May Theilgaard Watts, as part of the course. To learn more about Duke Gardens classes and public programs, please go to

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.

Kate Blakely is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Inspiration and ideas for your garden

Allium 'Globemaster'
Photo by Jason Holmes

By Kate Blakely

Where do you look for inspiration in your garden planning? What are the elements that will help you merge your vision with your garden site?

Bobby Mottern, Duke Gardens’ director of horticulture, finds his inspiration by visiting gardens, most recently English gardens. Last summer, Mottern and Jason Holmes, curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens, went to England to glean new information and ideas that will serve them at Duke Gardens. He shared some ideas from that trip and from his own career in public gardens and landscape design.

Color is important and inspirational for many people, Mottern says. If you see something in a garden, book or magazine that inspires you, take note of its unique color combinations. Each plant you select may not be the star of the show; some may be used to accentuate the star plants. For example, catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) is featured in many English Gardens because its silvery gray foliage and small blue flowers complement many other colors in a well-planned perennial border.

Another element to look at is interesting shapes and textures. Your dream garden should play with differing heights and leaf shapes. Consider fascinating vertical forms such as allium ‘Globemaster’, one of visitors’ favorite plants at Duke Gardens?

“That’s a really charismatic plant,” Mottern says, noting its “huge drumstick or lollipop look.” The volleyball-sized flowerheads on some alliums (such as Allium x schubertii) add considerable interest for several months.

Build your gardens around your favorite centerpieces, those extra special plants you want to focus on. Use lower growing plants and edging plants to frame the taller plants. Then create “exclamation points” in your garden by introducing a contrasting color, shape or texture.
Don’t be afraid to copy ideas from other gardens—even in climates different from ours, such as England’s—but learn to adapt them to your local conditions.

“Have a good plant palette,” Mottern advises, so you will know what plants may serve as substitutes for plants that won’t grow well here.

For instance, lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) grows very well in England. Its lime-green foliage combines well with other shapes and colors. But lady’s mantle can’t tolerate North Carolina’s heat. Instead, try heuchera ’Citronelle’; it fills the same niche as lady’s mantle, with an intense chartreuse foliage that lasts all summer.

One of Mottern’s and Holmes’ main interests was to see the White Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, because Duke Gardens was redesigning the Page-Rollins White Garden behind the Doris Duke Center, which is now looking gorgeous. If you haven’t seen the White Garden in a few years, you’re in for a big surprise.

Want to learn more about English gardens and the strategies we can borrow from them? Mottern and Holmes will present slides and share stories and plant information from their trip in a lecture Thursday, April 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. Admission for this lecture, titled “Across the Pond: A Celebration of 300 Years of Anglo-American Gardening,” is $15; $10 for Gardens members.

To register, or for more information, please call 668-1707. The annual Taimi Anderson Lecture was created to honor the contribution of Taimi Anderson in beginning the education program at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The robust program we enjoy today would not exist without her vision and effort.

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. For more information about the Gardens or its classes and events, please go to

Kate Blakely 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.