Friday, April 19, 2013

Nurture your underground garden

Jeff Lowenfels demonstrates 
how to make compost "tea"

By Katie Jones
Gardeners thrive on a sense of anticipation. When will the first flower arrive? Will there be a bumper crop of tomatoes this year? How fast will the new trees grow? All of these are daily miracles to a gardener.

But many gardeners are missing one of the most wondrous stories. It is the saga of life below ground, with plant roots, nematodes, fungus and bacteria all thriving in a complex interdependency that we gardeners are just beginning to figure out.

One of the leading “storytellers” in this tale is author and columnist Jeff Lowenfels, who will come to Duke Gardens April 27 and 28. Besides writing the longest-running gardens column in the country, Lowenfels also wrote the book “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to The Soil Food Web.” In it, he explains the complexity and importance of soil, and he reveals the amazingly intricate community that quietly lives under our feet.

Lowenfels’ approach to gardening is rooted in an understanding of the soil as the living environment he calls a “soil food web.” This web provides the materials by which a plant can feed itself, and it is formed through the links between the organisms—not just earthworms and insects, but also fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms—that are teeming beneath the surface.

Lowenfels proposes another approach to our garden soil, one that makes us an active partner with the soil life and minimizes the use of synthetic fertilizers. To that end, he works with gardeners to teach how to make and use compost tea to use as a fertilizer and emphasizes compost teas’ utility in creating a healthy, sustainable soil. Compost teas contain beneficial microorganisms that can be applied directly to the soil and will help improve root systems, prevent disease, and restore a much needed population of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and protozoa back into the soil food web. It is a gardening miracle.

The key for those who want to make the transition to chemical-free growth is to learn how to put organic material into the soil. “Compost, compost teas, mulches and in the right situation, mycorrhizal fungi are the tools to use,” Lowenfels says. “It is easy to do and, once you know the science, quite a bit of fun.”

Cultivating healthy plants and bodies begins in the dirt, and Lowenfels believes that compost teas are but one part of a system for creating healthy soil. He will discuss both at Duke Gardens. He recommends that gardeners attend both the workshop on compost teas and the lecture on the soil food web, as each provides a different perspective on the soil story.

Workshop and lecture information

“Compost Teas: Controversies and Use” will be from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, April 27. “Teaming with Microbes: No More Chemicals in Your Yard” will be from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, April 28.

To register

For more information about the workshops, or to register, please call 668-1707 or email Duke students/staff, please be sure to take advantage of our  discounted registration fee. For information on other classes and events, please go to or follow Duke Gardens on Facebook.
Learn from Jeff Lowenfels 
how to team with microbes...
...and how to have a thriving,
toxin-free garden

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

Columnist Katie Jones is an undergraduate student at Duke and a work-study student at Duke Gardens. Duke Gardens' home & garden column appears every other week in the Durham Herald-Sun.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Facebook photo contests: White Garden, Discovery Garden and Terraces

As spring unfolds, Duke Gardens is blossoming all over, from the sea of tulips in the Page-Rollins White Garden to the veggies in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden and waves of vibrant colors in the Terrace Gardens.

Have you taken a photo lately in these gardens? 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 and 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.

Here's the scoop:

CATEGORIES: The three sites for April-May are: Terrace Gardens, Page-Rollins White Garden and Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. We'd love to see photos from the current months (March-May 2013), but past favorites are fine, too.

HOW TO ENTER: Email up to 3 photos for each category 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 in the comments 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 albums. 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 May 15. Voting will end at 10 a.m. May 17.  

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 2014 calendar. 2nd prize: Duke Gardens greeting cards. 3rd prize: discount coupon for the Terrace Shop. Entrants may only win one prize per contest theme in each tally (top votes and 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 Robert Ayers.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Learning from Thomas Jefferson’s garden

Watercolor painting of Monticello in 1825 by Jane Braddick Peticolas

By Emma Loewe

Thomas Jefferson left a clear mark on U.S. society with his roles as a founding father, president and diplomat. But some may be surprised to learn that another one of Jefferson’s boundless legacies can be found in a dreamy expanse of land in Virginia. His personal gardens at Monticello are a beautiful reminder that this president’s influence extended far beyond the White House.

“Jefferson's Monticello vegetable garden was unique for its size and scope and the genius of its south-facing microclimate,” says author Peter Hatch, who was director of gardens and grounds at Monticello for 35 years and will talk about the famous garden and his research (as well as his work with First Lady Michelle Obama and her White House garden) in a lecture at Duke Gardens on April 18.

“The 1,000-foot-long garden terrace was an ideal setting for prolonging the growing season through the winter months and for capturing a wealth of crop ripening sunshine for the latest vegetable novelties,” Hatch says. This innovative technique and idyllic location yielded an array of vegetable varieties that included tennis-ball lettuce, pineapple melon and prickly-seeded spinach.

