Archives for posts with tag: practical horticulture

Last Saturday, Rachel and I made an early spring visit to Stonecrop Gardens (see March 22, 2014). The Open House being celebrated that day focused on their indoor collection, which is extensive, if not encyclopedic; much more than can be described in the average 500-word blog post. In fact, at the end of the last account, having finished our snack (cookies and cocoa) we realized that we were only about halfway through the list of plants on display.

What remained to view (not counting the outdoor areas still covered by snow and ice) were the Alpine House, the End House and the Pit House. Of these, my favorite is the Pit House, and not just for the flowering bulbs and succulents that inhabit it. Architecturally, it is unlike any other greenhouse I have seen.

A long, narrow building, its floor is set into the ground by about two feet; stone steps at each end lead down to its central aisle. The tops of the planting beds along either side are at grade level so all of the soil is essentially subterranean. The gabled glass roof springs from short masonry walls that extend about two feet above grade.

The peak of the roof—this is my favorite detail—is supported by two parallel lines of steel wide flange beams that are aligned with the fronts of the planters, thereby maximizing headroom over the aisle. Structurally, the Pit House is quite elegant (and that’s the nicest thing that I, as a structural engineer, can say about it).

Despite its partial embedment in the earth and glazed roof, the Pit House is not particularly warm inside. Nonetheless, it is cozy, mainly due to its diminutive scale. It feels not unlike a child’s playhouse although clearly, serious work is going on in there.

The beds are literally overflowing with a densely-planted collection of ranunculus, fritillaria, narcissus, primula, cyclamen and helleborus, to name just a few. Although only about a third of the area of the Conservatory, the Pit House contains two-thirds the number of different plants.

We strolled leisurely from one end to the other, enjoying the colorful blossoms that sprang from the garden beds at waist level or trailed along the steel beams over our heads. We left with an infusion of spring spirit and a renewed enthusiasm to get to work in our own garden.

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I have found that it is too easy to take for granted things that are right under my nose, even things I really like.

That’s the case with Stonecrop Gardens, the public garden and school of practical horticulture located only a few miles from our house. We first visited in 2012 (see March 30, 2012) and, after becoming members, returned twice that year to view the grounds at different stages of growth (see June 2, 2012 and September 16, 2012, part 2).

We were off to a good start towards a goal of touring the extensive gardens (which cover 63 acres) in each of the four seasons (as a minimum). But for a variety of reasons, or maybe no good reason at all, we only managed to get there once last year (see July 27, 2013). We made the most of it, though, and thoroughly enjoyed the eye-popping array of flowers (lilies, most notably) that were in bloom at the peak of summer (I took many photographs). Still, we hadn’t been there since.

Now, granted Stonecrop is closed from November until April (except for special events) and that is one reason why I tend to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. But that is also why I was delighted to receive a postcard from them inviting us to today’s Spring Open House. The event is subtitled “Garden Walk Under Glass” because at this time of year, all of the action is going on indoors.

The walk starts in the Conservatory, a glass house built in an English country architectural style. The tower and wings, laid out in a cross arrangement (from above, it looks like a church, a temple to formal gardening), are literally crammed to the rafters with more than 250 potted plants that originate from all around the world, mostly from places with hot to moderate climates.

Each specimen is tagged with a number that corresponds to a printed list. The information—plant name, family classification and country of origin—is interesting (so that’s what a bowiea volubilis looks like!) and useful (can we get camellia japonica at the garden center?). It is also overwhelming, a lot to absorb all at once.

We moved from there to the potting shed (cum office) and passed through it to the Tropical House. In a vestibule to this traditional greenhouse, work was in progress to propagate cuttings from established plants (to supplement the onsite garden beds, I suppose, and to sell). Much of it looked familiar to me—short lengths of stems stuck into growth medium—but I was intrigued by the leaf propagation, a method I had never seen before.

As we exited the Tropical House, we were distracted by the warm cider, hot chocolate and assorted cookies (almost as varied as the plants) on offer in the barn. The day was warm and bright so after making our selections, we parked ourselves on a bench to bask in the sun and nibble our treats.

I’ve been using an old plastic container, the kind in which plants from the nursery are potted (that’s how we came into possession of it), as a waste bucket.  It is a convenient place to toss weeds, pruned branches, rotted vegetables and other green waste from the garden.  It sits on the ground near the hose bib and next to the watering can and is a much easier target than the ravine beyond the pool fence.

I started this practice a few weeks ago and by today, the bucket was full.  So I walked it over to the refuse pile and flung its contents on top.  What I immediately noticed as the mass of organic matter plopped onto the pile was that the material at the bottom of the bucket, which had been kept moist by rain and warmed by the sun, had already started to decompose.  After less than a month, the green garden waste had become a dark brown, granular mass, well on its way to becoming rich organic soil.

In other words, my waste bucket had turned into a mini compost pile.  If I had let it bask in the sun much longer, I could probably have simply tipped it back into one of the planters to replenish the soil’s organic content.  Presumably, there is a little more to the process—balancing different materials, mixing them together, aerating the pile—but the experience showed me how simple the basic operation is.

Also, how magical the process is, almost like alchemy.  It is very encouraging and will motivate me to find a place where a pile of garden discards can be transformed into a useful soil amendment.

While browsing through the local paper, Rachel noticed that Glynwood, a nearby farm center, was conducting a tour this afternoon.  Looking for an outdoor diversion on what had started out as a gray and dreary day but which was turning sunnier (if not exactly sunny) as the afternoon wore on, we decided to give them a call to ask whether they had room for two more.  It was short notice (less than a half hour!) but they told us to come on over.

We pass the turnoff for Glynwood every time we drive into Fahnestock State Park for a hike and, more recently, when we make a visit to Stonecrop Gardens.  So we were excited to finally make the turn and see where the road led us.  Their driveway is two miles long, a windy one-lane road that follows a meandering stream through the woods before reaching a large clearing (225 acres, we later learned) where the farm, fields and pastures are located.

When we arrived at the farm office, we were told that today’s tour was the last of the season and that we were the only guests.  Waiting for us was Donald Arrant, recently promoted to Farm Manager (congratulations Donald), who was pulling on his jacket and would lead the tour.  He was dressed in layers—clearly someone accustomed to working outdoors—and well-prepared for the blustery weather.  Fooled by the sun, I had only brought a light sweatshirt.  I would have to keep moving to stay warm.  Fortunately, our tour would be on foot.

Donald gave us a brief history of the farm and it turns out that it is no coincidence that Glynwood Farm, Stonecrop Gardens and Fahnestock State Park are located in close proximity to each other.  The surrounding lands—2,500 acres—were once owned by a conservation-minded family.  Glynwood Farm started as the family’s country house and Stonecrop was the home of one of their daughters.

When the last family member passed away, the bulk of their woodlands were donated to the State of New York to become a part of Fahnestock State Park.  The main family home was transformed into the current Glynwood Center, a working farm that develops policies for and promotes the establishment of farming communities to maintain local and sustainable food systems.  Stonecrop is now a demonstration garden and school of practical horticulture.  Originally united by geography and bound together by family, all three organizations still share the principles of conservation, sustainability, education and public outreach.

Walking downhill from the farm office, we passed Glynwood’s orchards, where flocks of chickens were enjoying the sunshine and a late afternoon snack of grubs and other insects.  Beyond the orchard is the original chicken coop, a long and narrow building that steps down the hillside.  (Although still functional, the coop is poorly ventilated and Donald would like to see it replaced.)  Turkeys share the building with the chickens, who also take turns grazing in the surrounding pastures from mobile coops.

Adjacent to the orchard are the vegetable gardens—Glynwood sells its produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program—and two hoop buildings.  The larger hoop structure is still half-full of tomato plants which will be protected from tonight’s expected freeze once the sides are rolled down.  Friday is the CSA’s distribution day and as we strolled past, members were arriving to pick up this week’s allotment.

Continuing our tour, we passed the pond we have often visited from the Fahnestock side, most recently on August 12, 2012 (we had previously thought that we were viewing Stonecrop Gardens on the opposite shore).  South of the pond are the pastures (the majority of the farm’s 225 acres) where Glynwood’s herd of cattle graze.  They were in a distant field this afternoon and because the terrain is hilly, we could not see them.

Our last stop before heading back to the farm office was Glynwood’s newest barn.  It is here that the livestock spend the winter, protected from the elements and kept warm in beds of straw and hay.  During the cold season, the accumulating manure is carefully managed and layered with fresh straw (and other materials, on an experimental basis) to produce nutrient-rich compost by the winter’s end.

After the animals move outdoors, the compost is removed and spread on the pastures and in the gardens.  This process takes the entire summer (the compost reaches a depth of about two feet over the entire barn floor) and its completion is celebrated with a gala Barn Dance in September.

Today, the barn was empty except for several huge bales of hay stacked in one corner and an extremely vocal—and adorable—herd of goats.  Besides providing entertainment, the goats are participating in a study of the efficacy of their grazing for controlling invasive plant species, such as multiflora rose, that threaten to overgrow the farm’s pastures.  It’s a simple concept but complicated in its execution (considerations include movement and feeding of the animals, impact on other plants and livestock, and control of parasites).

We were impressed by the smooth operation of the farm, its holistic and common-sense approach (backed by science) and natural (if not officially organic) farming and gardening practices.  As evidenced by Donald, the staff are very clear about, very consistent in and very committed to what they are doing and how they are doing it.  Their success is apparent in the healthy and happy plants and animals (and humans, too, for that matter).  We left in an upbeat mood, buoyed by the positive feelings around us and happy to have found another reason for loving where we live.