In addition to the 330 vegetable and 170 fruit varieties cultivated at Monticello, a boundless array of unique flowers lined the gardens. Some of these notable plants include ancient trees such as little-leaf linden and catalpa, naturalized species like salsify and feathered hyacinth, and a collection of historic roses.

After Jefferson passed away in 1826, it was unclear what would become of the 2,400-acre expanse to which he had devoted his life. Ultimately, his gardens fell into a state of disarray, unable to withstand the elements.

“Eroding soil covered garden walls, a garden pavilion collapsed, the flower gardens were plowed under,” Hatch says, describing the garden’s sad condition. However, a new era in the Monticello chronicle began with a tree preservation program in the 1920s and a flower garden initiative in 1939 and 1941. A more thorough, systemic program of landscape restoration began when Hatch arrived in the late 1970s. With Hatch’s guidance, the garden has worked its way back to its original grandeur.

Hatch’s background as a horticulturist and historian made him the perfect candidate to spearhead this extensive restoration project. He oversaw the creation of an ornamental forest, the replanting of an orchard and the restoration of a vegetable garden. Now a public park that welcomes nearly 500,000 visitors a year, Monticello boasts 20 vibrant flower beds, an ornamental forest, two vineyards and a nursery in which special species of plants are propagated.

The transformation had its challenges, Hatch notes. Over the last two centuries, some of the historic plants that Jefferson utilized have developed pest problems and diseases that have brought them close to extinction. Therein lies the debacle in balancing a job as a horticulturist and a historian. Balancing his motivations as a horticulturist and a historian has proved interesting at times, Hatch says. “I enjoyed this conflict, displaying flowers for example that visitors might consider weeds today.”

Hatch’s expertise has made him an in-demand consultant. He is also an advisor for Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden. Filled with edible crops, including some of Jefferson’s favorites like tennis ball and brown Dutch lettuce, the gardens “provide a wonderful leadership role in showing how fresh produce can enrich our lives,” he says. 

Today’s gardeners can learn from the initiatives of both Jefferson and the First Lady and apply the philosophies of these leaders to their own back yards. The Monticello and White House Gardens teach us to “have fun in the garden, share seeds with friends and neighbors and keep records of your plantings and your fate,” Hatch says. Most important, don’t be afraid to experiment and take risks in your garden, for as Jefferson once said, “The failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”


Hatch’s lecture will be from 7-9 p.m. on April 18 in the Doris Duke Center. He will also be available after the lecture to sign copies of his book, “A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello."


Tickets are $23; $18 for Gardens members and Duke students and staff. Parking is free after 5 p.m. To register, please call 919-668-1707.


A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill in English literature and Sandhills Community College’s Landscape Gardening Program, Peter served as the Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello for 35 years. His most recent book, "A Rich Spot of Earth": Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello (Yale University Press), covers the Monticello vegetable garden of Jefferson’s retirement years.

Peter also wrote "The Gardens of Monticello," served as editor of "Thomas Jefferson's Flower Garden at Monticello" (University Press of Virginia), and has written numerous articles and lectured in 35 states on Jefferson and the history of garden plants. His scholarly study of early American pomology, "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of American Horticulture," was published by the University Press of Virginia in 1999.

Peter served as the President of the Southern Garden History Society from 1998-2000. In 2004 he received the Thomas Roland Medal from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society “for exceptional skill in horticulture.” In 2010 he was named an honorary member of The Garden Club of Virginia, and he has served as an informal consultant and source of plants for Michelle Obama’s White House Kitchen Garden. In 2011 he received The Garden Club of America’s Medal in Historic Preservation; he was the first horticulturist to receive the award. Presently, he gardens and works as an independent scholar at his new home on Lickinghole Creek in Albemarle County, Virginia.

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.

Blogger Emma Loewe is an environmental policy major at Duke University and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Spring Plant Sale Countdown

By Emma Loewe
The time has finally arrived—the annual spring plant sale is about to begin! The preview sale for members is from 4-6 p.m. today (you can join on site), and the public sale is Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon.

Volunteers and staffers here at the Gardens have been working furiously to organize all the flowers, shrubs and herbs for sale this year. Here are a few pictures that capture today’s scene over here at the Doris Duke Center.


Volunteers are putting the finishing touches on this season’s expansive collection


Vibrant pink peonies and beautiful geraniums are available for purchase

More exotic plants like cacti and Chinese yellow banana are also on display this year

Gelsemium 'Pride of Augusta' add some height to this year’s lineup

while Lutea compacta bring in a burst of golden color

You can also look over our extensive display of seeds and bulbs, including seeds gathered directly from Duke Gardens plants.

So come on down, grab a wheelbarrow and select some new additions for your garden!
 More information is available here. Find directions to Duke Gardens here. Parking is free during the sale, and there will be assistants on hand for shoppers who need help transporting plants to their cars.

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 Emma Loewe is an environmental policy major at Duke University and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens.